Puerto Rico: teachers’ strike shuts school system

According to Puerto Rican education secretary Rafael Román, some 35,000 of the island's 38,000 public school classroom teachers stayed off work on Jan. 14, the first day of a two-day strike protesting changes to teachers' pensions mandated in Law 160, which was approved by the Legislative Assembly and signed by Gov. Alejandro García Padilla in December. Student attendance was just 0.09%, Román said. While 51% of the principals reported to their schools for what was to be the first school day after Christmas break, Román admitted that the 1,460 schools in the system were effectively shut down. The job action was called jointly by all the Puerto Rican teachers' unions, principally the Teachers' Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR), Teachers' Association of Puerto Rico (AMPR) and Educamos ("We Educate").

Law 160 cuts teachers' pensions from 75% of their final salary to 65%, increases their contributions to the pension fund from 9% to 10%, and raises the retirement age for new hires to 62. Gov. García Padilla—whose party, the New Progressive Party (PNP), is close to the Democrats in the US—insists that the changes are necessary to keep US rating agencies from reducing Puerto Rico's general obligation bonds to junk status. The measures appear to be widely unpopular. AMPR president Aida Díaz, who supported García when he ran for governor in 2012, has threatened to call for more strikes if Law 160 isn't amended. As an alternative to the pension changes, the teachers have proposed a 1% tax on multinationals to help cover Puerto Rico's budget shortfalls. The companies "take $37 billion out of the country, which is almost three or four times the country's budget," Rafael Bernabe, the leader of the small leftist Working People's Party (PPT), said at a Jan. 14 support rally, which included the Sovereign Union Movement (MUS) and LGBT activists.

On the evening of Jan. 14 Puerto Rico's Supreme Court responded to a suit from the AMPR by suspending application of Law 160 until Judge Pagán Osorio has completed a review of the changes, which the union contends are unconstitutional. Judge Osorio is to rule by Feb. 7. Meanwhile, the government and the unions began talks on Jan. 15 to seek a negotiated resolution to the pension dispute. (El Nuevo Día, Guaynabo, Jan. 14; Prensa Latina, Jan. 14, Jan. 15; El Diario La Prensa, NY, Jan. 15, from EFE; Washington Post, Jan. 15, from AP; People's World, Jan. 16)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, January 19.