A teachers’ union in Puerto Rico voted Aug. 3 to join the American Federation of teachers, marking the first time in more than a decade that AFT will have a presence there.
The arrangement is an unusual one: There will be a three-year trial affiliation, during which members of the Puerto Rico union will be considered full members of the AFT. The AFT will collect just $1 a member per month that first year—far below what is charged of other locals. That will gradually increase to $2.
The move will bring 40,000 more educators to the AFT, which many say could see a precipitous drop in both revenue and membership in the coming years given a pending court case. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering hearing the Janus v. AFSCME case this year, in which it will weigh whether unions may charge fees to nonmembers.
The AFT currently has 1.6 million members.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, has been in a fiscal crisis, having accumulated more than $70 billion in debt. As the New York Times noted in March, the money to pay teachers’ pensions is anticipated to run out next year. (The paper equated the pension system to a “legalized Ponzi scheme.”) About 180 public schools are set to close, the Los Angeles Times reported in May.
The union in Puerto Rico, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, held a secret ballot yesterday in San Juan, and about 95 percent of participants voted to affiliate with the AFT. (AMPR will be chartered as a state federation of AFT. Its collective bargaining body, AMPR-Local Sindical, will be chartered as an AFT local.)
“It’s a big deal,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in an interview. “These forces of austerity and privatization and predatory practices that have put the island in such bad shape—nobody can fight them alone.”
U.S. private investors, including large hedge funds, bought Puerto Rico bonds for years because they didn’t have to pay federal, state, or local taxes on interest. That helped lead to the skyrocketing debt, which the island has responded to by raising taxes and laying off public employees, among other austerity measures. (KQED has a helpful explainer on the debt crisis here.)
“For years we have been left behind and denied Social Security, as other professionals have seen improvements to their working conditions, salaries, and benefits,” AMPR President Aida Diaz said in a statement. “With the AFT, we can work hand in hand to improve our working conditions and reclaim all that has been denied to us.”
Of the trial affiliation, Weingarten said, “We want to make sure it’s a good fit.” AMPR members will be entitled to all the benefits of full members during that time.
Previous Power Struggle
In truth, there’s probably a good reason for making this a trial run. The AFT had won the right to represent Puerto Rico’s teachers in collective bargaining in 1999 (the AFT and the other large national teachers’ union—the National Education Association—battled for this role).
At that time, a different union, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, became the AFT affiliate. But within several years, the Puerto Rico affiliate and the AFT were engaged in a power struggle. Both sides claimed the other had abused its relationship: The Puerto Rico affiliate charged that AFT officials were allowing funds to be misspent, while the AFT claimed that the affiliate had not payed dues to the parent organization in years, and that its leader was using his position to promote a political agenda that had nothing to do with education. Members of the Puerto Rico union pushed to disaffiliate, but the AFT initially held onto its claim of administratorship.
In 2005, the AFT revoked the affiliate’s membership and demanded the Puerto Rico union repay its debt.
Asked about this history, Weingarten said “it was not a deep affiliation” and that Puerto Rico’s teachers had not voted to bring the groups together.
Image: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addresses the media earlier this year in Washington. —Cliff Owen/AP
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated the Asosiacíon de Maestros de Puerto Rico’s relationship with the AFT. The two unions were not affiliated in the past.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.