Puerto Rico: All Out to Defend the Teachers’ Struggle!
Internationalist Group | 02.17.2008
We are on the threshold of a major class battle in Puerto Rico. Every day new preparations are announced for the coming strike of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR). With 42,000 members, a majority of them women, the FMPR represents almost all of Puerto Rico’s teachers and is by far the largest union on the island. The Shock Force of the Puerto Rican Police and National Guard are being readied to go after the strikers. The struggle of the Puerto Rican teachers affects everybody. The working class as a whole, students and parents, teachers and defenders of workers’ rights around the world must come out in defense of the FMPR! If there are mass arrests, the response must be massive blockades and spreading the struggle to the point of shutting the island down. In order to win this strike, it is necessary to prepare for a struggle not only of the teachers but within the whole workers movement against the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy that sabotages the workers’ struggle. Above all, it is necessary to fight against illusions in and ties with bourgeois parties and politicians. It’s high time to begin building a revolutionary internationalist workers party.
Hard Class Battle Coming
Puerto Rico: All Out to Defend the Teachers’ Struggle!
“Every Class Struggle Is a Political Struggle”
–Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Break with All the Capitalist Parties (PPD, PNP, PIP)!
Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party!
FEBRUARY 14 – We are on the threshold of a major class battle in Puerto Rico. Every day new preparations are announced for the coming strike of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR, from its initials in Spanish). With its 42,000 members, a majority of them women, the FMPR represents almost all of Puerto Rico’s teachers and is by far the largest union on the island. It is confronting the government/employer headed by the rabidly anti-worker and anti-union Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD). His insufferably haughty education secretary, Rafael Aragunde, refuses to negotiate. The FMPR is defying the treacherous Law 45, which claims to recognize government employees’ right to unionize while prohibiting strikes, their only method of defense. The Shock Force of the Puerto Rican Police and National Guard are being readied to go after the strikers. And they have doubtless alerted the many bases of the U.S. armed forces that have turned this island colony into an imperialist military bastion to control the Caribbean.
The struggle of the Puerto Rican teachers affects everybody. The working class as a whole, students and parents, teachers and defenders of workers’ rights around the world must come out in defense of the FMPR! At the onset of the strike, there should be support and solidarity demonstrations all over. In Puerto Rico, schools are everywhere: build mass pickets which throw the island into turmoil. As FMPR president Rafael Feliciano says, the teachers must get respect. Education won’t stop. Turn the streets into big open-air classrooms, to give lessons in the class struggle! The FMPR has already announced the formation of some 600 strike committees. In the face of the government’s cynical “Plan B,” which consists of organizing scabbing and using children to provoke incidents on the picket line, it’s necessary to turn the strike committees into enormous community centers of the working people. And if they go ahead with mass arrests, the response must be massive blockades and the generalization of the struggle to the point of shutting the island down.
A Struggle for the Independence of the Workers Movement
The teachers are fighting to defend public education against a privatization offensive that would sacrifice the future of an entire generation of youth on the altar of the bosses’ crazed free-marketeering policies. The rulers want to turn the schools, many of which are in terrible run-down condition, into profit platforms for the capitalists. Back in October 2006, the governor and his interior secretary, Jorge Silva Puas, announced a Hundred-Day Plan to Restructure the Government by drastically slashing public expenditures. They want to set up 1,000 charter schools, managed by private entities but financed by public funds, and run them like any private company whose purpose is to generate profits. This negates the democratic right of education for all. That this plan is a real threat was shown by the two-week lockout in April-May 2006, when the government left 98,000 workers without jobs or income, including the entire teaching force.
In January the government the decertification of the FMPR, on the grounds that 7,000 teachers voted in favor of authorizing a strike in a huge union assembly last September. So these “democratic” rulers trample not only on workers’ rights but on freedom of speech. On that basis they refused to negotiate at all, or even to speak with the Federation’s representatives. In late January they organized a provocation at a school in the town of Utuado, leading to the arrest of eight teachers who had been picketing since last fall because they were suspended (and later re-suspended without pay) for coming out against unilateral changes in the academic program. At other schools police were called in when FMPR representatives arrived to deal with union affairs. The following day, the press was invited to a meeting that Puerto Rico’s perennial police chief Pedro Toledo held with his top officials, where talked of readying the Tactical Operations Unit to intervene in cases of “violence” on the picket lines. Intimidation is clearly the aim of all these measures. But the teachers would not let themselves be bullied.
At the same time, the governor tried to piece off teachers by announcing wage increases of $100 in December and $250 in February. Since these offers are not the result of collective bargaining and are not written down in a union contract, the governor can take them away at any time. An attempt was made to break the teachers’ solid front by announcing a new, phantom company “union” created by the Association of Teachers, a professional association that includes supervisory personnel and managers from the Department of Education, with the backing of the U.S. SEIU and its “Change to Win” federation. Later, a press conference was orchestrated by union groupings affiliated to the AFL-CIO, the other U.S. labor federation, to rant and rave against the impending strike and stab the FMPR in the back (see our article “A Case of Labor Colonialism: AFL-CIO and Change to Win vs. the FMPR”). None of this succeeded in breaking the teachers’ militancy. Meanwhile, other unions, among them the electrical workers’ UTIER, proclaimed their “unconditional” solidarity with the teachers.
As this article goes to press, Puerto Rico’s Appeals Court responded to the FMPR’s appeal of the decertification of the union decreed by the Public Service Labor Relations Commission, temporarily suspending the measure. The clear reason for this ruling is that the determination and militancy of the teachers’ union is causing some vacillations among the bosses. The Education Secretary, the arrogant Aragunde with his ridiculous trademark bowtie, had no choice but to show up at a session at the Department of Labor, but once again he refused to negotiate. That’s how things stand on the eve of the great March for Dignity of February 17, which will converge on La Fortaleza as a major show of the teachers union’s strength and public support. The job-sucking governor and profit-hungry capitalists circling like vultures over the schools in anticipation of their privatization – they want to teach the teachers a lesson. Let’s give these sinister looters a well-deserved lesson, with a strike they’ll never forget!
Above all, it is crucial to keep in mind the crucial phrase from the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: “Every class struggle is a political struggle.” This fight will not be won by seeking false “allies” from the bourgeois parties like the PPD, the New Progressive Party (PNP) – both of them colonialist outfits – of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). The capitalists, whether the imperialists or their junior partners in Puerto Rico, tremble at the prospect of any major workers struggle. Nor can working people place any confidence in the bourgeois – and colonial – courts. What the Appeals Court conceded today can be annulled tomorrow by a federal court. All the institutions of the capitalist ruling class, including the churches and mass media, will be pressuring the teachers to cave in. To resist and to win, it will take sacrifice, as the FMPR slogan says, but above all the mobilization of the power of the working class, including in the political arena. Thus it is high time, right now, to begin building a revolutionary internationalist workers party!
Lessons of the 1998 General Strike: The Need for a Revolutionary Class-Struggle Leadership
Faced with the bourgeois onslaught against the teachers, one thing is clear: this will be a hard strike. Some say it will be the biggest labor struggle in Puerto Rico’s history. Bigger than the 1933-34 sugarcane strike? We’ll have to see. But what we can say for sure right now is that the teachers’ strike movement, as well as the frenzy and fury of the government onslaught, are a direct result of the long 1998 strike against privatization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC) and the two-day general strike it led to – and especially of its defeat. In the first place, Law 45, approved in November of that same year, was the colonial bourgeoisie’s immediate response: faced with the working-class mobilization they decided to allow unionization of public employees, but under strict government control, with a whole series of restrictions and prohibitions, and without the unions’ main weapon: the right to strike. This, despite the fact that the worker’s right to withhold his or her labor is “consecrated” in Puerto Rico’s Constitution: consecrated but ignored.
Law 130 governing labor relations in public corporations – like the telephone company before it was privatized and, still today, the public electrical and water companies – is a very restrictive law. But Law 45, covering direct employees of government bodies (like the schools) is the equivalent of the federal Taft-Hartley Law and New York State’s Taylor Law rolled into one. The former was the keystone in the “red” purge of unions during the McCarthyite witch hunt of the early Cold War. It made it a crime for communists to be union leaders, prohibited “secondary” (that is, solidarity) strikes, and established union representation “elections” controlled by a governmental body (the National Labor Relations Board) that favors the bosses. The unions that did not play by these rules were banned from participating in these rigged elections and faced a whole series of legal impediments.
New York’s Taylor Law was passed after the successful 1966 transit workers’ strike, in order to outlaw any future strike. In the 2005 New York City transit strike, a $2.5 million penalty was imposed on the union and each striker was fined a thousand dollars. The employer’s automatic check-off of union dues was also halted. In Puerto Rico, Law 45 does the same thing. Under its provisions, in addition to canceling the FMPR’s certification as the teachers’ representative to the employer, the government seized the union’s strike fund, eliminated the union dues check-off and declared that FMPR leaders cannot hold any union posts for five years – all because the membership democratically voted to authorize a strike! This law established police-state conditions for labor. Revolutionaries must fight to eliminate this law entirely, not just modify it to allow strikes, as the Puerto Rican legislature is now deliberating on with the FMPR’s approval. We Marxists oppose any and all control of the workers movement by any capitalist government.
We most certainly denounce, in the harshest terms, the measures taken against the FMPR and its leaders. At the same time, we stress that a union with a class-struggle leadership will always face the hostility of the capitalist (and colonial) government. There is no way to reach a live-and-let-live arrangement. There can be no confidence in fake, government-controlled elections. The way to establish unions is by using their power, which ultimately means the strike. And in any case, any real union must insist on its own complete financial independence from the employer and the state. This would obviously make dues collection more difficult, which is what really what in Puerto Rico are called chupacuotas (dues-sucking) bureaucrats who want to sit back in their cushy chairs and rake in funds the employer deposits in union bank accounts. For a union following a class-struggle policy, in contrast, collecting dues in person means direct contact with the union ranks and is an enormous aid to the union’s democratic functioning, and militancy. It is also a means of protection against the funds being seized when the union incurs the bosses’ wrath.
The fact is that those who today attack the FMPR and act as accomplices of the government crusade against it have sold themselves, literally, to the capitalist class in exchange for crumbs from the table of exploitation. Naturally, like the government, they are afraid that a big teachers strike could endanger their juicy business operations. This means that in order to win this strike, it is necessary to prepare for a struggle not only of the teachers but within the whole workers movement against the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy that sabotages the workers’ struggle. It is necessary to call for support in deeds, not only declarations of empty solidarity, from all unions in this struggle which will affect everyone. At the same time, it is necessary to fight within the unions to throw out the sell-out leaders and forge a new militant leadership guided by a program of complete independence from the capitalists, their parties and their government. This also means opposing any confidence in “mediation” by the capitalist courts and supposedly neutral figures, explaining that bourgeois justice favors the bosses and that in the class struggle there are no neutrals.
Against Nationalist Popular-Frontism, For a Socialist Federation of the Caribbean
Above all, it is necessary to fight against illusions in and ties with bourgeois parties and politicians. This question played a crucial role in the eventual defeat of the telephone strike and then general strike of 1998. With all the propaganda about the “strike of the people,” the idea was to highlight the enormous amount of popular support for the strike, and at the same time to seek support from capitalist politicians, particularly from the PIP but also from supposedly “autonomist” sectors of the PPD. Since the 1940s, attempts to ally with one or another sector of the Populares (as the PPD is known) have been an Achilles heel of the union movement. At the same time, in the socialist left, the politics of class collaboration was concretized in calls for “independentista unity.” This led to small-scale “popular fronts” (alliances tying the workers to bourgeois sectors) with bourgeois formations like the tiny Nationalist Party or petty-bourgeois ones like the former Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) of Juan Mari Bras, which is now the National Hostos Independence Movement (MINH).
Today it is not surprising that the MINH independentistas openly serve the bosses as they grotesquely denounce the teachers’ strike, since they long ago stopped pretending to be a workers party. Why do they bow down in this way to their colonial masters? Because for them, like everyone else, class interests come first, and they want to be a new bourgeois ruling class. With regard to formations like the Frente Socialista and the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST–Socialist Workers Movement), which plays a preponderant role in the FMPR leadership, for decades they have made alliances with a range of nationalist forces. If they presently have disagreements with the MINH or PIP, it is not over principles but tactical questions.
For our part, we strenuously denounce Yankee imperialism’s jailing of Nationalists, and join the defense of arrested independentistas, as in the case a few days ago of Avelino González Claudio, accused of being a member of the Macheteros group. We also condemn the cold-blooded murder of Filiberto Ojeda in September 2005 by a U.S. military task force: this was a crime of the same imperialists who carry out the war and colonial occupation of Iraq and left 100,000 mainly black and poor people to die in the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. At the same time, we underline the fundamental political differences that separate proletarian internationalists from both bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists. We of the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International, as the early Communist International insisted, are unconditionally for the independence of Puerto Rico, the oldest colony of the United States. We seek to strike a blow against imperialism and at the same time to show the working masses the real character of the bourgeois nationalists as a potential new exploiting layer. The MINH’s repulsive anti-strike declarations should serve as Exhibit A in this regard.
We also insist, as Leon Trotsky’s theory and program of permanent revolution teaches, that in this epoch the only way to achieve national liberation from the imperialist yoke is through the seizure of power by the working class and the beginning of the international socialist revolution. For this reason we emphasize that a workers and peasants government in Puerto Rico could not survive in isolation and would need to extend the revolution to include all the islands of the Caribbean, through a voluntary Caribbean socialist federation. We stress that this federation must be voluntary, because the historical divisions sown by the colonial domination of six European and North American powers have yet to be overcome. But as seen after the 1794-1804 Haitian Revolution, and later with the wave of social struggles following the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s, these divisions can be overcome in the context of revolutionary struggle.
Today we defend Cuba against imperialist blockade and internal counterrevolution while fighting for workers democracy and a proletarian political revolution to replace the Castroist leadership, a nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy, with an authentically communist, internationalist leadership that fights to extend revolution throughout the continent and into the belly of the imperialist beast, as José Martí called it in his day. We underline that despite the betrayals of the U.S. union leaders, it is essential that the Puerto Rican teachers’ struggle be carried out in closest collaboration with North American workers – making efforts to mobilize support in the U.S. all the more important. Thus the FMPR strike can serve as a beacon to illuminate the path of international workers struggle. The League for the Fourth International has contacted unions in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia and other countries to internationalize support for our Puerto Rican class brothers and sisters in struggle. From Rio de Janeiro to the embattled teachers of Oaxaca, from the striking university workers of Mexico City to New York, the center of Puerto Rican emigration, the call must resound: Teachers of Puerto Rico, we are with you!