Puerto Rican teachers’ union fights takeover

A major battle is brewing in the Puerto Rican labor movement. It pits a militant, rank-and-file-oriented union local leadership against a U.S.-based, politically conservative national union bureaucracy.

The struggle offers progressive U.S. trade unionists the opportunity to demonstrate genuine labor solidarity in the face of the formal, dues-based “unity” that is promoted all too frequently by the officialdom of U.S. organized labor. It is especially important given Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States government.

On Sept. 29, 2004, the Puerto Rican Teacher’s Federation (FMPR) Delegates Assembly voted to break its affiliation with the U.S.-based American Federation of Teachers. There are both financial and political differences between the leadership groupings.

The FMPR is the largest labor union in Puerto Rico, representing 43,000 teachers and Education Department workers. Since its inception, the FMPR has been marked by its progressive programs and leadership. The union was formed in 1965 as an alternative to the Association of Teachers, which was heavily influenced by Puerto Rico’s pro-colonial Popular Democratic Party (PPD). Shortly after its foundation, the FMPR joined the AFT based on solidarity between U.S. and Puerto Rican education workers.

The AFT represents 1.3 million teachers, school support staff, health care professionals and state and municipal employees, almost entirely in the United States. It is part of the national AFL-CIO union federation.

Rafael Feliciano, FMPR president.

Photo: Ricardo Olivero Lora

In May 2003, a rank-and-file caucus called Commitment, Democracy and Militancy (CODEMI) won most of the top leadership positions in the FMPR’s internal elections, with 72 percent of the votes. CODEMI leader Rafael Feliciano Hernández—an open socialist—became FMPR’s president.

CODEMI’s platform included a number of goals for the union, including fighting for a minimum salary of $30,000 a year and a government-financed health plan. It also ran on a platform of disaffiliating from the AFT.

Behind the disaffiliation

All prior FMPR leaders had promised to disaffiliate from the AFT. The CODEMI leadership stuck to their promise.

A main reason for breaking ties with the Washington-based AFT was financial. The FMPR paid dues totaling $2.8 million, or 40 percent of its annual budget, in affiliation fees to the AFT.

“Disaffiliating from that U.S. union will increase our financial capacity, using the millions that they were robbing from us to provide better services to our members,” said President Feliciano.

However, the more significant cause for disaffiliation is a clash between the AFT’s “business union” leadership and the FMPR’s advocacy of rank-and-file action. The AFT leadership advocates lobbying for more funding to the exclusion of workers’ struggle. The FMPR has tried to win better contracts by mass actions, like the militant rally they carried out on May 6, and by building ties to Puerto Rico’s labor movement.

AFT leadership attacks union

After the disaffiliation vote, the AFT leadership launched a smear campaign against the FMPR leadership, especially against FMPR President Feliciano. They accused the leadership of violating the voting rules in the disaffiliation vote—charges the union leaders and delegates deny. They accuse the FMPR of refusing to pay past debts to the AFT, when in fact the AFT leadership refuses to meet with the FMPR to discuss terms to pay back the debt.

The AFT also hired several FMPR members, including former FMPR presidents Felix Rodriguez and Renán Soto, to campaign against the union’s new leadership.

Then, on May 17, the AFT Executive Council arrogantly decided to put the FMPR in “trusteeship,” ousting Feliciano and the CODEMI leadership and imposing a pro-AFT leadership. That decision sparked outrage throughout the teachers’ union and the Puerto Rican labor movement.

FMPR members and leaders traveled to Washington on July 8 to picket outside an AFT function. The FMPR won a victory in court, when Federal Magistrate Gustavo Gelpí ruled on Aug. 2 that the AFT’s attempts to impose trusteeship through the courts lacked jurisdiction. The AFT is continuing its legal campaign against the FMPR.

On Aug. 18, the FMPR is holding a referendum of its entire membership to vote on the disaffiliation. The 2004 vote by the union’s delegates was constitutionally binding, but the referendum is aimed at showing the AFT leadership and the rest of the labor movement that the delegates’ vote was embraced by the whole membership.

What’s at stake

Workers and progressive activists in Puerto Rico and the United States have a stake in the outcome of the FMPR’s struggle.
First, it takes place in the broader context of the struggle against U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico. The U.S. military invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and has held it as a colony since then.

In the increasingly globalized capitalist economy, building genuine international solidarity with workers around the world is a main challenge for the U.S. labor movement. That solidarity needs to be expressed free of chauvinism and based on respect for national self-determination.

The history of the AFL-CIO’s relationship with unions around the world—and especially in Latin America—has been poisoned by the close relationship between the top U.S. labor leadership and the U.S. State Department. The AFL-CIO’s support for corrupt union leaders in Venezuela, who sided with the bosses and the U.S. government in the 2002 coup attempt against President Hugo Chávez, is only the most recent example.

The AFT’s arrogant and bureaucratic actions in the face of a genuine and democratic union leadership will be seen by workers around the world as another example of U.S. union leaders dictating terms to militant and democratic workers’ organizations. It will further erode hopes of building genuine working-class solidarity.

Second, the struggle pits socialists in the labor movement against the conservative, anti-communist labor bureaucracy in Washington. The attempt to oust Feliciano and the CODEMI leaders is nothing less than another attempt to purge leftists—who have historically been the most self-sacrificing and militant union leaders and activists—by union “leaders” earning salaries of $400,000 a year. The union leadership is notorious for its anti-communism. Borrowing a page from the Cold War, the union magazine, American Educator in the summer 2005 edition ran the headline, “Building a union, toppling communism.”

Half a million Puerto Rican workers took part in the 1998 ‘people’s strike.’

Photo: Ana Martinez

Finally, a victory for the FMPR against the conservative AFT leadership will strengthen the overall labor movement in Puerto Rico. Following a tremendously successful two-day general strike in 1998 involving 500,000 workers and the victorious campaign involving millions to shut down U.S. military training on the island of Vieques, the workers of Puerto Rico are growing increasingly emboldened.

That’s why delegates from all the major Puerto Rican trade unions, at an Aug. 13 meeting of the Puerto Rican Workers Movement, took up three main topics: addressing the Puerto Rican government’s budget crisis and its impact on workers, building a united front in defense of public sector workers against government and corporate attacks and widening the support for the FMPR leadership.

It was an assembly like this that launched the 1998 “people’s strike.”

Supporters can contact the FMPR at [email protected].

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