By Kate Aronoff
In a May Day event largely overlooked by mainland U.S. media, strikers representing various unions, opposition parties, and social movements all converged on San Juan’s banking district, known as “Milla De Ora” (the Golden Mile) for a national strike.
Pushing back against a slew of austerity measures being unveiled by the Washington-appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) and Puerto Rico’s ruling New Progressive Party, strikers took the opportunity to bring their fights to their opponents’ doorsteps, rallying throughout the day at their offices in locations scattered throughout the city.
By the end of the day, police were firing off several rounds of tear gas and wrestling students to the ground.
Striking teachers from around the island began Tuesday outside the Department of Education. Just a few days earlier, several of those same teachers had been pepper sprayed during another demonstration against the fiscal control board’s plan to close 283 public schools on the island and replace them with charter schools that likely won’t be subject to regulatory oversight. That education plan was one of a rash of new proposals released by the board (colloquially known as “la junta”) just a day before certifying them in mid-April, which together lay out dramatic transformations for everything from labor law to energy.
“It’s a colonial situation that we are facing,” Mercedes Martinez, president of the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR is the Spanish acronym), tells me. “The fiscal oversight board are the ones telling the governor what to do. If he was somebody else he would say no. They are not here for the people, they are here for themselves.” In addition to school closures and charterization of the island’s school system, FMPR is also fighting proposed cuts to public sector pensions, which the board has suggested should be cut by 25 percent.
Inspired by opposition to those plans and, in part, by striking teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky, FMPR voted in an assembly several weeks ago to strike on May 1. (At that point, Arizona’s walkouts had not yet happened.)
So under a blazing sun Tuesday, union members in the education bloc wore different colors to denote their respective affiliations. FMPR wore yellow, and many members hoisted matching yellow signs denouncing the fiscal plans as “abusive and criminal,” and the board itself as a colonial body. As the location of Tuesday’s demonstration might suggest, one of the main targets — for teachers and demonstrators more generally — was Puerto Rico’s controversial education secretary Julia Keleher, tapped by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for her record as a Bush-era Department of Education staffer turned education consultant. Continue reading