A "people's strike" by Puerto Rico teachers

Roberto Barreto looks at the Puerto Rican teachers' defense of their right to strike in their fight against privatization.

THE TEACHERS Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR) called a strike February 21 for a new collective bargaining agreement after the government of Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá cancelled the previous contract.

The Department of Education (DE) dragged out the negotiations for over 30 months and systematically refused to negotiate the main teachers' demands. On February 17, more than 25,000 teachers marched in San Juan to demand accelerated negotiations and an end to the government's foot-dragging.

Teachers' demands include a raise in the salary of new teachers, which has been frozen at $1,500 a month for more than a decade; a maximum class size of 15 students to combat overcrowding; and democratic participation in the organization of schools.

The previous contract included the COEs, or School Organization Committees, that allowed teachers a say in the numbers of teachers and classes offered by the school. For years, the DE has refused to comply with the determinations of the COEs and unilaterally appoints the number of teachers and classes that it wishes, often creating chaos in the schools.

In its first two weeks, the strike was a resounding success, stopping classes in the majority of schools, mainly because students haven't attended. About 21,000 teachers have been absent from work, and about 9,000 have been active on the picket lines.

The strike has been called a peoples' strike, as teachers are asking for the active participation of students, parents, workers and university students. In Rio Piedras, university students clash almost daily with riot police to prevent strikebreakers from entering a vocational school.

The government has declared the strike illegal and decertified the union, thus justifying their refusal to negotiate. This move is not a surprise. A decade ago, the legislature passed Law 45 to make public employees strikes illegal and give the government the power to repress any attempt to break this prohibition.

When the present leadership within the FMPR was elected, their platform included the defense of the right to strike for all workers, and their intention to challenge Law 45. In this sense, the present strike is also a massive civil disobedience movement for the scrapping of Law 45 and the recognition of the right to strike.

The FMPR is also challenging Law 45 in courts. As a consequence, the Puerto Rico Senate approved an amendment to the law that would save most of it in the event that one of its sections was found to be unconstitutional in a court of law. At present, the whole law would be nullified if one of its sections is declared unconstitutional.

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AT THE same time, the government is seeking to replace the FMPR with a bosses' union. The Puerto Rico Teachers Association (AMPR) is an association that includes school principals, area supervisors and teachers in the same organization. The AMPR has created a "trade union," the Union of Puerto Rican Teachers, to challenge the FMPR in union elections.

According to a recent exposé by El Diario-La Prensa and Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, the AMPR has a deal with Acevedo Vilá and Dennis Rivera, chair of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Health Care, to replace the FMPR now that it has been decertified.

Another important demand of the FMPR is a stipulation in the contract against the privatization of the public schools system. Already, some programs, like Escuela Abierta (afternoon tutoring) are being phased out and substituted with private programs.

The government envisions a combination of charter schools (as defined by the No Child Left Behind law), municipal schools and services outsourced to private companies. The city of San Juan has already established a pilot program of municipal schools.

In Puerto Rico, the legacy of privatization is appalling. For example, in the 1990s, the public system of treatment centers, municipal and regional hospitals offered emergency care 24/7 and free services for those who could not pay.

After privatization, many treatment centers went bankrupt and are now rat-infested buildings. Some have limited hours and are closed at nights and on weekends. Hospitals are overcrowded, and health services are available only to those insured. The FMPR is fighting to prevent the same from happening to the public education system.

The government is also seeking the privatization of the electricity utility. Last year, the contract of the electrical workers was cancelled as part of the anti-union tactics of the Acevedo Vilá administration.

While the electrical workers' union, UTIER, support the teachers' strike, they have not mobilized their membership to the picket lines. UTIER is fighting for a collective bargaining agreement, but it isn't taking on the political aspects of the struggle.

The teachers' strike is more than a labor dispute. It is a political strike against an attack by the bosses and the government on the labor movement.

Like the 1998 Peoples' Strike initiated by telephone workers, but joined by thousands of working people, this struggle challenges the government's policy of privatizing public services--in this case, education.

Plus, the teachers are fighting the government's determination to outlaw the right to strike for public employees--and its practice of canceling collective bargaining agreements of independent unions as a means to their replacement with bosses' unions.

The teachers' strike is about to enter its third week. It deserves and needs the active support of all workers and their organizations. It represents an important defensive action at a time that so many other unions have opted to give concessions and keep quiet.

This strike is the most important contribution to the rebuilding of Puerto Rico's labor movement in the last decade.