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Why Is the American Federation of Teachers Giving Away Educators’ Rights in Puerto Rico?

Unions should fight for both their members and the entire working class. Yet in Puerto Rico, the American Federation of Teachers affiliate is doing neither, partnering with the island’s unaccountable Fiscal Control Board to impose massive cuts to teachers’ retirement funds.

Members of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) are fighting back against a proposal to decrease their pensions and take away their rights. (Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico / Facebook)

In the weeks before Puerto Ricans rose up and took down governor Ricardo Rosselló this summer, educators on the island banded together to defeat a corrupt deal that would have destroyed their pensions. Now they’re organizing against a new version of the same rotten plan. The fight begs a basic question: Why is the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) spending millions of dollars to give away Puerto Rican teachers’ rights?

The rank-and-file uprising in June stopped a sweetheart deal that was negotiated in secret between the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), which is the local affiliate of the AFT, and the unaccountable Fiscal Control Board that imposes budget cuts and austerity in Puerto Rico. In a highly unusual maneuver, the union opted to spend a year in backdoor negotiations with the widely detested board rather than negotiate with the Department of Education out in the open and with the input of educators.

If passed, the agreement would have increased the retirement age, significantly lowered educators’ retirement salaries, and eliminated the pensions of active and future educators, turning them into 401(k)s — with zero employer contributions. It would have also reduced sick days and holidays, and eliminated bonuses — all under the banner of fiscal responsibility and debt repayment.

The educators’ rebellion stunned bosses and union leaders alike in June, but a new round of struggle is now underway. During the last week of September, the Fiscal Control Board, known as “la junta,” revealed its long-awaited austerity plan for Puerto Rico. The plan recycles key parts of the agreement for active educators between the AMPR/AFT and the junta that was voted down by educators in June and proposes an 8.5 percent cut for current retirees with pension benefits totaling over $1,200 a month — a reduction that was decided upon by the federally appointed Committee of Retired Employees (COR) and accepted by the union bosses.

When asked what impact the 8.5 percent cut would have, retired industrial technology teacher Pedro Pastrana Ortiz replied, “[The cut will mean retirees] living without water and without electricity. It will bring us back to the time of Hurricane María, or to the 1940s when we didn’t have basic amenities in our homes.”

A reduction in already low pensions for Puerto Rican teachers and school personnel — who receive pensions in lieu of paying into or collecting Social Security — would have a catastrophic impact on an already vulnerable, aging population. “The reality is that retired educators in Puerto Rico already live from paycheck to paycheck,” commented retired social worker Gladys Padilla. “What we receive right now is not even enough for a decent life.”

The destruction of the retirement system in Puerto Rico would have ripple effects far beyond educators. “The agreement will have a terrible impact on whole families,” retired elementary school teacher Eulalia Centeno said in January in testimony before Judge Laura Taylor Swain, the federally appointed judge who will ultimately decide on the future of pensions in Puerto Rico.  “They could lose their homes or be forced to migrate. Children, grandchildren, young people, and even those who have not been born will be forced to live through the worst crisis Puerto Rico has ever seen.”

The junta openly advocates for the billions of dollars of illegitimate debt to be paid for on the backs of workers. Serving as a US-imposed dictatorship, it advocates for the interest of big business, the lowering of the minimum wage, the privatization of public services, and the gutting of public-sector pensions and job protections across the board.

When they were first presented with the proposal from the AMPR/AFT, it came as no surprise to Puerto Rican educators that the junta was coming for their rights. But what confused and outraged many was finding out that the union went behind their backs to give away their rights — and then sprung the results on them during the last week of school.

“We were completely caught off guard,” explained Hugo Delgado-Martí, a twelfth-grade physics teacher. “It was the last week of school when the Asociación came out with their lousy deal. They said that a week later, during our first week of vacation, we would have to vote. This really bothered a lot of people.”

Even though educators were starting their summer break, they mobilized to vote down the proposal. Spearheaded by the militant K–12 educators’ union in Puerto Rico, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), they organized informational meetings in schools, handed out leaflets, distributed analyses of the agreement, and started a social media campaign.

Within one week, the campaign to vote no picked up steam, and photos, videos, and posts by educators explaining in words, pictures, and song why they would reject the proposal went viral in Puerto Rico. The flowering of democracy and creativity at the grassroots overtook the AMPR/AFT’s million-dollar propaganda machine.

At the end of the week, the scene at the voting booths looked quite different. Instead of using schools or other publicly accessible sites as voting locations, the AMPR/AFT rented private venues in order to prevent Vote No campaigners from getting anywhere nearby. When teachers opposed to the proposal came to hand out literature and talk to their colleagues, the police were called.

Even observers trying to conduct exit polls were not allowed near the voting stations. At the Pedrín Zorrilla Coliseum in San Juan, where polling was taking place for the region, observers attempted to hand out pens so that ballots filled out in pencil couldn’t be changed. But AMPR/AFT representatives called the police on observers, and police blocked their entrance into the facility, even driving them out of the parking lot. Meanwhile, Vote Yes campaigners were allowed to hand out literature freely to everyone going in to vote.

Paul Figueroa attempted to observe the elections but was not let anywhere near the building by police. Figueroa commented on the experience: “It was a real assault on democracy. While our government was decrying dictatorship in Venezuela, the AMPR, AFT, and Fiscal Control Board used the Puerto Rican Police Department as their henchmen to deny our teachers their democratic process.”

This conflict between the AMPR/AFT and the FMPR is not new. The AMPR hasn’t always been the exclusive representative of Puerto Rican educators. The FMPR used to hold that position, and it used to be the AFT affiliate in Puerto Rico. In 2005, the FMPR voted to reject the colonial role the AFT has played on the island, and it disaffiliated from the international union after a reform caucus was elected to the FMPR leadership. In January 2008, when the FMPR membership voted to go on an illegal strike to defend public education, the government decertified, vilified, and isolated the union, later taking away their ability to even collect dues from their members.

The AMPR became the exclusive representative of Puerto Rican educators in 2016, and the AFT started collecting educators’ dues again when the AMPR affiliated with the AFT the following year. At the heart of the disagreement between the AMPR/AFT and the FMPR has been a debate between business unionism and class-struggle unionism. The business unionism that is practiced by the AFT and the AMPR accepts that the privatization of education is inevitable, and seeks to mediate the terms of that privatization and sell those terms to their members as a lesser evil. The class struggle unionism of the FMPR, on the other hand, rejects the idea that privatization is legitimate or inevitable and seeks to leverage the power of the rank and file over the power of the privatizers and colonial vultures in Puerto Rico.

Today, the AMPR/AFT is asking for a vote of confidence to continue to negotiate on behalf of educators. But the leadership of the AMPR/AFT is already continuing negotiations despite a serious crisis of legitimacy, after journalists revealed corruption and conflict of interest at its highest levels. It came out that the AMPR itself, as well as union president Aida Díaz’s husband and daughter, have received millions of dollars in contracts from the Department of Education. In light of these revelations, Díaz resigned this summer, but then postponed her resignation.

The AMPR/AFT has a lot to gain from the compromised role that it has played. The June agreement promised that in exchange for selling out teachers, the junta would pay the AFT and AMPR’s legal and operational fees. They were also guaranteed a lump sum of $200 million to distribute to their members in order to ensure they vote in favor of the proposal. The government promised that the AMPR will remain the exclusive and unchallenged bargaining representative of educators, and that the AMPR’s flailing health plan will be forced on all 25,000 of the island’s tenured teachers.

A lot is at stake for the union — it stands to lose everything promised to it by the government if educators reject the deal again. According to teachers I spoke to, the AMPR has been working in coordination with school administrations since the beginning of the 2019–2020 school year to try to keep the FMPR out of schools and prevent them from meeting with educators. But the rank-and-file campaign held the AMPR/AFT accountable in June. It can — and is likely to — do it again.

Judge Swain has given until November 30 for the negotiation of educators’ pensions, and the talks continue. The austerity plan is supported by the current, unelected governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez, and the Puerto Rican courts never take the side of the workers unless forced to. As the politicians and the courts try to make workers pay for the crisis caused by the rich, educators will be mobilized in the streets to demonstrate their power again.

Pastrana Ortiz of the FMPR’s Retiree Chapter explained, “They are going to raise our electrical and water bills to pay the debt to the bondholders. They view the government bonds and energy authority bonds as legitimate debt that must be paid. But the debt that they owe us, the retirees — that is not legitimate debt? It doesn’t have to be paid? In reality, we had a contract with the government that would guarantee us a decent standard of living in our old age. So this is what we are saying to retirees: your pension is not a luxury, it’s not even a benefit. Your pension is part of your salary that the government was holding for your retirement for your old age. And we have to defend it in whatever way necessary.”

As Mercedes Martinez, the president of the FMPR, said: “If these cuts go through, they will leave us in extreme poverty. Teachers will resign in mass if this goes through . . . But we can beat this thing. We can and will beat if everyone joins in to play their historic role in this process.”