(Bloomberg) -- Puerto Rico public-sector workers began a strike Wednesday, demanding higher wages and a meeting with Governor Pedro Pierluisi as the U.S. commonwealth struggles to balance the demands of a historic bankruptcy against growing discontent.
At least several hundred people gathered for a march in the capital San Juan, blocking traffic. Some firefighters, police and teacher unions had called for a march to the governor’s mansion in the heart of the Old San Juan tourist district. In addition, some of the island’s largest labor unions have said they will join in solidarity.
The move comes amid soaring consumer prices, including a sharp spike in the cost of housing. A teachers’ strike last week led the government to tap federal funds to give them a temporary $1,000-a-month raise. But Pierluisi fanned the flames of discontent when he suggested that public workers unhappy about their salaries should find new jobs.
On an island that has been in the doldrums for a decade, public jobs are a lifeline, representing about 23% of all formal non-farm employment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A federally appointed oversight board, shepherding the island out of a historic bankruptcy, has repeatedly said the government needs to identify savings or implement tax hikes to cover wage increases. It has also called for deep reform of the public sector, which it says is “providing declining levels of service at a high cost to residents.”
Some public workers are already set for an increase under the latest board-certified fiscal plan, including a 15% increase for correctional officers and a $1,500 raise for firefighters. Protest groups are pushing for broader increases.
In August 2019, then-Governor Ricardo Rossello stepped down after massive protests broke out after the contents of a crass and insensitive chat group he was involved in were leaked.
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