[Marxism] Puerto Rican Teachers: Unbought and Unbowed

Fred Bergen all.power.to.the.soviets at gmail.com
Fri Jul 18 08:02:34 MDT 2008

Strike Challenged Slave Labor Law, Despite Setbacks They’re Still Ready
to Fight

Puerto Rican Teachers: Unbought and Unbowed

Forge a Revolutionary Internationalist Workers Party!


The two-week strike by Puerto Rican teachers was a historic event, in
open defiance of Law 45, a ruthless piece of anti-union legislation that
outlaws strikes, work stoppages or even voting for such labor action.
>From the beginning of the walkout on February 20 to the decision to
return to the classrooms, approved by a giant assembly on March 5 with
some 10,000 union members participating, the action by the Federation of
Puerto Rican Teachers (FMPR) threw the island into turmoil. The FMPR,
representing some 42,000 educators, dared to break the prohibition
decreed by the colonial capitalist rulers. In doing so, they blazed the
way for all Puerto Rican workers.

There were pickets at hundreds of the 1,500 schools, classrooms were
emptied: up to three-quarters of the students didn’t attend school.
There were dramatic scenes of women teachers with shields confronting
the Fuerza de Choque (Shock Force) of the Puerto Rican Police. There
were scores of picket-line arrests. These fighters decidedly did not act
as victims, but rather as protagonists in the fight for justice. Those
in charge of the Puerto Rican educational system can no longer delude
themselves that they have a submissive workforce.

The strikers confronted an unholy alliance of enemies which extended
from a governor under investigation for corruption and his arrogant
secretary of education to the “dues-sucking” union leaders of the SEIU
(the U.S. Service Employees International Union) who shamefully took the
side of the employer. While the teachers were forced to declare a
“recess” of the strike – that is, to call it off – it was because the
bosses’ intimidation tactics were having an effect on part of the
membership, and because the FMPR found itself alone, without the active
support of the rest of the workers movement.

The government canceled the Federation’s legal certification as
bargaining agent for the teachers. The Department of Education refused
to sign a contract or any agreement. Even so, due to the pressure of the
looming strike, the D.E. decreed a pay increase of $100 monthly, and a
raise in the paltry base salary to $1,750 a month; it formally renounced
any effort to privatize public education through charter schools; it
committed itself to maintaining established terms of employment and
working conditions; and it refrained from taking measures against the
strikers for violating Law 45.

The Federation was able to retreat in an orderly way, “with their heads
held high and with no reprisals,” as the union publication Páginas
Sindicales (April 2008) put it. In the face of the decertification of
the union, the assembly on March 5 collected more than 7,000 signatures
to deduct dues for the FMPR as a fraternal association (hermandad
bonafides). The teachers are going though a difficult period, but the
Federation did not renounce the right to go on strike, and the militancy
of the union is unbroken.

The educators of the FMPR gave a lesson to the entire workers movement
of Puerto Rico and the United States. The heroic strikers deserve our
admiration and the labor misleaders who stabbed them in the back should
be despised by every trade-unionist with an ounce of dignity. Above all,
it is necessary to rearm the FMPR and all Puerto Rican unions for
all-out class struggle. Those who hold that the teachers’ strike should
never have occurred think that you have to submit to the whip, that all
resistance is hopeless. Many are cutting deals behind the backs of the
workers in order to feather their nests. But those who fight to defeat
the forces that would bury public education will seek to turn this
strike experience into a school for class-struggle labor education. As
Karl Marx wrote of the unions in his pamphlet, Value, Price and Profit

“They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against
the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to
change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the
final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate
abolition of the wages system.”

Balance Sheet of a Hard-Fought Strike

The Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International
actively supported the Puerto Rican teachers strike: denouncing the
“labor colonialism” of U.S. union tops; publishing articles on the
Internet and in leaflets; putting out a 12-page strike special, in
English and Spanish, hundreds of copies of which were sold by our team
that traveled to the island; helping to organize solidarity
demonstrations in New York; helping to get important motions of
solidarity from New York City unions; and obtaining statements of labor
solidarity from the Bay Area to Mexico and Brazil. We also raised key
issues to win this important battle, as well as criticisms of the
strategy pursued by the union leadership. Now it is time to draw up a
balance sheet in order to prepare for the coming battles.

>From the moment that seven thousand union members voted in a delegated
assembly last November to authorize a strike, the Teachers Federation
has been the target of an assault by the government of Aníbal Acevedo
Vilá, of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD); by its Department of
Education and its high-handed chief Rafael Aragunde; by a bourgeois
press rabidly hostile to the FMPR; by a handful of union misleaders on
the make who have been bribed with the dues money assured to them under
Law 45, so long as there is no fight for the interests of the members;
by some ex-leaders of the Federation who have sold out; and by the
would-be king of the “dues-sucking” bureaucrats, Dennis Rivera, head of
the health workers sector of the SEIU.

We have reported in a separate article on the shameful campaign against
the FMPR by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which went to the
federal courts in 2004 in a vain attempt to stop the disaffiliation of
the Puerto Rican union, or, failing that, to seize its assets (see “A
Case of Labor Colonialism: AFL-CIO and Change to Win vs. the FMPR,” on
page 59). We also worked with FMPR members and supporters to overcome
this, and together were successful in getting through motions of
solidarity from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and Professional
Staff Congress (PSC) in New York, despite resistance stemming from the
fact that both are part of the AFT (which is more like a subsidiary of
the UFT). Others worked to reach unionists in Local 1199 and other SEIU
affiliates. This showed that real labor solidarity between U.S. and
Puerto Rican unionists is possible, despite the pro-imperialist politics
of the union tops.

But the fundamental battle was taking place on the ground in Puerto
Rico. The strikers showed great courage and determination. The shock
troops of Pedro Toledo’s Puerto Rican Police dragged off women teachers
by the hair. Campuses of the University of Puerto Rico carried out a
one-day stoppage, although far too late in the strike, while leftist
students and faculty unionists played an active role on the picket line.
But as the strike dragged on with no end in sight, the number of
teachers actively participating began to drop sharply.

A balance sheet of the strike in the union’s Páginas Sindicales (April
2008) by the FMPR’s secretary of union education, Luis Angel Torres,
reported that active support for the strike (either by picketing or
staying home) was down from 60 percent of the teachers at the start to
50 percent after seven days and was dropping to one-third, “showing that
the strike process was deteriorating and the end of the strike was
near.” With under half of the workforce participating, the strike was
unsustainable, and a return to work was unavoidable. The only question
was whether it would be ragged or with a show of force, which the union
achieved, showing that it had the determined support of thousands of
teachers, even in difficult straits. But these figures reveal real
weaknesses and errors in preparing the struggle.

Although the union had said that there were hundreds of strike
committees in schools around the island, in many cases these were too
weak to sustain a hard-fought struggle. It is certainly relevant, as
Torres noted, that “the lack of strike experience had its effect on a
majority of the picket lines, since strikebreakers were permitted to
enter freely, without resistance by the strikers.” But that also shows
that there was insufficient preparation by the union leadership. If “the
majority of the membership prepared for a short-lived strike,” that
means that the FMPR leaders either expected the same, or did not ensure
that the ranks understood what was involved in real terms. Since it was
a struggle just to call the strike in the first place, such deficiencies
may be understandable, but they can be fatal – and in this case they

The colonial government lined up its labor finks, made some concessions,
organized scabherding, and brought out the police in force. The bosses
were prepared for a knock-down, drag-out battle and the union ranks were
not, at least not sufficiently. And though the teachers fought
valiantly, that inadequate preparation is the fault of the leadership.
Of course, defeatists, scabs and other scum will seize on this to argue
that the teachers should not have struck. Those voices of despair are
echoing the bosses’ propaganda. But serious labor militants – and
teachers who want to get out of poverty and teach in well-maintained and
equipped schools, where students can learn instead of being warehoused
in run-down, rat-infested barracks – will understand that it is
necessary to learn from the mistakes in order to really sock it to the
bosses in the next round.

The fact that the return to work was not a debilitating defeat, that
teachers were able to go back without reprisals, with their fighting
spirit unbroken, that they were able to force some concessions with the
threat of a strike – all this shows that the struggle was worth it. Yet
it is a mistake to try to present the outcome of the strike as a
victory, as some FMPR supporters have done, or to talk of “agreements”
achieved by the strike, as the FMPR leadership has done, when in reality
the outcome was a setback. These weren’t agreements, but rather
unilateral decrees by the employer – under pressure from the combative
union. And the FMPR was decertified, leaving the teachers without union
representation. It is necessary to combat a mood of disappointment, but
prettifying the result doesn’t help – it doesn’t fool anyone, and it
doesn’t prepare the membership to do better.

Beyond the evaluation by the FMPR leaders, there are several issues they
did not raise. Working-class parents were not really organized to
actively participate in the strike. A “Broad Front to Support the FMPR”
was announced at the last minute, but this was simply a vehicle for
bourgeois politicians and various labor and community leaders to declare
their sympathy and portray the teachers’ action as a “strike of the
people” rather than a vehicle to mobilize working-class and poor
neighborhoods in support of teachers in the local schools. We called to
“turn the strike committees into enormous community centers of the
working people.” Hold strike education on the picket lines. Having large
numbers of students and parents in the street in front of the schools
would have solidified support, enormously disrupted traffic and public
life, and made it extremely difficult to bring in scabs. But it would
have taken months of preparation.

But a key issue FMPR leaders have not emphasized is the fact that the
Federation stood alone against the onslaught of the government and
virtually the entire bourgeoisie. To be sure, they mention the
“enthusiastic cooperation” with the state from “dues-sucking unions,”
“independentista sectors allied with the populares” (the PPD), and
ex-leaders of the FMPR. But they don’t mention the criminal lack of
mobilization by their friends in the historically militant unions, in
particular the UTIER electrical workers and secondarily the UIA water
workers. With teachers being clubbed by the Fuerza de Choque riot
police, there should have been mass labor marches blocking the streets
of the capital. They could have thrown the switch to plunge governmental
offices into darkness (and shut down the air conditioners and
computers). In our 14 February Internationalist article, “Puerto Rico:
All Out to Defend the Teachers’ Struggle!” we wrote: “In a hard strike,
a fighting ‘triple alliance’ of the FMPR, UTIER and UIA could be key to

It didn’t happen, even though leaders of the UTIER are members of the
same Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST – Socialist Workers
Movement) as are FMPR leader Rafael Feliciano and others in the CODEMI
(Commitment, Democracy, Militancy) caucus that leads the teachers union.
Their own comrades abandoned them. And a common struggle against the
government was eminently possible. On February 15, a week before the
teachers struck, representatives of the electrical authority arrogantly
walked out of negotiations with the UTIER. On February 17, the UIA
demonstrated over the refusal of the Water and Sewage Authority to carry
out the contract. The union president even threatened to call a strike
vote. Moreover, neither the UTIER and UIA are covered under Law 45, so
that even legally it was far easier for them to strike. But they didn’t.

Class-Struggle Unions Require a Revolutionary Leadership

Many, if not most, union struggles that go down to defeat these days are
sold out by the union leadership. This is particularly true in the
period since the late 1970s as the bourgeoisie launched a full-scale
assault on the unions and the Soviet Union, leading to the
counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR and the bureaucratically
deformed workers states of East Europe. Since then, many erstwhile
socialists have given up the ghost, and many labor leaders actively go
along with the destruction of hard-fought union gains, at most trying to
slow down the process when they aren’t actually seeking to profit off of
privatization deals. It happens so often that denouncing union tops for
selling out almost becomes routine.

In this case, the Puerto Rican teachers strike was not sold out, yet it
ended in a setback. The union leadership organized mass picket lines in
a number of locations, not the token or toothless “informational”
pickets so common today; it held out until the strike was no longer
sustainable; it didn’t abandon its key demands; it didn’t accept a
rotten deal; it didn’t agree to disciplinary actions, or renounce the
right to strike – and yet the bosses won this round. How did this come
about? And how can it be avoided next time around?

In the first place, the teachers union leaders, while they broke the
no-strike Law 45, continued to play by the bosses’ rules. In deciding on
union representation, they go through the procedures of capitalist labor
legislation, whose purpose is to enforce ultimate government control of
the unions. Whether or not to participate in such rigged votes (in which
management blatantly tries to intimidate the workers with threats of
firings and discrimination) is a tactical issue, but a class-struggle
union leadership would know that to win it must enforce its right to
represent the workers in action. Also, rather than forthrightly calling
to rip up Law 45, the FMPR leaders sought only to reform it. Yet
class-struggle unionists oppose all capitalist legislation regulating
unions (as opposed to workplace safety laws and the like), and reject
all court intervention into the affairs of the workers movement.

Secondly, the FMPR leadership did not wage a political struggle against
the government, the colonial rulers and the capitalist class. While
opposing the PPD government and the PNP (New Progressive Party)
opposition, it allied closely with the Puerto Rican Independence Party
(PIP), a secondary capitalist party linked to the social-democratic
Second International. The PIP claims to be for independence, although it
is actually for a negotiated “association” with Yankee imperialism,
including leaving the numerous U.S. military bases on the island. It
often adopts a more “militant” stance: thus its leaders got themselves
arrested during protests over the Navy bombing range on Vieques Island
(as did Dennis Rivera). But the PIP also did not call for repeal of the
no-strike Law 45, only for its modification. Although it poses as a
“friend of labor,” as a bourgeois party it wants to keep the unions
under the thumb of the capitalist state.

A communist union leadership would have fought during the strike to lay
the basis for a revolutionary workers party. The MST regularly comes
under heavy red-baiting attack in the Puerto Rican press, as FMPR leader
Feliciano noted in an April 4 talk at Hunter College in New York. His
point was that he didn’t have to constantly identify himself as a
socialist since the media does it for him, and thus everyone knows. But
he treated this as a essentially a private matter: some union members
are populares, others are penepés, still others are pipiolos and he is a
socialista. Yet while a union represents the entire membership, a
class-struggle union leadership cannot be politically neutral.

This is notably the case on the vital issue of Puerto Rican
independence. The MST calls for independence of the Caribbean island
nation, which has been under the U.S. boot since 1898. Puerto Rico was
until recently the oldest and largest colony remaining in the world (it
has since been replaced by Iraq and Afghanistan, which have essentially
become U.S. colonies). However, faced with the neighboring
poverty-stricken countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, a
large majority of Puerto Ricans have voted for either statehood or
maintaining the present colonial status disguised as a “commonwealth,”
as it is vaguely called in English, or “free associated state,” as it is
deceptively termed in Spanish.

The MST has on various occasions called for “unity” of the
“independentista movement.” Yet the pro-independence MINH (National
Hostosiano Independence Movement), successor to the petty-bourgeois
nationalist socialists of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP),
opposed the strike before it was called, and viciously denounced the
FMPR leadership after it was over, accusing the union leadership of
“monumental errors” and calling the union’s demand that the Department
of Education sit down to negotiate “laughable” (Carlos Gallisá, in a
commentary in Claridad, 20 March). This was no accident, because as
bourgeois nationalists the MINH yearn to be the owners of “their own”
patria (fatherland).

It shouldn’t be surprising therefore, that the spokesman for Education
Secretary Aragunde is a member of the strikebreaking management
Association of Puerto Rican Teachers and a supporter of the MINH. Nor
should it comes as a surprise that former PSPer Dennis Rivera has
maintained ties with these nationalists who buzz like flies around the
PPD administration of Governor Acevedo Vilá. In contrast, as proletarian
internationalists, the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth
International stand for the unconditional independence of Puerto Rico
and fight for a voluntary socialist federation of the Caribbean, in
order to put an end to the national oppression of the Puerto Rican
people and to expose the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists.
Thus Trotskyists oppose political unity with independentistas such as
the PIP and MINH as class collaboration.

This leads to a third key point, that the Movimiento Socialista de los
Trabajadores is not a Leninist vanguard party of the working class but
rather a loose social-democratic formation. Since it angers MSTers when
we say this, let us explain. First, we are not referring to the
latter-day social democrats like Tony Blair’s “New Labour” in Britain
who implement “neo-liberal” privatization policies, but a more classical
type. In its statement, “What Is the MST and What Does It Fight
For” (Bandera Roja, 21 April 2003), the MST openly proclaims its
“Socialist-Democratic perspective.” It explicitly rejects a Leninist
party governed by democratic centralism. This concept has been deformed
by the Stalinists, who imposed a bureaucratic centralism on the party
ranks, in order to enforce its policies of class collaboration. But any
tendency that seriously intends to wage sharp class battles requires a
disciplined party to lead them.

The MST writes that the “crisis of Marxism” has manifested itself
particularly on the question of party organization and has “highlighted
the contradictions of the so-called Leninist theory of organization with
the autonomous and free development of the workers struggles.” Where
Leninist democratic centralism holds that after internal discussion, a
minority must carry out the decision of the majority, the MST writes
that “once a decision is taken, the majority...must be the main ones
responsible for putting it into practice; the minority (those who voted
against) must have the option of complying with it or not.” This is pure
social democracy, a party in which every current can do what it wishes –
at least until pressures grow so intense that the party bureaucracy ends
up throwing out the revolutionaries, or worse.

So what about the “autonomous and free development of the workers
struggles”? We have just seen what this means in practice. The FMPR
teachers union led by MSTer Rafael Feliciano goes on strike against a
no-strike law, facing the full weight of state repression, and the UTIER
electrical workers led by MSTer Ricardo Santos sits on its hands, even
though intervention by the electrical workers could have decisively
altered the outcome of the strike. Each labor group goes its own way,
because “the organization should not require anyone, under the threat of
disciplinary measures, to obey a decision which would injure principles
of conscience.” If so, on what basis can the union require that its
members not scab on a strike?

This also concerns the crucial question of class consciousness. In his
balance sheet, Luis Angel Torres writes that a main reason the strike
did not win a contract was “the state of class consciousness of the
educational workers.” This is certainly a key factor, and it is also
certain that “the teachers strike was a massive pedagogical experience.”
Yet as Lenin insisted in What Is To Be Done? it is the revolutionary
party that must bring socialist consciousness to the working masses, for
otherwise they cannot go beyond the trade-union consciousness that grows
out of their day-to-day existence and struggles. Blaming the ranks for
the lack of clear class consciousness is ducking the responsibility of
the leadership.

So the teachers union did not sell out, yet it still suffered a loss.
That is related to a more general issue, namely the fate of labor
struggles and unions in the present era. This question was addressed by
Leon Trotsky in an essay he was working on when he was murdered by a
Stalinist assassin in August 1940. In the unfinished but extremely rich
manuscript he left, published under the title “Trade Unions in the Epoch
of Imperialist Decay,” the co-leader of the Russian October Revolution

“In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be
the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and
they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit
themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot
any longer be anarchistic, i.e. ignore the decisive influence of the
state on the life of peoples and classes. They can no longer be
reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any
serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either
serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the
subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the
revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the
instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

Trotsky comes back to this point over and over, treating it from various
angles. Thus he writes:

“As a matter of fact, the independence of trade unions in the class
sense, in their relations to the bourgeois state can, in the present
conditions, be assured only by a completely revolutionary leadership,
that is, the leadership of the Fourth International. This leadership,
naturally, must and can be rational and assure the unions the maximum of
democracy conceivable under the present concrete conditions. But without
the political leadership of the Fourth International the independence of
the trade unions is impossible.”

Many ostensibly Trotskyist outfits treat this as pious wishes, then turn
around and make political blocs with all sorts of reformist
out-bureaucrats that guarantee that once in office they will act like
their predecessors. But Trotsky was making a fundamental point. In this
period where union gains are being chewed up left and right, as the
standard of living of the working class is systematically driven down,
“the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting
reforms.” In fighting to defend its very existence, the proletariat
cannot succeed using the old methods of reformist labor struggle. This
was just shown in Puerto Rico, where the teachers fought with all their
hearts, they weren’t sold out, but they couldn’t prevail because they
were only prepared for a traditional (reformist) labor struggle while
the bosses were waging class war.

This is the second major labor battle in Puerto Rico in recent years,
the first being the general strike of 1998. For our analysis of that
strike, which was sold out with a handshake between a union leader and
top cop Toledo on the road to the San Juan airport as the mass picket
was called off, see our “Balance Sheet of the General Strike: Puerto
Rican Workers Mobilize, Union Tops Cave In,” in The Internationalist No.
6, November-December 2006. We encourage revolutionary-minded militants
in Puerto Rico to study Trotsky’s essay on the unions. The
Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International uphold
the need to build a revolutionary workers party based on the principles
and program of Lenin and Trotsky in order to provide the leadership the
class struggle requires in this epoch. In quiet times, this may seem
like preaching in the wilderness, but in every hard class battle, it is
dramatically confirmed.

The urgent need to build the Leninist-Trotskyist world party of
socialist revolution, a reforged Fourth International, is the central
lesson of the Puerto Rican teachers strike.

Solidarity in New York with Puerto Rican Strikers

On March 5, the Delegate Assembly of New York City's United Federation
of Teachers (UFT) declared its solidarity with the striking teachers in
Puerto Rico. Close to 1,000 delegates voted for a motion calling to
“support the Puerto Rican teachers in their struggle to be treated with
dignity.” The UFT is the largest union in NYC, representing some 92,000
teachers and paraprofessionals educating more than 1 million students,
as well as being the largest affiliate of the American Federation of
Teachers (AFT).

Winning this support took a considerable struggle as the Puerto Rican
Teachers Federation (FMPR) disaffiliated from the AFT in 2004
complaining of the high-handed attitude of the American union, whose
representatives were implicated in the financial collapse of its health
and welfare fund. Nevertheless, under pressure from the ranks, UFT
president Randi Weingarten introduced Normahiram Rodríguez-Pérez, a
member of the UFT and former union delegate of the FMPR who told the
delegates how the Puerto Rican union walked out in defiance of a law
outlawing strikes by public sector workers. She noted that the women
strikers were displaying great courage and setting an example in this
week honoring working women.

A week earlier, another affiliate of the AFT in NYC, the Professional
Staff Congress (PSC), also approved a motion of solidarity with the
Puerto Rican teachers. The PSC Delegate Assembly, representing 20,000
faculty and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY), condemned
the Puerto Rican government's attacks on labor rights and called for
overturning the decertification of the union. Supporters of the
Internationalist Group were active in their unions in obtaining these
declarations of solidarity, as well as in building protests in support
of the striking Puerto Rican teachers (such as the March 5 picket of
Puerto Rican government offices in Manhattan).

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