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2008-10-27

Puerto Rican Labor Struggle: Teachers Vote Against Joining SEIU

Topics

Guests

Rafael Feliciano, president of the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, or FMPR. He joins us on the telephone from San Juan.

Steve Early, labor journalist who’s been closely following the debates in Puerto Rico. For twenty-seven years, he was an organizer for the Communications Workers of America, and his forthcoming book is called Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home.

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It’s a major victory for the forty-two-year-old Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, or FMPR. It was Puerto Rico’s largest union, representing over 40,000 teachers. But earlier this year, after many months of trying to negotiate with the governor, the FMPR was decertified over its refusal to comply with a ban on strikes by public employees. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: After a battle that’s been raging for months, public school teachers in Puerto Rico have voted against joining a union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, or the SEIU. It’s a major victory for the forty-two-year-old Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, or FMPR. It was Puerto Rico’s largest union, representing over 40,000 teachers.

But earlier this year, after many months of trying to negotiate with the governor, the FMPR was decertified over its refusal to comply with a ban on strikes by public employees. The FMPR claims that the SEIU allied with Puerto Rican governor Anibal Acevedo Vilá and raided their leadership. The SEIU-affiliated union, the Puerto Rican Teacher’s Union, or SPM, lost by nearly 3,500 votes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Rafael Feliciano is the president of the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, or FMPR. He joins us on the phone from San Juan. We’re also joined from Boston by veteran labor organizer and reporter Steve Early, who has been closely following the debates in Puerto Rico. For more than a quarter of a century, he was an organizer for the Communications Workers of America. His forthcoming book is called Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home.

We did invite representatives of the SEIU to come on the broadcast, but they declined.

Rafael Feliciano, Steve Early, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Rafael Feliciano. Can you talk about the defeat of SEIU in Puerto Rico? Why did members of the teachers union vote not to affiliate with the SEIU-affiliated union?

RAFAEL FELICIANO: Well, first of all, thanks for the opportunity. The [inaudible] — in Puerto Rico, the teachers have a union. The FMPR is the union of the teachers in Puerto Rico. We developed a very strong strike in February of this year, and the government make an alliance with SEIU international union to attack our union, to attack our teachers. Our union is a very democratic, rank-and-file union that has a commitment to develop a good education for our working-class students, and we fight against charter schools and No Child Left Behind.

Our struggle in the strike and all our struggle is very strong, and what the government do is make an alliance with the SEIU international to broke our movement. But our teachers vote no to this fate, that the SEIU [inaudible] SPM, that is what — a union created by the bosses to attack our union and to substitute our union. But most of the teachers vote no, because they want union. They don’t vote no against the union; they vote no to defeat the bosses’ union and to affirm and to say that they want FMPR as their own union. And I think that this is a very big victory for all the workers of the world, because it’s a victory of the rank and file, and it’s a victory of the union with social commitment, it’s a victory of the union as a working-class mechanism to work for a better future for the workers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Rafael Feliciano, when your union was decertified by the government following — or actually before you started your strike earlier this year, the new vote only had a yes or no on whether the teachers wanted to affiliate to the SEIU-backed union. Why did they not include your union on the ballot so that the employees could have a choice?

RAFAEL FELICIANO: Well, first of all, the victory of the no also says that the teachers — the teachers, the workers — never decertify our union. The bosses, the government decertify our union, because we fight for our rights and we struggle for a better education.

What happened is that with the strike finished, we go to the teachers, and they sign cards, and we have 11,000 of cards to be in the election. It’s something like an inscription to the election. Well, what happened is that the government said that we will — we cannot be in the election. They make a very bad interpretation of the law against us. And obviously, the process was very anti-democratic, because we have the signs to be in the election, we have — we don’t have any observers, we don’t have the list of the voters in — between the last day of the election, for example, between the last day of the election and the day that the commission counts the votes, they — the persons that can be in the election go high 4,000. When the election begins, all the teachers in the election were 36,000. But they put so many votes inside, illegal votes, that at the end they say that the — our teachers were 40,000.

Obviously, we won very up, and we have a very open victory, and all the threats or all the things, bad things, that they do in the commission cannot stop our movement. And I think that they make a process with many illegal things to put that bosses’ union, that business union, to support SEIU, but the government was defeated by the workers again.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Rafael Feliciano, president of the Puerto Rican teachers union in San Juan. We’re also joined by Steve Early in Boston, labor journalist. His forthcoming book is called Embedded with Organized Labor. Juan, I remember when you went down to Puerto Rico. This is in the midst of the campaign, the primaries. And in the end, isn’t it true, Barack Obama did not go to Puerto Rico because of the massive protest of the teachers outside against SEIU, and he didn’t want to get involved?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, and actually, there were protests because SEIU was scheduling its convention, its annual convention, in Puerto Rico this year, and there were protests, and some of the teachers who were protesting outside were arrested. But I’d like to ask Steve Early, the implications of this vote for the continuing battles that are breaking out in the United States over SEIU, one of the fastest growing, or supposedly one of the most progressive unions in the country, the implications of what has happened in Puerto Rico?

STEVE EARLY: Well, I think this, as Rafi just said, Juan, was a tremendously important union representation vote. This is the largest bargaining unit in Puerto Rico. And I think it’s really sad that a time when the Service Employees and other unions are campaigning here on the mainland for Obama and campaigning for the enactment in 2009, hopefully, of legislation that will protect employees’ free choice of a union in the private sector, that teachers in Puerto Rico didn’t have that choice on the ballot last week. If the FMPR had been on the ballot, it certainly would have been reinstated with full collective bargaining rights.

I think this is really a victory for the many people on the mainland who rallied to the side of the Puerto Rican teachers. There was a support committee formed in New York, out in California, to resist this North American union raid. The Puerto Rican teachers organization that Rafi heads received financial support from the California nurses, an independent union now affiliated with the AFL-CIO here. And within SEIU itself, dissident members, reform-minded delegates to the SEIU convention in Puerto Rico, bravely protested the treatment of the teachers when they tried to picket the convention, when they were man-handled by the riot police. And I think this is going to embolden reformers within SEIU, who in California right now are still resisting an attempt by the international union to put the third-largest SEIU local under trusteeship, United Healthcare Workers West, whose president Sal Rosselli you had on the show last spring.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Early, let me ask, when we tried to get SEIU to join us today, they said they were too busy, involved with getting out the vote for Barack Obama and organizing on the campaign trail. What is the significance for this major union of this defeat in Puerto Rico?

STEVE EARLY: Well, I think some of the developments in SEIU lately — the big corruption scandal in the union’s second-largest local in Los Angeles, this dispute with the UHW, excuse me, in the Bay Area, this disgraceful intervention in Puerto Rico — these are tarnishing the image, not only of SEIU, but all unions. And I think if we’re going to succeed under an Obama administration with a Congress that will hopefully have more Democrats in the House and Senate in enacting legislation here on the mainland to strengthen workers’ rights — and I’m referring to the Employee Free Choice Act — I don’t think it helps that campaign when unions engage in conduct that besmirches the image of all labor. So, I think, as much as SEIU is doing in a valuable way to help with voter turnout and to help elect more pro-labor candidates in the election this fall, their actions in Puerto Rico, their internal behavior vis-a-vis their own members, is not being helpful at this point.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to go back to Rafael Feliciano in San Juan and ask you about the role of Dennis Rivera, who is the — who was a longtime leader of the 1199 here in New York, a national leader now of SEIU, and he spearheaded a lot of the efforts in Puerto Rico to bring the SEIU in. But you — and you also have an election right there in Puerto Rico. You have a gubernatorial election coming up next week, but yet the governor of Puerto Rico and Dennis Rivera established, in essence, an alliance against you. Could you talk about that?

RAFAEL FELICIANO: Yes. First of all, Dennis Rivera was a direct — has a direct intervention in the election against us. He was all in constant taking the direction of the election against us personally. But I cannot — I want to say to you that Dennis Rivera and the government make an alliance. SEIU said that they will put money for the re-election campaign of Anibal Acevedo Vilá. That is the governor of Puerto Rico. We said that that is very bad for the labor movement, because they make a compromise with the bosses, with the dominant class in Puerto Rico, against the workers. The alliance was — they put money for the re-election of Anibal Acevedo Vilá. And Anibal Acevedo Vilá used his influence in the Department of Education and in the courts to attack our union.

But at the end, the people that suffers that kind of action are the workers first, the teachers — most of them are women — but also our students, because in his attack to the Federacion, they make many things bad for our Department of Education and for the educational process in Puerto Rico.

We think that our victory is a victory against the dominant class, and that make a little crack in the hegemony of the bourgeoisie of Puerto Rico against the workers, and also is a big — a big lesson to all the workers. If we have a very strong rank-and-file union, if we have a very democratic union, if the decision is taken from the bottom, we can make a strike, and we can defeat the alliance of many sectors of the dominant class. And also, more important of all of that is that we can develop a real class conscience in our workers, in our people.

AMY GOODMAN: Rafael Feliciano, we want to thank you for being with us, president of the Puerto Rican teachers union, speaking to us from San Juan. Steve Early, stay with us in Boston, as we go on to talk about distressed workers around the country, the working class in this country, in this time of a global economic meltdown. We will also be joined by Michael Zweig, who has a new report on distressed workers, and Steven Greenhouse, writes for the New York Times about the working class in America. Stay with us.

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