Monday, June 19, 2017

FMPR Stands Tall in the Bronx

Saturday night I attended a Bronx forum with Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico leadership. It was organized by tireless UFT activist Aixa Rodriguez. MORE's Jia Lee and New Action's Jonathan Halabi were also in attendance.

If you've been following the news about Puerto Rico, even a little bit, you know it's in an economic mess. They're 72 billion dollars in debt, and controlled by a board that pretty much doesn't give a crap about the people who live there. Pensions have been eliminated for most public workers. Though teachers have somehow avoided that particular fate, funding for them should disappear sometime next year. This is a dire issue, as Puerto Rican teachers neither pay nor receive social security.

I'm fascinated by the saga of union in Puerto Rico. FMPR was formed in 1966 as an alternative to AMPR, which they call a company union. FMPR leadership says AMPR views teachers as professionals, whereas they view us as working people. This is an interesting distinction, because UFT often calls iteself a union of professionals. Does being a "professional" somehow preclude being a working person?

Another thing that makes things a little cloudy is that AMPR represents administrators. I've always thought it odd that administration had a union at all, but being in the same union with them would be awkward indeed. As a chapter leader, I'm generally careful about how I speak with and treat UFT members. I'm a little more direct with administrators. I'm not sure how I'd do my job if I were uneasy about being directly adversarial with administration when necessary.

FMPR is upset because AMPR leadership didn't oppose school closings. Does that remind you of anyone? Under today's AMPR leadership, 45,000 teachers somehow became 32,000 teachers. This is similar to (although considerably worse than) what happened under Bloomberg in NYC as he failed to replace retirees. I can't be the only one who's noticed that 34 students in a class has become more the norm than the max these days.

In 1999, public employee strikes were prohibited by law in Puerto Rico. That's the same year FMPR became the exclusive bargaining agent for Puerto Rican teachers. In 2008, FMPR led a 10-day strike. While they won a raise for teachers, they also incurred the wrath of the government, which decertified them as a bargaining agent. That year, Puerto Rican teachers were given a choice to affiliate with AMPR. AMPR was the only name on the ballot, and managed to lose anyway. (Can you imagine one of those countries who gets a "democratic" yes or no vote on the dictator in which the dictator loses?)

A few years later, again given the choice of AMPR or nothing, Puerto Rican teachers chose AMPR. I suppose they believe AMPR is better than nothing. Now personally, I don't see, "Better Than Nothing" as the optimal campaign slogan. I guess if you have no opponent, though, it'll do well enough.

In 2005, FMPR disaffiliated itself from AFT. This is undoubtedly why we had trouble getting them support at the UFT Executive Board and Delegate Assembly. FMPR did not feel AFT was doing enough for them. On Saturday night they labeled AFT as unresponsive and corporate. I can understand that. I pay dues to AFT, but I have no vote in it, and no one UFT sends represents my point of view or that of my caucus. And it's not just me. 20,000 NYC high school teachers selected MORE/ New Action to represent them, yet not only AFT, but also NYSUT and NEA have only UFT Unity loyalty oath signers voting.

The AFT disaffiliation had other unintended consequences for FMPR. Because their formal name labeled themselves part of AFT, the government was able to follow up the decertification with a 2010 ruling that they were not a "bonafide" organization. I found that incredible. It was as though the government had declared they didn't exist, and expected them to simply disappear as a result. Somehow, despite having been decertified, they were still collecting union dues. That ended in 2010.

However, 4500 Puerto Rican teachers choose to remain with this activist group, and though their salaries run from only 21-40K per year, they choose to pay dues to two groups. FMPR leaders were fired from their teaching jobs, but they persevered, working multiple jobs to get by. These people never give up no matter what the government does to them.

FMPR is still quite active, supporting one-day strikes and various events. I was happy to hear they greeted Arne Duncan with a one-day strike in 2011. When students strike they support them by showing up and bringing them food and encouragement. So far they've been able to sidestep charter schools and privatization, but that may not last, as recent government dictates allow for it.

Activism is a tricky thing. If things are not that bad, activism is often dormant. Puerto Rico hasn't got that problem, because unfortunately things are dire over there. They don't bother paying substitute teachers these days, and just send kids home when teachers are sick. In the face of school closings even worse than those of rabid Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, students may not even be able to get to school. And who will fight for transportation for those stranded kids? FMPR, of course.

I went to the UFT Mayday rally. I saw maybe 20 people from Unity, and about the same number from MORE/ New Action. In Puerto Rico, 60,000 people took to the streets. They're tired of paying debts incurred by banks, debts they had nothing to do with. They're tired of being on austerity because the crooks in the government mismanaged finances and took no responsibility whatsoever.

Take a look at the Orange Man in DC and ask yourself how hard it would be for that to happen here. There but for the grace of God go us. I'm impressed by the passion and determination of FMPR leadership. It's something we need not only to support, but also emulate.

AFT is now excited about the possibility of affiliating itself with AMPR and gaining a boost in membership. I guess, as we face the specter of Right to Work America, that's a smart move. A smarter move, though, would be to foster and replicate FMPR-style activism.

Alternatively, we can sit on our hands, wait until things get as bad here as they are in Puerto Rico now, and continue hoping for the best.
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