|2017: Puerto Rico teachers demand the reopening of closed schools|
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444,retied
In 2016, the US Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). Part of the Act was the creation of the Federal Oversight Board to manage Puerto Rico’s debt crisis The scenario is very similar to the IMF’s Structural Adjustments Programs it imposes on developing nations that become so overwhelmed by debt they can’t function. Structural adjustment’s are actually austerity programs; cut public services, public spending, wages benefits and so on. If they refuse due to social pressure perhaps, there will be a strike of capital and other resources by foreign investors.
Like these Structural Adjustment programs, Puerto Rico’s Federal Oversight Board has immense power backed by US Congress and its goal is to shift the burden of capitalist crisis on to the backs of Puerto Rico’s workers and the poor. Puerto Rico’s public sector is a major target and there have been huge struggles against this imposed austerity by teachers in particular. The Oversight board has the authority over “the prompt enforcement of any applicable laws of the covered territory prohibiting public sector employees from participating in a strike or lockout”. It’s clear to even the most casual observer that the US Congress sees Puerto Rico just like any other colonial possession.
Over 40% of PR’s labor force is unionized and teachers have been in the forefront of the resistance to the Oversight Board’s aggressive austerity agenda. Back in 2018 as teachers’ in West Virginia, Arizona and other Right to Work States were showing how strikes can be won, members of the Puerto Rican Teachers’ Union (FMPR) were brutalized by police as they protested school closures, layoffs, cuts in pensions.
The FMPR has some 5000 members as the government decertified the FMPR after they struck in 2008 and removed members. They disaffiliated from the American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO) back in 2005. The Puerto Rico Teachers Association Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, (AMPR) is the remaining AFT affiliate.
Mercedes Martinez is the president of the independent FMPR and reported today that the AFT/AMPR is in negotiations with the Oversight Board and “bargained to cut teachers pensions and increase retirement age to 63.”
She has appealed to members of the AFT affiliate and members of the AFT throughout the US to “stand with teachers in Puerto Rico and call out on Randi Weingarten and her treason to our teachers.”
Facts For Working People encourages our readers to help in any way you can. However, what sister Mercedes refers to as “treason” is the norm among the leadership of organized labor. We saw it in the Machinists dispute with Boeing a few years ago. It occurs in the UAW, the ILWU, the Teamsters. Randi Weingarten is no different to any other president of a national union and you can bet your bottom dollar that the AFT Executive Council is on board with this betrayal; you have to be “realistic” is the usual refrain. It’s a euphemism for concessions.
The entire leadership of organized labor supports the Team Concept, the view that workers and bosses’ interests are the same; we’re on the same team. So when capitalism goes in to crisis like it is and has in PR, they move to bail it out and naturally, the dues paying member pays the price in reduced wages benefits and/or jobs. We must reject this philosophy if we are to turn the tide as Sister Martinez and the Puerto Rican Teachers Union has. But they need help.
Back in 2017, AFT President Randi Weingarten and the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico President Aida Díaz de Rodriguez sent a letter to the Oversight Board informing them of the, “harmful impact of the deep education cuts over the past decade and the devastating consequences additional proposed reductions would have on students and Puerto Rico’s future.” They even invited the board to come to the schools and, “see firsthand how the cuts have affected Puerto Rico’s schools and children.”
Are we expected to think that these top labor officials actually think the members of this capitalist austerity board do not know the effect their policies will have on their victims? That’s an insult.
As they always do, in efforts to cover their asses, Weingarten added, “We are standing in solidarity with teachers in Puerto Rico as they demand an end to the destructive cuts that their education system has endured.”
Well, that didn’t have too much of an impact as she is now agreeing to further attacks on her members living standards
But she is “standing with solidarity” with them as she does it you see.
We can have our position on whether a union should disaffiliate or stay when it comes to the point where we cannot continue to go backwards and the leadership appears so entrenched. But we cannot avoid a fight; the bosses' won't allow it. All workers, union or not should support a union and leaders like Sister Martinez that are willing to go on the offensive.
Sister Martinez is asking members of AFT/AMPR to vote no on this agreement that would be crucial as a yes vote would undermine all workers in PR And if other AFT members are able to, introduce a solidarity statement with the teachers in Puerto Rico to your local or write one individually.
But that alone is not enough. Sister Martinez and others in the leadership of the Puerto Rican Teachers’ Union clearly have a more militant approach and rather than write a letter here or a phone call there, have looked to the power of the rank and file and direct action as opposed to class collaboration. We can use the courts but we can’t rely on them. There were significant struggles in Puerto Rico between unionized truckers and the Oversight Board recently as well; as the old saying goes, An Injury to One is and Injury to All
Randi Weingarten and “her” executive board as that’s probably what it is, will not be swayed by appeals to decency, but they can be moved if the members of the AFT Affiliate in PR vote no and significant numbers of AFT members in the mainland make it clear they will not sit idly by and allow it.