The huelga nacional (national strike) in Costa Rica is complicated. The simple version is that in the first part of September 2018 some union workers walked off their government jobs and began protesting the legislature’s tax and spending reform plan. After about six weeks the strikes were declared illegal and the protestors gave up.
Ends in a Fizzle…
There was no official end to the strike but it appears that it has fizzled out disappearing from the news, the streets and people’s consciousness.
The fiscal reform plan that caused all the uproar continues its torturous way to becoming law with the only significant change in the past two months being that the courts protected salary increases for judges.
None of the dozens of court cases declaring the strike illegal have reached a “firm” conclusion. Ultimately if the judges’ legal opinions were upheld the strikers would be subject to dismissal and government employees would be liable to return the paychecks for the time they did not work. Anyone who’s seen the courts operate knows it’s possible the cases will languish for a few months or years until they’re just forgotten and disappear.
What Was It?
The union walkouts closed schools and curtailed public sector medical care, banking, social security and other services. The protest marches are intended gain attention by blockading traffic on major highways, shipping ports, bridges and at fuel depots causing as much disruption as possible. Intimidation is also a tactic with protestors gathering in front of the homes of elected representatives.
The proposed tax and spending reform package increases taxes on food and other necessities while reducing bonuses, salary caps and severance pay for public workers. The government maintains that it is fair and balanced and the only way to avoid Costa Rica going bankrupt and prevent the complete collapse of public services and the economy.
The unions claim it steals their pensions, unfairly raises the taxes on the poor and will bankrupt the people. Their alternate proposal “the Justice and Solidarity Tax Reform” would increase taxes on banks and companies with “excessively” high profits, eliminate “luxury” pensions for politicians and payments to political parties, and aggressively prosecute tax evasion and fraud by real estate magnates and other extremely wealthy families.
The tax and spending reform is necessary because previous administrations did some creative accounting and internal borrowing. Costa Rica is broke and the U.S. and other banks refuse to lend any more money to increase the national debt until there’s a solution in place.
Whether the proposal is sound fiscal legislation or a fraudulent con job the democratic process appears to be a bit off the rails in Costa Rica.
Normally in a representative democracy the people vote and a majority choose representatives (legislators, president etc.) who write and enact laws loosely based on the promises they made to get elected.
In Costa Rica the public workers unions are attempting to short circuit the process and force the president and legislators to modify a proposed law.
The unions may or may not have the support of the general population – there are no reliable polls or surveys and each side claims to speak for the people.
The government is opposing the strikes on three fronts. First they are moving the legislation forward. Second they have filed lawsuits against the strikers in each of 32 government departments seeking to have the actions declared illegal. Third, they have ordered the police to clear protestors to keep critical services like fuel depots running.
The first dozen labor court judgments (no action has taken place on the remainder) declare the strikes clearly illegal for a couple of reasons.
One judge ruled that workers rights to strike were only protected to protest working conditions, salaries and other elements of the employer-employee relationship. It is illegal to strike in order to prevent changes to the tax laws. Another judge declared the National Emergency Commission (CNE) workers actions illegal because only 3 out of 153 in that department were striking.
The unions are digging in their heels with 10 out of 12 rejecting (2 have not responded) the preliminary agreement reached after 3 weeks of negotiations with the Catholic church as mediator. They continue to collect paychecks (required by law for strikers) and plan to continue shutdowns, strikes and blockades indefinitely.
Early on there was some scattered violence with rock throwing and maltov cocktails but overall the protests, counter protests and police responses have been peaceful. Some would even say polite.
Outsiders have expressed concern but the situation in Costa Rica is very different from the de facto civil war going on in neighboring Nicaragua and extremely unlikely to develop in that direction.
Officially it could go on forever but as of Sunday October 21st the strike is over as a practical matter. In mid October the supreme court rejected the tax reform because it limited judges salary increases, the union leadership proposed a “pause” and almost everyone headed back to work. Most schools reopened starting Tuesday Oct. 16 but even at the end of November some teachers remain as the last of the strikers.
The protest have shrunken to nearly nothing but keep in mind it only takes a half dozen guys standing in the middle of a highway bridge to shut down a large segment of the country.
The tax reform bill that is opposed by the unions is under consideration in the constitutional assembly and continues towards implementation.
The official end could still be a long way off. Court decisions that the strikes are illegal are generally being ignored by the unions because they know that everything is on appeal. Several more weeks or months of judicial deliberation will be necessary before the decisions are declared binding or “firm.” At that time the participants could loose their jobs and be forced to return paychecks collected during the strikes.
The strikers don’t seem concerned probably because Costa Rica’s courts are notoriously slow and impotent.
If the labor court findings ultimately go against the unions they will undoubtedly claim their civil rights have been violated and request reviews in the Constitutional court. Repaying a month or more of salary would be impossible so the union members are relying on the courts’ inability to enforce the laws.
There’s been no progress in negotiations or any resolution of the union demands but the strike has fizzled out. Unless things heat up again this is the last daily update posted here.
Sunday Oct 21 -Government operations return to normal this week. Some educators remain on strike.
Thursday Oct 18 – The supreme court of justice rejected the fiscal reform plan by a margin of 3 to 1 because it limits salary increases for the supreme court judges and other government lawyers which would “affect the Court and the independence of the Judiciary.”
In a separate court decision the appeal of the illegality of the strike by the municipal workers of Santa Ana was rejected. However, the court determined that the 50% of employees who went on strike and did no work should be paid in full just like the 50% that remained on the job working twice as hard to keep things running. It may get interesting.
Tuesday Oct 16 – La Nacion newspaper reports that immigration records indicate that 556 teachers took advantage of the strike to travel on vacations outside the country. Investigations into the other unions are ongoing.
Oppenheimer Funds analysts reported that even if it passes the fiscal plan falls far short of the correction required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As a result the interest rates demanded for the long term bonds Costa Rica uses to finance state debt may push past 8.5%.
This is 2.5% worse than “junk” status which currently hovers around 6%. Even if the reforms become law Costa Rica’s debt crisis will continue.
The Diaro Extra newspaper predicts that the value of the Colón will drop to ¢700 per dollar by the end of the year despite over a billion dollars of currency propping by the central bank. This would represent a 23% loss in value since the beginning of the strike and a very serious blow to the people and economy.
Monday Oct 15 – The strike is showing signs of ending. Heading into the sixth week of the strike the union leadership is proposing a “pause.” The union reiterated that the movement is as “strong as ever” but the government reports that all offices are operating normally and all workers have returned except the educators who are expected to be back on the job today.
The Ministry of Education has found a creative way for students to make up for more than a month of missed classes. They just made it official that the value towards graduation of coursework for the fall semester will be discounted about 50%. It sounds like they’re going to emphasize the spring and summer sessions more and just pretend the students don’t need to know what would have been taught during the time missed.
Friday Oct 12 – The last large group of strikers was put on notice by the court system as the actions by members of the Ministry of Public Education (MEP) were declared illegal because they were not carried out in a peaceful manner. The addition of the teachers union to the list of illegal strikes was accompanied by the first mention by the judicial system of clawing back salaries.
The Minister of Education, Edgar Mora recognized that the children haven’t been taught anything for more than a month with over half of the schools in Costa Rica shut down. He stated that over $150 million dollars would be recovered from the teachers.
All decisions are being appealed and should have completed the judicial process to gain “firm” status so they can be enforced before the new year. Teachers are meeting with their union reps today to decide if they will return to work or continue striking until the appeals are judged.
Friday Oct 12 – The Colón dropped in value to ¢600 to the U.S. $. This represents almost a 5% decrease since the beginning of the strikes in September. The Cólon is losing value as people sell them off because they believe that the currency will continue to drop in value due to the economic losses and uncertainty caused by the shutdowns. At least some of the workers must still be on the job at the central bank because it has sold a quarter of a billion dollars in foreign currency reserves in an effort to halt the slide in the exchange rate.
Wednesday Oct 10 – Two more preliminary court decisions were handed down declaring the strikes by the education workers illegal because their actions have not remained peaceful and the electrical workers strike illegal because it’s an essential service.
Tuesday Oct 9 – A striker is being investigated for using the break from work to visit family in Mexico.
Many public employees are in a Catch 22. They can be fired for missing two days of work if they are not participating in the union activities but about half do not support the actions. It’s impossible for many to report to work because their offices are closed and the buildings locked or the schools their children attend are shut down and they have to remain home to watch them. Obviously it’s not okay to head to Mexico on vacation.
The immigration department announced it will review border crossings to determine if any other workers are traveling instead of participating.
Monday Oct 8 – Overall strike activity is way down from the peak at the beginning of the month. There are still some roadblocks planned but police are now taking action to keep traffic moving as opposed to just being present on the sidelines to keep the protest peaceful.
Saturday Oct 6 – In the first indication that an end may be in sight one of the largest unions, the health and social service workers (CCSS), agreed to discontinue their protests and return to work in exchange for promises that they would not be disciplined, fired or required to repay salaries collected while not working. The CCSS strike was declared illegal on October 1st on the grounds that health services were essential.
Friday Oct 5 – The tax passage passed its next hurdle on the way to becoming law – a debate in the legislative assembly (Costa Rica’s “Congress”) led to the passage of the Strengthening of Public Finances bill by a vote of 35 to 22. The next required step is approval in the Constitutional Chamber.
Tensions flared Thursday and Friday as the faint hope of a compromise faded. As their numbers dwindle protestors appear to be attempting to push back into strategic blockade locations. Police are preventing blockades at fuel depots, highway interchanges and bridges. Opposing forces are shaping strike activity. Increasing frustration of the strikers is leading to more dramatic actions but the heavy rains of October are keeping protestors home.
Shoving and rock throwing by union members were answered with tear gas from police for the first time since mid-September. An angry mob surrounded the president shouting insults and throwing things as he and other government officials left the National Theater. Newspaper reporters and photographers claimed they were also threatened with violence by protestors.
Wednesday Oct 3 – None of the unions have responded to the government’s declaration that they only have until Monday October 8 to sign the preliminary agreement that 10 out of the 12 groups rejected (two made no statement) on Saturday.
Tuesday Oct 2 – against the wishes of the strikers the legislative assembly sent the Plan Fiscal (the financial and tax reforms that the strikers consider unfair) to the Constitutional Court for review. This is the normal progression for legislation in Costa Rica.
Monday Oct 1 – Protests and blockades were quiet over the weekend but on Sunday strike leaders voted to reject the preliminary compromise they had agreed to on Saturday.
Monday Oct 1 – A judge is under investigation for undue influence when she allegedly told other judges the process for notifying union leaders that their strikes are illegal when the leaders cannot be located by normal means.
Monday Oct 1 – The port workers strike (JAPDEV) was deemed illegal because the operations are essential. It’s not clear if this changes anything as the ports have been operating normally.
Friday Sept 28 – Additional court decisions have brought the total to 9 strikes declared illegal and 1 that meets the requirements to continue.
Thursday Sept 28 – Continuing protest and roadblocks by union strikers and taxi drivers are planned for this afternoon and in a new twist later into the evening. Previously weekends have been quieter and there have been no major actions announced for this weekend.
Thursday Sept 28 – Two more strikes (Central Bank and Lottery Office) were declared illegal today bringing the total to 6 decisions (all illegal) out of the 32 court cases filed. Yesterday the court declared the strike by the National Emergency Commission (CNE) illegal. The ruling was on the same basis as previous decisions that the strike does not have the support of the union membership. Only 3 out of 153 CNE employees currently support the strike (down from 6 at the beginning).
Wednesday Sept 26 – Taxi drivers are not public employees and have nothing to do with the Union strike in opposition to the legislature’s fiscal reform propositions. However they see an opportunity to magnify the impact of their own actions in opposition to Uber and other ride sharing. People had been using taxis instead of personal cars because the drivers know the convoluted and confusing back roads around the union roadblocks. However, starting Tuesday Sept 25 the taxi drivers created blockades of their own and tortuguismos (slow driving) in and around San José.
Taxis have also been reported blocking tourist routes to La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano) and Quepos (Manuel Antonio). The taxi blockades are potentially more disruptive than the strikers’ because they are mobile and dispersed. A single taxi can delay thousands of cars for hours on Costa Rica’s two lane roads.
Wednesday Sept 26 – the government mobilized the transit police to impound buses carrying rural and campesino protestors to San José to participate in the March of the 4 Cats.
The Public Service Commission (Autoridad Reguladora de Servicios Públicos – Aresep) and Consejo de Transporte Público (CTP) attempted to characterize the action as a routine check to ensure that buses were only serving the routes where they had public concessions assigned.
The Union condemned the police checks as a transparent para military repression of free movement and expression by the government. Speech is not a legally protected right in Costa Rica.
Wednesday Sept 26 – Wednesday’s Spanish phrase of the day quatro gatos – four cats is a slang term for something unpopular e.g. “you are such a jerk you will be lucky if four cats show up to your birthday party.” On the first day of the strike a politician referred to it as the movement of four cats. The Union has adopted the phrase and hopes to turn it around by a huge turnout for the ‘march of the four cats’ downtown on Wednesday Sept 26.
Tuesday Sept 25 – In a surprise twist the Costa Rican Judicial Association (AVOJUD) encouraged members to join strike and carefully constructed their statement of grievances to avoid application of the legal opinion by one of their own members that other public workers protests were illegal because of political rather than workplace motivation.
Tuesday Sept 25 – In what many are calling an intimidation tactic union members have begun gathering at the homes of legislators who support the new laws.
Tuesday Sept 25 – The huelga nacional (Spanish word of the week huelguistas – strikers) will not be settled in negotiations any time soon. The unions and government report no significant progress and have abandoned the talks mediated by the Catholic church.
As a practical matter the best way to avoid travel delays (reported to be up to 10 hours) is to use a crowdsourcing alternate route app, drive at night (roadblocks are mainly during normal business hours), fly, or use a shuttle/transfer service (they know the way around and where to buy gas).
Costa Rica Strike & Road Block News Summary
This summary has been compiled from eyewitness accounts, online news reports, TV news and posts on facebook groups for residents. We believe it’s accurate but it has not been fact checked and is intended to provide only a quick overview. Please check locally before altering travel plans.
Travel & Tourism
“Travel agencies have suffered a 50 percent drop in reservations due to the strikes” according to Javier Pacheco, vice president of Costa Rica’s National Chamber of Tourism (CANATUR). Based on independent observations this is a huge exaggeration but there have been some negative impacts on the tourism sector especially for visitors already in the country. One cruise ship cancelled docking at Puntarenas but others have sent passengers ashore as usual.
A pattern has evolved at SJO where protestors block the road and the airport authorities send buses to pick up the passengers on the other side of the blockade. SJO remains under yellow security alert since Sept 16. Aviation fuel is available at both airports and flights are operating normally.
Friday Sept. 21 – The Labor Court of the First Judicial Circuit waited until after hours to post a decision declaring that the strike against the Consejo Nacional de la Producción (National Production Council) is illegal because the employers have no control over the striker’s declared goals. Additional judgements were handed down in the Second Circuit on Tues Sept 25 declaring the strikes at National Association of Public Employees (ANEP) in the Ministry of Housing and Human Settlements (MIVAH) illegal because of insufficient support in the union (the majority do not want the strike).
Judge Arnoldo Álvarez Desanti’s decision reads in part “Es un movimiento a nivel nacional, que reprocha un proyecto de legislación, y esto no está incluído dentro la relación obrero patronal.” Which means – the strike is an attempt to manipulate the legislature and has nothing to do with employer-employee relationship.
In Costa Rica it is legal for public sector workers to strike for wages, working conditions, pensions and other elements of the employer-employee relationship. It is illegal to strike in order to manipulate the political system. The judge further stated that the workers could protest the political situation on their own time but that it is illegal to do it during work hours.
Amid speculation that he’s hiding the government announced that they were having difficulty finding the Union Chief to notify him that the strike is illegal.
The federal judges have not officially joined the strike but their leadership is encouraging them to and crafted a careful statement against the fiscal legislation that “weakens judicial security of the structure of the judges’ salaries. Fiscal reform was ruled in Commission through ‘fast track procedure’. The project regulates in Article 26, the salary structure of the Judiciary Branch, altering the judicial security of the judges’ remuneration.” carefully including “salary”, “remuneration”, “structure”, and other keywords to ensure their grievance appears legal re the previous court decision.
Tuesday Oct 2 – The First Judicial Circuit Labor Court declared the strike against the Social Security Services (CCSS) condemning actions by five labor unions because the “life and health of many people are at risk, and therefore must run permanently and at 100% of its capacities”
The courts further condemned (without taking any actual actions) the unions for actions against hospitals and health services which are illegal and recklessly endanger the lives and well being of all Costa Ricans and visitors.
Approximately one third of the strikes have now been declared illegal and no judgments have been made on the other half. Each of the dozens of lawsuits (one per public department) must wind their way through the judicial system independent of all the others. Strikers continue to receive pay. Friday’s Spanish word of the day Sindicato – labor union
Police Actions & Transportation
Gasoline and diesel shortages will continue sporadically for the remainder of the strike.
Since Mon. Sept. 17 the fuerza publica has been dispersing protestors and keeping some open routes to traffic. They are focusing on Hwy 32, the Caribbean shipping port and the RECOPE petroleum tanker truck filling stations.
Monday’s Spanish word of the day gases lacrimógenos – tear gas
The petroleum refinery (in Limón) is operating normally and with police protection the tankers are filling up and delivering. Most service stations including those in western Guanacaste that were closed have reopened and although there are some lines and waits of up to an hour most have gas.
The fuel pipeline from Limón to San José was sabotaged on Sunday Sept 16 and a major leak was repaired on Monday. The cleanup continues and residual diesel contamination may never be completely eliminated from the soil.
Some buses (mainly to/from the northern Guanacaste and Nicoya beaches) were cancelled last week but the facebook group Costa Rica by Bus shows several posts that most buses are running again (with some delays due to protests) and is a good source for general bus information.
Protests & Marches
Counter protestors were seen in several locations carrying signs asking the strikers to stand down – “You [strikers] are being paid but I need to work and your blockade will not let me“. The chamber of commerce of Monteverde announced an estimate of $3 million in loses to the local tourism industry due to a cruise ship which skipped docking.
Spanish word of the day for Monday Cesantia – severance pay – when a public worker in Costa Rica quits their job they are entitled to one month severance pay for every year of employment.
Traffic slowing and blockages are still common despite police action to clear them. More, smaller quicker (2-3 hours instead of 8 hours) protests appear to be replacing last week’s large protests but the Unions have announced a “massive” protest for Wednesday September 26 with marches planned to block all of downtown San José. Wildly exaggerated predictions of one million participants match the imagination of tweeted counts at the U.S. inaugural address – live videos of the march show at least 20 thousand participants.
The march is being called “los quatro gatos” (the four cats) because 0f a statement that an official made mocking the protests at the beginning of the strike saying barely four cats showed up.
Protests are generally during normal work hours and drivers traveling in the late evening or early morning have reported no inconvenience.
Thursday’s Spanish word of the day tortuguismo – driving slowly to annoy other drivers, being like a turtle ;-)
Some violence (maltov cocktails, thefts, smash and grab, vehicles bumping people in the blockades, fights, stabbing) were reported at the beginning of the week. The police state that it is unrelated to the strikes and just the normal criminal element trying to take advantage of the confusion and inability of police to respond due to traffic.
Some of the roads/bridges/intersections targeted for blockage
Abangares – Hwy 1 (Panamerican), la Irma bridge over the río Congo
Liberia – Hwy 1 (Panamerican) on bridge over the río Liberia closed in both directions
Cañas – Hwy 1 (Panamerican) bridge over the río Cañas , Ruta 1
Santa Cruz – Hwy 21 bridge over the río Diría
Santa Cruz – Hwy 21 intersection to Pueblo Viejo
Carrillo – near/on Hwy 21 intersection in Belén (road to Tamarindo)
Parrita – Hwy 34 on the bridge
Quepos – bridge over the Estero (north entrance to town)
Jacó – Hwy 34 bridge over the río Tárcoles (the famous crocodile bridge)
Barranca – entrance to RECOPE (the petroleum distribution center) – Cleared by police with tear gas on 9/17 remained clear in the a.m. on 9/19
Orotina – Hwy 27 mobile blockage near exit/entrance
Hwy 32, near or on the bridge over the Río Chirripó – Cleared by police with tear gas on 9/17 remained clear in the a.m. on 9/19
Siquirres – on Hwy 32 , across from Rancho Amuri
Talamanca – Hwy 36 bridge over Home Creek
Turrialba – Route 10 by the Maxi Pali
SOUTHERN ZONE – BRUNCA
San Isidro – Pérez Zeledón, bridge over the río Jilguero
Osa – bridge over the río Térraba
The entrance to Ciudad Neily
NORTHERN ZONE – CHOROTEGA
Hwy 4 between Upala y Guatuso, on the bridge over the río Rito
CENTRAL VALLEY – SAN JOSE, ALAJUELA, HEREDIA, ESCAZU, CARTAGO
Dozens of blockades and slow moving marches are ongoing in locations strategically chosen to maximize traffic jams and disruption. It’s best to stay off the roads from 7:30 a.m until 6:00 p.m. if possible. If you must drive please check WAZE first.