Public employees on strike could become a common sight in San José in coming days. With the government’s decision to raise public employees’ monthly salaries ₡5,000 ($10), and the administration’s refusal to negotiate, unions have called on hundreds of workers to take to the streets.
On Wednesday, some 400 demonstrators gathered in front of the Labor Ministry in the capital. Led by the country’s main labor unions, including the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), the National Association of Educators, the High School Teachers’ Association (APSE), the General Workers Confederation and the Costa Rican Teacher’s Union, public workers are demanding the government pay them more.
Protesters are also unhappy with a government decree issued earlier this month that locked out members of a commission of Labor Ministry officials and union representatives tasked with negotiating public salary hikes.
“We are willing to negotiate further and find ways of strengthening the commission, but we will maintain the decree, since the government has no money to pay more,” Labor Minister Sandra Pisk said.
The minister said the decree was issued after union and government negotiators failed to reach an agreement. The unions’ proposal would have cost the government an additional ₡100 billion ($200 million).
The government’s $10 monthly raise for public workers will cost an additional ₡25 billion ($50 million), to be financed by debt. Workers want a wage hike equivalent to 4.16 percent of their salaries, based on 2012 inflation rates calculated by the Central Bank. Instead, they received the equivalent of ₡166 ($0.33) a day (TT, Jan. 20).
As the strike gained momentum outside the Labor Ministry, on the seventh floor, Pisk and Vice Minister Eugenio Solano met with union leaders. Union representatives walked out of the meeting after Pisk refused to budge on bigger salary hikes.
“This is not a salary adjustment, this is a salary reduction. From the moment that the minimum increase was set to 1.9 percent, now in many cases we are getting less than 0.7 percent, our salaries have been cut,” APSE President Beatriz Ferretto said.
Union leaders say they will continue calling on workers to strike. Teachers’ unions have not ruled out striking on the first day of classes on Feb. 3.
Two subjects were on the table during Wednesday’s failed talks. The first was the salary decree, and the second was the reach of the public-salary negotiating commission. Last November, another government decree reduced unions’ power to negotiate public workers’ salaries by granting the Budget Authority, a government agency, discretionary power to make unilateral salary decisions.
According to Albino Vargas, ANEP’s secretary general, union demands not only include salary hikes, but also a better framework for negotiation. Vargas criticized the Chinchilla administration for lacking clarity on the state of its finances.
Pisk blamed budgetary restrictions on salary increases for public employees between 2006 and 2010, when salaries increased by 112 percent.
“We should have been able to discuss both items before the two decrees were signed behind our backs,” said Luis Serrano, a union leader from Centro Social Juanito Mora. “Now our discussions have been conditioned on the fact that those decrees already exist, and the government won’t rescind them or put them on hold.”