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Thousands Strike for Labor Rights

July 30, 2004

IN what’s becoming almost a monthly occurrence,thousands of public-sector workers yesterday walked outof their classrooms and offices, stepped away from theirloading docks and repair trucks, and took to the streets in anational strike.Once about salary raises and pensions, yesterday’s protest came to encompass a fight against along list of social and labor rights injustices,union leaders said.Requests for a 10% salary raise andreform of pension laws were on their list ofdemands, but so were the familiar rejectionof the Central American Free TradeAgreement with the United States(CAFTA) and appeals for defense of “sovereignty,identity and natural resources.”Similar protests against CAFTA andpromoting labor rights were held June 1(TT, June 4) and on International Workers’Day May 1 (TT, May 7).STILL, union leader Dennis Cabezasinsisted yesterday’s one-day strike was thebeginning of a new popular movementagainst injustice. Cabezas is operationscoordinator for the Union and TeachersCoordination Unit (CUSINA), an umbrellaorganization for more than 70% of thecountry’s unions.“We will continue with this line (ofprotest) until the country realizes this is ademocratic country,” he said.The strike marks an unprecedentedalliance among unions, said publicemployees as they marched from theFinance Ministry to the GovernmentAttorney’s office to the Supreme Court, allin central San José.“We have to articulate that these problemsare not just affecting one single sector– but rather schools, electricity service,communications, water service, everything.So the different unions have madethe decision to come together,” saidCarmen Pereira, who works at theUniversity of Costa Rica (UCR) computerscience center.THE strike was supported by notonly teachers and university professors,but by unions from the Costa RicanSecurity System, Banco Nacional, theNational Power and Light Company, theNational Water and Sewer Service, theInstitute for Housing and Urbanizationand other public institutions.“We have a union of syndicates like wehave never seen before,” said AlvaroSibaja, secretary general for the NationalProduction Council. Sibaja added that theformation of CUSINI four months ago hasallowed for increased communicationamong workers.However, the strike hardly included allof the country’s 146,000 public employees.Fewer than 5,000 people participated.Pereira pointed out that many universityemployees are on vacation.TEACHERS at Liceo J.J. VargasCalvo in San Pedro who chose not to participatein the strike said they did not fullyunderstand the reasons behind the protest.“I just started working here, so I don’tentirely know what the issues are,” saidEnglish teacher Edward Villalobos, whostarted at the school in April.“I don’t consider a strike or a workstoppage as a solution to problems,” addedteacher Narcy Villalobos.Twenty-eight of 85 teachers at theschool participated in the strike, but 1,200of the 1,600 students did not show up forclasses yesterday.Pacheco said Tuesday at his weeklyCabinet meeting the government is firmin its policy that those do not work, donot get paid.“When I have not worked, I have notreceived a salary,” he said.ALTHOUGH the strike took on awider scope, teachers’ unions marchedspecifically in opposition to present rulesfor teacher pensions. They are pressuringfor approval of a pension law reform beinganalyzed in the Legislative AssemblyUnion members are also demanding a10% raise in public salaries, a far cry fromthe 4% offered by the government. Theamount originally proposed by the laborand finance officials was 3.5%, but theoffer was increased this week.Labor Minister Ovidio Pacheco saidTuesday he is working to increase the offereven more, and would like to make it6.26%, but such a salary raise is impossible,considering the stalemate of the country’sfiscal reform plan (see separate story).A 6.26% raise would meet the rate ofinflation from last semester, but would notreach expected inflation in the next sixmonths, as unions demand.Labor and Finance Ministry officialswill meet today with union officials to discusspublic salary rates.Finance Minister Alberto Dent warnedthis week that with no fiscal reform, therewill be very limited salary adjustments forpublic employees in 2005. He has also saidwithout fiscal reform, additional previously-planned permanent teacher positionswill not be offered.BUT with the Argentinean folk songplaying in the background, “Para el pueblolo que es del pueblo porque se lo ganó, parael pueblo liberación,” (For the people whatis of the people, because they earned it, forthe people liberation), marchers insisted thefight went beyond salaries and pensions.“We don’t win anything with a salaryincrease. We are in a fight larger than that,”said UCR employee Cristina Moreno. “Thisis about everything, all of our rights.”

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