This week, the School Teachers Union in Puerto Rico took over and occupied the Senate chamber. They are still protesting over pension reforms from the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) majority: that they are getting the short end of the stick and that the proposal is poorly written, misleading, and unfair — but above all it is hurting their recruiting efforts.
This initiative to change pension plans that is affecting teachers is just the latest in a long series of attempted reforms that began under the previous New Progressive Party majority to save Puerto Rico from its gigantic debt problem. In fact it is a problem which includes some US$30 billion in underfunded pensions.
In their typical fashion, the local media focused on the union’s claims and how they were being handled. Eventually, the teachers were escorted out of the Senate chamber by members of the minority party (NPP). No one seems to remember that the now union-friendly NPP laid off thousands of public employees in its attempt to balance the budget and save the island from falling into a fiscal abyss during the last administration. The current majority is the target of the Union’s wrath this time around and, for purely partisan reasons, the NPP is going along with it.
However, what has not been discussed yet is the matter of whether it is okay or not for unions or any other group to take over a state chamber in the first place. This is not a new tactic. In Wisconsin, unions occupied their legislature in the middle of a session to try to prevent the Republican-led majority (and Governor Scott Walker) from reforming public employees unions’ laws and pensions.
The incident in Puerto Rico was worse in many ways. The Teachers Federation protesters actually arrived at the Senate floor and assaulted members of the Senate staff. Here is the video:
The Senate later issued another short video where a group of male teachers can be seen surrounding the desk of the Senate’s majority leader. Allegedly, one of the men urinated under the desk.
A true republican democracy cannot operate under the rules of the “occupy” movement, and the mob must not be allowed to rule. What happened in Puerto Rico this week is a crime. Each person who broke into the Senate floor should be arrested and charged with trespassing, while those who assaulted members of the Senate staff should feel the full force of the law; charges should also be pressed on the man who urinated on the Senate floor, if the allegations prove to be true.
Unfortunately, this gang style is how things usually get done in Puerto Rico. In 1999, after a bomb from unknown origin killed a security guard in Vieques Island during training exercises, protesters took control of the entire bombing range and entrenched themselves for nearly two years before finally being removed. In the end, the protesters succeeded with their requests, and the US Navy range and its base were closed, costing thousands of jobs.
This protest and exit came along with other changes to the federal 936 tax policy (curiously after the decision to close the Roosevelt Roads base) — all contributing to create the perfect storm of unemployment, coupled with bad management on the state level, that exploded in the 2008 financial crisis. This sunk the island to a 14 percent unemployment rate and a $70+ billion debt on top of the unfunded pensions already discussed.
While I did not agree with the actions of the protesters in Vieques Island, their occupation of public land at least followed the principles of civil disobedience — although some of the protesters were in fact violent and malevolent in victory, setting fires and vandalizing government owned vehicles when they won.
The fact is they did win. The “occupy” tactic proved successful in the end. So whether it is truck drivers blocking traffic on the main highways or protesters taking over university buildings, the idea of occupying government property or intentionally creating obstacles in the public sphere — blocking traffic or suspending services — is a well-known and effective activity among the unions.
Yet, I challenge even the most ardent supporter of public sector unions to answer this question: what if Republicans, conservatives, or Libertarians (like this author) were the ones who chose to take over the next contract negotiations between the union and the government? What if we chose to universally stop paying taxes until all government sector unions were dissolved? Or could the Tea Party go to Puerto Rico and take over the Senate and House until Puerto Ricans were forced to pay federal taxes like all the other US citizens in the mainland? Could they claim to cut all federal programs to save the US upwards of twenty billion dollars per year? How about sex offenders taking over the Senate to demand the repeal of registration laws or nudists demanding the right to be naked in public?
If intellectual honesty were part of the discussion, even the unions and far left socialists would have to agree that the rule of law must be preserved.
When one group of people takes over the government or holds the government hostage by denying the provision of services, all other groups in the society lose their ability to have their voice heard. “Occupy” movements shield themselves in the cloak of democratic civil disobedience, but they are in fact the most anti-democratic of all.
Puerto Rico is in an acute financial and constitutional crisis. The government must start acting on it and the unions will just have to get over it.