SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Thousands of striking school teachers gathered Wednesday in Puerto Rico's capital and their leaders met with government officials to talk about recent changes to the retirement system that sparked a two-day walkout.
Many teachers traveled from as far as the western cities of Mayaguez and Aguadilla, some arriving in school buses at the island's Department of Labor, where the meeting took place on the final day of the strike.
Following hours of protest, union leaders and government officials announced the creation of a committee to study alternatives to a law approved on Christmas Eve that calls for switching from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution system, among other changes.
Aida Diaz, president of the Puerto Rico's Teachers' Association, said she is confident a deal can be reached but warned that more strikes will occur otherwise.
"As soon as we think our time is being wasted, we will get up from the table and take to the streets," she told reporters after the meeting.
Committee members are expected to meet Thursday to start talking about possible solutions to save the teachers' pension plan without resorting to the changes outlined in the law.
William Lopez, a 52-year-old math teacher from Bayamon, said he doesn't understand why teachers are being targeted to help solve Puerto Rico's economic problems.
"The government wants to take things away from us, but we can find other solutions, such as lowering the salaries of legislators," he said, noting that the island's lawmakers are among the highest paid in a U.S. jurisdiction.
Lopez and others worry that a reduction in their pension will leave them struggling economically on an island with a high cost of living.
"They're condemning us to retirement in poverty," said Luz Gallardo, a 43-year-old history teacher in Santurce.
Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla has said the pension system has a $10 billion deficit and will run out of money by 2020 if nothing is done. He says he is open to amendments but will not revoke the law.
"This measure is an important component of our strategic plan to secure Puerto Rico's financial health," he said.