Puerto Rico Teachers' Union Trounces SEIU

The Puerto Rican Federation of Teachers (FMPR) recently defeated the powerful SEIU labor organization in elections over representation of the island's public school teachers. During the conflict over representation, the SEIU leadership joined forces with the pro-corporate Puerto Rican government to undermine the militant FMPR. Despite the dirty tricks, the FMPR persevered, marking an important victory for autonomy in Latin America's labor movements.

November 24, 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.

"The FMPR does not 'give in,' it struggles. Vote no!" (By FMPR Support Committee)

In results announced on October 23, only about a third of teachers voted in favor of representation by the U.S.-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The big plurality to reject affiliation is a stunning defeat for SEIU's President Andy Stern and the rest of the union's international leadership.

The conflict between the two organizations, which began almost a year ago, grew increasingly 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. In November 2007, they gave Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde an ultimatum: “Contract or Strike!”

The response of the government was swift and unusually harsh. In January 2008, before the teachers had even begun their strike, the local Public Sector Labor Relations Commission and the island's governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, unilaterally decertified their union, 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, Dennis Rivera, an SEIU international vice-president and one-time member of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, had met secretly with Acevedo Vilá 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.”

The SEIU's next move revealed its intention to undermine the FMPR. Almost simultaneously with the FMPR’s decertification, SEIU announced the affiliation of the Teachers’ Association of Puerto Rico (AMPR), which is the island’s association of school principals and supervisors—and itself a longtime rival of the Federation. The SEIU now sought 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 their allies chose instead to strike a deal with the government-employer by forging a company union in an effort to pull the rug from beneath the feet of the FMPR. Democratic reformers and rank-and-file activists in the labor movement have roundly criticized Stern’s top-down approach to unionism and his strategy of union-member accretion at all costs, 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! 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 the 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. The SEIU's actions in Puerto Rico do little for either the strength or the unity of an already fractious labor movement, whether on the island or the mainland.

Teachers Triumphant

Despite the betrayal of SEIU’s leadership and their best efforts to undermine the FMPR, the Federation has persevered. Not only did the Federation win several important concessions from Acevedo Vilá and Aragunde in their February 2008 strike, but it also managed a dramatic defeat of the SEIU in their recent head-on confrontation in the elections for representation.

The SEIU-affiliated Puerto Rican Teachers’ Union (SPM) was roundly defeated in the elections. (By FMPR Support Committee)

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 $3,000 a 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 all defenders of public education.

The implications of the FMPR’s electoral victory against the SEIU, however, are much greater still. The FMPR is a militant and democratic union of the rank-and-file and 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 trade union militancy and democracy, which the FMPR—and, in particular, CODEMI—upholds.

The 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 the SEIU, therefore, also represents a rejection of bureaucratic unionism 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. 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. It is a classic case of David and Goliath.

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.

Solidarity: Strings Attached?

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 right-wing U.S. 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.

Solidarity protest against the SEIU at its offices in New York City. (By Micah Landau)

At the same time, the SEIU is undoubtedly engaged in good solidarity work. The union has offered badly needed support to the persecuted trade union movement in Colombia; and in July, Stern called on the Bush administration to grant visas to the wives of the Cuban Five (the five Cuban nationals accused by the U.S. of spying and whose spouses have thus far been barred from visiting their husbands in prison).

The question is at what cost: What will the SEIU 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 they offer to the teachers of Puerto Rico. The “no” vote victory also 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. In the ad, the SEIU also declared its 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.

Micah Landau is a New York-based labor journalist and recent graduate of Yale University, where he studied Latin American history and social movements. He can be reached at micah.landau[AT]gmail[dot]com.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.