Ricardo Arduengo, Associated Press
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hundreds of teachers across Puerto Rico walked off their jobs Tuesday in a noisy two-day strike over cuts to their pensions that the island's government says are necessary to avert financial disaster but that educators say will force many of them into poverty.
The teachers gathered with tambourines, cowbells and bullhorns outside public schools across the island on the first day of classes after winter break, forcing dozens of schools to close.
Legislators of the main opposition party supported the strike and some principals and parents joined in, demanding that changes to the teachers' retirement system in the U.S. territory be revoked. Among the protesters at one school was Rene Perez, of the Grammy-winning Puerto Rican hip-hop duo Calle 13.
Aida Diaz, president of Puerto Rico's Teachers' Association, condemned the law that was approved on Christmas Eve and calls for switching from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution system, among other changes. She noted that teachers in Puerto Rico do not collect U.S. Social Security, and that many would see a decrease in their pension.
"This is the most important fight in our history," she said. "It's about protecting and defending the only source of income we have upon retirement."
Only 12 percent of teachers employed at public schools went to work on Tuesday, according to Education Secretary Rafael Roman. Likewise, less than 200 students out of 425,000 total attended classes, he added.
At one high school in the southern town of Coamo, all teachers went on strike, including 42-year-old Rolando Cartagena Ramos, who teaches history and social studies.
He said he has been a teacher for 14 years and is considering joining the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have left for the U.S. mainland in recent years in search of better jobs and a more affordable life.
"This law is going to be devastating to our future," he said in a phone interview. "It will practically leave us destitute once we retire."
Opposition legislator Waldemar Quiles Rodriguez filed a bill ahead of the strike that would revoke the new law and restore the teachers' retirement system to its original structure. The island's House of Representatives is expected to consider the measure in upcoming weeks.
"No one wins," Quiles said of the new law. "The economy will be affected, as well as the education system."
Meanwhile, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla urged teachers to end the strike and meet with him. He has said he would consider amending the law but not revoking it, noting the changes were needed because the system has a $10 billion deficit and will run out of money by 2020 if nothing is done.
He said the law seeks only a 1 percent increase in teacher contributions, and that teachers would see a $300-a-year raise for the next decade, among other changes.
"For decades, it was known that your retirement system would collapse," he said in an open letter to teachers. "Despite knowing this, no one did anything until now."
Diaz and others accuse Garcia of ignoring their plight in an attempt to appease credit rating agencies as the island's general obligation bond debt hovers above junk status. Puerto Rico just entered its eighth year of recession and is also struggling with $70 billion in public debt.
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