Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Don’t Let Writers Stand Alone – All Media Workers Should Join the WGA on Strike!
(December 2007). 
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Militant Protest Against Racist Cop
Attack on Bay Area Longshore Workers (October 2007).

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February 2008  

Defend the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation!

A Case of Labor Colonialism:
 AFL-CIO and Change to Win vs. the FMPR

Hundreds of members of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR) protest outside “hearings”
called by American Federation of Teachers as AFT prepared to bring in the colonial courts.
(Photo: Carlos Quirós/LaborNet)

As the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR – Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico) prepares to strike against a virulently anti-labor governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), braving draconian no-strike legislation (Law 45), unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Change to Win (CTW) federation are outrageously lining up with the bosses. This will come as no surprise to those who know something of the sordid history of the American labor bureaucracy in the U.S.’ Caribbean island colony, and as accomplices of imperialist machinations throughout Latin America (and the rest of the world). But what the labor fakers are preparing is a major betrayal of Puerto Rican workers. A crucial test is shaping up in which all of labor will have to take a stand. Which side are you on?

On January 1, Dennis Rivera, vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the main component of CTW, and Aida Díaz, head of the “Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico” (AMPR), announced that they had begun “a process of affiliation to obtain a triumph in the union elections of the Department of Education” (AP, 1 January). At first glance this would appear to be an old-fashioned raid on the FMPR. But it’s worse than that. The SEIU/CTW and AMPR are working hand-in-glove with Education Secretary Rafael Aragunde, who for more than two years dragged his heels refusing to negotiate with the Teachers Federation leaders, and then last month got the Public Sector Labor Relations Commission to decertify the FMPR. As the New York Spanish-language daily El Diario-La Prensa (3 February) reported:

“The battle takes place in anticipation of a major teachers strike that threatens to paralyze the public school system and in which Change to Win is positioned as a strategic ally of the island’s autonomous government, which wants to push the Teachers Federation out.”

As for the AMPR: this is not a workers organization at all but a “professional” outfit that includes supervisors and even Aragunde’s spokesman who delivers his strikebreaking threats. Since it is not registered as a labor group, the Association has set up a phantom “teachers union” whose first act will be to scab. Its members will “attempt to work in the classroom” in the event of a teachers strike, said a spokesman, while pretending to “avoid confrontations” (Primera Hora, 4 February). Every experienced trade-unionist knows what that means: they are preparing to provoke violence on the picket lines. But while Education Secretary Aragunde calls on retired teachers to give classes during a strike and the governor prepares to use the Shock Force (Fuerza de Choque) of the Puerto Rican Police and even the National Guard against the FMPR to keep schools open, spokesmen for the retired teachers vowed they would not act as strikebreakers.

Faces of ignominy: sellout bureaucrats José Rodríguez Báez of the FT, Fernando Juarbe (UAW) and Roberto Pagán (SPT-SEIU 1996) while they were denouncing the upcoming strike of the FMPR, January 18. Also putting the knife in the teachers’ backs were representatives of the SPU, UFCW, SEIU 1199 and CWA. (Photo: Coordinadora Sindical)

For its part, the AFL-CIO, through its affiliate, the Puerto Rican Workers Federation (FT), joined with the SEIU affiliates on the island – the SPT (Puerto Rican Workers Union) and UGT (General Workers Union) – to denounce the Teachers Federation’s call for a strike. While claiming to support the right to strike in the abstract, at a press conference shortly after the decertification of the teachers union, FT leader José Rodríguez Báez announced that “we are against their call for a strike.” Rodríguez Báez argued that Law 45 had allowed 100,000 government employees to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining (Vocero de Puerto Rico, 19 January). But when Governor Acevedo Vilá locked out 95,000 government workers for two weeks in May 2006, they were paralyzed by this same law. Although they have many initials, each of the U.S.-affiliated labor “federations” has fewer members than the FMPR, the largest union in Puerto Rico. And now they are preparing to stab the teachers in the back in a crucial class battle.

Supporters of the Internationalist Group in New York area teachers unions – the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), representing public school employees, and the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), representing City University of New York faculty – have called on them to undertake concrete actions in defense of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation. We urge class-conscious trade-unionists throughout the United States to take up this struggle for concrete labor solidarity with the FMPR against the shameful anti-strike actions of the AFL-CIO and CTW tops in league with the union-busting government. If this class collaboration escalates to outright scabbing in the course of a strike, not only should any scabs receive the time-honored treatment they deserve for crossing picket lines – the battle lines of the class struggle – but the scabherders in labor officialdom should be vociferously denounced wherever they go.

AFT/AFL-CIO/CTW: A History of Betrayal of Puerto Rican Workers

The treacherous action by the “Change to Win” bureaucrats is one more proof that they are not one bit more militant than the pie cards of the AFL-CIO. Ever since the labor tops knifed the PATCO air controllers’ strike in 1981, they have presided over a steady decline in the number of unionized workers to barely 12 percent of the workforce today. At the time of the 2005 split, SEIU president Andy Stern claimed he was building a “new and stronger labor organization.” But while using publicity-grabbing tactics in the “Justice for Janitors” campaign, the core of “Stern’s efforts to modernize the way unions work,” as Fortune magazine (10 October 2006) noted, is to “cooperate” with management. “Business and labor have to work together on health care,” he announced, and formed an “alliance” with the union-bashers at Wal-Mart, whose employees still overwhelmingly lack health insurance. As for former 1199 leader/now SEIU veep Denis Rivera, his brand of labor opportunism is summed up in his political alliance with NY Republican governor George Pataki.

The AFL-CIO’s collaboration with the bosses and their government is notorious in Puerto Rico. At the time of the hard-fought 1998 telephone workers strike that escalated into a two-day island-wide general strike, the FT leader declared that it was pointless to strike against privatization of the phone company (see “Puerto Rican General Strike: Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party!” The Internationalist No. 6, November-December 1998). In 2003, FT chief Rodríguez Báez reaped an avalanche of protest when he wrote a private letter to then-governor Sila Calderón denouncing “some ‘labor leaders’” who proposed that a $150 monthly raise be extended to all government employees (Bandera Roja, 18 June 2003).

But the prime example of U.S. labor officialdom’s backstabbing collaboration with the colonial government of Puerto Rico against its employees concerns the FMPR itself. Since shortly after it was founded in 1966 the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation was affiliated to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which for decades has been run by the New York UFT. But in recent years there was growing discontent on the island over the high-handed actions of the AFT brass, and the precious few benefits received by teachers for $2.8 million annually in dues money paid to the AFT in Washington. This came to a head in 2003 when the FMPR health insurance plan collapsed due to the pilfering of $43 million when it was under the administration of the AFT’s man in San Juan, Félix Rodríguez. In May of that year, Rodríguez was voted out and replaced by Rafael Feliciano and his CODEMI (Commitment, Democracy, Militancy) caucus. CODEMI campaigned on a program for disaffiliation from the AFT, and in September 2004 an FMPR assembly voted by over 60% (793 to 393) to separate from the U.S. union.

The AFT tops reacted with an escalating effort to take over the FMPR and depose its elected leadership. First, they claimed the vote was illegal, even though their own supporters were on the committee that counted the votes and signed off on the results. Then, at its July 2004 convention, the AFT pushed through a series of amendments to its constitution concerning putting locals in receivership. It was clear to all that this was aimed at the FMPR. They then proceeded to collect signatures from the members to justify placing the Puerto Rican federation under an AFT-appointed administrator. But although they were required to present 11,000 signatures (30 percent of the membership), they only came up with 650, many of whom were school employees but not union members. In June 2005, the AFT held hearings in San Juan to “investigate” the FMPR leadership which were picketed by hundreds of teachers. And on July 6, at precisely 4 p.m., the AFT executive council announced that it had appointed an administrator for the FMPR.

While claiming it had discovered “financial irregularities” in the Puerto Rican Federation (“Administratorship in Puerto Rico,” American Teacher, September 2005), it didn’t mention that the administrator it named, Félix Rodríguez, had been in charge of the health fund when the $43 million mysteriously disappeared. The AFT tops also neglected to mention that two minutes before their decision to impose an administrator, at 3:58 p.m., they had gone to federal court to get it to order the ouster of FMPR leader Rafael Feliciano (Luis Angel Torres, “The Hour of the Furnaces,” Bandera Roja, 29 July 2005). So behind the “pantomime” at the AFT exec board, they were actually running to the colonial courts to try to enforce their coup d’état against the elected leadership of the Teachers Federation. (They tried earlier with a Puerto Rican court, but with no luck.) The next day in Washington, FMPR members picketed the AFT headquarters with signs denouncing the AFT “dues suckers” (chupacuotas). Feliciano denounced the AFT’s idea of union democracy as “little less than medieval” and said, “Its imposition of an administratorship has as much substance as the wind” (Educational Intelligence Agency, 18 July 2005).

In the upshot, the federal judge dismissed the AFT suit on the grounds that the Puerto Rican teachers are not covered by U.S. federal labor laws (notably the Taft-Hartley Act). The FMPR fought back by holding a referendum of its membership on 18 August 2005 on the question of disaffiliation from the AFT: 19,421 voted to disaffiliate (76 percent), while 5,882 favored keeping the affiliation, with 82 percent of the membership voting. There is no doubt where Puerto Rican teachers stood in exercising their rights.

It is a fundamental betrayal of workers democracy to appeal to the capitalist courts to intervene in the affairs of the workers movement. Class-conscious workers oppose all judicial intervention in union affairs. All the more so in the case of a colony such as Puerto Rico, where the courts, like the police and National Guard, are the organs of direct imperialist domination. The AFT tops’ action was a vile case of trade-union colonialism which any self-respecting unionist or opponent of colonial rule must denounce.

We Trotskyists defended Jimmy Hoffa against the government’s vendetta against him. We knew, as did any informed person, that the reason Democrat Bobby Kennedy went after the Teamster leader with a vengeance was not because the U.S. government favored union democracy but because they feared the possibility of a powerful nationwide truckers strike. In fact, the investigations of the Teamsters began shortly after the first national Master Freight Agreement was signed. We also denounced the betrayal by supposed leftists in Teamsters for Democracy (TDU), backed by social democrats of the International Socialists and Solidarity, who ran to Ronald Reagan’s Labor Department to supposedly bring “democracy” to the truckers union. After TDU candidate Ron Carey was elected in government-run union elections in 1991, he was barred from reelection in 1997 over misuse of union funds. The Teamster welfare funds that the government placed under “professional” management by financial “experts” lost massive amounts in the 2000-01 stock market crash, while the regional funds that the feds didn’t manage to seize are in good financial shape (due to investments in Las Vegas!).

In the case of Puerto Rico, appealing to the federal courts is to bring in the colonial masters who for more than a century, ever since 1898, have used Puerto Rico as a military base for U.S. domination of the Caribbean. It is appealing to the government that trampled on the rights of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans with its spying, particularly against those who fought for independence. The police files (the carpetas) became known in the 1980s, causing a public outcry. After Bronx Democratic Representative José Serrano questioned the FBI director at a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting in 2001, it was admitted that there were 1.8 million pages in the files, copies of which are now being housed at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. They document every movement of Puerto Rican independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos as he was dying in federal prison, and include voluminous reports gathered under the infamous COINTELPRO spying and disruption program on “student demonstrations and workers’ strikes” in the island (New York Times, 28 November 2003).

The “AFL-CIA” in Latin America

This is the colonial governmental apparatus that the American Federation of Teachers appealed to in order to oust the leadership of the Puerto Rican teachers union. Later, to justify their betrayal, AFT leaders have resorted to vintage red-baiting tactics, arguing that the present FMPR leadership has a political agenda, that they favor Puerto Rican independence and are socialists. Feliciano and others in the Federation leadership and the CODEMI caucus are supporters of the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST – Socialist Workers Movement). So what? But the fact that the AFT resorts to such repulsive Cold War tactics is no accident. For decades under Albert Shanker and his heirs in Social Democrats U.S.A. (SDUSA), the AFT ran CIA-funded anti-Communist union-busting operations all over Latin America under the cover of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). This is documented in the pamphlet by George Schmidt, The American Federation of Teachers and the CIA (1978). Shanker et al. also funneled U.S. dollars to the pseudo-union Solidarność in Poland that in the guise of promoting “free trade unions” acted as a spearhead of capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet bloc.

These days “The Company’s” money is sent via conduits such as the National Endowment for Democracy, run by the same SDUSA crowd that used to run the AIFLD. At the AFL-CIO, the International Department has been replaced by the “Solidarity Center,” whose Latin American operations use Puerto Rican union flunkeys and sinister Cuban gusano Bay of Pigs veterans (like the former CIA agent who just punched former Puerto Rican governor Pedro Roselló in the eye for criticizing the Iraq war!).  And now they’re up to their old imperialist “dirty tricks” again. El Diario-La Prensa (14 January) reports that it has documented proof of the identity of “a paid propagandist of the government of Puerto Rico [who] has participated in at least one of the attempts by U.S. labor federations to retake control of the Teachers Federation,” at the time of the AFT takeover bid, and who “is directly linked to Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.” Meanwhile, Wilda Rodríguez, a former press secretary for 1199 chief Dennis Rivera, is writing columns in El Nuevo Día (24 January) talking about strikers “provoking clashes” in the context of a “concerted civil action against the strike.” Just who is provoking here?

A century ago, the American socialist Daniel De Leon coined the telling phrase describing union bureaucrats as the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.” This accurately describes the action of the entire layer of union officialdom whose job, in a broad sense, is to control the ranks in the interests of maintaining capitalism. The AFL-CIO, AFT and SEIU/Change to Win international go beyond that to act as direct agents of imperialist repression. AFL-CIO union operatives helped prepare the bloody Pinochet coup against Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government in Chile in 1973, for instance, by organizing “strikes” by truck owners. More recently, these labor operatives have been active in Hugo Chávez’ Venezuela in the course of a counterrevolutionary 2002 coup disguised as a “strike” when it was actually a bosses’ lockout. Now we see them at work again in the Caribbean, which Washington considers an “American lake,” just as they treat all of Latin America as the U.S.’ “back yard.”

Independence for Puerto Rico and All Colonies! For International Socialist Revolution!

But these open agents of imperialism are the battering ram for the broader pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy. While government agents should simply be chucked out of workers organizations, in the U.S. class-conscious unionists must struggle within the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations and other unions to drive out the labor fakers who chain workers to the capitalist parties, particularly to the Democrats – but not exclusively, as the example of Dennis Rivera shows. Many leftists who criticize “AFL-CIA” dirty work in Latin America turn around and support pro-Democratic Party liberal bureaucrats in the U.S., and even sue unions in the bosses’ courts (in the case of the Teamsters, Mine Workers, Transport Workers and other unions). Thus they use the same tactics as the AFT tops against the FMPR. Because they do not recognize the class line separating the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, they are inexorably led into “popular fronts” with the supposedly more “progressive” capitalist parties (such as Allende’s UP in Chile).

Ninety years ago, in the midst of the First World War, V.I. Lenin explained the fact that most of the social democrats ended up supporting “their own” bourgeoisie in the imperialist slaughter by pointing to the role of the “labor aristocracy.” This social layer is bribed with crumbs from the imperialist table – the plush offices, overseas jaunts, high salaries, etc. – to chain the workers to their class enemies. Today, he wrote, “every imperialist ‘Great’ Power can and does bribe smaller strata (than in England in 1848–68) of the ‘labor aristocracy.’ Formerly a ‘bourgeois labor party,’ to use [Friedrich] Engels’s remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly…. Now a ‘bourgeois labor party’ is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries.” The Bolshevik leader continued: “The important thing is that, economically, the desertion of a stratum of the labor aristocracy to the bourgeoisie has matured and become an accomplished fact; and this economic fact, this shift in class relations, will find political form, in one shape or another, without any particular ‘difficulty’” (“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” October 1916).

Lenin’s conclusion was that it was necessary to oust this social layer that holds the workers organizations in bondage to the bourgeoisie. But that required a political struggle not only against the open “social chauvinists” who supported “their own” imperialist rulers in war (as the AFT, AFL-CIO, CTW have long done), but also against “social pacifists” who want at most to change the war policy without challenging the imperialist system. While social pacifists like Karl Kautsky talked of “peace,” the Bolsheviks fought to “turn the imperialist war into civil war” by mobilizing the workers in class struggle against imperialism. Today, as multiple “peace” coalitions with nearly identical political platforms squabble with each other over organizational questions, competing to get some Democratic politician on their platforms, the Internationalist Group uniquely fights for workers strikes against the war, for labor to refuse to transport war materiel, and to defeat the imperialist war abroad and the bosses’ war on labor, oppressed minorities and immigrants “at home.” We struggle in the unions to replace the sellout labor bureaucracy with a class-struggle leadership, to break with the Democrats and forge a revolutionary workers party.

The IG and the League for the Fourth International, of which it is the U.S. section, have long fought for independence for Puerto Rico, and for a voluntary socialist federation of the Caribbean. As the early Communist International insisted, it is the elementary duty of revolutionaries in the imperialist countries to unconditionally support freedom for all colonies (see “ICL Renounces Fight for Puerto Rican Independence,” The Internationalist No. 6, November-December 1998). At the same time, we fight politically against illusions in bourgeois nationalists, such as the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), or the host of petty-bourgeois nationalists who seek only an independent (capitalist) patria (“fatherland”). From the time of the Communist Manifesto on, it is axiomatic that in waging an internationalist struggle against capitalism and imperialism, the workers have no fatherland. As Leon Trotsky underlined in his theory and program of permanent revolution, in the imperialist epoch, national liberation is not possible without breaking the chains of imperialism, through international socialist revolution.

Whether or not unions in the colonies should remain part of unions in the United States is a tactical question that must be answered by revolutionaries in the colonial countries. Certainly when they are subjected to looting and diktats smacking of colonial/imperialist arrogance, Puerto Rican unionists are fully justified in breaking organizational affiliations with such unions. Yet being part of unions organizing workers throughout the U.S. can enhance the ability to intervene directly in the imperialist heartland. The fact is that the largest single concentration of Puerto Ricans is in metropolitan New York, the center of international finance capital. In either case, proletarian internationalists seek the closest collaboration of the workers in the colonies, semi-colonial countries and inside the imperialist monster. That is a key reason why it is crucial to give the fullest support to Puerto Rican teachers today as they struggle against their colonial rulers and the “labor lieutenants” of imperialism. ■

Union assembly of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico that voted to authorize a strike, 11
November 2007. On the basis of this democratic vote, the government decertified the FMPR.

(Photo: Coordinadora Sindical)

See also: Puerto Rico: All Out to Defend the Teachers’ Struggle! (14 February 2008)

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