A sword in the struggle

Puerto Rico's militant teachers' union

THE 45,000-member Puerto Rican Teacher’s Federation (La Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico or FMPR in Spanish) made international news last year when it struck and shut down schools for ten days to demand better pay, better work conditions, and an end to the privatization of the island’s schools. Because of Puerto Rico’s draconian Law 45, which prohibits public sector workers from striking (like New York’s Taylor Law), the government had decertified the independent union when its delegate assembly voted for the strike; the FMPR, however, decided to shut down the schools anyway.

This decertification later paved the way for a union representation election, in which the only union allowed to run was the new Puerto Rican Teachers’ Union (SPM)—affiliated with the 1.8-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and backed by the Puerto Rican Teachers’ Association (AMPR), which represents school administrators. Because they were not on the ballot, the FMPR organized a massive “vote no” campaign and beat SEIU’s raid attempt.

Even in its decertified state, the FMPR is Puerto Rico’s most militant, demo?cratic, and participatory union. How did it become this way, and will it be prepared to battle a government that is threatening to lay off thousands and has already passed Law 7, which suspends all rights for public sector workers Here, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 member Brian Cruz speaks with FMPR president Rafael Feliciano to find out.

THE FMPR survived attacks from both the government of Puerto Rico as well as from SEIU. How is the FMPR organized that makes it able to accomplish the seemingly impossible, with relatively few resources?

THE FMPR didn’t only survive these related attacks, but it was also able to break through the dominance that the Puerto Rican ruling class has had over labor. This was the result of various aspects of our organization.

First, our union is extremely democratic. All of the leaders are elected. All the leaders earn the same amount of money that they earned teaching in the classroom.

Second, our union locals are small. Instead of building gigantic locals we’ve created small ones, in contrast to some of the huge locals in SEIU. The FMPR is composed of eighty-four locals. And while the individual locals don’t negotiate con?tracts directly, they all have locally elected leadership, run their own finances, and usually represent between 500 and 600 ?teachers. Having relatively small locals that have rank-and-file leaders as representatives in a larger federated national structure ensures that the leadership is attuned to what is happening in the individual schools. Also, for each school these same representatives elect a delegate to participate in our delegate assemblies. This creates, all the way from the individual schools to the national leadership of the FMPR, a chain of various elected leadership and facilitates union discussion and education. 

This structure helps to develop the fighting strength of the workers, through democratic, participatory, and militant means, and is based on volunteer work. This is why with so little money we are able to face off with forces that are very powerful economically: because we have a leadership rooted deeply in the rank and file, and is accustomed to working voluntarily, out of their commitment to the class struggle.

Third, our union is a class-conscious organization. It provides union classes for its members, where the education is focused on politics and labor. This has helped the union develop a clear sense of purpose, especially among the intermediate and national leadership.

Last, there’s no doubt that the active intervention of socialists within the union has been significant. Although most of our members are not socialists, they recognize the work and commitment of the socialists, aiding a deepening of political discussion and the development of class consciousness among the teachers.

I UNDERSTAND the FMPR was not always this militant and democratic. What is the history behind the transformation that made it what it is today?

ALTHOUGH THE FMPR was founded in 1967, it was not until 1972–74 that it became more militant. This is particularly due to the influx of recent graduates from the universities who participated in the struggles that characterized that period, such as the anti-Vietnam War struggle. 

In those years something very important happened. Militants within the union—many of whom were socialists—began to develop the union locals to function as a base for the organization. And so even though for many years the top leadership of the FMPR was corrupt and bureaucratized, within the locals militants were still fighting against attacks from the administration and promoting the development of the political understanding and class consciousness of the teachers.

This led to the establishment of the intra-union caucus known as CODEMI, for “commitment, democracy, and militancy,” which throughout the years worked to develop the structures of the union, especially at the worksites themselves. CODEMI had as members both socialists and non-socialists, with the commonality that they were all very militant and deeply committed to the struggle of the teachers.

In 2003, CODEMI succeeded in having its slate elected to the leadership of the union by a large margin. But it wasn’t merely a new leadership that was elected; it was a leadership that had a real base of teachers around who supported it financially, that was able to implement their decisions at the worksites, and that at the same time continued to build the presence of the union at the schools.

We didn’t only seek to restructure the organization to be able to carry out the national objectives at the base level, but we also wanted to facilitate the struggles that were emerging independently from worksites. This had a tremendously explosive and positive effect because it helped to establish the idea of the FMPR as an instrument of struggle for the teachers.

In 2004, when the rank and file of the FMPR decided through a democratic process to disaffiliate from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the AFT attempted to destroy the new leadership by placing the union under trusteeship, but failed. It’s evident that the FMPR’s leadership was successful in stopping the trusteeship because it was supported by a strong base which could be mobilized quickly to campaign at the level of the worksite, generating in very little time confidence in the elected leadership.

Subsequently, leading up to the strike, we were able to deepen the participatory process and support the struggles happening at the schools, really basing our work there. From here came another element: the alliance between the communities where the schools were and the teachers. In the case of Puerto Rico, we have a tradition of this and we went and streng?thened it, permitting us to accomplish what was not possible before. This materialized during the strike when the whole school system was shut down. Schools were even shut down in places where the level of participation of the teachers was low because of this community support.

THE PUERTO Rican government declared a fiscal state of emergency under the island’s Law 7, attacking workers in the public sector. What does this law say, and how will the FMPR as well as the rest of the public sector oppose it? 

LAW 7 basically is a legal mechanism of the government to deliver a coup d’etat to the camp of labor in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, like in the U.S., capitalism is undergoing a crisis in its financial sector. This has intensified intercapitalist rivalry and competition. The ruling class of Puerto Rico, which is part of the U.S. ruling class, intends to use Law 7 as a way to prevail in their struggle against other capitalist classes through a form of primitive accumulation. That is, they intend to rob the Puerto Rican people of the wealth they do have. They want to slash government spending; destroy government owned agencies that provide water, electricity, and education; privatize the land, buildings, and other property.

In order to accomplish this, Law 7 declares a fiscal state of emergency—invoking a clause in Puerto Rico’s constitution designed for emergencies in time of war, invasion, or earthquakes—and revokes all labor rights for all government workers for two years. It renders null all contracts and effectively dismantles the unions that represent government workers, leaving them exposed to any attacks.

Once the government employees are in this position, Law 7 will open the door for thousands upon thousands of layoffs. We calculate that in this year alone, 60,000 may be laid off out of a total of 380,000 government workers. The following year they will lay off approximately 40,000–50,000 more, and another 40,000–50,000 the third year. This means that there could be well over 100,000 layoffs in just three years.

Why the layoffs? The money saved by laying off thousands of workers will be used to help the financial sector. It will be used to guarantee the bonds they have issued because of the economic crisis. It will also be used to finance the privatization of Puerto Rico’s public services. Here the government assumes a fascist characteristic, in which it has been converted into an instrument of the financial sector to achieve brutal levels of profit.

None of this is happening for a lack of money on the part of the government because there is a lot of money, but that doesn’t matter. In fact, there is around $5 billion from Obama’s stimulus plan that the financial sector wants to use for its benefit, not for the workers. And so money for supposed national reconstruction is being used for the gains and enrichment of capital, not for the most impoverished who need it and not for the actual needs of society.

We have to mobilize the mass social forces to destroy Law 7. We’d like to be able to unite with other union leaders in this process, but unfortunately, the prospect of that is very dim. However, among the rank and file of these unions the terrain is much better. For this reason, the FMPR needs to be able to unite with all workers who want to fight back and with other leaders who are committed to the struggle as well, however limited their numbers may be at the moment.

THE FMPR lost its recognition as a union under Puerto Rican labor law when it went on strike in 2008. I was about to ask if the FMPR seeks to regain this recognition, but it seems like its a moot point at this time now that Law 7 has passed. Am I right or is the FMPR still going to seek recognition?

WHAT IS happening with the decertification of the FMPR and the passing of Law 7 is an example of how in our society we confuse appearances and reality. The appearance is that the FMPR has been decertified, and that because it’s not recognized by the state it doesn’t exist. But the reality is that the FMPR has become the most powerful union in Puerto Rico, not only because of its capacity to fight and mobilize, but because of the recognition it has from the Puerto Rican people nationally. 

So from the point of view of the tribunals, we are decertified, but from the point of view of the people we are a real union, and exceptionally strong.

From a legal standpoint Law 7 nullified all the collective bargaining agreements with the government, and in practical terms it decertified all of the involved unions. So, the FMPR’s decertification is not an issue at the moment, because no public sector union really is certified. Law 7 prohibits this for two years.

Unions that are organized like businesses aren’t organized for struggle, and Law 7 has in practical terms destroyed them. What is happening to them has already happened to us. So we’ll be able to overcome this challenge because we already have before. To answer your ques?tion, I’d tell you that the most important thing is not that the state recognizes the union, but that the workers and the people recognize it.

In the case of the teachers, we’ve been able to win pay raises. Other unions have tried to negotiate with the government and are now effectively eliminated under Law 7. The FMPR has seen many attacks from the government, but the teachers have suffered very few consequences from these attacks. The union has really been an instrument, a sword, in the struggle. 

Obviously the challenges that Law 7 pose for the labor movement and for our organization are much bigger. But today we’re even better prepared to fight against it. In that sense, even though the strike cost us our certification, it educated thousands of the militants in our union, and has left us in an even better position to fight upcoming challenges. That is what we accomplished.

 

Issue #61

September 2008

Politics of change or politics as usual?

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