Viewpoint: The AFT Shouldn't Be Negotiating Away Puerto Rican Teachers' Pensions
This summer the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced another lousy deal that, if passed, will decimate educators’ already abysmally low pensions in Puerto Rico. The AFT has been partnering in secret with the federally appointed and dictatorial Financial Oversight and Management Board—or la junta, as it is known in Puerto Rico—for quite some time.
As a union, the AFT should be standing up to the junta and rejecting the logic of neoliberalism, which will make workers pay for Puerto Rico’s illegal and illegitimate debt. Unfortunately, the AFT chose to work with the junta and negotiate away workers’ rights in service of their own narrow interests as a colonial union in Puerto Rico.
Two years ago, a similar deal was rejected by Puerto Rican educators as the result of a hard-fought “Vote No” campaign waged by rank-and-filers, retirees, and their allies.
Today, the widely-opposed proposal is likely to go down in defeat again, but Puerto Rican educators and retirees need solidarity. As opposed to the last election in which there were outside observers stationed to ensure that the elections were conducted fairly and without bias, this time the voting will be entirely controlled by the AFT/AMPR (the union’s Puerto Rican affiliate) and no observers will be allowed in voting sites.
Educators in the U.S. who are members of the AFT need to know what the union is doing in our name so that we can raise our voices against it. From September 23-27, educators in Puerto Rico will be voting to preserve their hard-earned pensions and we in the U.S. can raise our voices in solidarity: An injury to one is an injury to all!
Myths and realities about the American Federation of Teachers involvement in the Puerto Rico bankruptcy proceedings:
Myth #1: The AFT is fighting to defend educators’ rights in Puerto Rico.
According to AFT President Randi Weingarten, the AFT and its local affiliate in Puerto Rico, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR, the Puerto Rican Teachers Association), are negotiating to defend workers rights and public education in Puerto Rico.
But the agreement that the AFT/AMPR is proposing will change the education workers' current contract for the worse, not the better. If passed, the agreement will increase the retirement age from 55 to 63, significantly lower educators’ retirement salaries, and eliminate the pensions of active and future educators by turning them into 401(k)s.
As Mercedes Martinez, the president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR, the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation) at the time of the AFT’s 2019 attempt to change the contract, said, “What type of negotiation is it where the so-called union accepts the elimination and undermining of teachers’ existing rights? It’s not a negotiation, it’s a betrayal.”
Myth #2: The AFT has no choice but to deal with the junta.
The junta is an unaccountable and undemocratic entity working in the interests of the vulture capitalists who saddled Puerto Rico with an illegal debt burden that can never be repaid. It is similar to the International Monetary Fund. The junta serves the interests of big business by making Puerto Rican workers pay for a debt they aren’t responsible for, through austerity measures that would condemn them to decades of misery.
Educators do not have a labor contract with the junta; they have a contract with the government of Puerto Rico, specifically the Department of Education. Unions in Puerto Rico have no obligation to deal or negotiate with the junta, and some unions have refused to do so on democratic principle. As the currently recognized exclusive representative of educators in Puerto Rico, the AFT/AMPR has no obligation to negotiate with the junta. They chose to do so.
Myth #3: The AFT has a moral obligation to negotiate educators’ pensions with the junta.
The government of Puerto Rico has a legally binding contract with the island’s teachers. This contract includes pension plans that were a part of the workers’ conditions of employment. When the government of Puerto Rico signed these contracts, they made economic and social commitments to their employees. These commitments impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
No one, especially a union which is supposed to represent the best interests of workers, should go behind the backs of its members and around the government of Puerto Rico to undermine this commitment. If the AFT has any moral obligation, it should be to honor and defend public-sector pensions in the face of a severe economic crisis.
Myth #4: The AFT is involved in good faith negotiations with the junta.
When workers’ organizations engage in negotiations with their bosses for better wages and working conditions, they negotiate their contracts and terms of employment. They have the power to do this because the workers have united to collectively assert their will over the employers.
When the AFT/AMPR choose to negotiate with the junta in secret and without any mechanisms for accountability, they undermine the collective power of the workers, as well as the contracts and commitments agreed upon by the union and the government of Puerto Rico. By attempting to pass an agreement with the junta that is so bad for workers, the AFT/AMPR gives tacit legitimacy to an institution and a debt that should be opposed by a fighting labor movement.
By agreeing to a plan with the junta that would push workers deeper into poverty in Puerto Rico, the AFT/AMPR is partnering with the very undemocratic organization whose purpose is to steamroller the labor movement in Puerto Rico. As a U.S.-based organization engaged in these practices, the AFT is participating in the colonial subjugation of the educators of Puerto Rico to the will of the junta.
Myth #5: This deal is in the best interest of educators and retirees in PR.
If passed, this agreement will sign away pensions in exchange for a $3,000 “recognition payment,” which will be dispersed to each member of the union “for the purpose of recognizing the outstanding service of the teachers of Puerto Rico and their importance to Puerto Rico’s future and acknowledging the challenges resulting from the freeze of the teachers’ [pensions].”
The language of the agreement itself recognizes that the freezing of educators’ pensions will cause hardship for the already extremely underpaid educators of Puerto Rico. Simply put, the AFT is agreeing to cashing in the pensions of educators to pay down illegitimate debt, in exchange for $3,000 per member.
This bribe is not in the best interest of educators or their families, to say the least. But it does serve the interest of the vulture capitalists and their allies in Washington and San Juan. In the process, the AFT is positioning itself as a “viable partner” with the junta in the hope of maintaining its lucrative position as the exclusive representative of Puerto Rican educators.
While this agreement will further impoverish Puerto Rican educators, it will line the pockets of the AFT/AMPR with dues payments and guaranteed government subsidies, in the form of payments into the union’s health care system for all members of the union.
Myth #5: There is no alternative to public-sector pension cuts in Puerto Rico.
According to the logic of neoliberalism, there is no alternative to cutting educator pensions in Puerto Rico. The AFT/AMPR’s style of business unionism accepts this logic and seeks to manage it, negotiate it and sell the results as the lesser evil.
But there is an alternative: class struggle unionism. Educators and public-sector workers have been fighting for years to defend their pensions, and they have been successful.
Under pressure from popular opinion, which supports maintaining public-sector pensions, as well as sustained struggle in the streets, the Puerto Rican legislature and conservative governor Pedro Pierluisi passed legislation in June that protects pensions. Law 7, the Law for a Dignified Retirement, was developed and advanced by a coalition of independent and local unions, as well as groups and coalitions that are organizing to cancel the debt.
The AFT’s announced deal with the junta undermines this effort, just at a moment when the junta is trying to dismiss it. This has created a situation in which the AFT/AMPR is acting to directly undermine the hard-won victories of the labor and social movements in Puerto Rico and, by extension, the autonomy and self-determination of the country itself.
The Puerto Rican uprising of 2019—known as “el verano combativo” (the combative summer)—that brought down the governorship of Ricardo Roselló reminded the world of the slogan that “When we fight, we can win.” Now we have to remind the AFT of this.
This statement originally ran on the website of the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), a caucus within New York City’s United Federation of Teachers “that defends members rights, fights for social justice, and empowers workers in schools.”