National Day of Strikes and Demonstrations in Puerto Rico
Teachers and government workers staged a national day of strikes and protests in Puerto Rico on Friday. There were marches and rallies all over the United States. A mass protest took place in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. The marchers demanded fair wages and pensions and an end to the privatization of schools and government services. Despite an early morning attempt by San Juan police to block off a section of marchers, the protests were peaceful and spirited.
In San Juan, in the early morning, demonstrators began to gather at the Hiram Bithorn baseball stadium before marching to the headquarters of the State Financial Control and Oversight Agency. Among the many protesters were teachers, electrical and road workers, university professors and students. The public electricity authority was privatized following Hurricane Maria and is now administered by a global monopoly, LUMA.
The daily life of San Juan Primera Hora gave an overview of the conditions of daily life in Puerto Rico and presented the perspective of the workers in the protest:
“Electricity and water bills are nearly 60% higher in Puerto Rico than the US average. Food is 18 percent higher than on the mainland, although the cost of medical care and housing, among others, is lower,” the newspaper reported. “Marcia Rivera, an economist and sociologist who investigates poverty and inequality, pointed out that government workers are facing price increases with the same salary they received in 2008. “People are fed up” , she said.
In response to weeks of protests, Governor Pierluisi promised teachers a $1,000 per month pay rise, firefighters $500 per month and a 30% raise for paramedics. Pierluisi’s promise is well below the $3,500 monthly salary demanded by teachers. Currently, the starting salary is $1,750 per month.
However, with the exception of some short-term federal funds, there is no indication of where these increases will come from and whether the Financial Supervisory Board would authorize them. Pierluisi did not address the issue of pension changes, imposed by the Supervisory Board, which reduce benefits and increase the retirement age for all civil servants.
Wanda Ramos, a special education teacher, said her scheduled monthly pension had been reduced from $2,400 at retirement to $960. She also said 12 years have passed since her last pay raise. “I can only buy essentials, I can’t fill my fridge,” said Ramos, who is also helping his daughter pay for college.
Wanda Cruz, a 52-year-old Spanish teacher, joined the demonstration to protest the new retirement rules. In her case, she would have to work 11 more years, instead of four, to retire. Instead of a guaranteed pension of 75% of her salary, she would receive 1.8% plus whatever she manages to save in her 401K plan. “I worked 22 years in the Department of Education and my pension is now frozen,” Cruz said. “It’s a blow because my retirement age has also been increased.” She calculated that upon retirement, she would receive $500 per month.
Gilberto Rodríguez, 38, a teacher and librarian with 16 years on the job, earns barely $2,100 a month and plans to quit even though he could benefit from a law that, if signed by the governor, would give him $30 $000 owed to him for a graduate degree. “I started in 2006 and I had to work another 25 years to retire. It’s like starting from scratch,” Rodríguez said.
David Garay, a former AEE electrician who with 21 years in the job decided not to work for LUMA Energy when AEE was privatized (he now works for the Ministry of Education), said: “We are all angry with the government and on top of everything they now also want to change the retirement of the Electric Energy Authority (AEE).
These experiences are similar to those of tens of thousands of Puerto Rican workers whose wages and working conditions were effectively frozen under the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, with its huge unemployment and conditions that plunged 45% of the the island’s population into poverty, forcing thousands to emigrate.
Puerto Rican leaders have responded with waves of austerity and draconian budget cuts, including school closures and university budget cuts. As a result, necessary investments in infrastructure projects, including the electricity authority, were left unchecked, as government debts piled up.
Unable to resolve its financial and jobs crisis, the debt became unpayable, and in June 2016, the US Congress created a Financial Oversight and Management Board, composed primarily of Wall Street executives appointed by the President in the framework of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), to ensure debt repayment and the stabilization of Puerto Rican finances.
Under the rule of the Financial Supervisory Board, austerity policies continued. The devastation of the island by Hurricane Maria in October 2017, which caused economic losses estimated at $90 billion and the near collapse of electricity infrastructure, prompted the Financial Supervisory Board to push for more privatizations and austerity measures.
Following the “managed” bankruptcy deal with Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s administration, the Financial Supervisory Board signed these new austerity measures and imposed them on Puerto Rican workers in order to pay Wall Street hedge funds and other holders of Puerto Rican debt instruments. .
The ongoing protests in Puerto Rico are expressions of enormous anger over deteriorating living conditions and massive social inequality. The critical issue is the building of a socialist movement of the working class in opposition to the politics of the trade unions which seek to dispel anger in futile protests against corrupt capitalist political parties.