Puerto Rico teachers defeat SEIU raid

Brian Cruz, a rank-and-file member of SEIU Local 1021 in the Bay Area, explains why public school teachers in Puerto Rico rejected a bosses' union affiliated with the SEIU.

Teachers and their supporters march through the streets of San Juan during the February 2008 strike (Indymedia)Teachers and their supporters march through the streets of San Juan during the February 2008 strike (Indymedia)

PUBLIC SCHOOL teachers in Puerto Rico overwhelmingly voted October 23 to reject representation by the Puerto Rico Teachers Union (SPM by its initials in Spanish)--a union affiliated with the U.S.-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Those who voted "no" to the SPM weren't voting against having a union, however. In effect, they were voting in favor of their current union, the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR), which was not allowed on the ballot.

The 42-year-old FMPR previously had exclusive rights to represent the teachers. However, the FMPR was decertified by an anti-labor government in January 2008 for voting to go on strike. This created an opening for the SEIU to push its affiliate, the SPM.

The cards seemed stacked against the FMPR. Under Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vilá of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), the Puerto Rican government had been unwilling to agree to a collective bargaining agreement with the teachers. The FMPR sensed an impasse and decided strike for better wages, better conditions at schools for both teachers and students, and a halt to the privatization of the schools through the expansion of charter schools.

However, the island's Law 45 prohibits public workers from striking, so the government decertified the FMPR even before the strike began in early February.

More than just a viciously anti-union government was at play here. In the New York Daily News, columnist Juan Gonzalez revealed that Vilá and Dennis Rivera, a top leader of SEIU, had arranged a deal in which SEIU would contribute to Vilá's campaign for re-election if Vilá would support SEIU's attempts to gain representation. The plan for the raid was for Vilá to refuse to negotiate, and then let SEIU run in a representation election.

The vehicle for this plan would be the Teachers Association of Puerto Rico (AMPR), which associated with SEIU in late 2007.

The AMPR is an organization of administrators of the school system, such as principals and regional directors. As such, it can't represent the teachers under Law 45, and in practice, it never represents the interests of actual teachers in work disputes. So the AMPR created the SPM, whose general secretary and main spokesperson, Aida Diáz, is also president of the AMPR.

While the FMPR won widespread support for its strike, the AMPR moved to undermine the struggle. It denounced the FMPR for striking, and then ran uncontested, via the SPM, and aided by the staff and resources of SEIU, for exclusive representation rights.

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AT FIRST, the FMPR challenged the decision that it wouldn't be allowed to participate in the election on the grounds that Law 45 had no provision prohibiting decertified unions from participating. So FMPR leaders submitted 12,000 teachers' signatures petitioning for their appearance on the ballot--for which only 8,000 signatures are required. Yet the authorities still denied the FMPR a place on the ballot.

When they realized the unfair election would continue as planned, the FMPR organized a vigorous "vote no" campaign. If successful, it would mean that the SPM wouldn't win exclusive representation rights and the FMPR would still exist as a "bona fide organization" under Puerto Rican law.

By one estimate, SEIU committed between $10 million and $20 million to the campaign, with more than 300 paid organizers on the ground, slick ads and free t-shirts. The FMPR, on the other hand, spent a mere $65,000 ($30,000 of it in loans), with mostly volunteers organizing.

The difference is that these "volunteers" were the same people who helped organize the 10-day strike in February that won a wage increase and put a stop to the spread of charter schools. These volunteers were rank-and-file members with experience and a history of struggle alongside their co-workers.

The FMPR's "vote no" campaign won a clear victory. The official tally is 18,123 to 14,675, in a vote where turnout was nearly 94 percent.

The victory is all the more impressive given that the FMPR was denied the right to have observers at polling places, and that various vote shenanigans took place, with votes appearing after the last day of the election, and various "no" votes being counted as "yes."

Now that the FMPR has won, it will continue to exist as the main organizer of the teachers. However, it will no longer be the formal agent for collective bargaining. But the FMPR will maintain its network of shop stewards, continue to represent teachers at the school level, and continue to fight around issues such as wages and privatization. Eventually, the FMPR could perhaps reestablish exclusive representation for the teachers.

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THE FMPR's success is also a victory against imperial unionism. The U.S. labor movement has a sordid history of collaborating with the State Department and CIA to undermine labor and democratic movements in other countries. The SEIU's alliance with an anti-labor government to raid the FMPR is only another chapter.

SEIU's defeat in Puerto Rico is humiliating for SEIU President Andrew Stern, who seeks to remold the labor movement in his image. During Stern's 12 years in office, he and his team have increasingly centralized power in the SEIU at the International level, in the name of being able to negotiate better contracts via "partnership" with employers and organize workers even faster.

The result of substituting a militant rank and file with a small team of highly educated, highly paid staffers is apparent. The types of deals being negotiated from the top have been so bad that rank-and-file workers are increasingly rejecting them.

One SEIU local involved in these deals has fought back: the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) based in Oakland, Calif.

In June 2008, at SEIU's International Convention, held in Puerto Rico, UHW as well as reformers from other locals (such as Locals 1021, 1000, 99 and 721) challenged Stern's "Justice for All" platform on issues of democracy. One of the reformers' main goals was to ensure that rank-and-file members would participate in negotiating their own contracts.

It was at the Puerto Rico convention that the fight for reform within the SEIU connected with the FMPR's struggle against Stern's allies in AMPR-SPM. As the reformers challenged Stern inside the convention hall, teachers from the FMPR were protesting outside the building, despite being surrounded by riot police.

Many of the SEIU reformers refused to let their brothers and sisters be bullied and went outside to join the picket line. In fact, some convention delegates--including this writer--brought the message inside, passing out hundreds of flyers and helping organize two solidarity events with FMPR that week.

We were threatened with expulsion from SEIU if we continued to do so. Even so, some of these SEIU reformers would go on to help organize successful solidarity fundraising events for the FMPR in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

Since the convention, the SEIU International has been trying to place UHW under trusteeship as retribution for challenging its hegemony. The International has also been on the defensive, however, as it was revealed that top union leaders--people who had climbed Stern's loyalty ladder--were involved in scandals involving union funds.

Within a few short weeks, three SEIU leaders--the president of the big Los Angeles-based homecare workers' local, one of six international executive vice presidents, and the president of Michigan's largest local--were all forced out of office.

Obviously, the black eye received by SEIU didn't help the SPM's campaign against the FMPR. Also, the challenge to the top SEIU leadership by UHW and reformers in other locals undermined SEIU's claim to be the way forward for the labor movement.

The victory of the FMPR over the alliance of the Puerto Rican government, school administrators and SEIU teaches us important lessons about building unions today.

First, it underlines the importance of building a fighting union from the bottom up, as opposed to Stern's top-down, bureaucratic methods. Second, it teaches us the importance of genuine labor internationalism, based on rank-and-file action, solidarity and a commitment to union democracy.