San Juan Showdown

San Juan, P.R.

Operating with its usual purple panache, controversial political ties, and a huge advertising budget, America’s most Latino-friendly-union has been romancing San Juan all wek long. As the Clinton and Obama campaigns wrapped up their paid media assault on Democratic primary voters, the 1.7 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) continued its own PR offensive, laying the groundwork for an upcoming vote among 40,000 teachers. In that election, SEIU seeks to replace a militant independent federation as Puerto Rico’s largest labor organization.

In feel-good TV spots, full-page ads in all the major dailies, bus stop signs, and even airborne banners, SEIU has been “celebrating with enthusiasm” the official opening of its 2008 convention. That lavish gathering of 3,000 mainland delegates and guests began —under tight security–with a welcoming address from SEIU’s special friend on the island, Anibel Acevedo-Vila.

Acevedo is the Popular Democratic Party governor and  super-delegate for Obama. He was indicted on 19 criminal counts in March, accused of tax fraud, concealing illegal donations, and engaging in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws. If convicted on all these charges, he faces 20 years in prison. But, in the meantime, he plans to run for re-election in November despite shrivelled, Bush-level approval ratings.

Obama may have skipped a previously planned weekend rally with SEIU supporters to avoid an uncomfortable photo op with his most prominent local backer. (Instead, the soon-to-be Democratic nominee will speak to the delegates from a safer distance, via teleconference , on Wednesday).

Unlike the senator from Illinois, SEIU has no qualms about flaunting its relationship with the governor. Regardless of his legal problems, Acevedo remains a key ally in the union’s on-going campaign to destroy, with government help, the Federacion do Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR).  And that explains the biggest ruckus at the convention so far, which occurred on Saturday when two hundred FMPR members stopped by to express their lack of “enthusiasm” for Acevedo and Andy Stern, president of SEIU.

As properly credentialed SEIU visitors were being bussed from their hotels to pre-convention meetings, they could see that the whole “convention center district” had been cordoned off with metal barricades. Behind them were  scores of armed police, unarmed security guards, and then an inner ring of SEIU staffers wearing yellow vests  signifying that they too were “sergeants-at-arms.”

Using the “mobile picketing” skills well honed during a ten-day strike by thousands of teachers in February, the FMPR delegation marched right up to a police check-point–two hundred yards from the meeting hall—and burst right through. The flying wedge took  several casualties along the way, from flailing  police clubs and attempted collars. They then made a successful dash for the front door of the building, which is bigger than an airline terminal.

The ensuing picket-line—composed of fleet-footed survivors of the race to get in—had a feisty David vs. Goliath feel to it. For more than two hours, the teachers walked, chanted, sang union songs, distributed leaflets, and displayed a big FMPR banner under the soaring arches of the! convention center entrance. The FMPR message was “Stop Union Raids” — one that SEIU has fervently embraced back home but only when the California Nurses Association is “raiding” SEIU, in which case it should stop immediately. Arrayed between the teachers and curious SEIU delegates were 25 muscle-bound, jack-booted San Juan riot cops, who arrived with sirens blaring and even bigger clubs than their colleagues on the outer perimeter.

SEIU members who ventured forth to fraternize with the FMPRistas soon discovered that they were indeed brothers and sisters from another union planet–but hardly “an enemy”  worthy of Stern’s unprecedented security arrangements. As disapproving union officials hovered in the background, SEIU Local 1021 member Henry Baker, a San Francisco city worker and member of SDS (circa 1969), even joined the teachers’ protest. (“I just don’t like us being here and the teachers over there with all these cops in between,” he told me.)

Meanwhile, a 49-year old science teacher named Rafael Feliciano Hernandez—the bearded, soft-spoken president of FMPR and “maestro” of its successful march through the police lines—was chatting quietly with other SEIU free thinkers. Rafi — as he’s called — patiently recounted all the difficulties faced by his “strong rank-and-file union” during the last six months, thanks to SEIU.

Details of that saga first reached a larger mainland audience via a scathing column in The N.Y. Daily News by Democracy Now co-host Juan Gonzalez. An organizer of the Puerto Rican Young Lords in the late 1960s and, more recently, a union activist himself, Gonzalez criticized SEIU for “arrogant and colonialist” behavior in Puerto Rico, calling its attempted undermining of FMPR a “shameful betrayal of solidarity.” The villain of this piece was none other than a former buddy, Dennis Rivera, longtime  leader of SEIU District 1199  and past supporter of myriad good causes in NYC including the 1990-91 Daily News strike led by Gonzalez.

In his widely-read column, Juan reported that Gov. Acevedo had given his “close friend” Dennis “the green light last year to oust the teachers’ federation and replace it with a newly-formed group, the Union of Puerto Rican Teachers” (or Sindicato Puertorriqueno de Maestros”). The SPM is the bastard child of a school administrators’ association that affiliated with SEIU six months ago. The association is pro–privatization (which SEIU supposedly isn’t) but affiliated with the union anyway to gain access to its vaunted political war-chest and lobbying clout. With aid from Rivera, Puerto Rican principals and supervisors have, in Gonzalez’s words, “created a new union for their own subordinates.” When these teachers took a strike vote in January — after two years of frustrating talks with management negotiators who included members of SEIU’s new affiliate—the FMPR was quickly “decertified,” even before its members walked out.

Under “Law 45,” the public sector bargaining statute enacted ten years ago (after heavy lobbying by US-based unions like SEIU and AFSCME), all strikes are banned. Strikers can also be fired and striking unions deprived of their “exclusive bargaining rights” plus the ability to collect mandatory dues. Despite these legal risks and penalties, the FMPR — which is 80 per cent female — still managed to rally 25,000 teachers outside the governor’s mansion! on Feb. 21.
When its illegal walkout began several days later, it “paralyzed island public schools,” according to Gonzalez. But it also generated widespread support among students, parents, and local communities concerned about FMPR issues like class size and deteriorating school conditions.

After ten days of picketing, ten thousand teachers came together in an island-wide “general assembly” and voted to “suspend” the work stoppage.In return, they won amnesty for all strikers, maintained the terms of their old contract, held onto a previously granted  $150 raise, and got the government to freeze its plans for privatization, via charter schools. The teachers also secured a pledge from Acevedo to hike starting pay to $3,000 a month over the next eight years. (Today, new teachers here earn
$19,200 a year.)

FMPR activists I interviewed outside the convention center were quite proud of these gains — and the  political significance of their strike. Ana Serrano, a school social worker from Aguadilla, said everyone in her town, two hours away from San Juan, “knew why we went on strike. We were doing this for better schools, not just for us.”

A Brooklyn-born graduate of SUNY Binghamton with a masters degree from NYU, Serrano now works in a school that’s infested with rats and termites. During the strike, she said, fellow militants were beaten, arrested, and pepper-sprayed, while  their elected leaders were heavily red-baited. Along w ith hundreds of other strike veterans, Serrano is now helping to keep FMPR afloat financially by making voluntary contributions to its treasury. They’re confident of winning any re-certification vote (yet to be scheduled) that will pit their member-controlled organization against what they call the “chupa cuotas” (or “dues-suckers”) from SEIU.

Key issues in the vote may include money and leadership accountability — ie how much workers should pay in dues and what their leaders should be paid. FMPR fees are only $16 a month; that’s $6 dollars less than what SEIU charges the much lower-paid school cafeteria workers that it already represents in Puerto Rico. SEIU’s newly-affiliated school bosses union has a dues rate twice as high as FMPR’s, As Feliciano explains, his own salary is capped at $2,600 a month—no more than the highest-paid teacher. (He’s also limited to serving two consecutive terms.) In contrast, SEIU’s top Puerto Rican official, Roberto Pagan, gets paid almost as much as the FMPR president for attending just a few board meetings each year as an SEIU vice-president.( In addition, he receives another $60,000 annually from his San Juan local.) Meanwhile, Rivera earns nearly $200,000 20annually as head of  SEIU’s national health care division — more than five times the average wage of  unionized hospital workers in the U.S.

The radical idealism of  FMPR stands in sharp contrast to dominant trends in SEIU (notwithstanding the brave convention fight about to be waged this week by United Healthcare Workers-West and its allies in SEIU Members for Reform Today (SMART).   While a middle-aged English teacher named Edgardo Alvelo was telling me about member involvement in the ! FMPR, the self-proclaimed “21st Century Union” was inside the convention hall showcasing a new system for “servicing” its members via regional call centers. Under a Stern-proposed expansion of SEIU “Membership Resource Centers,” workers will be given 800 numbers to call for information and advice about job-related problems. As part of controversial SEIU deals with several big catering firms, this method of “representation” has already been “trialed” with union-negotiated restrictions on workplace agitation and strikes.

Alvelo was incredulous that any union would  undermine its own ability to apply direct “pressure on the boss” through member mobilization. In FMPR, he explained, “the shop steward is a leader at the school level. He or she represents other workers and helps them organize concerted actions to win better conditions. You can’t do that from the outside.”

For Alvelo, his union’s dispute with SEIU is both personal and political. He’s known Dennis Rivera (“a nice person, in terms of personality”) since they were both schoolmates in the town of Aibonito. The SEIU leader was called Dennis  Hickey back then. “My mother worked for Dennis’s father,” recalls Avelo, explaining that the elder Hickey came from the mainland to manage a local textile plant and ended up marrying a local girl. Rivera adopted his mother’s name when he moved to Newe York to become a hospital worker organizer in the late 1970s, after several years of  activism  in the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. (In a catchy satirical tune, blasted from its borrowed sound truck, FMPR keeps Rivera’s patrimony in the picture for better rhyming purposes (if not other reasons as well); as I left the “convention district” on Saturday, I could still hear the sound of Spanish lyrics about “t! riqui, triqui, Dennis Hickey” and his  “pirateria sindical” (pirate union).

Serrano also knew Hickey- Rivera during his radical youth. But she’s extremely wary now about his penchant for partnering with conservative politicians like Acevedo or George Pataki, when he was GOP governor of New York. “We have members from all the different Puerto Rican parties in our union,” she says. “But it’s not good for a workers’ organization to become an appendage of any one of them. Because, when they get into power, then the union just shuts up.”

Serrano left the last word on Rivera and his political trajectory to Pedro Albizu Campos. A Harvard-educated, US-Navy veteran, Albizu spent many years in federal prison for his “seditious” brand of Puerto Rican nationalism. In that movement, “Don Campos,” as Serrano calls him, knew a thing or two about the slippery slope from principle to pragmatism and then on down to sellout. Once this backsliding begins, she explains — paraphrasing Albizu –“you slip and you slide until you fall and break your ass.”

Within the FMPR, Serrano is not alone in believing that Dennis Rivera and SEIU are headed for such a fall themselves—on the hard rock of Puerto Rican teachers determined to have a union they can call their own.

STEVE EARLY is a Boston-based labor journalist and lawyer who is covering the SEIU convention in San Juan. He’s been active in the labor movement since 1972 and can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com


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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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