The American Federation of Teachers Isn’t Standing Against Austerity in Puerto Rico

In the midst of brutal austerity measures carried out by an undemocratic junta in Puerto Rico, unions should play a central role in fighting back. Yet only one teachers' union, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, is leading that fight — while another, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, is partnering with it.

Members of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) march against austerity and then-governor Ricky Rosselló in July. (Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico / Facebook)

In October and November, the Puerto Rican legislature discussed and passed Resolution 114, taking a strong stand against any cuts to the pensions of active and retired public-sector workers in Puerto Rico. Similarly, the Puerto Rican Senate passed Law 160-2019 in early November, which does not guarantee but makes it possible for the government to ensure pension payments to public workers. These two developments pose major setbacks for the federally appointed and undemocratic Fiscal Control Board’s “adjustment plan” that, if approved by the government, would cut pensions and make workers pay for the economic crisis in Puerto Rico.

The joint resolution and legislation were passed as a result of months of campaigning on the part of a broad coalition of forces that came together to defend pensions. The coalition, led in part by the educators’ union, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), mobilized wide-ranging opposition to the board’s intention to turn back the clock on workers’ rights under the banner of fiscal responsibility and debt repayment. While the struggle to stop austerity and privatization is far from over, they have created an important roadblock against the board — or, as it’s known on the island, the junta — and its dictatorial powers.

This shows that it is possible to stand up to the seemingly invincible junta, and win. But if the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and its local affiliate, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), had their way in June, educator pensions in Puerto Rico would already be sold out.

Last month, I wrote an article explaining the negative role that the AFT/AMPR played in the Puerto Rican bankruptcy process, titled “Why is the American Federation of Teachers Giving Away Educators’ Rights in Puerto Rico?” My article criticized the AFT/AMPR’s year-long backdoor negotiations with the junta and described how a rank-and-file uprising of educators waged a successful “Vote No” campaign that defeated the tentative agreement that came out of those meetings in June.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT — the union that I am a member of in New York City — recently responded to my article. In her response, Weingarten claims that I got the facts wrong but doesn’t address the main points of my article: that her union’s proposal was widely unpopular and defeated by a grassroots revolt; that her union is facing a severe crisis of legitimacy in Puerto Rico because of the AMPR’s role in that process and corruption that forced President Aida Díaz to resign in disgrace; and that her union has a lot to gain financially and politically from the corrupt deal it struck with the junta.

Weingarten claims that Aida Díaz’s “motives were pure” when she chose to lead her union into secret negotiations with the junta. But when considering motives, we have to look at the payoff. In her defense of Díaz, Weingarten neglects to mention that along with Governor Roselló, Díaz was forced to step down from her position as president of the AMPR this summer. Díaz resigned when journalists revealed that the AMPR as well as Díaz’s own husband and daughter have millions of dollars in contracts with the Department of Education.

The clear conflict of interest was lost on Weingarten. But to almost anyone else, it’s clear that the union that’s supposed to defend public education should not be participating in the privatization and subcontracting of educational services. And the president of that union shouldn’t have family members benefiting personally from that privatization.

Weingarten can spin the facts, but she can’t change them. In 2014 the AMPR participated in a two-day work stoppage to stop the replacement of pensions with 401(k)s. But five years later, after affiliating with the AFT, they gave in. While rank-and-file educators had a lot to lose in the AFT/AMPR’s tentative agreement with the junta, the union had a lot to gain from these back-door negotiations.

According to Joanisabel González of el Nuevo Dia, the union spent 3 million dollars during negotiations with the junta that would have been reimbursed by the public if their agreement had passed. Currently fewer than thirteen thousand of the twenty-eight thousand active educators are enrolled in the union’s flailing healthcare plan. Had the agreement passed, all educators would have have been forced to enroll in the plan.

And the guarantee of five additional years of unopposed exclusive representation for the AMPR/AFT would have guaranteed them millions of dollars in dues. The AMPR/AFT even secured a $200 million one-time payout for educators impacted by the agreement in recognition of the sacrifice that members would be making in voting for the plan. But even substantial one-time payouts couldn’t buy educators’ votes.

Weingarten claims that I was wrong to portray the relationship between the AFT/AMPR and the junta as a partnership. She argues, “By that measure, any time you are involved in any arm’s length negotiations, including any collective bargaining, it could be viewed as ‘partnering.’”

But sitting down in year-long secret negotiations that go around the government of Puerto Rico and behind the backs of educators is not collective bargaining. Collective bargaining happens when bosses and workers sit down to negotiate pay, benefits, work conditions, and all of the terms of their employment contract. The educators of Puerto Rico do not have a contract with the junta; they have a contract with the government of Puerto Rico, specifically with the Department of Education.

Contrary to how they may conceive of themselves, the junta is not the boss of the educators, public workers, or anyone else in Puerto Rico. The junta is an unchecked entity, similar to the International Monetary Fund, dedicated to making Puerto Rican workers pay for a debt that they aren’t responsible for through austerity measures that would condemn them to decades of misery.

The government of Puerto Rico, on the other hand, does have a legally binding contract with the educators of Puerto Rico, as well as other Puerto Rican public workers. These contracts include pension plans that were a part of the workers’ conditions of employment. When the government of Puerto Rico signed these contracts, they made an economic and social commitment to their employees that impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. No one, especially not Washington, DC or Wall Street, should have the right to undermine this commitment.

When the AFT/AMPR chose to negotiate with the junta in secret and without any mechanisms for accountability, they also undermined these contracts, these social commitments, and the autonomy of Puerto Rico. By attempting to sign an agreement with the junta that is so bad for workers, the AFT/AMPR gave 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 really is partnering with the very undemocratic organization whose purpose it is to steamroller the labor movement in Puerto Rico. And as a US-based organization engaged in these practices, the AFT is replicating dynamics of colonialism that have plagued the labor movement historically.

Weingarten claims that the AFT/AMPR is “aggressively negotiating against” the junta. But turning public-sector pensions into 401(k)s with no employer contributions is not a retirement plan — it’s an empty savings account. The educators of Puerto Rico did not need the AFT/AMPR to “negotiate” that. This is exactly what the junta wants: to pay their bond-holding buddies by picking the pockets of working-class people.

“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,” responded Mercedes Martinez, the president of the FMPR. “The shame of all of this is that there are proposals that do not undermine teachers’ benefits, such as a Unified Retirement System proposed by the FMPR, with income that would guarantee a pension system, not only for teachers, but for all public service workers.”

Instead, the union could refuse to negotiate with an institution that has shown that it does not negotiate with workers in good faith, as others have done.

Luckily, the educators and retirees of Puerto Rico are not waiting around for anyone to bring them a lousy deal from the junta. For months they have been educating and activating educators and staff in schools, picketing, protesting, cacerolando, and lobbying to stop the junta. With the passage of the resolution opposing pension cuts and new legislation making it more possible to guarantee them, class-struggle unionists have shown once again that the time for concessions is over. They need solidarity and support, not to be sold out under the guise of negotiations.

People in Puerto Rico and all over the world are standing up in the streets to stop austerity — and they are winning. It is time for all of our unions to get on board with the struggle to turn back privatization and austerity — or get out of the way.