A Movement to Defend Pensions Sparked an Educator Uprising in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s educators have shown us how to be dignified throughout February. They have demonstrated once again how to protect your rights as workers and win.

It all started the first week of the month, when activists called for educators to call out sick with the “#TeacherFlu” to protest their low wages, poor working conditions and the decimation of their pensions. This was the latest of a series defiances against both the right-wing government of Puerto Rico and the politicians and bankers in the United States who collaborated to impose austerity.

This educator-led struggle in Puerto Rico teaches us lessons about how to challenge the powerful and wealthy interests that dominate our lives. They have shown that there is no shortcut for building power at the grassroots, neighborhood by neighborhood, school by school.

The Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), one of the leading teacher unions of the country, has — along with its allies — built a strong network of anti-austerity and anti-colonial opposition. This network was formed through daily and weekly struggles. When the conditions were right for widespread discussion and agitation about just wages and pensions, it was ready to spring into action. The union leadership was flexible and responsive and saw the growing discontent and took the opportunity to call for coordinated strike action.

The #TeacherFlu sicknessout spread from one school to another across the country. A tragic accident added to the momentum.

Pablo Mas Oquendo was a public school teacher who died after falling asleep behind the wheel on February 1. He was driving home to change between his night job as a security guard, and his day job of teaching. Mas Oquendo had two part-time jobs, in addition to his full-time teaching job. His tragic death brought to light the poor pensions, poverty wages, and terrible working conditions of educators. A memorial on February 1, 2022, at Mas Oquendo’s Francisco Oller High School to mourn his death turned into a protest, further elevating the movement and gathering public sympathy behind the teachers.

Puerto Rico Gov. The Puerto Rico Governor. During the first week of actions, Pierluisi revealed his paternalistic attitude toward workers, proclaiming that the actions “would not be repeated” and that public sector workers “don’t have to” work in their chosen line of work.

His words only strengthened the resolve to organize in defense of public education. Edwin Morales Laboy, vice president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), responded to Pierluisi on primetime news, saying, “You also don’t have to be governor,” advancing a call for the governor’s resignation. The FMPR, a leading union representing educators in the country, has built a strong network that is anti-austerity- and anti-colonial worker led opposition. Additionally, spokespeople of the Frente Amplio en Defensa de la Educación Pública (FADEP), which is a coalition of educator unions, appeared on a number of primetime news outlets, further spreading the demands and challenging the rhetoric of anti-public worker sentiment so often parroted in the media.

When it comes to education, many people in Puerto Rico have lost faith their government, as it has closed hundreds of schools, still hasn’t repaired schools damaged by hurricanes and earthquakes, has failed to provide communities with earthquake-resistant school buildings or adequate ventilation during the pandemic, and continues to abuse the very people who educate and care for our children. Teachers have become tired of being mistreated and are determined to fight for their rights in the face of constant attacks.

The protests were creative and contagious, spreading quickly from school to school in the form of a rolling “sickout,” spirited pickets in front of schools, cacerolazos (popular forms that involve banging pots and pans), marches in towns and public plazas to mourn the loss of public education, vigils, and work stops involving other public sector workers. The educators’ demands gained so much momentum that local politicians were forced to pledge their support to the movement. Calls for the legislature to delay a $10.8 million payment to Wall Street on Puerto Rico’s illegitimate debt were successful. This was a meaningful win in a situation where politicians are trying to justify the pension cuts as “necessary” in the name of balancing the budget in light of the debt payments.

What began as a passionate defense of the pensions of public workers has grown to be the largest. work stoppage of educatorsIn Puerto Rico, 90% of educators called in sick over the past 10 year’s, and 45,000 educators, others in public sector, and entire school districts were affected. marching on the capitalFebruary 9, 2009

For years, politicians claimed that there were no funds to pay for the salaries of Puerto Rican educators or their retirement. The crushing debt that Washington has imposed through the dictatorial Financial Oversight and Management Board — known in Puerto Rico as “La junta” — has been used again and again as an excuse to legitimize the privatization and decimation of public sector pensions and to indefinitely postpone raises for educators and other public sector workers.

But after two intense weeks of sustained struggle, educators who haven’t had a single raise in 14 years and whose base salary was $1,750 a month, won a $1,000 per month raise — showing that, just as activists have been saying, the money has been there all along. Educators have shown that when there’s a political will, there’s a way — bringing to life the words of Eugenio María de Hostos, the Puerto Rican educator and Independentista: “There is no victory without struggle, and no struggle without sacrifice.”

However, if the government in Puerto Rico thinks it has appeased educators with a $1,000-per month raise, bureaucrats may be in for a rude awakening. The salary victory has made educators more aware about their social power to effect change. One of the slogans of the movement encompasses the power that educational workers are leveraging as they withhold their labor: “Sin maestros y maestras el país se paraliza” (Without educators, the country shuts down). In the weeks ahead educators will continue to hold politicians responsible. They have not forgotten what drove them to the streets in the first instance: their right to a dignified pension.

Teachers in Puerto Rico face a formidable challenge. need solidarity from union siblings internationally. They are not only negotiating with their employers in education and the government, but they are also challenging the Fiscal Control Board. Since 2016, it has ruled with a firm hand, using its authority to overturn Puerto Rican autonomy.

Educators are taking action against the entire weight of Wall Street Vultures, who will make Puerto Rican workers pay for illegal and unlegitimate debts they did not create. Educators — who are already disproportionately women, performing so much labor to help reproduce and maintain life — are now also carrying the weight of stopping La junta’s plan to balance the budget on the backs of all workers.

The FMPR, along with other unions from FADEP, have been called in to the capital to negotiate educators’ retirement, but so far, there are no substantial concessions on the part of the government. Despite the increase in the salary, the issues that educators have been fighting over the years are still being discussed and the government is under pressure. La junta, has shown little signs of backing down.

The current plan would raise the retirement age from 55 to 63 and cut and freeze pensions, leaving educators with a member-funded 401k — which, without employer contributions, is little more than a savings account. Although rumors suggest that the government might contribute to member 401ks of its employees, public educators strongly oppose the privatization and demonetization of their pensions.

All of this is happening while the Puerto Rican government decides whether or not it will approve the release of the first payments as a part of the Fiscal Control Board’s Debt Adjustment Plan (DAP). The plan will increase the burden on those who have already suffered the consequences of the economic crisis. It is expected to take effect in full on March 15. FADEP filed a lawsuit to defend their pensions in the First U.S. if the government continues to delay DAP payments. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Over the next few weeks, the FMPR will continue lobbying the Pierluisi government, along with other public sector unions, to deny the payments. La junta. Instead of being handed over to Wall Street vultures these millions of dollars should instead be used to invest in the future Puerto Ricans deserve. Workers in Puerto Rico are making history — in the capitol, in the courts, and, most importantly, in the school buildings, workplaces and in the streets.

Paul Figueroa contributed to the report.