A controversial plan by Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuno to lay off 17,000 government workers in the coming weeks, and possibly up to 30,000 in the coming months, has enraged the island's labor force. Stoking the fires, the Governor's administration has now threatened to charge picketing civil servants for engaging in terrorism if their actions during a planned October 15 protest infringe upon the flow of trade at the island's ports.
The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is struggling with a $3.2 billion deficit and a 15 percent unemployment rate, higher than any U.S. state. The announced layoff of 17,000 government employees will raise the unemployment rate to 17 percent, according to government officials. The territory's Education Department will be hardest hit, with 7,249 layoffs, followed by Transportation and Public Works with 1,522, and the Economic Development Administration with 681.
Labor union organizers have called for a general strike among the island's workers on Thursday October 15. A prominent union leader said that organized labor is preparing to launch "the most massive movement in the history" of Puerto Rico. Union officials question the wisdom of the governor's plan, arguing that the massive layoffs will devastate Puerto Rico's fragile economy, already in its fourth year of recession.
The Fortuno administration responded to news of the planned October 15 labor strike with extreme rhetoric, threatening to charge picketing public servants and protestors for engaging in acts of terrorism if they prevent the flow of goods and passengers at the island's airports and seaports, shocking civil liberties advocates who say the right to protest is clearly protected by the Puerto Rican and U.S. Constitutions.
"Calling individuals who are exercising their right to protest terrorists is dangerous in a democracy, and I am very worried about the turn of events. These are public servants," said American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director William Ramirez on Wednesday.
Puerto Rican Senate Minority Whip Eduardo Bhatia has proposed an alternative plan to cut the daily workday of all government employees by 30 minutes to save the laid-off workers' jobs. Bhatia asserts that roughly 40% of the laid off employees are single mothers and couples facing the loss of both incomes.
Senator Bhatia previously invited the fired employees to attend the Senate session on October 1st, hoping their presence would evoke sympathy from the government and derail the layoffs. But when 150 of the workers showed up with their pink slips in front of the Senate building waiting quietly to enter, police intervened and blocked the doors. Senator Bhatia and other members convinced the police to let the group enter the building, where they sat waiting for three hours in a hallway outside the Senate visitors' gallery. The Senate Vice President then announced that the workers would not be allowed to enter the gallery, claiming that they posed a threat to the security of Senators inside.
"They were never allowed into the gallery, violating the Constitution of Puerto Rico which clearly states that all sessions of the Senate are public. Some majority senators expressed later that 'public' means that they should be televised," Senator Bhatia wrote in an email to supporters describing the incident.
The laid off workers are now troubled by the Fortuno administration's threat of terrorism charges during the protest next Thursday, and worried that police will overreact. Recent evidence of harsh tactics used by police during the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh provides cause for concern.
President Obama said today that winning the Nobel Peace Prize serves as a "call to action" to confront the challenges of the 21st century. One of the challenges he must address is the suppression of the right to peaceful protest in a democracy. The Obama administration should send a clear message to the Puerto Rican governor and police chief that they must not suppress these rights in Puerto Rico, a U.S. Territory.
These U.S. citizens protesting the loss of their jobs are civil servants - educators, transportation workers, engineers and traffic planners - and they deserve the right to protest peacefully next Thursday without the threat of being labeled "terrorists" for speaking out against injustice on American soil.