SAN JUAN — After a short five-day strike that closed access to most campuses, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Workers’ Union reached an agreement with the administration that will see workers’ salaries match the archipelago’s minimum wage of $8.50 per hour, rising to $9.50 on July 1.
An hour past midday on Wednesday, February 15, a gaggle of unsatisfied UPR workers —reportedly earning $7.26 per hour— locked the gates to the Rio Piedras campus for about two hours. The action prompted the university to start evacuating students, and the public school’s president, Dr. Luis A. Ferrao, ordered a short academic recess while he negotiated with the workers.
Shortly after the gates closed, students wondered if they would have class in person or if they should show up to school at all. Student organizations, like the General Council of Students of Rio Piedras Campus, stood in solidarity with the striking workers.
Workers closed the gates at nine of the university’s 11 campuses, mostly those where the union enjoys a sizable presence: Río Piedras, Aguadilla, Arecibo, Bayamón, Carolina, Humacao, Ponce, Utuado, and Ciencias Médicas, the medical campus in San Juan.
About a fourth of the university’s workers, mostly from the department of cleaning and maintenance, earn $7.26 per hour. They had been clamoring for an increase since 2017.
The agreement reached with the administration will lead to a $9.50-per-hour increase beginning on July 1, said David Muñoz Hernández, leader of the workers’ union. On the same date, an $8.50-per-hour increase will retroactively go into effect back to July 2022, in accordance with the Puerto Rico Minimum Wage Act. Workers will also receive a unique $2,750 bonus to be paid within the next 30 days.
“We understand that, truthfully, this (strike) was not necessary. But the important thing is that we have an agreement today,” Muñoz Hernández said during a press conference.
The salary increase will affect all workers within the university system earning less than $8.50 per hour, estimated to be about 3,000 individuals.
“I think this agreement we will sign pleases all parts, and obviously our commitment will always be with the people who work with the university, work for the university, and for the health and success of the university,” Dr. Ferrao said during the press conference.
Having seen its budget slashed by nearly half and its student body rapidly decreased during recent years, UPR is facing a crisis that has greatly affected its workers. Many have seen fellow employees quit and, as a result, have been left with significantly more work for the same pay.
“We’re satisfied with our accomplishment. We’re not saying it’s everything we wanted, but under the circumstances, we understand it definitely (was an accomplishment),” Muñoz Hernández said.
The union also demanded that workers be excluded from having to pay into UPR’s medical plan, which it says has led to workers paying more. Workers and administration failed to reach an agreement on this issue.
Additionally, the agreement brought an end to a lawsuit that the university administration brought against the union to that “stop illegal conduct” that the administration accuses the union of participating in.
The archipelago’s minimum wage was raised to $8.50 per hour on January 1, 2022, in accordance with the Puerto Rico Minimum Wage Act signed by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi the previous September. The law also created a Minimum Wage Review Board meant to periodically review and increase the minimum wage every two years.
The next raise is scheduled for July 1 to $9.50 per hour, and then again on July 1, 2024, to $10.50 per hour. Agricultural, governmental, municipal, judicial, and legislative workers are exempt from these increases.
In February 2022, public school teachers went on a weeklong strike that led to more than 70 percent of educators not showing up to their schools. The strike ended with the teachers getting a $1,000 increase to their meager salary of $1750 per month.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL