Puerto Rico’s Teachers Show the Way: SEIU Learns the Meaning of “No”

Listen to Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’s interview with Steve Early and FMPR President Rafael Feliciano on Democracy Now! (27 October 2008).

When last seen on the picket-line, Puerto Rican teachers were fighting their way through police barricades to appeal to fellow workers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), at its lavishly funded convention in San Juan in June.  (See “San Juan Showdown,” CounterPunch, June 3, 2008.)

The message of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) was simple: please stop SEIU President Andy Stern from colluding with the indicted governor of the island to replace FMPR with a “company union.”

At SEIU’s convention, only a handful of delegates dared to challenge Stern on this issue.  When eight rank-and-file members from California tried to distribute a leaflet asking why the “top leadership has sided against the teachers of Puerto Rico in a gross case of ‘colonial’ unionism,'” SEIU staffers threatened several of them with reprisals.  “They told us that this is a betrayal and that we could be suspended from the union if we continued handing out the fliers,” delegate Brian Cruz, from Local 1021 in San Francisco, explained to the San Juan Star.

Most of the 3,000 delegates and guests simply cheered when Stern and SEIU vice-president Dennis Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, introduced their good friend, Anibal Acevedo Vila, the Popular Democratic Party governor.  Acevedo Vila is still awaiting trial on federal corruption charges and it was his administration that precipitated a ten-day, island-wide public school strike led by the FMPR last winter.  As the Star reported June 3, SEIU used its convention and the governor’s appearance to promote a rival organization, “which is hoping to become the new union representative for an estimated 42,000 public school teachers.”

In the view of SEIU and Acevedo Vila, teachers needed a new SEIU-affiliated union because FMPR no longer had legal recognition after its walk-out over wages, classroom size, and the threat of privatization.  This month, however, the teachers themselves disagreed that it was time for a change.  By a margin of 18,123 to 14, 675, they voted on Thursday (10/23) against joining the SEIU-backed SPM (Sindicato Puertorriqueño de Maestros), which is closely aligned with another SEIU affiliate, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, an organization of school principals and administrators.

The “Vote No” campaign was orchestrated by the FMPR which, as further punishment for its “illegal” strike, was denied a spot on the ballot.  (FMPR was even barred from having observers at teacher polling places.)  Prior to the start of the election, FMPR presented evidence to the labor relations commission showing that it still had voluntary financial support from 12,000 members (who have continued to pay union dues even though automatic deductions from all teachers’ paychecks were discontinued when FMPR was “decertified”).  Although SEIU favors “employee free choice” on the mainland and assured critics here there would be a multiple-choice ballot, Stern and his local allies limited Puerto Rican teachers to just one union option, which they then rejected.

The defeated SPM has almost no dues payers so SEIU had to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into this losing effort, much of it spent on advertising.  As one FMPR supporter reported, SEIU had “paid staff at each school giving out free t-shirts and coolers and the media and the government were clearly in its favor but still they couldn’t impose their union on us.”  FMPR activist Edgardo Alvelo, who teaches at a vocational school in Rio Piedras, estimates that his union spent only “$50,000 on the whole campaign.”  According to Alvelo, “that money was very hard to obtain, but it was enough to win.  It was our people in the schools that did the job.  Today, we are celebrating and tomorrow our struggle will continue in all our schools.”

The representation vote turnout was extremely high.  Of the 36,000 teachers eligible to participate due to their permanent status, 33,818 actually voted, with a thousand of those ballots being challenged or voided.  FMPR now faces the task of continuing to function as what’s called a “bona fide organization,” under P.R. labor law.  While still deprived of the full collective bargaining rights it had before the strike, FMPR retains a strong shop steward structure, the ability to represent members, and mobilize around educational policy issues and day-to-day job concerns.

FMPR supporters in New York, California, and elsewhere aided the successful “Vote No” campaign by raising money to help keep this militant independent union afloat.  (For more information, see <mysite.verizon.net/vze2kxcd/fmprsupportcommitteenewyork/> or the FMPR’s own website  <fmprlucha.org>.)  On October 14, some protested outside the Manhattan headquarters of United Healthcare Workers-East (the former SEIU/District 1199 long headed by Rivera), where they denounced Stern’s raid on FMPR as an insult to New York hospital workers “proud history of fighting for justice and dignity.”

During an August visit to the mountain community of Utuado, one FMPR Support Committee member, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, brought money that was collected for FMPR members disciplined for their union activity.  A registered nurse in NYC, Sheridan-Gonzalez reports that:

The union, in collaboration with students and parents, had developed a progressive, inclusive curriculum that was extraordinarily successful.   This collaborative structure was unilaterally dismantled by the government/school authority in 2007 and 17 teachers were suspended when they fought back.  They stood firm even without an income and the class of 2008 in Utuado even dedicated their graduation speeches to these teachers.  Their energy and commitment was inspiring and reminiscent of the spirit of U.S. unions in the 1930s and Puerto Rican labor in years past.

That same feisty spirit was on display in this month’s island-wide union vote, which gave SEIU an expensive lesson in the meaning of “No.”

Steve Early is a Boston-based labor journalist and the author of a forthcoming book for Monthly Review Press called Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home.  He can be reached at <Lsupport@aol.com>.

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