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At San Juan Convention…


Operating with its usual purple panache, controversial political ties, and a huge advertising budget, America’s most "Latino-friendly" union is romancing all of Puerto Rico this week.

 

As the Clinton and Obama campaigns wrapped up their paid media assault on Democratic primary voters June 1, 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 the island’s largest labor organization.

 

In feel-good TV spots, full-page ads in local papers, and signs on every bus stop, SEIU is “celebrating with enthusiasm” its 2008 convention in San Juan. This lavish gathering of 3,000 mainland delegates and guests began on Monday—under security worthy of a WTO meeting–with a welcoming address from SEIU’s special friend here, Anibal Acevedo Vila.

 

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

 

Candidate Obama may have skipped a rumored rally with SEIU supporters over the weekend 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, the convention’s final day.

 

Unlike the Senator from Illinois, SEIU has no qualms about embracing the badly tainted governor. Despite his indictment, Acevedo remains a key ally in SEIU’s on-going campaign to destroywith government helpthe Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR).  And that explains the biggest ruckus at the convention so far, which occurred on Saturday when  FMPR members stopped by to express their lack of enthusiasm for SEIU president Andy Stern.

 

As properly credentialed SEIU visitors are bussed from their hotels each day, they enter a “convention center district” that is completely   cordoned off with metal barricades. Behind these are scores of armed police (some on horseback), unarmed private security guards, and then an inner ring of SEIU staffers wearing yellow vests  signifying that they too are “sergeants-at-arms.”

 

On Saturday, using “mobile picketing” skills well honed during a ten-day strike in February, 150 teachers marched right up to a police check-point–two hundred yards from the meeting hall—and burst through. Taking casualties along the way, due to flailing clubs and attempted police collars, they then made a 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 why a feared invasion by these brothers (and sisters) from another union planet had triggered such an official lockdown. Some delegates were aghast at the spectacle. As disapproving union staffers hovered in the background, Local 1021 member Harry 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,the bearded, soft-spoken president of FMPR, a 49-year old science teacher named Rafael Feliciano Hernandez, was busy giving press interviews and having a "charla" (or chat) with other open minded SEIUers. 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 his 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 Sindicato Puertorriqueno de Maestros (SPM). The SPM is the bastard child of a tiny school administrators’ association that merged with SEIU six months ago. The administrators favor privatization–which SEIU supposedly opposes–but they affiliated with the North American union anyway to access to its vaunted political war-chest and lobbying clout. Thus, with aid from Dennis Rivera, "Puerto Rican principals and supervisors" have, in Gonzalez’s words, “created a new union for their own subordinates.” When those unruly folks voted to strike in January—after two years of fruitless contract talks with a management team that included members of SEIU’s new affiliate—the FMPR was quickly “decertified,” even before its walk-out began.

 

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% 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  $250 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 members  interviewed outside the convention center were quite proud of these gains—and their resistance to the "neo-liberalism" of Acevedo.  While SEIU claims to be fighting for "Justice For All" in Puerto Rico, the teachers actually went out and fought for it. FMPR activist Ana Serrano 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.” Tania Hernandez, a special ed teacher who spoke at an FMPR solidarity meeting with SEIU sympathizers on Monday night, described how she–a single mother to two–became such "a dangerous girl" on the picketline that she was thrown to the ground and arrested, as were dozens of her colleagues around the island.

 

Serrano is a Brooklyn-born graduate of SUNY Binghamton with a masters degree from NYU; now, she works in an Aguadilla school so infested with rats and termites that OSHA had to be called in.  Along with hundreds of other strike veterans, she and Hernandez are helping to keep FMPR afloat financially by making voluntary contributions to its treasury. Both are confident of winning any re-certification vote (yet to be scheduled) that will pit their member-controlled organization against what they call “chupa cuotas” (or “dues-suckers”) from SEIU.

 

Key issues in that 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–just for attending a few meetings a year as one of 73 SEIU board members. Pagan also gets a $60,000 salary from his San Juan local. As for Rivera, he earns nearly $200,000 annually as head of  SEIU’s national health care division.

 

The radical idealism of  FMPR stands in sharp contrast to dominant trends in SEIU (notwithstanding the brave convention fight being waged this week by out-numbered SEIU reformers.) Outside the convention center on Saturday, a middle-aged English teacher named Edgardo Alvelo was telling me about member involvement in the FMPR, while, inside, the self-proclaimed “21st Century Union” was showcasing its new system for “servicing” members via regional call centers. Under a Stern-proposed expansion of SEIU “Member Resource Centers,” workers will be given 800 numbers to call for information and advice about job-related problems. In a national unit of cafeteria workers, this method of “representation” has already been implemented–along 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 has known Dennis Rivera (“a nice person, in terms of personality”) since they were schoolmates together in the town of Aibonito. The SEIU leader was called Dennis Hickey back then. “My mother worked for his 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. Dennis adopted his mother’s name when he moved to New 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 center district” on Saturday, I could still hear the sound of Spanish lyrics about “triqui, 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 politicians like Acevedo or Republican George Pataki, when he was 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 outright opportunism. 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 teachers’ determination to have a union they can call their own.

 

 

(A Boston-based labor journalist, Steve Early is covering the SEIU convention in San Juan and writing a book for Cornell University Press about Sixties radicals in the American labor movement. He’s been active in unions since 1972 and can be reached at [email protected]

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