We the musicians of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra support the May 1st Strike. We join the strike in defense of workers' rights that have been hard fought and won over decades of negotiation. The Puerto Rico Senate approved Project 938 on Thursday, April 27th, and governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares signed it into law on Saturday, April 29th. This law abruptly imposes restrictions upon public employees and employees of public corporations, ignoring well-established negotiation processes.
The Puerto Rico Symphony stands in solidarity with other educational and cultural institutions facing an imminent threat of crippling budget cuts. The symphony itself makes a major contribution to the artistic education of children and young musicians every year. The orchestra annually presents engaging young people's concerts and invites talented high-school age musicians from around the island to participate in Experiencia Sinfónica, a series of master classes and rehearsals culminating in a concert side-by-side with Puerto Rico Symphony musicians. We believe that both higher education and the arts help students to develop confidence, initiative, creative problem solving skills, and leadership abilities. Ensuring the Puerto Rican people's access to quality education and arts will ultimately ensure a more secure and sustainable financial future for Puerto Rico.
Project 938 caps vacation days at 15 days a year and allows corporations to lower their contributions to employee health insurance plans to one hundred dollars a month. The law also allows corporations to force employees to work more hours without being paid overtime. Instead of overtime pay, employees will be compensated with vacation pay equal to one and a half hours of vacation for every hour of overtime worked. This system forces employees to choose between working overtime for free or taking unnecessary time off work, negatively affecting annual productivity.
After decades of hard-won negotiations, the Puerto Rico Symphony currently receives 8 weeks of paid vacation in the summer, during which musicians often participate in music festivals around the world for professional development.
Principal oboist Ivonne Pérez describes how a cut in vacation pay would affect her life:
I'm a single musician who has no income from a partner to complement my salary. If I don't get paid [over the summer], there's nothing else that could support me for those unpaid weeks. I have to pay the same bills that everyone else pays (rent, car, student loans, insurance, gas, food, phone), but I do it on my own. Right now, I already pay the lowest amount possible in these bills. I have a roommate and the cheapest phone plan . . . I don't see where else I can cut my expenses to justify not getting paid for six weeks. I am on a budget already. What else do they want from me?
For families with parents who both work in the Puerto Rico Symphony, these cuts will cause even more drastic problems. Violinists Marcos Gómez and Aida Sosa write:
Law 938 affects us in the following way: our kids' vacations last almost 3 months, and ours only last fifteen days. This reduces both of our salaries by 6 weeks, so if we add it up, we as a family lose three months of income. These three months my kids are at home, so we spend more money on electricity, water, and home meals. Family vacations will have to be cancelled. Summer camps and professional development courses will be impossible. Our budget will have to be adjusted now that all our kids are enrolled in school, and the reduction in salary and sick days comes out to approximately the same amount as our expenses for tuition, uniforms, and school supplies. Not only will three months' reduction in salary totally disrupt our quality of life, but summertime is also the only recreation time we have as a family, and that will be taken away from us. To this, we add the reduction in sick days and the worry that we aren't as young as we were when we joined the orchestra twenty years ago, and illnesses last longer as time goes on.
The government control board (Junta) has already put into place many austerity measures to reduce the debt: major pension cuts, a large reduction in the public employee workforce, an increase in traffic fines, and higher toll costs. The government keeps proposing more austerity measures, but it refuses to audit its debt. We call for the audit of the debt, because if the Puerto Rican people are expected to sacrifice in order to pay the government's debt, they deserve to know exactly how the debt grew to be such a huge problem. Auditing the debt would enable Puerto Rico's government to learn from its past, admit its mistakes, and move forward to a more responsible and transparent future.
We encourage everyone to join us in the peaceful protest march on Monday, May 1st. Orchestra members will meet at the Ponce de León entrance of the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras at 10 am. We will be wearing our colorful orchestra T-shirts. ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!
Written April 30, 2017 by Natalie Lorch, Liliana Marrero Solís, and Fernando Vela Vargas