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Published in Print: November 17, 1999, as AFT Wins Right To Bargain For Puerto Rican Teachers

AFT Wins Right To Bargain For Puerto Rican Teachers

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After a hard-fought campaign, the Puerto Rican affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers has won the right to represent the American commonwealth’s teachers in collective bargaining.

The election this month marked the first time that teachers in Puerto Rico have been permitted to vote for union representation, under a new commonwealth law that allows public employees to bargain.

It also represented the biggest contest between the United States’ two national teachers’ unions since they began working toward a possible merger and other cooperative efforts.

Unofficial results showed the Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico winning 22,156 votes to 8,024 for the Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

"Teachers want a stronger voice in strengthening the quality of education in Puerto Rico," said Renan Soto Soto, the president of the AFT affiliate. "They know the needs—creating smaller classes, modernizing our school buildings, and securing adequate learning materials for students. Now, we can begin to negotiate for the things that make schools work."

Association’s Image

More than 80 percent of the 37,105 teachers who were eligible to vote did so, according to the AFT. Its affiliate in Puerto Rico has sought collective bargaining for 25 years, earning a reputation as a strong advocacy organization. The NEA affiliate, on the other hand, has been seen as concerned with professional issues.

Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the NEA, said the association’s image contributed to its resounding defeat in the election. "The brand we owned in Puerto Rico was the professional association," she said. "Teachers did not see us as being in a collective bargaining mode."

An immediate concern for teachers is their low salaries; most earn between $18,000 and $22,000 a year, and Puerto Rico is a relatively expensive place to live.

The Puerto Rican affiliate becomes the AFT’s second-largest, surpassed only by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers.

Retired members of the federation from Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and Texas traveled to the island in the West Indies to help in the election. The union also worked closely with other affiliates of the AFL-CIO, including the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Though the two teachers’ unions engaged in a vigorous battle for the right to represent Puerto Rico’s teachers, Ms. Lyons said they continue to enjoy a cooperative relationship.

Vol. 19, Issue 12, Page 3

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