UPR workers vow to continue strike until an agreement is reached
By John McPhaul
University of Puerto Rico (UPR) President Luis Ferrao Delgado insisted Wednesday that for the moment, the only thing he can guarantee to the Workers’ Union, who made good on their threat to go out on strike, is that they will be paid $9.50 per hour.
“What we got was about $5.3 million, which the [Financial Oversight and Management] Board approved by letter dated August 15, that allows us to bring all the salaries of all employees to the new minimum of $9.50 an hour,” Ferrao said in response to questions from the press. “We have achieved that now.”
When asked about the rest of the agreements signed in February with the president of the union, David Muñoz Hernández, Ferrao replied: “Yes, well, what happens is that they all have fiscal implications and you have to do the calculations. We have to see how much it costs, which is part of the agenda.”
Despite the fact that the oversight board had previously approved a salary increase for UPR workers, the Workers’ Union went out on an indefinite strike Wednesday to denounce what they say is a lack of compliance on the part of UPR with other agreements, such as one on a change in its medical plan coverage.
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia expressed his concern over the strike on Wednesday, urging the two sides to continue negotiating to avoid doing daily harm to the island’s youth.
They are doing grave damage to the university by doing this,” said the governor.
“I am sure that the president of the university is going to negotiate in good faith with these unions and that they are trying to express themselves, and that they can protest, but that it should not be taken to the extreme of closing the campuses or blocking the entrance to the campuses because they do serious damage to our youth,” Pierluisi said.
Ferrao said the union is demanding a change of medical plans, something he said is impossible because the funds would have to be approved by the oversight board.
The change in the plan would cost $2 million.
Muñoz, meanwhile, intervened by telephone in a radio interview with Ferrao on Wednesday and pointed out that the president had committed himself to honoring the collective bargaining agreement and to the union having the right to negotiate its own medical plan. The union leader said the UPR president made the commitment when he was a candidate for the position he now occupies, and denounced the fact that the promise has not been fulfilled.
“The workers had greater benefits than the ones [provided by] the institutional plan; they had life insurance, free full dental plan -- all that now they have to pay for,” Muñoz said.
The union leader said negotiations over the medical plan have been going on for two years and that it is not true that if they are permitted to choose their own medical plan, then the UPR will also have to cede it to the other workers’ organizations of the institution.
“It means that the representation that he has made to me during these last two years has not been honest, because now he comes out with that if he gives the medical plan to the [Workers’] union he would have to give it to each union, [but] that is not true,” Muñoz said. “The only one who has negotiated that in the agreement is the [Workers’] union.”
While the deadlock between the administration and the workers continues, UPR students and professors will have to conduct classes and other academic work virtually at the beginning of the new semester, according to an administrative memo addressed to the entire university community. As determined by the Academic Senate, the virtual teaching modality will continue until access to the gates of the institution is restored.
Ferrao on Wednesday called on the workers to desist from continuing with the indefinite strike because, he said, barring access to the UPR Río Piedras Campus is not justified.
Superior Judge Anthony Cuevas Ramos on Wednesday ordered the members of the union and its president not to obstruct access to the UPR Río Piedras Campus under penalty of contempt.
“It is noted that failure to comply with this Order will be sufficient cause to order his arrest and imprisonment for criminal contempt,” Cuevas Ramos said in the order. “In order to preserve the rights of all involved, as well as preserve the security and operations of the UPR, our immediate intervention is necessary to reiterate to the defendant to refrain from impeding or interfering with the daily functions of the University of Puerto Rico, while we elucidate the merits of the lawsuit in the injunction hearing.”
Ferrao said the minimum wage increase to $9.50 per hour, for which he said he had obtained the oversight board’s consent on Tuesday, had been given to non-teaching employees retroactive to July 1.
“We just gave them the pay raise they were asking for,” Ferrao said in the radio interview. “It is not justified to close the gates and prevent the education of youth.”
“When the budget was approved by the fiscal oversight board, the amount was not included, [for] the item that we had requested,” Ferrao said. “That was June 30. At that time we began new efforts to achieve at least one item that would allow paying the increase to $9.50.”
He said the letter from the oversight board authorizing the payment arrived Tuesday.
Ferrao said the union’s determination to strike hurts student recruitment efforts and all those who have worked hard for the institution’s benefit.
“I call on all employees to balance the right to demonstrate and the start of classes to minimize interruptions in the academic calendar,” he said on Tuesday, as previously reported by the STAR. “I call for open communication and a peaceful and respectful protest that does not impede students when they start classes.”
On Wednesday, the Student Council of the UPR School of Law expressed its solidarity with the strikers.