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

February saw the largest teachers’ work stoppage in the last decade in Puerto Rico. Educators are not letting up yet.

Thousands of educators march to the governor’s mansion to defend their retirements in an action on March 15, 2021, that was called for by the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico.

Throughout the month of February, educators in Puerto Rico have taught us a lesson in dignity, demonstrating once again how to stand up for 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 in a series of actions that defied both the right-wing government in Puerto Rico, and the politicians, bankers and bureaucrats in the United States who collaborate to impose austerity and misery.

This educator-led struggle in Puerto Rico holds lessons for how to challenge the powerful and monied interests that rule our lives. Their actions prove that there is no shortcut to building power at the grassroots, school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood.

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 built through day-to-day and week-to-week struggles and was ready to spring into action when the conditions were ripe nationally for widespread discussion and agitation around the issue of just wages and pensions. A flexible and responsive union leadership sensed the growing discontent and seized on the opportunity to take action and call for nationally coordinated strike action.

Just as the #TeacherFlu sickout started to spread from school to school across the country, a tragic accident further coalesced the movement.

On February 1, public school teacher Pablo Mas Oquendo died when he fell asleep at the wheel as he drove home to change between his night shift as a security guard and his day job as a teacher. Mas Oquendo held two part-time jobs in addition to teaching full time in order to make ends meet. His tragic death propelled the terrible working conditions, poverty wages and inadequate pensions of educators into the public spotlight. 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. Pedro Pierluisi, a wildly unpopular right-wing politician elected to power with only 32 percent of the vote in November 2020, has only added fuel to the fire. 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 of those organizing 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 is a leading union of educators in the country that has collaboratively built a strong network of 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. In the face of continuous attacks, educators have grown tired of being mistreated, and their resolve to fight for their rights has only grown stronger.

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 of protest in which people bang pots and pans), vigils mourning the death of public education, marches through towns and in public plazas, and work stoppages 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 started out as a spirited defense of public worker pensions grew into the largest work stoppage of educators in the last 10 years in Puerto Rico, with 90 percent of educators calling in sick, and more than 45,000 educators, other public sector workers and entire school communities marching on the capital on February 9.

For years politicians have claimed that there are no funds available to pay for salary increases or the retirement of Puerto Rican educators. 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.”

But if the government of Puerto Rico believes it has appeased the educators with a $1,000-a-month raise, bureaucrats are in for a rude awakening. If anything, the salary victory has only made educators more aware of their social power to bring about 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 to come, educators will continue to hold politicians accountable. They have not forgotten what pushed them into the streets in the first place: defending their right to a dignified retirement.

But educators in Puerto Rico are up against a formidable challenge and need solidarity from union siblings internationally. Not only are they in negotiation with their employers in the government and the Department of Education, but they are also fighting the Fiscal Control Board, which has ruled with an iron fist since 2016, using its authority to overturn Puerto Rican autonomy.

Educators are in motion against the whole weight of the Wall Street vultures, who will have Puerto Rican workers pay for the illegal and illegitimate debt that 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 salary increase, the issues that educators have been fighting for over the years are still on the table, and the government, under pressure from la junta, has shown little sign of backing off.

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. There are rumors that the government might agree to contribute to member 401ks, but public educators reject the privatization 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, which will push the burden onto those who have already paid the price of the economic crisis, is scheduled to go into full effect on March 15 of this year. If the government can continue to hold up the DAP payments, the FADEP will move forward with a lawsuit in defense of their pensions, which they have filed in the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Over the next several weeks, the FMPR, along with allies in other public sector unions, will continue to lobby the Pierluisi government to deny the payments to la junta. Instead of being turned over to the Wall Street vultures, these millions of dollars should be spent investing in the future that 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 this report.