After showing its strength with a march of 25,000 teachers and their supporters Feb. 17, the Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers (FMPR) has been able to make progress toward a new labor agreement, averting for the moment a nationwide work stoppage that had been threatened for Feb. 19.

FMPR officials said agreement had been reached on some of the teachers’ demands. But they cautioned that the union was on “stand-by mode,” and teachers and their strike committees should be ready to hit the picket lines on a moment’s notice.

A number of independent Puerto Rican public sector unions, the Teamsters, and pro independence and civic organizations participated in support of the teachers.

The union’s executive committee met at dawn Feb. 19, after a 14-hour marathon negotiating session the day before, and agreed not to call the teachers out on strike. The leadership had been authorized to call a strike last November when 7,000 teachers voted unanimously during the union’s General Assembly to ratify a proposal from the 1,200 member Delegates Assembly.

FMPR President Rafael Feliciano had told participants in the Feb. 17 “March for Dignity and Public Education” that if there were no signed agreement or substantial progress by Feb. 19, the government would “face the anger of the faculty.”

Feliciano spelled out an agenda for going forward, including no charter schools, class size limits, health and safety guarantees for teachers and students, and improvements in wages and the health care plan.

The week before, the union had rejected Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde’s proposal to negotiate Feb. 19 if there were no strike, calling the move a delaying tactic since Aragunde had “had 27 months to negotiate in good faith.” The FMPR called for negotiations Feb. 18 or there would be a strike the next day.

Besides the march and the union’s commitment to strike despite a Puerto Rican law banning public employee strikes, the union had a number of other victories and actions which put pressure on the Department of Public Education.

The week before, an appeals court had issued a temporary injunction against the decertification of the union. The decertification last month by the Public Service Labor Relations Commission resulted from charges the Secretary of Education filed against the union for having taken a strike vote. The FMPR appealed based on the Puerto Rican Constitution’s Bill of Rights which guarantees the right to join a union, strike and picket.

Then came a statement during a radio interview by Lemuel Soto, mayor of Arecibo, the sixth most populous municipality, that he supported the teachers and would not deploy the municipal police in case of a strike. “They can count on my support, with all my cooperation,” Soto said, adding, “It is the responsibility of the Secretary of Education and the central government, who are responsible for what is happening.” Arecibo has 1,800 teachers.

By contrast, on the same day when the mayor of Puerto Rico’s third largest city, Caguas, said he would do everything in his power to break the strike, he was met with a protest of hundreds of teachers, students and parents. Puerto Rican Gov. Anibal Acevedo has also been plagued by pickets of teachers and their supporters during the last few days.

j.a.cruz@comcast.net

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