San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Thousands of public employees strike: What should you know?

Thousands of protesters demonstrated Wednesday outside Casa Presidencial, the official headquarters of the presidency in southeastern San José district of Zapote, over this year’s ₡5,000 salary increase for public employees for the first quarter of the year. On Thursday, President Laura Chinchilla sent a letter to union leaders asking for a dialogue on Monday at 2 p.m. at Casa Presidencial. Here’s a guide to understanding the situation leading up to next week’s meeting:

Why are public employees striking?
The protests started because public employees feel the unilateral raises of ₡5,000 per month — the equivalent of $10 – will not be enough to offset the rising costs of inflation. Workers want an increase of 4.16 percent to their salaries, the 2012 inflation rate according to the Central Bank.

Why did the employees receive unilateral fixed raises instead of percentage-based wage hikes?
The Labor Ministry announced it did not have enough money to fund wage-specific raises. Labor Minister Sandra Pisk said that the unions’ proposal would cost the government an additional ₡100 billion ($200 million). The Finance Ministry said the country’s current fiscal deficit makes it difficult to give “higher raises without causing a higher disparity in public finances.”

Who are the public employees that are striking?
The movement includes teachers, port workers, public health officials, telecommunications workers and even government employees, among others. Government officials said the work stoppages only caused minor inconveniences, except in the education sector.

The school year began for most students last week, but teachers represent a significant portion of the protesters. A major work stoppage could suspend classes throughout the country. Already on Wednesday, the Education Ministry stated in the daily La Nación that no classes took place in Liberia, the capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste. The majority of classes were suspended in San José, Heredia and Cartago, and close to a dozen other regions reported large numbers of cancelled classes.

In addition, port workers in the Caribbean province of Limón walked off the job at 8 a.m. in order to join the protests.

Why did Chinchilla agree to meet with the unions?
During the one-day demonstration Wednesday, the unions declared an ultimatum for the government, saying that if Chinchilla did not agree to a dialogue by 3 p.m., Thursday, then indefinite strikes were a possibility, which would hamper the entire country.

The letter asking the unions for the meeting came one hour before the deadline. If the talks do not prove fruitful, the union leaders could call for an indefinite strike next week.

What did the president say in her deadline letter to the unions?
Chinchilla began the letter by saying: “This administration is working, during these difficult fiscal moments, to face the great challenges present with responsibility and with solidarity.” She then made a reference to her willingness in the past to discuss problems. Chinchilla said for this issue too, she wanted to have a dialogue. Chinchilla invited union representatives to meet with her a Casa Presidencial, so that she could “personally hear their proposals.”

Have there been previous negotiations?
Yes, on Jan. 25, public employees met with government officials to discuss the salary decree and the reach of the commission that negotiates salaries. The talks failed on both accounts. Previously, in November, the government reduced unions’ power to negotiate the salaries for public workers by granting the Budget Authority, a government agency, discretionary power to make unilateral salary decisions (TT, Jan. 27). The issue of creating a better framework for negotiations also remains a sensitive issue.

Which unions will meet with Laura Chinchilla on Monday?
The unions addressed in Laura Chinchilla’s letter were the Central Movement of Costa Rican Workers, Rerum Novarum Workers Confederation, the General Workers Confederation, Centro Social Juanito Mora, the High School Teachers’ Association, ICE Home Front Workers, the National Association of Educators, the Costa Rican Confederation of Democratic Workers, the Unitarian Confederation Union and the National Workers Union of the Social Security System.

What is the outlook for the meeting Monday?
Not bright. Chinchilla has limited options unless taxes are raised, always a controversial issue, but also one currently in the Legislative Assembly. Even a raise in taxes might not be bring in enough money to make a wage-hike of 4.16 percent sustainable. However, workers say that the government has failed to cut unnecessary spending in other areas, and Chinchilla could – if she wanted – afford better salaries for the country’s public workers. There is also an element of class antagonism in this week’s strike, as many public workers – a key element of Costa Rica’s middle class – say they are unfairly targeted by the Chinchilla administration’s cost-cutting policies.

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