The Puerto Rican convention center hosting the Service Employees International Union’s big confab is kind of an eerie cross between Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and a prison in some isolated part of rural California.
The entire complex was fenced in or gated off, with police and security guards posted at every entrance. Once you’re inside it’s a little more suave than supermax. There is parking for probably 2,000 cars, but this morning the whole place was empty except for about a dozen buses bringing delegates in from their hotels.
Labor Notes Policy Committee member Steve Early rode in on the bus with me to check out the scene, even though he was denied press credentials for the convention. Apparently Steve was barred because he encouraged a group of labor educators and academics to draft an open letter to SEIU's President Andy Stern last month. At least that’s how SEIU communications staff explained it when they called the Association for Union Democracy (AUD) to ‘clarify’ why Early couldn’t report on the convention for AUD’s publication Union Democracy Review. The open letter in question called on SEIU to respect principled debate inside the union and warned Stern that a trusteeship of the 140,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West would send a “troubling message.”
As Early and I surveyed the scene in front of the convention center who should walk by but none other than Andy Stern (and, yes, he was wearing purple). Ever the politician, he walked over for a little grip and grin. We politely introduced ourselves, too, and off he went. I couldn’t help but notice—he sure walks fast.
Shortly after, the head of the sergeant-at-arms corps came over to tell Early that he was not credentialed and that he would have to leave the premises—that is, move to the other side of fences and gates, 2000 yards away. As the fates would have it Brother Stern was returning to the convention center at that very moment and Early called out to him, asking if Stern could do anything about his impending ejection. “I’m not in charge,” Stern said.
Saturday’s division meetings were closed, so even with my precious press pass I couldn’t get into the building. Probably a good thing, since this 21st century union was all about the 21st century security. To get through the front doors folks had to get the barcode on their badges scanned twice and pass through a turnstile. Maybe the retinal scanners are deployed only for special occasions, like Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila’s address on Monday. One delegate told me that after giving the security guards grief about all the restrictions getting in and out of the building, they said, “It’s for your protection.” He asked, “Protection from what?”
NOT SO WELCOME IN PUERTO RICO
Apparently the looming threat is the Puerto Rican teachers, whose union is known by its Spanish acronym FMPR. About 100 teachers gathered outside the convention center Saturday morning to protest SEIU’s raid on their union (read the full story from the February Labor Notes). In January the FMPR was decertified by the Puerto Rican government for authorizing a strike. The decertification coincided with SEIU’s announcement that they were affiliating a rival teacher union and making plans to scoop up Puerto Rico’s 40,000 teachers.
The teachers out protesting at the SEIU convention are no strangers to conflict. Sometime after 11 a.m. they calmly marched to one of the two entrances to the convention center, overran the police barricades, and moved to the front of main convention center building to set up an impromptu picket line. Right before the protesters got to the barricades one older woman turned to me and said, “You better take off your sunglasses.” Thirty seconds later she was pushing her way past a cop decked out in a bulletproof vest and armed with a billy club.
About 40-50 of the teachers and their supporters managed to get right in front of the convention center. Some tried to enter the building but between the security guards and the cops they didn’t make it very far. Clearly they hadn’t been briefed about the bar-coded ID cards.
While most delegates had no idea what was going on, convention planners didn’t give them much time to find out. Sergeants-at-arms quickly started hustling delegates back inside the building and within minutes San Juan police reinforcements arrived. Later it came out that planners didn’t let people leave the building to see what was going on.
A team of 20 beefy cops quickly set up a barrier between the picketers and SEIU convention-goers, while several SEIU rank and filers watched and worried for the safety of the teachers, noting sympathetically, “This is what unions do. This is how we got started.”
The SEIU communications staff squirmed on the sidelines, trying to figure out what to make of the confrontation. The irony of seeing them sweat wasn’t lost on me either, considering SEIU crashed the Labor Notes conference just two months ago. To be clear, teachers only clashed with the cops (and rent-a-cops) during this episode. If they ever got close to a crowd of SEIU members they tried to hand them a flyer or start a conversation about why they were there.
I’m sure it officially became a bad day for the SEIU press folks once the TV cameras showed up and FMPR president Rafael Feliciano Hernández gave an interview three feet away from the police cordon, with SEIU’s big “Justice for All: Pass it On” banner as a backdrop.
Background on SEIU's Raid of the
Puerto Rican Teachers' Union
In January SEIU announced affiliation plans for a rival union, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), which represents principals, school supervisors, and other education personnel. SEIU’s move coincided with a decision by the Puerto Rican government to decertify the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) after it declared its intention last November to go on strike after more than two years working without a contract. Public sector strikes are illegal in Puerto Rico, much like in New York state under the infamous ‘Taylor Law.’
According to Juan Gonzalez at the New York Daily News, SEIU Vice President Dennis Rivera got the green light to raid the teachers union last December from his close friend, Puerto Rican Governor Anibal Acevedo Vilá. As one source informed Gonzalez: “The governor told Dennis, ‘It’s essentially yours to take.’” (read the Daily News story here)
At the end of February teachers launched a 10 day strike that paralyzed the island (read the full story from the April Labor Notes). During the strike reports swirled in the Puerto Rican press that SEIU was offering hefty financial backing for Acevedo Vila’s re-election bid in exchange for support organizing the teachers. Acevedo Vilá, now under indictment for a series of campaign finance scandals, denies reports of a quid pro quo with SEIU. Rivera for his part has similarly denied offering the union’s hefty political purse in exchange for access to the teachers.
“Justice for All” is the theme for this year’s SEIU convention, which Andy Stern has starkly contrasted with the “Just Us” unionism of the past. Apparently having members actually negotiate their own contracts or have real, live people handling grievances or developing a union presence on the job is so 20th century.
Instead “Justice for All” proposes international staff take over national contract negotiations and field representatives be replaced by call center workers on the other end of a 800 number (Stewards don’t even merit a mention in Stern’s tract on the way forward for SEIU).
Although the protesters stayed for almost two hours, not a lot of back and forth could take place through the police line. More than once I was asked by confused SEIUers what was going on, only to be met with blank stares when I started to explain the story. SEIU staff seemed none too interested in promoting a dialogue, either. One Michigan Healthcare staffer interrupted me as I was explaining the FMPR’s chants to three rank and filers (loosely translated “we don’t want a dues sucking union, we want a real union”). The members got a good laugh out of that, but were hustled inside before they could hear the serious part of the story.
JUSTICE FOR ALL VS. JUST US
As the protesters marched and chanted I couldn’t help but think about SEIU’s current conflict with the California Nurses Association (CNA). SEIU declared war with the CNA because they scuttled a quickie election for 8,000 hospital workers in Ohio—an election filed for by the employer, where the CNA wasn’t on the ballot. SEIU labeled CNA leaders union busters, and unilaterally declared them persona non grata in the house of labor. Unfortunately the charge didn’t have quite the same impact it might have a few years ago, before SEIU split the house of labor in two.
Two months earlier, however, SEIU was busy cutting the FMPR’s contract fight off at the knees. According to Juan Gonzalez at the New York Daily News, SEIU Vice President Dennis Rivera’s alleged tete-á-tete with the governor to rub out the teachers union happened less than a month after 7,000 FMPR delegates gathered to authorize a strike. Instead of offering solidarity (dare we say “Justice for All”?) SEIU was maneuvering to ‘organize’ 40,000 new members (wouldn’t that be looking out for “Just Us’?). I guess the convention slogans hadn’t yet been crafted.
At a press conference Saturday evening SEIU International Vice President Eliseo Medina went to great pains to express his support of the teachers’ right to have their voices heard. “Teachers will ultimately decide who represents them,” Medina said.
But Roberto Pagan, president of SEIU's public sector affiliate in Puerto Rico, was more straightforward. “We disagree with the FMPR’s strategy,” he said. “They oppose the law that gave public sector workers collective bargaining rights and we support it.” Pagan was referring to the Puerto Rican law that gave public sector workers the right to collectively bargain but which also eliminates the right to strike.
On Sunday the teachers will turn their attention to protesting Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party primary, which they say highlights Puerto Rico’s second-class status as a U.S. commonwealth. (Puerto Ricans don’t get to vote for president so why all the hoopla over voting for the Democratic candidates?) Another contingent will spend Sunday morning participating in San Juan’s gay pride parade.
Teachers vow to renew their protests at the SEIU convention on Monday.