The American Federation of Teachers’ affiliate in Puerto Rico is resisting the parent union’s attempts to keep it in its fold. The power struggle has both sides claiming the other is abusing the relationship.
Representatives of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico plan to ratify their split from the national union, based in Washington, later this month. The San Juan-based FMPR, which has more than 32,000 members, has had ties to the 1.3 million-member AFT since 1965; the AFT won the exclusive representation of public school teachers in the U.S. commonwealth in 1998.
The AFT charges that the affiliate’s president has violated the national and local unions’ bylaws and is using his seat to advance a political agenda that has nothing to do with teachers’ needs or education. The national union has appointed an administrator to oversee the chapter.
A federal court hearing is scheduled for later this month in San Juan on the affiliate’s decision to leave the AFT.
The FMPR’s vote to part ways is significant, observers say, because of the number of members and amount of money at stake for the AFT, the second-largest of the United States’ two national teachers’ unions. The Puerto Rico affiliate hands over about $2.5 million annually to its parent.
Leaders of the FMPR compare the face-off to a David-and-Goliath battle. Moreover, they claim that AFT officials are corrupt and ineffective. The FMPR’s leader, Rafael Feliciano Hernandez, has distributed literature that charges AFT President Edward J. McElroy with allowing health-care-insurance funds to be misspent by the local union’s representatives when Mr. McElroy was the AFT’s treasurer. While some of those representatives have been ousted by the FMPR, the AFT has appointed others to administrative roles in the affiliate.
To show their displeasure with the AFT, about 15 Puerto Rican representatives held a protest at the AFT’s biennial QUEST meeting in Washington last month. Ann Serrano, a grievance official for the Puerto Rico union, said the affiliate’s main complaint is that members must pay 43 percent of their $16 monthly dues to the national office, leaving too little to be effective on the island. AFT “never did much for us,” Ms. Serrano said during the demonstration. (That percentage is inflated, according to the AFT.)
Another protester, Maria Elena Lara, who is a board member and the secretary of the FMPR, said she wants the AFT to accept the group’s decision to disaffiliate. She said in Spanish, through a translator, that she wants “a relationship of mutual respect and solidarity and not of submission.”
Evidence of Wrongdoing?
But the AFT tells a much different story about the affiliate. It claims that the FMPR has not paid any dues to its parent in years.
The AFT also asserts that Mr. Hernandez is promoting an anti-statehood, pro-independence agenda and is bullying union members to follow his course.
The national office launched an investigation this past spring at the request of about 800 teachers and FMPR members, said Jaime A. Zapata, an AFT spokesman who was involved in the investigation. The AFT executive council found evidence of wrongdoing on the part of union leaders in Puerto Rico, including intimidating members, not allowing them to vote, and expelling those who disagreed with the political platform, he said.
“That’s the kind of stuff we take very seriously,” Mr. Zapata said. Appointing an administrator and dealing with the legal issues is “a painful process, but we’re very committed to getting it right,” he added.
Dimas de Jesus, an English teacher and an elected member of the FMPR’s executive board, said Mr. Hernandez had promoted democracy within the union when he was a board member, but changed face when he was elected president two years ago.
“Now that he has become the president, he forgot all about that,” he said.
Mr. Hernandez could not be reached for comment.
Furthermore, the FMPR needs the AFT affiliation for political leverage on the U. S. mainland, particularly because the commonwealth’s schools need federal aid, Mr. de Jesus argued. Teachers in Puerto Rico are just beginning to understand the benefits national affiliation can bring, he added.
Meanwhile, National Education Association President Reg Weaver said his union has no plans to recruit FMPR members if they do secede from the AFT.
Staff Writer Andrew Trotter contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as AFT Fighting Puerto Rico Affiliate’s Potential Desertion