Puerto Ricos teachers fight for public education

Puerto Rican teachers and their allies took to the streets of San Juan on Feb. 8 to protest the decertification of their union. The decertification happened in reaction to the union’s recent strike vote over the conditions of public schools and low wages. The Puerto Rican Federation of Teachers (FMPR) picketed the Public Sector Labor Relations Commission under the slogan, “You cannot decertify our fight!”

A Puerto Rican appeals court issued a temporary injunction against the decertification last week.

Besides the demands for higher wages (starting salary is $19,200) and better working conditions, the Federation of Teachers is also negotiating for improvements in the education of Puerto Rican youths.

The union’s demands

include:

• Class limit of 15 students so as to give individual attention.

• More teachers in fine arts, physical education, special needs education, health and other areas so as to enrich the academic offerings.

• More psychologists, social workers and other necessary staff.

• That every school has a well-stocked and functioning

library.

• Mandatory health and safety measures be taken to guarantee conditions adequate for uninterrupted study.

• More substitute or itinerant teachers be hired.

• Institute democratic and participatory norms of school organization so that students can have the course offerings and learning conditions that they deserve.

• Enough materials and equipment so that each course can adequately serve the needs of the students.

• Guarantees against the privatization of schools so as to assure a free quality public school education.

About 1,200 teachers overwhelmingly voted to authorize the leadership to call a strike, accusing the government of not negotiating in good faith, at a meeting of the union’s Delegates Assembly. The vote was ratified by a general meeting.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Anibal Acevedo, is preparing to deal with the possible strike with massive police and military force. According to an article in the New York daily El Diario-La Prensa, officials from the government, Department of Public Education, National Guard and police met to plan the government’s response to the strike.

The government has also called on retired teachers and students to replace 40,000 striking teachers. This call has been rejected by organizations of retirees and students.

According to Public Law 45, which gives the public sector workers the right to organize, strikes are prohibited. The law also makes the “promoting” of a strike illegal.

Instead of coming back to the bargaining table, Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde worsened things by filing charges against the union for the strike vote.

The teachers’ union is not limiting itself to street actions. They have been lobbying the legislature on changes to Law 45 and have filed suit against the decertification in both Puerto Rican and U.S. courts. The Puerto Rican Constitution guarantees the right to organize, strike and picket in its Bill of Rights. Teachers union President Rafael Feliciano said they are also contesting the law on free speech grounds.

The broad front of support for the Puerto Rican teachers does not include the U.S. unions organized in Puerto Rico. AFL-CIO and Change to Win affiliates oppose the strike and are supporting the government in this case.

The U.S. unions say their opposition is based on losing the right to organize for the public sector. They claim their collective bargaining agreements would be declared null and void without Public Law 45. There is a clause that destroys the collective bargaining structure if any court finds the prohibitions against strikes unconstitutional.

However, before the ten-year-old Law 45, unions would organize public sector employees and negotiate “letters of understanding” which in fact were collective bargaining agreements. These agreements were guaranteed by the strike threat.

Puerto Rican unions that represent public employees like the electrical workers, university professors, and one of the health workers’ unions, among others, are supporting the Federation of Teachers. Together with pro-independence and many civic organizations, they have formed a coalition to support the teachers and defend public schools.