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Puerto Ricans general strike to protest massive government layoffs, 2009
Luis Fortuño was elected governor of Puerto Rico in the 2008 general election. Fortuño was very popular within his own party, the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico (PNP), and his popularity continued over to the election for governor. On November 4, 2008, Fortuño won the election for governor by 220,000 votes, which was the largest margin of victory in over 40 years.
Not long after assuming office in January of 2009, however, Fortuño began to implement some widely controversial policies. In March of 2009, Fortuño announced in a televised address that more than 30,000 government employees would be laid off starting in July of 2009. At the time, the government was Puerto Rico’s main employer with over 218,000 employees. According to economic reports at the time of the announcement, laying off 30,000 employees would account for 14% of the jobs in the public sector. With an unemployment rate already at 14.7%, the unions began to organize to protest the austerity measures proposed by the Fortuño administration.
In May, thousands of workers took part in a protest outside the Labor Department in San Juan. Amongst the demonstrators were utility workers, bus drivers, professors, and support personnel. The demonstration, referred to as the May Day strike, was designed to be the first of many actions in protest of the imminent layoffs. By the end of the month, 8,000 jobs would be cut.
News reports, which stated that Puerto Rico would be entering its fourth year of recession, helped to mobilize individuals against Fortuño’s austerity measures. On June 5, the Union Coordination for a Broad Front of Solidarity and Struggle (FASyL) organized a march to the front of Puerto Rico’s capitol in San Juan to protest the proposed layoffs. Union workers, students, and grassroots activists gathered to form a crowd of over 100,000, an extraordinary number of participants for an action on Puerto Rican soil. All major Puerto Rican unions and Catholic bishops endorsed the march. Meanwhile, Fortuño experienced little resistance in passing his economic program through the legislature where his party, PNP, had a large majority.
With the threat of massive layoffs in July, the FASyL responded with a threat of its own; Puerto Rican labor leaders announced that they would be ready to execute a general strike if the Fortuño administration went ahead with its plans to cut 30,000 jobs. Luis Pedraza Leduc, spokesman of the FASyl, told the media that unions would be ready to “paralyze the Puerto Rican economy to force Fortuño to back down.” Leduc went on to speculate that a potential general strike could happen in early 2010. Union leadership also accused the private sector of using Fortuño’s economic plan as an excuse to cut payrolls.
The first major wave of layoffs was ordered in September. On September 26, the government announced that 16,970 government jobs would be cut. Internal reports from the government acknowledged that the layoffs would put Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate at 17%, up from 14.7%. In response to the layoffs, major union leaders announced that a general strike was planned for October 15, which would be two weeks before the next wave of layoffs. More unrest followed the news. On September 29, an activist was cited for attempting to throw an egg at the face of the governor. The day after that rude gesture, 30 demonstrators had a brief struggle with police officers outside of the governor’s mansion.
In early October, the campaign ramped up its action with several demonstrations. On the 3rd, hundreds of students and workers marched at a performance of the Symphonic Orchestra of Puerto Rico; Fortuño was rumored to be in attendance. Prior to the action at the performance, students, professors, and university workers at the University of Puerto Rico organized a 24-hour strike in protest of the layoffs.
The general strike began as planned on October 15 at 6 in the morning. Over 100,000 participated in the general strike. Many of the demonstrators gathered in front of San Juan's Plaza Las Americas, reportedly the largest mall in the Caribbean. Consequently, the mall and other nearby businesses were shut down for the day. There were reports of obstructions of two highways and of some fires that had been set in the streets by protesters. The Fortuño administration accused the major opposition party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), of chartering over 200 buses to bring demonstrators to the mall. The campaign was successful in attracting some of the more conservative unions, like the Puerto Rican Union of Workers (SPT), to participate in the general strike.
The general strike was very effective in paralyzing the Puerto Rican economy and uniting several groups against the economic programs of the Fortuño administration. 15,000 police officers went to the mall in order to make sure things remained in order. And in large part, the demonstration was peaceful and nonviolent. Unfortunately, the general strike did not prevent further layoffs or reverse the previous layoffs. In January of 2010, the government laid off another 2,000 employees.