Puerto Rican Teachers: "The Long Way is the Short Way"
One year ago, in late February, teachers in Puerto Rico defied a strike ban and embarked on an all-out fight for the life of their union.
The 10-day walk-out, which capped 27 months of fruitless negotiations, set in motion months of turmoil for the 40,000-member Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico. The government decertified the FMPR as punishment for the strike, and the Service Employees attempted a raid. In late October teachers were asked to vote between SEIU and “no union,” as the government barred FMPR from the ballot.
Responding to a campaign from what they saw as their legitimate union, teachers rejected SEIU’s bid by a 10-point margin, with 55 percent voting for “no union.”
Today FMPR continues to operate as a non-majority union—just as it did before 1998, when public sector collective bargaining was legalized on the island.
The teachers union has been led since 2003 by a reform caucus called CODEMI (Commitment, Democracy, Militancy). For decades the caucus built credibility by slowly nurturing leaders and encouraging action on the local level. Labor Notes spoke with FMPR President Rafael Feliciano Hernandez and Vice President Maria Melendez in New York to see how they did it.
Labor Notes: SEIU poured tremendous resources into this election, millions of dollars, even putting ads on TV. How were you able to win?
FMPR: SEIU spent between $22 and $24 million. We spent $65,000. You can have a lot of money for propaganda, but if you don’t have links with the local leadership, with teachers in the schools, you don’t really have the strength to destroy our union.
I think that the 2008 strike is very important to understanding the “no” vote. For over a year the union developed this strike, largely through volunteers. Our union is based in voluntary work.
We don’t have money but we have leaders at the grassroots of the union, and we have relationships with the community. SEIU and the government thought that our union was a traditional bureaucratic union, but they ran full-speed into a brick wall. That wall was the people, and their commitment to education and to the union.
Something else that helped us is the fact that when you got to the balloting center SEIU had lots of staff there. But they were not teachers. They didn’t know our reality. They could not respond to the questions of the teachers.
LN: Since the 1960s public sector workers have been able to organize non-majority unions. How did you build a local structure?
FMPR: We’ve had a caucus inside the union since 1971. In the ‘80s our caucus targeted the development of local unions, each about 400 to 500 teachers. This is big, but it still permits direct contact between the local leadership and teachers in the schools.
Even when the union was controlled by a bureaucratic leadership, we still had space in the local union, an autonomous space to develop a rank-and-file leadership.
In our union the locals have lots of autonomy. They can call strikes, develop their own educational workshops, have their own newspapers. They meet with their bosses and Department of Education officials. Sometimes they negotiate local agreements. And the local unions are very democratic. The teachers directly elect the leaders every two years.
It’s difficult. Some local unions are strong, some of them are weak. But when we developed the strike, in every place that we have a strong local union, we had a strong strike.
At the top, people don’t have direct contact. You need local leadership to push, to maintain accountability, to create checks and balances.
Sometimes the national leadership loses their way. The local structure permits the rank-and-file leadership to continue. We can be in the newspaper everyday, but if the local union doesn’t have a real presence, then the union is weak.
LN: The community’s been very important in your struggles. How are they involved?
FMPR: In our strike, half of the teachers were on strike, but something like 95 percent of the schools were closed. That’s because in many schools, the parents and students struck. They become part of the process.
We’ve been building this relationship with the community since 2003, using many little strikes and struggles to support parents’ issues, like smaller classes, asbestos removal in schools, and water fountains and supplies in schools.
Through all this we’ve developed an internal debate, and had many discussions. Some of the teachers don’t want to support parents. They think they are an elite. Some of the teachers don’t want to fight back. They think the union should be a service union. But that is part of the struggle, and in the process of the strike we changed the mentality. That is one of the most important things about the strike.
A second thing to stress is that this was a women’s strike. Most of the strikers, something like 75 percent, were women who have to fight with their husbands before fighting against their bosses. That is also an important part of changing Puerto Rican society.
LN: How did you keep people committed to changing the union?
FMPR: It started when all the militant, pro-democratic members formed the CODEMI caucus (Commitment, Democracy, and Militancy). We developed a program, which was important because when somebody got elected they had to work to achieve our program. In the 1980s the caucus started by pushing amendments to the union’s by-laws to develop local unions. We concentrated our work in the local level.
Our caucus worked with a long-term view. For 10 years nobody was elected onto the national leadership of the union. We lost two national elections before our victory in 2003. But the group stayed alive, working every day. It didn’t disappear when the election was finished.
Then, just before the election of 2003 our health insurance fund went bankrupt. The leadership lost something like $43 million. It was a real crisis, and in that moment people decided now is the time to support CODEMI.
Early on, we passed an important amendment that our organizers must be elected teachers. Before that, organizers were selected by the leadership. When we made this change, that staff and organizers must be teachers on leave of absence working for the union—but elected locally, that was very important: The national executive committee had direct contact with the base.
The organizer has to be accountable to the locals, and at the same time the president doesn’t have the power to dismiss the organizers.
Sometimes an organizer doesn’t do his work. That is very difficult for us, because we cannot throw out organizers. We have to wait until his local and his people understand that he is not doing the work and they make a move.
If we don’t have a real democratic process, then everything can be torn down. That has happened many times. Democracy is difficult, but we don’t have another option.
LN: How do you keep yourself honest?
FMPR: We don’t ask our members to do anything that we don’t do. We go to picket lines and sometimes the police arrest us. People have to see us working, too, not just showing up right before a march begins or the cameras start rolling. That is how people develop confidence in you, and in themselves.
We are also respectful of our opposition. When we run a meeting, people get up and say what they want. They have the right to do that. That way people learn how to work with differences and to understand that a different point of view is good, because that is the core of the living organization. The opposition makes us more productive.