Puerto Rico: Teachers fight for a dignified retirement

Interview by ERNIE GOTTA

Since long before the implementation of the PROMESA bill in 2016 and the Fiscal Control Board, workers and farmers in Puerto Rico have been fighting direct colonial rule by the U.S. Alongside the fight for self-determination, Puerto Ricans have had to survive numerous climate disasters and COVID. The effects have been devastatingly elevated due to the tight grip of U.S. control, no matter which party, Democrat or Republican, is in office.

The class struggle in Puerto Rico remains an intense part of all aspects of life. Today, for example, teachers are fighting privatization in education and attacks on their quality of life. Contract negotiations continue with the teachers union, AMPR (Puerto Rican Teachers Association), as members have rejected the most recent proposals. Below is an interview about the current situation with Paul Figueroa, who is an educator and academic, and Officer of the Opposition for the Puerto Rican Independence Party in San Juan’s First House District. Figueroa also ran for San Juan City Council in 2020.

Ernie Gotta: You wrote on Facebook that 65% of teachers in Puerto Rico voted against what you called a sham contract negotiated by the AFT. Can you give a brief background to the current negotiations around teacher pensions and raising the retirement age in Puerto Rico? Why are pensions so important for teachers? How is this fight connected to the Junta and the impact PROMESA has had on the island?

Paul Figueroa: The recent fight for teachers’ pensions in Puerto Rico goes back to 2019, when the AFT and its Puerto Rico affiliate AMPR (Puerto Rican Teachers Association) first proposed pension cuts under the pretense that if teachers voted to reduce pensions then, the AMPR could dissuade the Fiscal Control Board from proposing additional cuts in the future. That vote was close; 7375 teachers voted, 4108 voted against the cuts and 3267 voted in favor. In this election there was more than double the participation, with 11,277 teachers voting no to the deal and 6059 voting yes. This result is significant because this time the AMPR offered a $3000 bonus to all union members in 60 days if the pension cuts prevailed—a buy-out that was not offered in 2019; and despite that, the margin of victory was much greater this time around.

I think it is important to point out that public school teachers in Puerto Rico, as in other U.S. jurisdictions, do not pay into Social Security, and as it is, there exist Social Security disparities in Puerto Rico. Any pension cut would be catastrophic to our retirees who have no other possible source of retirement income.

This vote was so important because it is part of a larger debt renegotiation and adjustment plan being pushed by the Fiscal Control Board for all pensioners, not just teachers. Essentially, this vote was a litmus test to see how Puerto Rican workers would react to proposed cuts from the Fiscal Control Board. While Puerto Rico’s radical teachers’ unions—such as FMPR (Puerto Rican Teachers Federation), Educamos (We Teach), UNETE (Unite)—did not have the funding of the AMPR, AFT, and Fiscal Control to finance a “no” campaign, they still won by wide margins. Teachers sent a clear message to the Fiscal Control Board to proceed with caution because workers are clearly not willing to negotiate or tolerate their austerity measures.

EG: In a recent Tempest article you write about the assault of “disaster capitalism” on Puerto Rico. Can you describe for us what challenges from the administration and government that teachers are facing today? What type of organizing is being done to confront these changes?

In the previous [Ricardo] Rosselló administration, Rosselló’s political inexperience and the onslaught of disaster capitalism in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria made it so that there was no attempt to hide the government’s agenda of privatization and austerity in the island. The closure of hundreds of public schools, the introduction of charters, and the original pension cut proposals all occurred under his administration.

Current Governor Pedro Pierlusi has been much more subtle in his agenda. Remember, the pro-statehood party called the New Progressive Party (which is neither new nor progressive), to which Rosselló and Pierluisi belong, caucuses with both Democrats and Republicans. And while in Puerto Rico they govern from the right, they paint themselves as progressives in the U.S. to win Democratic support for statehood. Pierluisi originally named Elba Aponte, a former AMPR-AFT president, as Secretary of Education. While in Puerto Rico she represents the government’s anti-worker agenda, in the states Pierluisi was hailed as a bold progressive for appointing a teacher and union leader as Education Secretary. Her brief tenure as interim secretary was so tumultuous that the governor eventually withdrew her nomination.

Our biggest challenge as educators is continuing to reject austerity. We have been largely focused on demonstrations and legal battles. While we have shown an ability to mobilize workers in the streets, our legal battles have often ruled against us, which for me is to be expected when we’re trying to get the colonizer to rule in favor of the colonized in the colonizer’s own legal system. I think we will have to engage actively in political education nationwide for broader sectors of the population to understand the implications of PROMESA and Fiscal Control Board beyond labor and leftist groups if we are going to successfully organize against them.

EG: How has the legacy and current state of colonialism affected education in Puerto Rico? In your view what would a successful movement for self-determination and decolonization look like? What role, if any, are teachers playing in that movement?

PF: I cannot stress enough that for decades it was illegal to even speak Spanish in public schools in Puerto Rico. The first U.S.-appointed secretaries of education in Puerto Rico recognized that education would be even more effective in the Americanization of our islands than the military occupation. Colonialism is present in every aspect of our education system here. From the curriculum, to the administration of the Department of Education, to even the way our schools were built. Several of the schools closed in the 2017 education cuts are now used as horse stables. What does that say about the learning environment we create for our children in Puerto Rico? We also now have the issue of charter schools and education vouchers in Puerto Rico. Many of these charters coming in are from U.S corporations or NGOs; do we honestly think they will in any way challenge the colonial situation of Puerto Rico? Of course not!

I think self-determination and decolonization will require a lot of mental decolonization to prevent neocolonialism following the completion of our self-determination process. That means challenging the curriculum, preparing students for democratic experience, creating spaces for critical analysis. Of course, hundreds of teachers in Puerto Rico do this every day, and there are schools in Puerto Rico that already do this, such as Nuestra Escuela in the towns of Caguas and Loiza, but there is a lot that needs to be done.

EG: What can Puerto Ricans in the diaspora and/or teachers, students, and union members around the U.S. do to support the teachers in Puerto Rico?

PF: My friend and comrade Monique Dols wrote an excellent article on union colonialism by AFT on behalf of the MORE Caucus of the UFT. Any AFT-affiliated teacher should be organizing from their local syndicates and caucuses to call on the union to reject union colonialism, just as MORE did. I also suggest they reach out to other unions such as FMPR, Educamos, and UNETE to engage in solidarity work, something else which MORE has done very well.

EG: Do you have any final comments?

PF: All of these issues circle back to colonialism and our relationship with the United States. The only way we can successfully stop PROMESA, the Fiscal Control Board, settler colonialism, disaster capitalism, and other issues I raise in this interview and my Tempest article, which you cite, is independence. Any leftist in the United States who wishes to be in genuine solidarity with the Puerto Rican people must understand that independence is the solution and aid in the elevation of our movement in the U.S.

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