The Battle for Puerto Rico’s Labor Movement

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

Rafael Bernabe

THE TEACHERS’ UNION Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) is the island’s largest labor union. Its evolution has considerable impact on Puerto Rico’s labor movement as a whole. In fact, recent events surrounding the FMPR reflect many of the debates and tensions that have shaped the island’s largest labor struggles over the past decade. These include:

* The conflict between public sector unions and successive government administrations bent on implementing a neoliberal, privatization agenda.

* The shifting legal framework under which public sector unions operate.

The various debates within the labor movement on how to respond effectively to these two issues.

* The conflicts between independent unions and unions with links to U.S. “international” unions belonging to the AFL-CIO or Change to Win.

Many, if not all, of these debates and tensions are reflected in particular in the FMPR’s recent head-on conflict with the U.S.-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which resulted in an historic victory of the teachers’ union over an attempted raid by SEIU.

SEIU initiated its raid in the winter of 2008 at a moment of crisis for the FMPR: the union had recently been decertified by Puerto Rico’s corrupt anti-labor governor Anibal Acevedo Vila. But despite these difficult circumstances, the FMPR soundly defeated SEIU in an election for representation in October 2008.

Results announced on October 23, indicate about a third of teachers voted in favor of SEIU representation. The big plurality to reject affiliation was a breathtaking victory for the FMPR. It was also a stunning defeat for SEIU’s President Andy Stern and the rest of the union’s international leadership. Nevertheless, the FMPR today finds itself in difficult straits.

Until 1998, central government employees in Puerto Rico (as opposed to the employees of financially onomous public corporations) did not have a legally recognized right to organize or collectively bargain. Beginning in the early 1960s they were allowed to authorize dues checkoffs to “bona fide” employee associations, initially conceived as means of organizing social, self-help, recreational and other activities. But over time workers turned these associations into de facto unions and fought for better wages and benefits.*

Some associations (such as the union of non-teaching personnel at the University of Puerto Rico) were able to attain de facto recognition and sign contracts (thinly disguised as agreements or memorandums). Others — including the FMPR — recruited substantial numbers of workers and exerted serious pressure on the government.

Public Sector Unions and Law 45

Organized in 1966, the FMPR led strikes in 1974 and 1993. Over the years it organized hundreds of protests, pickets, marches, and work stoppages (paros) and represented about 11,000 teachers, or a third of the work force. For 30 years, from 1974 to 2004, the FMPR was affiliated to the American Federation of Teachers but this remained largely an economic arrangement.

Many unions, however, remained small and relatively ineffectual, while in some agencies more than one association competed for workers’ support. This was the case in the public education system. The Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), which includes school directors and supervisors, and largely identified with the mainstream Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), competed with the FMPR.

In 1998 legislation was finally enacted to recognize public sector workers’ rights to organize and to bargain collectively. But the Puerto Rico Public Labor Relations Act (known as Law 45) did not recognize the right to strike. In fact it established severe penalties for striking, including union decertification and banning striking officers from holding leadership positions in any union organized under the law for five years.

U.S. unions, such as AFSCME, SEIU and UFCW lobbied actively for this legislation. Others reluctantly supported it. Still others, including the FMPR leadership, felt that the labor movement should hold out for a better measure. Attempts by the AFL-CIO and, since its founding in 2006, CTW to improve the legislation have been limited and ineffectual.

In 1999 the AMPR sought recognition under Law 45, for which purpose it created an affiliated organization, the Sindicato Puertorriqueño de Maestros (SPM). In order to defeat its rival, the FMPR participated in the representation elections. As a result of its victory, the FMPR became the teachers’ legally recognized bargaining agent, and in this new context its affiliation with the AFT began to have an impact on the FMPR’s internal life.

Confrontation in Education

The leading caucus in the FMPR, headed by Renán Soto, was identified with the socialist left, but there were other leftist opposition currents — such as  Compromiso, Democracia, Militancia (CODEMI) — who criticized what they considered undemocratic functioning.

By 2003 scandals over an FMPR-related health plan and differences over relations with the AFT and the rest of the labor movement provoked a split in the leading caucus. A three-way election was won by the opposition CODEMI current. Committed to disaffiliation from the AFT and mounting a militant fight for improved working conditions and in defense of public education against privatization, Rafael Feliciano, leader of CODEMI and member of the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST), became FMPR president.

The following year the new leadership took the FMPR out of the AFT, a position endorsed by a referendum in which 19,400 voted for disaffiliation and 5,882 against. Meanwhile the FMPR formulated its proposal for a new contract which included demands around wages, benefits and working conditions (including class size), as well as changes in the structure of school government and safeguards against privatization. At that time teachers in Puerto Rico had already suffered through more than two years without a contract. FMPR leaders made it clear that they would struggle for the teachers’ and public education’s best interests even at the cost of defying Law 45.

Negotiations dragged on for more than a year. Meanwhile union mobilization proceeded, culminating in November 2007 with a 5,000-strong assembly vote to endorse a strike if necessary.

The government argued that this vote, even if not a strike action, was already a contravention of Law 45. It then quickly obtained a decree from the Public Sector Labor Board, which administers Law 45, decertifying the FMPR. Appeals moved on through administrative and legal channels, while in schools the situation became tense. The FMPR readied its members for what loomed as the first (illegal) strike organized under the law.

The government shifted gears several times, taking a more conciliatory or tougher stand, according to its perception of the FMPR’s support. On February 17th 2008, the FMPR sponsored a march in San Juan past the Capitol to the Governor’s mansion. The march of at least 20,000 teachers forced the government to return to the negotiating table, facing a union it no longer officially recognized as a bargaining agent.

Yet four days later FMPR leaders announced that given the lack of progress in negotiations, and the government’s intention to prolong them indefinitely, a strike had become unavoidable.

The two-week strike paralyzed a large portion, although not all, of the public school system and concluded without the union attaining either the signing of a new contract or recertification. It reverted to the individual authorization of dues checkoff under the previous legislation (still on the books), under which it now has around 11,000 official members.

Enter SEIU

Meanwhile, with the FMPR decertified under Law 45, the AMPR, which had waited in the wings and sharply attacked the FMPR for its allegedly intransigent tactics, petitioned to become the teachers’ bargaining agent. Just as the FMPR was gearing up for its February 2008 strike, the AMPR-SPM had affiliated to the Service Employees International Union. SEIU had thus made clear its intention of challenging the FMPR through the SPM even before the strike.

By mid-2008 the public sector labor board determined that the FMPR, as a decertified organization, could not be part of the upcoming representation elections. The SEIU-AMPR-SPM thus moved to occupy the space opened by the anti-labor government’s decertification of a striking union. In that context, the FMPR called on workers to vote NO to the SEIU-AMPR-SPM.

The latter organized a massive publicity campaign, counting on the acquiescence, if not the actual support, of the PPD administration and many school directors who had close connections to the AMPR. Other SEIU and CTW affiliates in Puerto Rico, such as the Sindicato Puertorriqueño de Trabajadores, and even AFL-CIO spokespersons, joined the chorus of attacks on the FMPR.

Working with a bare-bones budget and relying on the local initiatives of its militant members and supporters, the FMPR was nevertheless able to forestall the SPM-SEIU offensive: 14,675 teachers voted in favor of SPM-SEIU, with 18,123 opposing.

FMPR spent approximately $60,000 on the election — half of it borrowed — and fielded a small staff made up almost entirely of volunteers. SEIU, in contrast, is estimated to have spent upwards of $10 million and fielded approximately 300 professional organizers. The key to the FMPR’s victory lay in the union’s grassroots strength, derived from a strong network of shop stewards and rank-and-file union militants developed in fierce battles over several decades.

But given that teachers remained without official representation or a new contract, it was a bittersweet victory. Meanwhile mutual recriminations within the labor movement reached new heights.

Currents and Countercurrents

By and large, there are two general views of the 2008 strike. The AFL-CIO, CTW and the unions affiliated to the Central Puertorriqueña de Trabajadores (CPT), see the views and actions of the present FMPR leadership as jeopardizing existing contracts and the very existence of the unions. For them, the present situation in the Department of Education, with a decertified FMPR and precarious contract protection for the teachers, is the disastrous result of an adventurist strategy. But the recent defeat of SEIU, as it failed to get a majority of the votes cast, indicates that many teachers do not share this rejection of the FMPR’s record, even if they may question one or another tactical choice.

Another perspective sees Law 45 as an unacceptable straitjacket that must be challenged, even at the price of returning to unstable agreements sustained only by constant pressure and mobilization.

This, by and large, seems to be the perspective of the leadership of the FMPR. They argue that to turn official recognition and contracts into a ruling principle, given the limitations of the existing legislation, is to abandon any notion of the labor movement as a vehicle of working-class struggle, transforming the union into little more than an administrative and grievance-processing bureaucracy. This AFL-CIO/CTW model is not what the Puerto Rican labor movement needs.

Nevertheless, debate about the future course of action also brews among those who firmly supported the FMPR during the strike as well as in its recent battle with SEIU. While largely sharing the perspective of the FMPR’s leaders regarding the need for mobilization and struggle from below, some feel that those leaders, perhaps in the push to put the stamp of “VICTORY” on the results of the strike, adopt too cavalier an attitude.

Recognition and a contract are not mere legal formalities, but can help lock-in labor’s conquests against the inevitable fluctuations in activism. While these structures should not be turned into paralyzing fetishes, they cannot be simply disregarded.

The defeat of the SEIU raid is to be welcomed. 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 brand. But the rank-and-file teachers rejected SEIU’s bureaucratic approach.

Indeed, the FMPR’s “Vote NO” campaign defeated SEIU by virtue of the very grassroots militancy which SEIU, in collusion with the government, had sought to weed out. Thus militant and democratic unionism emerged victorious in both practice (as a winning strategy) and in the realm of ideas (as a quality which teachers desire in their union).

The victory over SEIU is also heartening in that it demonstrates how a relatively small but extremely dedicated band of labor activists and reformers can in fact make headway against a much larger and more powerful foe. At the same time, the 2008 strike calls for a sobering assessment, as does the present situation of the FMPR and the teachers they represent. These are the new and daunting challenges for the FMPR in 2009: to win back exclusive representation of the teachers and a strong contract.

Into this mix, the incoming administration of Governor Luis Fortuño, faced with a growing fiscal crisis, has escalated the anti-labor offensive by proposing to freeze the economic provisions of all public sector collective labor agreements. Undoubtedly the government hopes that a divided labor movement will not be able to put up an effective resistance, and if necessary, that it can neutralize the more amenable unions with a few concessions.

The FMPR and the unions closest to it, grouped in the Coordinadora Sindical, have led to the creation of a Frente Ampio de Solidaridad y Lucha, which has attracted community and other groups opposed to government austerity and new regressive tax measures. Meanwhile AFL-CIO, CTW and the CPT unions have also come together to oppose the proposed measures. While in light of this anti-labor offensive mutual attacks have been toned down, there is little contact between the leaders of the opposing wings.

It will be difficult to combine the modulations of a radical but realistic labor movement and the broad coalition it leads, on the one hand, with the need for joint actions of all labor organizations. But if it wishes to emerge beyond its present difficulties, it is this fine line that Puerto Rico’s labor movement must now tread.

ATC 139, March-April 2009