Posted November 2, 2008
The Puerto Rican Federation of Teachers (FMPR) has done the near-impossible: solidly defeating one of the world’s most powerful labor organizations in an election for representation of Puerto Rico’s 42,000 public school teachers.
In results from the election, which took place over the course of several weeks in October and announced on October 23rd, just 14, 675 teachers voted in favor of representation by the U.S.-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU), while 18,123 voted “no.” Because of its legally proscribed strike activities, FMPR was banned from participating, and instead orchestrated a “Vote No” campaign. Given estimates that some 2,000 “no” votes were stolen, the big plurality to reject affiliation is a stunning defeat for President Andy Stern and the rest of SEIU’s international leadership.
The conflict between the two organizations began almost a year ago and since then has only become more intense, culminating in the recent elections. Last fall, before SEIU stepped onto the scene, members of the FMPR voted at a mass meeting of more than 7,000 members to authorize a strike. The teachers had suffered through more than two years without a contract and had had enough: “Contract or Strike!” they told Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde in November.
The response of the government was swift and unusually harsh. On January 8, before the teachers had even begun their strike, the Public Sector Labor Relations Commission of Puerto Rico and the island’s governor, Anibal Acevedo Vila, recently indicted on 19 criminal counts of corruption, unilaterally decertified the Federation, invoking Puerto Rico’s Law 45, which grants public employees the right to bargain collectively but denies them the right to strike.
Enter SEIU. While the leadership of the FMPR prepared to fight their decertification in court and the union’s rank-and-file prepared to fight for their contract demands in the street, SEIU’s international leadership was busy rolling out its own plans for Puerto Rico’s teachers. As Juan Gonzalez subsequently revealed in the New York Daily News (2/29/08), Dennis Rivera, an SEIU international vice-president and one-time member of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP), had met secretly with Acevedo Vila on multiple occasions while negotiations between the island’s government and the FMPR were ongoing. As reported by Gonzalez, the governor told Rivera prior to the strike that the Federation is “yours to take.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that almost simultaneously with the FMPR’s decertification, SEIU announced the affiliation of the Teachers’ Association of Puerto Rico (AMPR), the island’s association of school principals and supervisors – itself a longtime rival of the Federation – and its intention to replace the Federation with an offshoot of its new affiliate, the Puerto Rican Teachers’ Union (SPM).
At a time when the leadership of SEIU should have expressed its solidarity with the striking teachers, Stern, Rivera, and company chose instead to strike a deal with the government-employer and forge with them a company union in an effort to cut the ground from beneath the feet of the FMPR. Stern’s top-down approach to unionism and his strategy of union-member accretion at all costs have been roundly criticized by democratic reformers and rank-and-file activists in the labor movement, but his bid to raid the FMPR reaches new lows. Gonzalez called the raid “a shameful betrayal of solidarity.” Labor journalist Steve Early told Democracy Now! (10/27/08) that the raid “tarnish[ed] the image, not only of SEIU, but all unions.”
At a time when the labor movement is extremely weak, it is imperative that unions be able to count on the support of other unions in fighting their real enemy: the boss. Apparently, however, this logic is lost on the leadership of SEIU. Rather than remaining true to their commitment to organize the unorganized, they opted in Puerto Rico for a policy of reorganizing the already organized, something that has done little for either the strength or the unity of an already fractious labor movement, whether on the island or the mainland.
But despite the betrayal of SEIU’s leadership and their best efforts to undermine the FMPR, the Federation has persevered, winning several important concessions from Acevedo Vila and Aragunde in their February strike and dramatically defeating SEIU in their recent head-on confrontation in the elections for representation. The strike, which paralyzed Puerto Rico’s public school system for 10 days, drew unprecedented support from parents, students, and local communities sympathetic to the teachers’ struggle for a just settlement of their grievances and the improvement of public education on the island.
As a result of this critical support and the determination and militancy of the teachers and their union, the government was forced to accept several of the strikers’ key demands, including an immediate raise of $250 per month for all teachers, a freeze on the government’s plans for privatization of the public education system, and a pledge from the governor to slowly but surely increase teachers’ starting salaries to $3000 per month. In the scope of both its demands and its base of support, the strike, by its end, had become a small social movement – and its success was a victory not only for the FMPR but also for defenders of public education.
The implications of the FMPR’s electoral victory against SEIU, however, are much greater still. In the first place, it is important to keep in mind that the FMPR is a militant and democratic union of the rank-and-file and that its sitting president, Rafael Feliciano of the Commitment, Democracy, and Militancy (CODEMI) caucus, is an avowed socialist. In this context, SEIU’s raid was not simply an attack on the Puerto Rican teachers and their union, but also on the ideals of militancy and democracy, which the FMPR – and, in particular, CODEMI – upholds. SEIU sought by its raid not only to replace FMPR as the teachers’ representative, but also to replace FMPR’s style of militant and democratic unionism with its own brand of top-down, management-friendly unionism.
The rank-and-file’s rejection of SEIU, therefore, also represents a rejection of bureaucratic unionism as such – and an embrace of union militancy and democracy. The battle between SEIU and FMPR thus forms part of the much larger war of ideas now raging in the U.S. labor movement and the victory of militancy over cooperation is in fact a victory for those among us who believe securing the future for labor and working people depends on recreating a fighting movement for democratic, social justice unionism.
The FMPR’s victory also points to the possibility that a relatively small but extremely dedicated band of labor activists and reformers can make headway against a much larger and more powerful foe. FMPR spent approximately $60,000 – half of it borrowed – on the election and fielded a small staff made almost entirely of volunteers. SEIU, in contrast, is estimated to have spent upwards of $10 million and fielded a staff of approximately 300 professional organizers. This is a classic case of David and Goliath, and SEIU’s loss at the hands of the FMPR might also be likened to the US defeat in Vietnam, where a much larger, technically superior invading U.S. force was defeated by a smaller but extremely dedicated opponent. Only time will tell if the recent conflict in Puerto Rico will serve as corporate unionism’s Vietnam.
The analogy to Vietnam reveals another important aspect of the FMPR’s victory over SEIU: the strong rejection by the Puerto Rican teachers of North American labor imperialism. In voting against SEIU, the teachers not only opted for union militancy and democracy over corporate unionism; they also asserted their independence from the North American labor movement and sent a clear message to North American unions that, while their solidarity is welcomed, attempts to manipulate or control Puerto Rican unions and unionists are not.
Perhaps SEIU has now learned an important lesson about meddling in the internal affairs of foreign labor movements. Either way, their actions in Puerto Rico have certainly raised concerns as to their plans for the rest of the Americas, and with good reason: the AFL-CIO’s uncritical support of rightwing US foreign policy in the region in the 1970s and 1980s, which earned it the moniker “AFL-CIA,” remains a sore subject for Latin American unionists today.
SEIU is engaged in important solidarity work with the persecuted trade union movement in Colombia; and just this past July Stern called on the Bush administration to grant visas to the wives of the Cuban Five, five Cuban nationals accused by the U.S. of spying and whose spouses have thus far been barred from visiting their husbands in prison. There is no doubt, then, that SEIU does some very good solidarity work. The question is at what cost: What will the union ask – or demand – as the price for its support? The FMPR has drawn a line in the sand. A true and equal partnership between North American and Latin American labor organizations cannot be built on a basis of labor imperialism; the independence of Latin American unions from North American domination is the prerequisite for any meaningful joint work.
FMPR’s victory over SEIU in the recent elections is a heartening development, but it represents the beginning, rather than the end, of the struggle between the two organizations and the different models of unionism which they offer to the teachers of Puerto Rico. By voting ”no” in the recent elections, the teachers have rejected SEIU’s labor-imperialist effort to install a management-friendly union in the Puerto Rican public education system and have expressed their continued support for the FMPR, which has served as their exclusive bargaining representative for the past 40 years. At the same time, however, the “no” vote victory comes at a cost. The prospects for an FMPR return to official bargaining status have been improved by the ”no” vote, but Puerto Rico’s teachers are still without a bargaining representative or agreement.
While the FMPR remains decertified, SEIU took out a paid ad in the San Juan daily, El Vocero, asserting that the employer, and not the Federation, won the elections and declaring their intention to continue to struggle for representation of the island’s teachers. A new and daunting challenge lies ahead: to see the FMPR re-elected within the next 12 months as the exclusive bargaining representative of Puerto Rico’s teachers and the return to the teachers of their full labor rights as unionized workers.