Arbitrator thrashes Cuba Broadcasting over worker treatment

Joe Davidson
Columnist December 13, 2011

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has been taken to the woodshed by an arbitrator who gave the agency a good spanking. It’s a lesson to bosses all across the government.

At first glance, the case involving the BBG’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting appears to be a routine one about the level of involvement the agency allowed a labor union when layoffs were ordered.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

But as arbitrator S.R. Butler makes clear in a 94-page Nov. 19 decision, this case has more sinister overtones. It involves the use of a manager’s power to demote or terminate certain employees in the guise of a reduction in force, or RIF in Washington parlance.

That’s particularly relevant now as government agencies seek ways to reduce staff and as larger cuts loom.

Butler’s opinion describes a chilling misuse of power within the Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting, an anachronistic Cold War relic that promotes its Radio and TV Marti operations as “consistently reliable and authoritative sources of accurate, objective, and comprehensive news for people in Cuba, where media are controlled and highly censored by the authorities.” It might be all that, but critics see Radio and TV Marti as a tool to undermine the Cuban government. Perhaps it could be if it weren’t so ineffective.

Butler was blunt in concluding that a 2009 Cuba Broadcasting RIF “was engineered and targeted at certain employees for reasons personal to them.” Her opinion says Pedro Riog, the former Office of Cuba Broadcasting director, “knew that, by sequencing certain reassignments of certain employees . . . he could shield employees whom he regarded as supporters and punish, maybe even get rid of, other employees who had spoken critically to GAO [Government Accountability Office] investigators — all under cover of a probably-upcoming budget reduction that could be used to justify a RIF — and no one would ever be the wiser. (He was wrong.)”

Riog, Butler added, “saw upcoming budget cuts as an opportunity to retaliate — and he took it.” Butler didn’t put it all on Riog, however. BBG management in Washington “either looked the other way or actively continued . . . Riog’s improperly motivated RIF plan,” Butler wrote and underlined.

A 2009 GAO report says that from the start of Radio and TV Marti programming, there have been questions “regarding their purpose, quality and effectiveness.” Surveys indicate that less than 2 percent of Cuba’s population regularly watches or listens to the broadcasts.

Although Butler also writes that “Riog’s instructions may not have ‘targeted’ certain employees by name for a RIF,” she adds that “the record as a whole convinces the Arbitrator that this was an improperly-motivated RIF from the beginning, and must be reversed in toto.”

That means folks such as Roxana Romero, once a Cuba Broadcasting video-journalist, could return to their jobs with back pay. “I haven’t been able to find a job in two years,” she said. “I was laid off along with more than a dozen of my colleagues. . . . There is no doubt in my mind I lost my job because of retaliation” for a discrimination complaint she filed against her supervisor and an editor.

Leisha Self, the American Federation of Government Employees attorney for the workers, said Riog’s written instructions did not need to name individual workers because by going after certain positions he would hit the intended staffers. Telephone and e-mail messages for Riog, who is no longer with the BBG, were not returned. Butler would not comment on her decision.

BBG spokeswoman Letitia King said the agency plans to appeal and “is committed to good faith implementation of its union agreements and commitments with its bargaining unit employees. The circumstances surrounding this case include the fact that Radio and TV Marti took a considerable budget cut in 2009. As a result, the agency conducted a legal reduction in force, following the standard policies and procedures covered within the current agreement with the union. The RIF process respected the agreement with the union including the rights of individuals to an impartial implementation.”

That’s not the picture Butler paints. “The Agency’s hostile attitude toward bargaining in general and/or certain Union representatives in particular deserves little respect,” she wrote. “If one were to draw it as a cartoon, it would show a surgeon arriving at the operating table with golf clubs in the background saying, ‘Sorry, the procedure this patient needs takes too long, and I don’t like him anyway.’ ”

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