San Juan, Feb 9 (EFE).- Public sector workers in Puerto Rico, mainly teachers and firefighters, on Wednesday staged huge protests in San Juan to demand fair pay, a demonstration dubbed the “Great Indignation March.”
The first workers to begin their protest were the teachers, who took to the streets for the second consecutive week despite the fact that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced last Monday that educators will receive a temporary salary hike of $1,000 per month starting in July.
Among the thousands of teachers who turned out was Jose Guillermo Morales, a music teacher at a school in Las Piedras, who told EFE that he was participating in the demonstration not only to demand a salary adjustment but also to defend the pensions of his colleagues who are nearing retirement.
The base salary of a teacher in Puerto Rico is $1,750 per month, far below the current cost of living, and this discrepancy has led many of the educators to have to hold one or two additional jobs just to make ends meet.
“In my case, I’m a musician, (so) I’m on the street playing, which is another job. We also give private classes, we make instructional videos for others on the (social) networks and we’re in the school … always looking for a way to survive,” he said.
The teachers who turned out came from all over the island, kicking off their protests at Luis Muñoz Rivera Park and marching past the Capitol, the seat of the island’s legislature, to La Fortaleza, where the executive branch is headquartered.
“Without teachers, the country will be paralyzed,” “If there’s no justice for the people, let there be no peace for the government,” “If it’s about teaching, let’s teach how to fight” and “With firmness and courage, I’m defending my pension” were some of the slogans displayed on signs and banners and being chanted by the marchers.
The straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the patience of many public employees were some unfortunate statements by the governor, who said last Monday that “nobody is forced” to be a teacher, police officer or firefighter and that those professions are vocational careers.
“He’s not interested in any of these professions because he and his special aides collect much higher salaries than us and we’re miserable,” preschool special education teacher Lydia Nazario said.
Regarding the $1,000 salary hike, Nazario told EFE that the money comes from federal emergency funds and so the temporary increase could be eliminated at any time.
Living in a similarly precarious situation are firefighters, whose base salary is $1,625 per month and who also on Wednesday demanded a pay hike. To demonstrate their outrage at the situation, they drove one of their firetrucks up to La Fortaleza.
Amid the demonstration, Pierluisi and Education Secretary Eliezer Ramos announced that the $1,000 pay hike would be extended to school principals, regional superintendents and facilitator/lecturers.
Meanwhile, Karen Riquelme, a senator with the New Progressive Party (PNP), several days ago sponsored a bill that would establish a base salary for the island’s firefighters of $2,000 per month.
Joining the huge march were a number of nurses, who were also demanding a pay raise and the payment of bonuses that are still due them from the government for their work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Others who turned out to demonstrate on Wednesday included social workers and union members with the Electric Power Authority in protests in which artists such as PJ Sin Suela, iLe and Emil Martinez also took part.