SEIU Faces Protests by Puerto Rican Teachers, Parents, Schoolchildren
by California Nurses Shum, Mon Jun 02, 2008 at 10:46:33 AM EDT
Attendees of the SEIU Convention in Puerto Rico are facing a protest encampment and multiple pickets by Puerto Rican teachers, parents and schoolchildren, furious at Andy Stern and his North American union for their efforts to bust a historic strike and take over the independent Puerto Rican Teachers Union (FMPR--Fdederacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico).
The Puerto Rican convention center hosting the Service Employees International Union's big confab is kind of an eerie cross between Superman's Fortress of Solitude and a prison in some isolated part of rural California. The entire complex was fenced in or gated off, with police and security guards posted at every entrance. Apparently the looming threat is the Puerto Rican teachers, whose union is known by its Spanish acronym FMPR. About 100 teachers gathered outside the convention center Saturday morning to protest SEIU's raid on their union (read the full story from the February Labor Notes). In January the FMPR was decertified by the Puerto Rican government for authorizing a strike. The decertification coincided with SEIU's announcement that they were affiliating a rival teacher union and making plans to scoop up Puerto Rico's 40,000 teachers.
For those of you not familiar with the Puerto Rican teachers, in their fight for a better school system, so far they have taken on the educational establishment of the Island, the corrupt governor (an SEIU ally), the law barring teacher strikes, and SEIU, a North American union that wants to break them so they can be rolled into the docile prinicipals union that Andy Stern controls. A few riot police aren't going to slow them down (Labor Notes again):
The teachers out protesting at the SEIU convention are no strangers to conflict. Sometime after 11 a.m. they calmly marched to one of the two entrances to the convention center, overran the police barricades, and moved to the front of main convention center building to set up an impromptu picket line. Right before the protesters got to the barricades one older woman turned to me and said, "You better take off your sunglasses." Thirty seconds later she was pushing her way past a cop decked out in a bulletproof vest and armed with a billy club. A team of 20 beefy cops quickly set up a barrier between the picketers and SEIU convention-goers, while several SEIU rank and filers watched and worried for the safety of the teachers, noting sympathetically, "This is what unions do. This is how we got started."
Let it be noted that this makes 4 progressive, independent democratic unions representing more than 300,000 union members that Andy Stern is trying to take over, either entirely or in part: FMPR, the Calfiornia Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee and New York State Nurses Association each of which are facing efforts by Andy Stern to pick off a significant portion of their members, and SEIU's own dissident local United Healthcare Workers, who have led internal resistance to Andy Stern's attempts to centralize labor power in himself.
As the protesters marched and chanted I couldn't help but think about SEIU's current conflict with the California Nurses Association (CNA). SEIU declared war with the CNA because they scuttled a quickie election for 8,000 hospital workers in Ohio--an election filed for by the employer, where the CNA wasn't on the ballot. SEIU labeled CNA leaders union busters, and unilaterally declared them persona non grata in the house of labor. Unfortunately the charge didn't have quite the same impact it might have a few years ago, before SEIU split the house of labor in two.
Two months earlier, however, SEIU was busy cutting the FMPR's contract fight off at the knees. According to Juan Gonzalez at the New York Daily News, SEIU Vice President Dennis Rivera's alleged tete-á-tete with the governor to rub out the teachers union happened less than a month after 7,000 FMPR delegates gathered to authorize a strike. Instead of offering solidarity (dare we say "Justice for All"?) SEIU was maneuvering to `organize' 40,000 new members (wouldn't that be looking out for "Just Us'?). I guess the convention slogans hadn't yet been crafted.
In FMPR's case, President Rafael Felicitano Hernandez told El Diario/La Prena on 5-29-08 (can't find link), the stakes involved: "The government of Puerto Rico has made an alliance along with the SEIU to try us to destroy because we not only represented the teachers, but also the demands of the people and the education communities for social justice."
SEIU's "raid" of FMPR comes on the heels of sustained efforts by the Puerto Rico Teachers Union (FMPR)--united with parents and students--to fight against:
* horrific educational conditions
* privatization of schools
* the negative effects of "No Child Left Behind"
* government assaults on democratic school leadership committees
* repressive labor laws
* abysmal salaries--monthly average of $1600 with living costs higher than those in the US.
After nearly three years of working without a contract, the teachers unanimously voted to strike in a mass union meeting of over 7,000 members in November 2007. While negotiations continued, sources report that SEIU leader Dennis Rivera was meeting with Puerto Rico Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila. can see pictures from this historic meeting at the FMPR Lucha site.
According to the New York Daily News, the Governor told Rivera that the teachers' union is "yours to take." Previously El Diaro-La Prensa reported that Rivera had discussed the teachers union with Acevedo in addition to possible SEIU monetary support for the Governor, who has recently been indicted on corruption charges.
The Puerto Rican government declared the teachers' strike illegal, based on the vote alone--the actual strike was not called until late February 2008--and moved to decertify FMPR. Almost simultaneously, SEIU announced that the Island's union of school principals and supervisors was affiliating with SEIU--and would attempt to take over the teachers' union.
Rather than destabilizing already difficult situations faced by unions--particularly in a nation such as Puerto RIco that has its own particularities--SEIU's leaders need to focus on their members as they grapple with the difficult questions that face trade unionists today.
In what some call a shameful betrayal of solidarity, powerhouse New York labor leader Dennis Rivera has joined Puerto Rico's governor in a stunning attempt to break the island's largest union.
The teachers, who earn top wages of $26,000 a year, had worked for 30 months without a contract. Union leaders were furious that Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila imposed new working conditions last year, decertified the union in January and suspended its dues checkoff.
The governor's draconian actions came after the union's membership voted in November to authorize a strike. Since 1998, Puerto Rico's government workers have not been allowed to strike.
While the clash between the teachers' militant leaders and the government was grabbing the headlines, Rivera was maneuvering to snatch control of the teachers for his Service Employees International Union.
Here are two sets of pictures. first shows a small group of teachers and supporters who were able to get close to the convention----while the second shows some of their street theater.
Tags: Andy Stern, California Nurses Association, FMPR, Health care, Labor, National Nurses Organizing Committee, nurses, Puerto Rican Teachers, puerto rico, SEIU, single-payer health insurance, universal health care (all tags)