Puerto Rican teachers strike to oppose attack on pensions

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On Tuesday, Jan. 14 and Wednesday, Jan. 15, thousands of elementary and secondary school teachers in Puerto Rico carried out a two-day strike to protest a raid on their pension plans.

The change to the pension system, called the Teachers' Retirement System (SRM), was promoted by the administration of Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla of the pro commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrático, or PPD) and then approved by the legislature, in the context of a severe crisis that has the island's economy reeling.

Garcia has wanted to issue new bonds to pay the U.S.-controlled territory's bills, and evidently wants to show the bond rating agencies that his government is serious by enforcing austerity measures. Otherwise, supporters of the pension changes claimed, the bond rating agencies Moody's and Fitch were threatening to lower the rating for Puerto Rican bonds to junk status.

The government claimed the changes were necessary to restore fiscal stability to the pension system, which has a deficit of $10.3 billion  but teachers are skeptical and accuse Gov. Garcia of kowtowing to the foreign bond rating agencies.

So in December, the Puerto Rican legislature passed a law stipulating that after the end of the current school year, teachers' pensions would be reduced from 75 percent to 65 percent of their ending salaries. They will be required to contribute 10 percent instead of nine percent of their salaries to the pension fund.

Retirement age for teachers with 30 years of service will be raised from 55 to 62. In spite of the special relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, teachers in Puerto Rico are not entitled to participate in Social Security.

As soon as the proposed changes were announced, there were massive protests in the capital, San Juan, by Puerto Rico's three teachers' unions, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (the Puerto Rican Teachers' Federation), the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (the Puerto Rican Teachers' Association) and Educamos ("We Educate") and other teachers' and labor groups. The two-day January strike is the latest step in those protests.

Ironically, Gov. Garcia was elected in 2012 because his right-wing predecessor, Luis Fortuño of the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party), who is closely linked to the Republican Party in the United States, had aroused public anger resulting in labor, student and youth protests by his own austerity measures, which among other things severely impacted the island's universities. The PPD also captured both houses of the legislature and most mayoralties in the 2012 election. The vote for the change in the teachers' pensions went 26 to 20 in the House of Representatives and 14 to 13 in the Senate.

The Broad Front for the Defense of the Retirement System for Teachers, representing some of the unions involved, has also filed suit to stop the changes in the retirement system.

Although teacher strikes are supposedly illegal in Puerto Rico, teachers' union leaders pronounced the first day of the strike as a total success. Aida Diaz, President of the Asociacion de Maestros, said that 90 percent of the teachers stayed away from work on the first day. Maria Elena Lara, the President of the Federacion de Maestros, said "The compañeros and compañeras have joined the protests, which has transformed it into a total triumph."

An even larger number of students than teachers stayed away from school.

On Wednesday morning, it was announced that in response to the lawsuit by the Broad Front, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico has blocked implementation of the pension law changes until further consideration of the case. Governor Garcia expressed fear that this might negatively affect Puerto Rico's credit rating, while the striking teachers vowed to keep up their struggle.

Photo: Puerto Rico teachers strike. AP

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