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Strike Challenged Slave Labor Law,
Despite Setbacks They’re Still Ready to Fight
Combative FMPR union assembly on March 5 of more than 10,000 voted to return to work.
(Photo: CMI Puerto Rico)
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 (1865):
“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
Strikers confront Shock Force riot cops outside the Miguel Such school in Río Piedras.
(Photo: Carlos Giusti/Primera Hora)
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 were.
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 winning.”
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. Why?
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?
Teachers protest anti-union gag law which
discussing strike action. (Photo: Coordinadora
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.
leadership, headed by MSTer Ricardo Santos (above,
center) did not mobilize labor action in defense of FMPR, led by MSTer
Rafael Feliciano (below, center), as teachers faced heavy repression. (Photos: UTIER and
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 wrote:
“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.
urgent need to build the Leninist-Trotskyist world party of socialist
revolution, a reforged Fourth International, is the central lesson of
Puerto Rican teachers strike. n
See also: A Case of Labor Colonialism: AFL-CIO & CTW vs. the FMPR (7 February 2008)
Puerto Rico: All Out to Defend the Teachers’ Struggle! (14 February 2008)
Tens of Thousands March in Puerto Rico on Eve of Teachers Strike (18 February 2008)
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