SAN JUAN — Like many firsts of May in the past, this year’s May Day will see workers and activists around the world take to the streets to demand greater labor rights and protections. In Puerto Rico, they will also be condemning displacement and environmental destruction.
“Instead of being, as a country, focused on strengthening public education, we have to defend it,” Mercedes Martínez, president of the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR), told Latino Rebels recently.
In February of 2022, she was one of the labor leaders at the head of the biggest protests in the archipelago since the “Ricky Renuncia” protests that ousted former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in the summer 2019. While the 2022 protests were not looking to oust current Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, they did pressure him to raise wages and protect workers’ pensions.
The teachers’ strikes, which saw more than 70 percent of public teachers absent from schools, failed to secure their demands, though it did lead to a “historic” $1000 increase in pay—their first raise in 13 years.
A little over two weeks later, tensions within the public sector reached a peak as thousands of workers went on strike, flooding Puerto Rico’s main highway in protests dubbed the “Boricua Flu.” It was the last in a series of other “flu” protests to stop a proposed budget adjustment plan meant to get Puerto Rico out of bankruptcy, in part by cutting funds for public utilities.
Multiple labor leaders who spoke with Latino Rebels said Puerto Rico is at a “historic moment” for labor, with people fighting against the neoliberal policies imposed by both the state government and the federally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMBPR), which controls the colony’s budget and is known by Puerto Ricans as “La Junta.”
“Precisely those protests last year reaffirm to us that the correct path to defeat (these measures) is struggle,” Martínez explained by phone.
However, like many government concessions, the raise comes with strings attached. The pay increase is currently financed through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, and once the fund runs out, Gov. Pierluisi will have to prove to the FOMBPR that the state government has enough money to cover the raise.
The fear is that when that moment comes, the governor will institute pay cuts or siphon the funds from another public service.
While the FMPR is only one of three teachers’ unions on the archipelago, Martínez says that her colleagues in other unions remain committed to protecting Puerto Rico’s public education system, particularly from privatization. More than 650 schools were closed in the last decade, according to an investigation by El Puente Puerto Rico alongside CUNY’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
Privatization is an issue close to the heart of the other union heavily engaged in protests, the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER), which faces an even harsher fight because Puerto Rico’s electricity system has already been privatized.
LUMA Energy, a joint venture between the U.S.-owned Quanta Services and the Canadian-owned ATCO, has been managing transmission, distribution and repair of the grid since 2021. Meanwhile, Genera PR, a subsidiary of New Fortress Energy, will take over electrical generation on July 1 from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
The UTIER protested both privatizations but was unsuccessful.
“We’ve seen the daily results of inefficiency and bad administration,” Josué Mitjá, president of the UTIER, told Latino Rebels.
Mitjá was referring to the hundreds of blackouts and brownouts that have taken place since LUMA took charge, some of them archipelago-wide. Hundreds of UTIER workers refused to work for LUMA because it did not recognize the union.
Now, seeing the “possible chaos” that might ensue if Puerto Rico’s electrical generation is treated as its transmission and distribution have been, the UTIER hopes to negotiate with Genera PR to preserve certain labor rights, but the company refuses to sit down with the UTIER and “hasn’t even called,” says Mitjá.
One of the main issues the UTIER will be calling attention to this May Day as its members march down La Milla de Oro, San Juan’s main commercial avenue, is possible pension cuts to the workers’ retirement system. For years, PREPA pensioners reported that the system would not have enough money to pay them in full before the end of the fiscal year. The necessary funds were secured, but many fear a similar situation will happen again, only the funds won’t be there this time, leading to pension cuts.
While Mitjá and her union colleagues say labor is at a “historic moment” in Puerto Rico, but that protests like the May Day march are necessary to preserve labor rights and secure greater ones.
“We do not believe we have to keep the crumbs being thrown towards the working class,” José Adrián López, president of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), which represents the private sector workers, told Latino Rebels.
While the public sector enjoys strong union representation, only about three percent of workers in the private sector are unionized. López believes the CGT needs to focus on organizing as many workplaces as possible so workers can gain a greater advantage when they come to the bargaining table with private businesses.
After a U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico nullified the 2022 Labor Reform Law, which looked to re-establish labor rights stripped by a 2017 labor law, private workers lost many of the concessions they had won through through protest and legal battles, including smaller probationary periods and extended vacation days.
“As a young person, who would want to start working?” said Mayra Rivera, secretary of the General Union of Workers.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL