Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

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February 2008  

SAN JUAN, February 17 – “La huelga va, la huelga va” (the strike is on the way), sang thousands of teachers as they marched through the streets of Puerto Rico’s capital today in preparation for the massive strike that is shaping up as a major class battle.

After more than 27 months in negotiations and two years without a contract, faced with the arrogant intransigence of the anti-labor governor and his wildly unpopular Education Secretary Rafael Aragunde, the teachers shook walls and windows of the colonial capital with their chants of “Lucha sí, entrega no” (Struggle yes, sellout no) and “La huelga en educación sera la mejor lección” (The education strike will be the best lesson of all).

Leaders of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR) had expected a turnout of about 15,000, equivalent to a little over a third of the union’s island-wide membership. Instead, 30,000 or more marchers turned out, overwhelmingly teachers but including contingents from the powerful electrical workers’ (UTIER) and water workers’ (UIA) unions – both currently in contract negotiations.

Unionists from hospitals, universities, bottling plants and other sectors, students and activists turned out to support the teachers. Bus after bus pulled into the rally site, filled with FMPR unionists and supporters from cities, towns and rural areas all over the island, bedecked with union flags and slogans proudly proclaiming that they are “en pie de lucha” (on battle footing) and ready to strike.

The teachers are in strikingly high spirits given the threats they face from a union-busting, privatizing government that treats them with utter contempt. Proclaiming in one chant after another their “militancia,” their mood was combative, determined, yet infectiously upbeat. Teachers danced to newly composed salsa songs about the coming strike that blasted from union sound trucks. Impromptu groups gathered to sing improvised lyrics against the government.

Puerto Rican teachers march, Sunday, February 17. FMPR banner says,
Contract or Strike!” 

Stickers and printed posters declared “The Strike Teaches You How to Defend Your Rights,” “Charter Schools = Profit and Privatization,” “Rights We Have Won Will Never Be Surrendered,” and many other slogans. Hand-decorated placards showed rats, sewage and other examples of miserable conditions in the schools.

Millions of dollars sent by the federal government for immigrant education programs have disappeared. Before that, millions more were sent to pay for non-existent charter schools. A cab driver recalled that former Education Secretary Víctor Fajardo received a 12-year prison sentence in 2002 when it came out that over $4 million had been embezzled from the school system. But still the corruption goes on.

Message to Education Secretary Aragunde: “We Teachers Are To Be Respected.”
(Photo: El Internacionalista)

While salaries are shockingly low, teachers often state that money is not the main issue, at the same time as they denounce Aragunde’s “attempt to buy us off” with last-minute lump-sum payments. Last October’s order that teachers “punch in” at the beginning and end of the school day and lunch breaks, using a digital scanner, has evoked blistering outrage: “We’re treated like criminals and forced to stand in line up to twenty minutes, four times a day.”

The government is trying to force up class sizes, while the teachers are fighting to reduce them, in order to give students individual attention. “Bonuses” (merit pay) for schools where students’ average grades are higher is another hot issue. So too is the Education Department’s arbitrary dissolution of in-school committees where teachers have traditionally worked out issues of curriculum and other vital questions. These are replaced by cookie-cutter “plans” from government officials indifferent (at best) to students’ needs.

The drive to establish a thousand charter schools as part of the (international) campaign to privatize education is rightly seen as an issue of life or death for the democratic right to education.

Above all, “Teachers Demand Respect,” as innumerable T-shirts and signs proclaimed. Protesters voiced outrage at the government’s attempt to strip them of union representation, decertify and bust their union and reduce them to submission. Unionists have stated in no uncertain terms that their picket lines will be respected. As we often have cause to note: Picket lines mean don’t cross!

The government also has taken a hard line with the UTIER and UIA unions, which like the FMPR have leftist leadership and a history of combativeness. Last week, the Electrical Energy Agency postponed negotiations, and the Water Agency simply dismissed the UIA’s demands. The government is acting as if it wants to provoke a showdown. If so, then darles duro (playing hardball) will be a question of survival for the unions.

The teachers union is the largest on the island, and precisely for that reason leaving the teachers to face the government onslaught alone could have serious results for all labor. The need to generalize a teachers strike into an island-wide shutdown may soon be posed. Some left groups toss around the “general strike” slogan in a ritual way, yet a one- or two-day holiday and march can mean just blowing off steam, as opposed to a struggle over power. But power is what decides the outcome when the most basic class issues are posed. 

Business unionists, particularly those connected with the AFL-CIO and “Change to Win” federations, fear such a battle like the plague. They have already sold their services to the governor by attacking the FMPR for calling for a strike. But thousands of combative trade-unionists react with indignation against this backstabbing. This is a vital battle where reputations for militancy will be tested, and backing down could be extremely costly. In a hard strike, a fighting “triple alliance” of the FMPR, UTIER and UIA could be key to winning.

Several chants and songs included references to “la huelga general,” and in conversation many teachers talked about the general strike of 1998. Yet that strike was defeated because the labor leadership was not prepared to fight the colonial government politically. As teachers repeatedly point out, this is a struggle for the rights and needs of all working people. Mobilizing the power of all labor will be crucial if the government seeks to break the strike through large-scale arrests, scabherding and other acts of repression.

Key dangers to the struggle are encapsulated in one of the slogans chanted during the march: “The people united will never be defeated.” This may seem like nothing but a vague, feel-good sentiment for all occasions, but it comes from Salvador Allende’s Chilean “Popular Unity” coalition based on “unity” with bourgeois politicians and “constitutionalist” military officers like Augusto Pinochet, leading to bloody defeat in Pinochet’s coup of September 1973.

At today’s march the gubernatorial candidate of the bourgeois Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) was ostentatiously in the front line. Not coincidentally, the PIP sound truck – bedecked with election posters – repeatedly blasted the “People United” slogan. A telephone worker buying the El Internacionalista supplement said: “It bothers me that these guys from the PIP are using the teachers’ struggle to put forward their politics.”

FMPR delegation from Canovanas, with green and white flags of the PIP behind them.
(Photo: El Internacionalista)

The Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST), a “democratic socialist” (i.e., social-democratic) group whose members play a leading role in the teachers, electrical workers and other unions, does not draw a sharp class line against bourgeois forces like the PIP. The MST, in line with its advocacy of a “conception of unity” of the “independentista movement,” has frequently been in blocs with the PIP.

Yet illusions in “unity” with “progressive,” “autonomist” and independentista capitalist politicians were key to the collapse of the 1998 general strike, which shut down the island only to be sold out by labor leaders after two days (see our article “Balance Sheet of the General Strike: Puerto Rican Workers Mobilize, Union Tops Cave In,” The Internationalist No. 6, November-December 1998).

Defeating the offensive of the bosses, their apparatus of state repression and their fake “labor leader” accomplices requires defeating capitalist politics. It’s necessary to break with the bourgeois parties and begin building a workers party on a program of class struggle vs. class collaboration. Marchers bought hundreds of copies of the El Internacionalista supplement, which presents a revolutionary program for waging the struggle in the perspective of a fight for a workers and peasants government that would seek to spread socialist revolution internationally.

Teachers, as well as student leftists and many other activists, were eager to hear of the resolutions for mobilizations in solidarity with the FMPR that sections of the League for the Fourth International have obtained from education workers (including striking university unionists) in Brazil and Mexico. Internationalist Group supporters told of our fight in U.S. unions to build solidarity for the Puerto Rican teachers.

The militancy demonstrated today and the sharpness of the looming class confrontation are indications of the real potential for a revolutionary workers party in Puerto Rico based on the program of permanent revolution and working-class internationalism.

If la huelga va, it will be a major test of wills, of forces, and of program for the classes in struggle in Puerto Rico, with lessons for working people internationally. As one of the FMPR slogans aptly puts it: “LA LUCHA EDUCA” (Struggle educates). Victory to the Puerto Rican teachers!  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)

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