Puerto Rico’s Teachers Beat SEIU Raid

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When last seen on the picket line, Puerto Rican teachers were fighting their way through police barricades to appeal to fellow workers from the Service Employees (SEIU) at its lavishly funded convention in San Juan in June.

The message of the Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) was simple: please stop SEIU President Andy Stern from colluding with the indicted governor of the island to replace FMPR with a “company union.”

In the view of SEIU, teachers needed a new SEIU-affiliated union because FMPR no longer had legal recognition after its walk-out over wages, classroom size, and the threat of privatization.

This month, however, the teachers themselves disagreed that it was time for a change. By a margin of 18,123 to 14, 675, they voted against joining the SEIU-backed SPM (Sindicato Puertorriqueno de Maestros), which is closely aligned with another SEIU affiliate, the Association de Maestros de Puerto Rico, an organization of school principals and administrators.

OFF PROGRAM

At SEIU’s convention, only a handful of delegates dared to challenge Stern on this issue. When eight rank-and-file members from California tried to distribute a leaflet asking why the “top leadership has sided against the teachers of Puerto Rico in a gross case of ‘colonial’ unionism,” SEIU staffers threatened several of them with reprisals. “They told us that this is a betrayal and that we could be suspended from the union if we continued handing out the fliers,” delegate Brian Cruz, from Local 1021 in San Francisco, explained to The San Juan Star.

Most of the 3,000 delegates and guests simply cheered when Stern and SEIU Healthcare Chair Dennis Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, introduced their good friend, Anibal Acevedo Vila, the island’s governor. Acevedo Vila is still awaiting trial on federal corruption charges and it was his administration that precipitated a 10-day, island-wide public school strike led by the FMPR last winter. As The Star reported June 3, SEIU used its convention and the governor’s appearance to promote a rival organization, “which is hoping to become the new union representative for an estimated 42,000 public school teachers.”

It was not to be. The FMPR orchestrated a “vote no” campaign, after it was denied a spot on the ballot as further punishment for its “illegal” strike. FMPR was even barred from having observers at teacher polling places.

Prior to the start of the election, FMPR presented evidence to the labor relations commission showing that it still had voluntary financial support from 12,000 members, who have continued to pay union dues even though automatic deductions from all teachers’ paychecks were discontinued when FMPR was decertified.
Although SEIU favors “employee free choice” on the mainland and assured critics here there would be a multiple-choice ballot, Puerto Rican teachers had just one union option, which they then rejected.

The defeated SPM has almost no dues payers so SEIU had to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into this losing effort, much of it spent on advertising. As one FMPR supporter reported, SEIU had “paid staff at each school giving out free T-shirts and coolers and the media and the government were clearly in its favor but still they couldn’t impose their union on us.”

FMPR activist Edgardo Alvelo, who teaches at a vocational school in Rio Piedras, estimates that his union spent only “$50,000 on the whole campaign.” According to Alvelo, “that money was very hard to obtain, but it was enough to win. It was our people in the schools that did the job. Today, we are celebrating and tomorrow our struggle will continue in all our schools.”

94 PERCENT TURN-OUT

The vote turnout was extremely high. Of the 36,000 teachers eligible to participate due to their permanent status, 33,818 actually voted, with a thousand of those ballots being challenged or voided. FMPR now faces the task of continuing to function as what’s called a “bonafide organization” under Puerto Rican labor law. While still deprived of the full collective bargaining rights it had before the strike, FMPR retains a strong steward structure, the ability to represent members, and mobilize around educational policy issues and day-to-day job concerns.

FMPR supporters in New York, California, and elsewhere aided the successful “vote no” campaign by raising money to help keep this militant independent union afloat. (For more information, see the FMPR’s own website: http://fmprlucha.org) On October 14, some protested outside the Manhattan headquarters of United Healthcare Workers-East (the former SEIU/District 1199 long headed by Rivera), where they denounced Stern’s raid on FMPR as an insult to New York hospital workers “proud history of fighting for justice and dignity.”

During an August visit, one New York Solidarity Committee member, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, brought money that was collected for FMPR members disciplined for their union activity. Reports Sheridan-Gonzalez, a registered nurse:

“The union, in collaboration with students and parents, had developed a progressive, inclusive curriculum that was extraordinarily successful. This collaborative structure was unilaterally dismantled by the government/school authority in 2007 and 17 teachers were suspended when they fought back. Their energy and commitment was inspiring and reminiscent of the spirit of U.S. unions in the 1930s and Puerto Rican labor in years past.”

That same feisty spirit was on display in this month’s island-wide union vote, which gave SEIU an expensive lesson in the meaning of “no.”

Comments

Anonymous (not verified) | 11/12/08

a reader of my original 10-27 post concerning my job seeking experience with seiu commented ,"don't be concerned you did'nt get the job...and "count your blessings".

first of all,my 10-27 posting was edited of the most important points
of my seiu job seeking experience-details of the sacramento meeting explaining my positive impressions of malcolm x & harry bridges and th negative impact it garnered from meeting organizers-
and information regarding the organizer in training agenda presented us that day ie; q & a,door knocking techniques & "script" following.

if readers had gotten th chance to see how radical personnel is screened out during th hiring process,more clarity regarding th current anti-radicalism tendencies-as displayed in puerto rico- of seiu would be more evident.

contrary to what i call th "defeatist" suggestions of my reader
to "count my blessings and avoid "concern",i am concerned.

i am concerned about workers who stand to have their rights compromised by an apathetic collective that know doubt uses th religion of complacency and pre-emption to help maintain th economic status quo.

you know,workers on bottom,corporate fat cats & union brass on top.

complacency is not a blessing,and neither is following th script!

Anonymous (not verified) | 10/28/08

I too used to work for SEIU as an organizer in Southern California, a hotbed of pro-Stern initiatives that are purely anti-democratic. These kind of articles have to continue to keep educating folks as to what SEIU really means for the future of unions and the future of working class people.

Anonymous (not verified) | 10/27/08

the seiu claims to be a renegade union, but has committed itself to a sellout polemic that is damaging to workers.

in august 08', i applied at local seiu union 1021 for the union "organizer" position being advertised, and was granted an interview.i was excited about the possibility of working as an official organizer and articulated to seiu that it would be a dream fulfilled to get paid for organizing and/or working at a "labor of love".

being a local experienced activist with some notoriety, i believed my chances at becoming an organizer for seiu and assisting reformist actions that benefit workers were slightly enhanced, and during my first interview i attempted to ingratiate myself (to th best of my abilities) with th all female interview staff.

at the interview i proudly informed my interviewers of the successful local grassroots campaign/actions i had previously been involved in-in leadership capacity- supplying information that could be easily confirmed/verified via archival news research.

though one of my interviewers was aware of my local accomplishments,the others seemed apathetic, as i explained in short how i came to appreciate the power of the union collective.

detailing my memories/ special relationships to former union member "oldtimers" in the rural south- where i was raised- and their interesting stories as pullman train porters,organizers,and pre-civil rights struggle activists with varying opinions of historical labor leaders -such as harry bridges and A. Phillip Randolph- i left the interview with a particular confidence that i had "got the job".

needless to say i was suprised when i received a letter from seiu deciding they were selecting someone "more qualified" .

with this in mind, i was even more surprised (and confused)2 weeks later when i received a phone call late one evening explaining a mistake in the process & asking me to attend an organizers meeting/interview in sacramento (150 miles) early the next morning & though it was difficult for me to attend, i agreed.

as my excitement grew (again),i quickly made babysitting arrangements for my child and sped toward sacramento. when i arrived (a couple minutes late),there were around 15 to 20 people sitting in roundtable fashion and after a 3 organizer/organizer-in-training greeting,we each were asked to give a personal introduction of ourselves,our work history,and th reasons why we were interested in organizing.

nervously,i spoke to th group telling them of my frequent firings for union agitating/sympathizing and how i felt as a worker a particular calling toward union organizing, interlacing my intro with a short glimpse of a few of my historical activist/ union leaning heroes.

the next evening i received my "no" phone call, and when i pressed for a reason,the female caller(head organizer) told me they were "looking for people that just follow instructions" and "have no experience because people with experience are hard to train".
i told her that i actually had no experience either but it had no effect.i asked her what they were looking for and that it appeared they are only interested in a-historical ditto-heads that won't recognize union capitulation/anti radicalism for years into their employment.she sighed,and i hung up.

i did'nt get the job homie.

Anonymous (not verified) | 11/03/08

Please don't be concerned that you did not get the job.
SEIU is not interested in hiring folks with an opinion or mind of their own. Also, this union (and perhaps others as well, I only have experience with SEIU) do not care that you have other responsibilities. They will use your labor and discard you when their goal is accomplished.
Count Your Blessings

Andrew English (not verified) | 10/24/08

This victory for rank and file unionism is very inspiring. During my brief time working for SEIU, I saw how their pro-Stern leaders would consistently sell out the interests of workers, and attack real unions. I am very happy to be back with a real union again, and far away from SEIU.

Andy English, Iowa trade unionist.