Puerto Rican Teachers Fight for Union Democracy

The Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), the 35,000-member union that represents public school teachers in Puerto Rico, is locked in battle with its international union, the American Federation of Teachers. At a disaffiliation assembly in September 2004, more than 60 percent of FMPR voted to leave the AFT. In response, the International has been trying to force the FMPR back into the AFT.

The largest labor union in Puerto Rico, the FMPR has called on all Puerto Rican unions to form a united front against what it sees as a disregard for the democratic decisions of Puerto Rican workers.


Since the disaffiliation vote, the AFT has used the courts. First, the AFT filed a complaint with the Puerto Rico Commission for the Public Service (similar to the NLRB, but for Puerto Rico’s state employees) stating that the disaffiliation vote was a violation of FMPR’s constitution and collective bargaining agreement. The complaint was dismissed.

Now, the AFT is attempting to put the FMPR under trusteeship, claiming that the FMPR owes it millions of dollars in dues. The FMPR has signaled its willingness to pay the debt, but the AFT has refused to meet with FMPR leaders.

The FMPR was organized in 1966 as a militant alternative to the pro-management teachers’ union, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR). AMPR leadership included many members of the official ruling party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which effectively controlled most, if not all, of Puerto Rico’s unions. AMPR leadership also included supervisors and school principals, who were considered “management” and not “employees” of the school system.

At that time, teachers’ salaries were miserable and economic conditions in Puerto Rico were deteriorating; a stronger voice for teachers was required.

Shortly thereafter, the FMPR affiliated with the AFT to secure mutual support between the U.S.-based union and Puerto Rico’s teachers. However, by the 1990s the relationship between the AFT and the FMPR had become parasitical, with the FMPR sending $2.8 million to the AFT every year (more than 40 percent of the union’s annual budget) while receiving few services or benefits in return.

Led by FMPR activist Rafael Feliciano, the progressive caucus in the FMPR, CODEMI (Compromiso, Democracia y Militancia, or Commitment, Democracy, and Militancy), began agitating to increase union members’ democratic participation.




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FMPR members voted for the CODEMI ticket in May 2003—making Feliciano FMPR president—after the union’s health insurance collapsed due to what Feliciano called “the sacking of millions of dollars from the health plan” by the previous union leaders. Feliciano and the CODEMI caucus advocated for disaffiliation from the AFT.

Although the AFT leadership argued that it provided FMPR teachers with “liability insurance,” the FMPR could provide its members the same insurance at a much lower cost.

Meanwhile, FMPR teachers were making basic salaries of less than $25,000 in a U.S. territory with a standard of living as high as that of the continental United States. The AFT did little to help Puerto Rican teachers earn better salaries or improve their working conditions.

In addition, while militancy, ties to social movements, and participatory democracy are goals of the new FMPR leadership, this leadership believes that the AFT follows a traditional “business union” model. Rather than focus resources on educating and mobilizing rank-and-file FMPR members, the AFT advocates for FMPR’s interests by lobbying for increased funding for education.

FMPR’s CODEMI leadership, on the other hand, prioritizes rank-and-file involvement. For example, in its current contract negotiations, FMPR members have been involved in drafting the union’s proposed agreeement, and teachers held a massive rally May 6 to pressure the department of education into meeting their demands.

FMPR’s leaders note that lobbying is not the problem; the problem is focusing only on lobbying, and not on rank-and-file mobilization.


At a time when the FMPR is negotiating a new contract, the AFT’s threats of trusteeship are undermining union leaders as they bargain with school administration. The fight for a new contract has been difficult because of the Puerto Rican government’s current austerity policies.

Fiscal problems motivated Governor Acevedo Vilá to take a hard line against the more than 40 public sector unions currently negotiating contracts in Puerto Rico, giving zero wage increases to all of them. That the AFT would threaten the FMPR in the middle of such a struggle illustrates the AFT’s disregard for workers’ interests in Puerto Rico.

César F. Rosado Marzán is a labor attorney and sociologist living in New York. He has worked closely with Puerto Rican unionists and written about Puerto Rican labor relations.