SEIU to Raid Union Representing 40,000 Teachers in Puerto Rico

Dennis Rivera, chair of the national SEIU Healthcare union, announced December 28 that an organization of teachers and school principals in Puerto Rico would affiliate with SEIU and seek to challenge the incumbent Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR).

In a double blow, Puerto Rico’s Labor Relations Commission decertified FMPR on January 9 after the union’s delegate body voted unanimously to strike. Public sector strikes are illegal on the island.

Puerto Rico’s secretary of education declared that since FMPR was decertified, contract negotiations with the union, which had been ongoing for two years, would cease and elections would be called sometime in the next year. The SEIU affiliate Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR) will be allowed to contest those elections.

FMPR v. AMPR

FMPR is the exclusive bargaining representative of all 40,000 public school teachers in Puerto Rico. FMPR was organized in the 1960s as a minority union (known in Puerto Rico as a “bonafide association”) of teachers that were seeking a more militant voice in the workplace. The union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) shortly after it was founded.

Independent unions have denounced SEIU’s raiding as an attack on militant unions and an act of colonialism.

AMPR is Puerto Rico’s oldest educators’ professional association. In its early years, AMPR fought against compulsory English-only education, which was mandated by the U.S.-appointed governors who administered the island from the early 1900s until the 1940s.

In the 1960s, militant teachers declared that AMPR had become a cog of the Popular Democratic Party machine, the political party that created Puerto Rico’s so-called “commonwealth” relationship with the U.S.

They organized FMPR as an independent voice of schoolteachers, and since the 1960s, the unions have squared off as rivals.

AMPR and FMPR in 1999 faced off in the first union election for exclusive representation, a right granted to Puerto Rico’s public sector employees the previous year. FMPR won a landslide victory.

But FMPR suffered a serious setback in 1999 when its health insurance plan went bankrupt, while an increasing share of the teachers’ union dues were going to its international parent, AFT. This crisis led to the election of the dissident caucus, CODEMI (Commitment, Democracy and Militancy) in 2003, which led an effective disaffiliation campaign from AFT and reorganized the newly independent union, in the words of CODEMI, into an “instrument of struggle.”

A POWERFUL LOBBY

Amidst the two-year contract battle, AMPR and SEIU announced their intention to affiliate and seek to represent the island’s public school teachers. According to the AMPR’s leader, Aida Díaz, the AMPR’s affiliation with SEIU is “a great step” because it would help the union obtain “full social security and resources for professional development.” Díaz added that because one-third of all education dollars in Puerto Rico come from the U.S. government, and SEIU is a “powerful lobbying force” in Washington, D.C., the union can better secure funds for its members.

Rivera told the Associated Press that “the $1,600 that teachers currently receive [per month] in the island is tragic and we are committed to struggle to improve the economic and labor conditions of teachers and, generally, improve the education of the country.” Rivera further stated that he could not envision FMPR affiliating with SEIU because FMPR had disaffiliated from AFT.

During the contract fight, the SEIU leadership in Puerto Rico, which leads one union local of cafeteria workers and another of nurses and residents, has not backed FMPR in its struggle.

The FMPR and other independent unions have denounced SEIU’s raiding expedition as an attack on militant unions and an act of colonialism. The electrical workers’ union president, Ricardo Santos—who is also involved in a battle to make the government bargain with his union—publicly demanded that Rivera stay in New York and to leave Puerto Rican unions alone.