Highly Organized Puerto Rican Teachers Face Repression
The highly organized teachers of Puerto Rico have faced violent repression in their fight for labor rights and quality education. The Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico or FMPR, represents over 40,000 teachers and is the largest independent union in Puerto Rico. In February 2008 teachers voted to strike after working without a contract for 30 months. Their historic 10 day strike was met with police action and over a dozen arrests. The FMPR’s main opposition is Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, whose government decertified the union in retaliation. Now, leaders of the FMPR are on a national tour of the United States and they’re coming through Los Angeles. Their aim is to “build solidarity with teachers and communities… about what it will take to win quality education for all students as well as build a truly progressive labor movement.”
GUESTS: Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez, FMPR President, Luis Santiago, executive board member of FMPR, and Ana Serano, Vice President of the Aguadilla local of the FMPR. For more information, visit www.fmprlucha.org.
There will a fundraiser for the Puerto Rican Teachers’ Union on Thursday July 24, 2008 7pm, at UTLA, 3303 Wilshire Blvd., Room 815. For more information call 213-309-2713.
Sonali Kolhatkar: First, let’s talk about the 10-day strike that took place in February. Why was it historic and what was the result of the strike, what was the outcome, Raphael?
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: We developed a 10-day strike in last February. It is very important historical process, because between 23,000 and 26,000 teachers go to the strike. Most of them were women, were teachers of the elementary level and I think that is a very important process for us in Puerto Rico. You know that we are a colony of U.S. and No Child Left Behind is also in Puerto Rico, making a big damage to our educational system. The community, the teachers, make a joint effort against the government and the intention of the government to privatize schools using charter schools and cosa como esa. We thought that we make an agreement to stop charter schools in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico they cannot develop charter schools actually. And also we gain the respect of the community and of the people of Puerto Rico for we fight not only for our teachers’ issues, also we fight for a good education for all our people in Puerto Rico, because we have very bad conditions in our schools.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Let’s talk first about the conditions of the teachers in terms of salary, for example. What were teachers earning before the strike? How severe were your working conditions and did things improve after the strike, Ana?
Ana Serano: During the past 12 years, there hadn’t been an increase to the basic salary of teachers in Puerto Rico. Before the strike, we were earning $1,500. With the treat of the strike alone, just the threat, there was a $100 increase granted to the base salary pay. And as part of the negotiations to end the strike, there was an additional $150. So right now in Puerto Rico, teachers are earning at the beginning level $1,750 a month. That’s a monthly salary. Teachers that, for instance, have longer time in the system, perhaps like ten, fifteen years, are up to about $2,400 per month. And in terms of working conditions in Puerto Rico, one of the problems that we have had is that the Department of Education has deviated funds from the school to utilize for technological, what they call technological advances. Money that was destined for books, for teaching materials, for, you know, the chalk board, the dry-erase, paper, toilet paper, you name it. That money was deferred for the use of other systems. For instance we have a punch system, a biometric time-measurement system in Puerto Rico which we are also fighting. So, you know, money has been taken from the schools and it has been placed in systems that have nothing to do with the educational process and in fact detract from the educational process like that biometric system.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Meaning that people have to do what?
Ana Serano: We have to put our fingerprints to punch in and out. It’s a time-device system that we are fighting in the courts and we also have a group of teachers that have been resisting using this system and we are having a battle right now. Teachers are not being paid in Puerto Rico. And in terms of the class-size conditions, this was one of the reasons that we went on strike and that there was so much support.
Sonali Kolhatkar: What is the class size?
Ana Serano: There are groups that have up to 40, 42, 43, 44. My sister taught a school, a tenth-grade class with 47 students. It’s impossible to educate with so many students and that’s one of the principal reasons that we went on strike and were supported by so many members of the community.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Now the government decertified your union in retaliation for voting to strike. Was that legal? How has it affected your ability to carry out your tasks, Luis?
Luis Santiago: Under Law 45 – that is the labor law in Puerto Rico - the government can say that it’s correct. No? But nothing can stop the teachers. The union does not come from a law; the union does not come from a paper. The union comes from the will of the people.
Sonali Kolhatkar: So the Governor can just, as a single person, decertify an entire labor organization?
Luis Santiago: Ok, the law is so bad that in our case, before we went to the strike, just voting for the strike, they could decertify you. No? That’s what the government could do. But nothing stopped us. The penalties did not stop us; the decertification did not stop us [inaudible]. We went on to strike, because the will of the teachers, the will of the workers cannot be stopped by a law.
Sonali Kolhatkar: How has that affected your ability to carry out your union tasks, Raphael?
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: Well, first of all, for us, the right to strike is a workers’ right. The law can say that we don’t have that right, but we have that right, because we aren’t slaves. We have the right to stop to work when we understand that we have it. The government made the decertification, because they want to shut down our dues and that was very difficult, because the union works for many months without any dues. The leadership don’t have salary and most of the work of the union was on voluntary basis. That is very difficult, but it is very important, and that is one of the things that we will share tonight, is that money is not the principal factor to develop a strike. It’s the will of the people; the compromise of the people and the community to fight for better labor conditions, but also for a better educational condition for our students.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the other factors that play in the union or around the union in Puerto Rico, which is that I understand that the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, has aligned with the Governor of Puerto Rico, the person who decertified your union, and is planning on working to replace the FMPR with another union. Is this true and if so why would the SEIU do this?
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: Yes, well, when we were in the strike, we were making negotiation for the new contract.
Sonali Kolhatkar: And this is after working without a contract for 30 months?
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: Exactly. In that moment, SEIU intervention was very bad, because SEIU supports the Governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, and they develop fund raisers for the relation campaign of the Governor. In that moment, Dennis Rivera flew from New York to Puerto Rico and met with the Governor and said that he cannot make a new contract with Federación, because they want to make a union [inaudible] against Federación. And if he makes a new contract, he will not give the money for the relation campaign, he have a compromise of four million dollars for that campaign. That was terrible, but I want to say little detail. We have to make a distinction between the leadership of SEIU and the members of SEIU. For example, in the convention…
Sonali Kolhatkar: …which was held in Puerto Rico, the SEIU convention…
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: …we went to the convention center and we have to fight with the police and with the strike teams of the police in Puerto Rico to be in the front of the building of the convention to give fliers to the stewards of the SEIU. The Governor made that order and we have, some of the teachers were beaten by the police and the special forces of the police. In the convention, most of the stewards of SEIU support Federación and they say that it’s a shame what is doing the national leadership with the teachers in Puerto Rico. I think that we have to develop and to support the movement inside SEIU for more democracy and for the empowerment of the workers of their own union. But in our strike, the intervention of the SEIU was terrible.
Sonali Kolhatkar: So FMPR is working with sort of a dissident movement within SEIU to try and reform the union, make it more democratic etc. You are working with that movement?
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: Well, we have a communication with some of the leadership and what we do is to support the movement for a real democracy and for the real empowerment for any union. But in this case for the SEIU movement for that is fighting back to change the form of what the leadership is managing…
Sonali Kolhatkar: And is this because essentially FMPR is an independent union?
Ana Serano: Well, I think part of the reason why we are doing this is because our union has a very long tradition of participatory democracy where union with rank and file makes the decisions and the leadership basically is the vehicle which carries out the will of the teachers. And all of the leadership is elected, our leadership comes from the classroom, we have within our constitution limitation of terms, so all of our leaders have to constantly go back to work in the classrooms and we don’t have people that are encrusted in leadership.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Sort of career unionists.
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: And my salary is the same salary that I have in the classroom, $2,600.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Well, you are not paid huge amounts…
Ana Serano: No, all of our leadership maintains the salary of teachers. That’s part of the commitment of the union to maintain rank and file as leaders, because we don’t have a different class of leadership. Our leaders come from us. We are teachers, social workers, librarians that come into leadership of the union and we go back to our posts within the schools and develop new leadership. And that kind of tradition is what has allowed our union leadership to maintain such a bond, because we are teachers and we are leaders, but we are the union.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Why are you touring the U.S. mainland and what sort of solidarity do you see from teachers here, you know, across the country, Luis?
Luis Santiago: The situation of the Puerto Rican teachers is similar to the situation of the teachers here in the United States. For example, Raphael mentioned a little while ago No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind is used to privatize the education here and in Puerto Rico. And it’s important that we have a communication that are experienced. No? Can communicate to the teachers in the United States, but it is also important that we hear from them and see what is their experience. And it is important that they know what is the SEIU doing in Puerto Rico that supports a bust union that is the Asociación de Maestros, the one that want to challenge the Federación de Maestros. And also, it is important that if they can also help us to fortify our union and let’s be real honest, we are also in fund raising. No? Because the fund raising is necessary in this moment that the government uses everything against us.
Sonali Kolhatkar: So you are really hurting for dues and, as you said, salaries even, for your leadership?
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: Remember, we developed a very hard strike and we need a time for recovery. And the government is making an alliance with some leaders of SEIU to make a joint effort against Federación and against the teachers. That is very, it’s a shame for the labor movement.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Are you hearing from rank and file SEIU members?
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: Yes, we have contact with some leaders of the opposition sectors and also we have good relation with rank and file members of SEIU in Puerto Rico, because many times, Federación support SEIU in Puerto Rico and we march with SEIU. For us was a very bad surprise to see how Dennis Rivera make an intervention directly against the teachers that we were on strike. But I think that in this moment, what needs the Federación? First of all, we need to share the information, to break the isolation between the fights of the teachers in many places in the U.S. and it is very important to share the information what happens in Puerto Rico. We will develop part of this tonight, but also, we need some economical support, because we, in this moment, we are in the process of the recovery and we need to develop a campaign to affiliate new members to recover the dues that we have before the strike.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Listeners can certainly come to tonight’s event in terms of that financial solidarity as well, but is there a website or any other way that listeners can express solidarity?
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: Yes, we have a website: www.fmprlucha.org.
Sonali Kolhatkar: FMPR stands for Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the teachers federation in Puerto Rico, and my guests have been Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez, the President of the union; Luis Santiago, executive board member of the union; and Ana Serano, Vice President of the Aguadilla local at FMPR. I want to thank the three of you very much for joining us today.
Ana Serano: Thank you for having us.
Raphael Feliciano-Hernandez: It’s an honor to be here.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Absolutely for me to have you as well. Good luck to you and your struggle.
Special Thanks to Claudia Greyeyes for transcribing this interview