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San Juan hotel fire ignites labor concerns. Rumors of union involvement in arson persist despite denials

Disruptive or violent labor-management disputes in Puerto Rico have been much reduced in recent years, despite a turbulent past. Thus the tragic arson fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel on New Year's Eve, which killed 96 people, has sparked concern here. Investigations have centered on deteriorating negotiations between Local 901 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the hotel management.

While no indictments had been issued as of Sunday morning, reports continue to circulate that union members were involved in the arson. ``Unions [in Puerto Rico] are not violent,'' says Radam'es Quinones Aponte, a hospital worker and union activist. ``Who is more violent, the workers or the patrones?''

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Mr. Quinones Aponte calls the Dec. 31 fire at the Dupont Plaza a tragedy for all Puerto Ricans. But like many union members here, he firmly defends union activity. He regrets labor violence but says workers live in a corrupt society.

``The struggle against corruption is our compromise,'' he says, meaning that unions must take a stand at times. Others are skeptical of unions.

Former Gov. Carlos Romero Barcel'o says his party will seek a probe of labor's ``radical elements.'' He speculates the fire was the result of radicals using ``labor confrontation as an excuse for political strategy.''

Members of the Teamsters local had voted to reject a contract minutes before the fire. The old contract expired at midnight. One of the issues was the reclassification of employees, which would reduce union jobs.

Puerto Rican unions have had a reputation for violence. In 1983, a study published by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that Puerto Rican unions were among the worst offenders.

The Teamsters local was named in the report, but a change in leadership has improved its reputation, local observers say. Another union mentioned in the report has been disbanded and merged into other unions.

Jaime A. Belgodere, director of the Puerto Rican Department of Labor's mediation and arbitration unit, says the number of strikes in Puerto Rico has declined slightly in recent years. Economist Jos'e J. Villamil reports that only 2,000 workers have been involved in union disputes or strikes in the past two years, and there have been no major strikes in either utilities or manufacturing. Mr. Belgodere notes that the Teamsters were involved in a five-month strike at another casino hotel at which there was no reported violence. ``Here and in the states there is violence on both sides sometimes,'' Belgodere says. ``An isolated incident doesn't mean every time we have a strike there is violence.''

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Observers point out that the Teamsters were not welcome when they came to Puerto Rico and have often met strong opposition from management, security guards, and allegedly from the police. They have been tough, says one observer, but that's how they survive.

Union leaders inside and outside of the Teamsters talk about current union-busting tactics.

Some hotel managers show no respect for the Teamsters, while praising other locals. ``Everybody knows who they are,'' says one manager, referring to the Teamsters reputation of corruption and violence. ``Why should Puerto Rico be any different. There are other unions that are more responsible.''

Valentin Hernandez, secretary-treasurer of Local 610, which represents a large number of hotel workers, says his union has had only two strikes and two lockouts in the past 25 years. ``We get along fine with management. No problem,'' he says, other than normal contract disputes.

Some labor observers say the relative peace is not simply due to better labor-management relations. ``Our high rate of unemployment makes it difficult to strike,'' labor lobbyist Mario Roche says. Unemployment hovers around 18 percent, but many say it is actually higher because of the large number of adults who have given up seeking jobs.

Mr. Roche says a common way to attack unions here is to say they have been infiltrated by radicals and those promoting independence for Puerto Rico. Union members are not shy about talking politics.

Mr. Romero Barcel'o points to Teamster lawyer and chief negotiator Jorge Farinacci, who is linked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Puerto Rican separatist group, the Macheteros. He is free on $1 million bond while awaiting trial in Hartford, Conn., in connection with a 1983 $7 million Wells-Fargo robbery.

Mr. Farinacci, who has long been involved in union issues, denies any involvement in the fire.

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