Four Puerto Rican union leaders chained themselves to the gates of the Fortaleza, the governor’s official residence, in San Juan on Sept. 28 to protest plans to lay off 16,970 of the island’s 180,000 public employees. About 30 other unionists set up what they called a “Camp of Dignity and Shame” outside the 16th-century fortress. After a brief scuffle, police agents dispersed the group, which included members of the General Workers Union (UGT) and Robert Pagán, president of Local 1996SPT of the US-based Service Employers International Union (SEIU). No arrests or injuries were reported. Pagán promised that this was just the first of “dozens of civil disobedience actions” against the layoffs.
In a separate incident on the same day, a protester threw an egg at Gov. Luis Fortuño during a public event in the coastal city of Fajardo. The egg missed the governor, and the man who threw it was detained, but the incident inspired protesters to throw what they called “the avenging egg” at effigies of Fortuño during demonstrations later in the week.
The main mobilization in the campaign against the layoffs is planned for Oct. 15, when virtually the whole labor movement of the island—the UGT, the Workers Federation and the All Puerto Rico for Puerto Rico Coalition—has scheduled a one-day strike. Activists are also planning a march on Oct. 17, the United Nations’ International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Meanwhile, struggles are continuing in communities like Villas del Sol, in Toa Baja near San Juan, where residents are fighting efforts to evict them from land where they’ve lived for years.
The layoffs, most of which will take effect on Nov. 6, follow some 8,000 layoffs in May. The hardest hit will be the Department of Education, slated to lose 7,249 employees, followed by Transportation and Public Works, with 1,522 layoffs, and the Economic Development Administration, with 681. Carlos García, president of the Restructuring and Fiscal Stabilization Council (JREF), acknowledged that with the layoffs Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate will rise to 17%.
Gov. Fortuño said the job cuts, expected to save $386 million, are necessary because the government faces a $3.2 billion deficit this year, largely as a result of the US economic crisis, which has also led to austerity measures in state governments in the US itself. Without the layoffs, Fortuño claimed, the Puerto Rican government would have to shut down by Christmas. (Associated Press, Sept. 29; SEIU blog, Sept. 29; Primera Hora, Puerto Rico, Oct. 4; La Raza, Chicago, Oct. 1 from EFE; Servicio Informativo “alai-amlatina,” Oct. 2)
Activists charge that the conservative governor is using the layoffs as a step towards privatizing government services. On June 5 the movement against the cutbacks mobilized tens of thousands of people in one of the largest demonstrations in recent Puerto Rican history. One notable feature of the protests is the unity among different unions, just a year after a bitter struggle between the SEIU and the independent Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR).
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 4
See our last post on Puerto Rico.