President to meet with unhappy union leaders Monday

Faced with the prospect of a prolonged public employee strike, President Laura Chinchilla has invited representatives of the major unions to Casa Presidential for a parlay.

The Presidencia released a copy of a letter the president sent to leaders of 10 unions Thursday. The president said she wanted to hear personally their plans. The session is at 2 p.m. Monday.

The president also reminded the labor leaders that this is a difficult financial moment for the country.

The letter comes a day after thousands of public employees took to the streets and marched to Casa Presidential to express their unhappiness with a 5,000-colon monthly wage hike she decreed. That’s about $10.

Beatriz Ferreto, the president of the Asociación de Profesores de Segunda Enseñanza, one of the nation’s teachers unions, issued what basically is an ultimatum to Ms. Chinchilla. She threatened an indefinite strike.

Although a strike by teachers would paralyze public schools, other unions were likely to follow. One is the union that represents dock workers in Limón where much of the nation’s imports and exports pass through. The dock workers struck for eight hours Wednesday in unison with the public employee march in San José. The unions that represent employees of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, the telcom giant, also would go out.

Ms. Ferreto presented her demands when some union leaders met with central government officials at the
conclusion of the march Wednesday. Basically she wants salary negotiations reopened for the period that covers the first half of 2012. She also wants a promise that the president will not present any legislation covering public employees until it has been discussed by labor leaders.

President Chinchilla issued the salary decree when negotiations appeared to be deadlocked. The central government says there is no money for raises. Ms. Ferreto suggested a 1.9 percent increase with an inflation adjustment.

A plan to dramatically raise taxes remains under discussion in the legislature, so Ms. Chinchilla, despite her call for dialogue, appears to have few options.

Meanwhile the Unión de Costarricense de Cámaras y Asociaciones del Sector Empresarial Privado issued a statement Thursday that was highly critical of the Wednesday strike that affected schoolchildren, public health services and other services that were paralyzed by the strike. It also urged the government to promote economic growth instead of instituting more taxes.

The strike Wednesday might just be a sign of events to come. Ms. Chinchilla has an annual budget that is financed nearly 50 percent with borrowed money. The accumulated deficit could drain the budget if the current low international interest rates were to rise. Even if the new taxes are approved, optimistic government officials expect to collect just $500 million a year, which is about half of what is needed to balance the budget.

Public employee unions have said they fear layoffs. They look nervously to the austerity measures being imposed in the nation of Greece now.

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