Puerto Rico teachers launch two-day strike

AP News
Posted: Jan 14, 2014 9:03 PM
Puerto Rico teachers launch two-day strike

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Teachers across Puerto Rico walked off their jobs Tuesday in a noisy two-day strike over cuts to their pensions that the island's government says are needed to avert financial disaster but educators say will force many of them into poverty.

Strikers gathered with tambourines, cowbells and bullhorns outside public schools on what was supposed to be the first day of classes after winter break in the U.S. territory. Dozens of schools didn't open.

Legislators of the main opposition party supported the strike and some principals and parents joined in, demanding that changes to the teacher retirement system be revoked. Rene Perez of the Grammy-winning Puerto Rican hip-hop duo Calle 13 joined protesters at one school.

Aida Diaz, president of Puerto Rico's Teachers' Association, condemned the pension overhaul that was approved Christmas Eve and calls for switching from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution system, among other changes. She noted teachers in Puerto Rico do not get U.S. Social Security and said many would see a decrease in their pension.

"This is the most important fight in our history," she said. "It's about protecting and defending the only source of income we have upon retirement."

Just hours after the walkout started, the island's Supreme Court temporarily halted any changes to the retirement system while a panel of judges hears arguments in a lawsuit filed by teachers seeking to have the pension law declared unconstitutional. A decision is expected next month.

Jaime Perello, president of the island's House of Representatives, said he believes the court will uphold the law.

"It's an essential measure to address the fiscal crisis that the island faces," he said.

Only 12 percent of teachers employed at public schools went to work Tuesday, Education Secretary Rafael Roman said. Less than 200 students out of 425,000 attended classes, he added.

At one high school in the southern town of Coamo, all teachers went on strike, including Rolando Cartagena Ramos, who teaches history and social studies.

He said he has been a teacher for 14 years and is considering joining the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have left for the U.S. mainland during a now seven-year-long recession in search of better jobs and a more affordable life.

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"This law is going to be devastating to our future," he said in a phone interview. "It will practically leave us destitute once we retire."

Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla urged teachers to end the strike and meet with him. He has said he would consider amending the law but not revoking it, saying changes are needed because the pension system has a $10 billion deficit and will run out of money by 2020 if nothing is done.

He said that the law seeks only a 1 percent increase in teacher contributions and that teachers would see a $300-a-year raise for the next decade, among other changes.

"For decades, it was known that your retirement system would collapse," he said in an open letter to teachers. "Despite knowing this, no one did anything until now."