In early February, a huge part of the public sector of Puerto Rico went on strike. It’s a sight that’s becoming more common in recent years and a more frequent sight on the island itself. The spark that began this wave of protests came when teachers went on strike and brought Puerto Rico’s education system to a halt. The teachers cited the encroaching colonial austerity as the reason for their action.
This austerity began in 2016 under President Barack Obama, brought into force by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), a United States federal law which established the Fiscal Control Board (FCB). The stated aim of the oversight board is to counter the government debt crisis that has been affecting Puerto Rico since 2014; in reality, it controls all financial activity in the territory, effectively wresting control from the local government. The FCB is also composed of unilaterally appointed individuals, with no direct input from the Puerto Rican people. In other words, PROMESA gives the US government total executive power at the cost of any meaningful democracy on the island. (Let’s not forget, Puerto Ricans are full American citizens who nevertheless cannot vote for president in a general election.) The name used by locals of Puerto Rico for this board — ‘la junta,’ hearkening to the Latin American term for oligarchic military dictatorships — sums up their feelings toward it.
Despite what people may assume, the day the strike came into effect the government had actually announced a rise in teacher wages. While some will look upon this seemingly contradictory act and scratch their heads, to the people of Puerto Rico, and other onlookers, this is more than justified. This has been the first rise in wages for public employees in at least twelve years (for some, more than two decades). Giving credence to its colloquial name, for as long as it has existed, the FCB has been in control of negotiations between the government as employer and its employees, by way of having command of the finances of public corporations. Typically, employees saw no end to their twelve-year salary freeze.
In the past, it was said that although public employees received less in wages than those in the private sector, they at least had access to greater benefits, chief among these a guaranteed retirement pension. This was all done away with in 2016, when the FCB took control. Still today, no one has any real idea if these are even planned to be reinstated, never mind when. A mere promise of increased wages from the same entity that has held back that very thing for so long, and with nothing else returned or given, is just another example of 'table scraps' that state and capital occasionally toss to workers in an effort to keep us placated. In this case, there isn’t even a feigned interest in workers’ interests, because la junta is an unelected body with no incentive to pretend to care about labour rights. Although the focus has mainly been on public sector workers, those in the private sector have also seen no increase to their wages and have been suffering under new legislation brought in by the FCB. This includes limiting overtime pay, making working hours less consistent, and making it easier and cheaper to fire workers.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, has naturally been a focus of workers’ ire. Remember that the governor is one of the few actual democratic pressure valves on the island since la junta is totally beyond the electoral grasp of Puerto Rican residents. It was Pierluisi who promised the increase in teachers’ wages, followed by further, but smaller, increases in wages for firefighters and paramedics. He surely thought that this would quell the dissent he was facing. However, what he seemingly did not count on was other government employees demanding their share of wage increases. Of course, this demand should have been expected and is more than deserved. There is also little hope that his promises will come to fruition, as they rely on federal funding that is due to expire. He has claimed he will find the funds locally to replace them, but no one can see how he could possibly do so. Years of corruption and financial mismanagement have meant the government did little to invest in case of these eventualities. With no way to build the funds themselves, and their masters in the US federal government unwilling to provide the proper relief and debt forgiveness they so obviously could, Puerto Rican officials have truly backed themselves into the corner they now squirm in.
This no-win scenario is what makes these strikes such a powerful statement. The Puerto Rican population has been treated with total disregard, operating in a liminal space both inside and outside the US electoral system. The introduction of PROMESA only further cemented this position. Now, an unelected body exerts full control over the island’s workers and economy. Even electoralists who think voting is the full extent of political action must admit that there is virtually nothing Puerto Rican residents can do to help themselves at the ballot box. However, as anarchists, we appreciate the value of a much broader set of direct action and mutual aid tactics, such as the general strike which cuts to the heart of economic production. It should be noted as well that these strikes were not organised by the big unions, but rather emerged spontaneously among the workers themselves. We applaud Puerto Rican workers for fighting for their own liberation and challenging power outside of the system in such an effective manner.
The ongoing economic crisis that is affecting Puerto Rico has resulted in a huge rise in the cost of living, exacerbated further by natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. This, of course, means higher pay and more protections and rights for workers are needed now more than ever. While the austerity the government has wreaked across the island shows no true sign of slowing down, neither does inflation. It is a story that we are all-too-familiar with hearing now; still, it is no less worthy of attention. Despite the failings of the local government that we expect, the main enemy here is the US federal government, which has always held little to no regard for the so-called ‘territories’ that are part of its colonial structure. The US has a long and turgid history of imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean. The forced implementation of neoliberal policies which bolster corporate power may remind you of Chile in 1973, when the US backed a coup by military dictator and pride of neoliberal economists, Augusto Pinochet.
We join in solidarity with the workers who fight for the better life that should, without question, be theirs. Their efforts target the heart of neoliberal governance and imperialism. They are an inspiration for us all.
Photo by Ruoyu Li
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