Sunday, March 9, 2008

WNU #938: "Truce" in Puerto Rican Teachers Strike, NAFTA Under Fire

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #938, March 9, 2008

1. Puerto Rico: "Truce" in Teachers Strike
2. Mexico: NAFTA Under Fire on All Sides
3. Colombia: Bush, Uribe Push FTA

ISSN#: 1084-922X. Weekly News Update on the Americas covers news from Latin America and the Caribbean, compiled and written from a progressive perspective. It has been published weekly by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York since 1990. For a subscription, write to It is archived at

*1. Puerto Rico: "Truce" in Teachers Strike
At a massive assembly in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan on Mar. 5, some 10,000 members of the Teachers' Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR) almost unanimously backed the union leadership's recommendation to suspend a strike that started on Feb. 21 over wages, classroom size and health issues [see Updates #932, 936, 937]. FMPR president Rafael Feliciano recommended that the union start a process of reflection and analysis on the strengths and weaknesses of the strike, although without acceding to Law 45's ban on strikes by public employees. The assembly also strongly rejected the reported interference of the US-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its vice president, Dennis Rivera, in the situation.

Education Secretary Rafael Aragunde had met six of nine conditions the union set for returning to work. These included a commitment not to penalize teachers who observed the strike; an agreement not to privatize the education system (through charter schools); a $150-a-month pay hike that will raise the monthly base salary to $1,750 as of July 1 (in addition to a $100 raise that went into effect on Jan. 1); and an agreement to seek legislation that would gradually raise the base rate to $3,000. But some of these agreements were made before the strike, and the government has not backed down from its decertification of the union, which the FMPR is challenging in court. Negotiations are to continue on other issues, and the union reserves the option of resuming the strike.

The union and the Education Department continued to disagree on the effectiveness of the 10-day job action. The department insisted that by the strike's conclusion 82% of the teachers were back in the classrooms and student attendance had reached 68%. But FMPR president Feliciano said 50% of the schools had remained paralyzed by the strike. Many teachers crossed picket lines, some because they opposed the strike and some because they feared reprisals from the government, but many teachers militantly staffed the picket lines and turned out for several large demonstrations. The Mar. 5 assembly was reportedly the largest in the union's history.

The strike also won support from many students and parents, and from other unionists. In New York City, with a large population of Puerto Rican descent, professors and other employees in the City University of New York (CUNY) backed the FMPR. On Mar. 4 more than 80 New Yorkers maintained a picket line in front of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) on Park Avenue in solidarity with the strikers.

Decertification would mean the FMPR was no longer the exclusive bargaining agent for the teachers, and it would lose automatic dues checkoffs. At the Mar. 5 assembly, the union passed out forms to members authorizing a new vote for exclusive representation if the FMPR remains decertified; they were also asked to sign forms authorizing deduction of their FMPR dues from their paychecks. (Bandera Roja (Puerto Rico) 3/4/08, 3/6/08; Claridad (Puerto Rico) 3/6/08; Primera Hora (Guaynabo, Puerto Rico) 3/5/08; El Paso Times (Texas) 3/7/08 from AP)

*2. Mexico: NAFTA Under Fire on All Sides
At a Feb. 29 press conference in Mexico City, researchers from the Economic Investigations Institute (IIEC) of the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) gave a generally negative assessment of the economic impact of the 14-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mexico. According to the institute's Emilio Romero, Mexico has lost 2 million agricultural jobs during the period, while 400,000 Mexicans now migrate to the US each year. José Luis Calva said that since NAFTA took effect in 1994, Mexico's growth rate has averaged 3% a year, as opposed to a rate of 6.1% a year from the end of the 1910 revolution until 1982. Agricultural production has increased, he said, but productivity increased much more slowly than in the US; Mexico's rate grew from 1.7 to two tons per hectare while the US rate grew from seven to 8.9 tons.

Calva recommended that NAFTA's three members--Canada, Mexico and the US--pool resources to aid the development of Mexico's most backward regions, and loosen restrictions on immigration by the labor force in order to allow an improvement of wages. This process would be similar to what happened in the European Union (EU), he noted. (La Jornada (Mexico) 3/1/08)

In the US, the two contenders for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination for the November elections, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), both criticized NAFTA while campaigning for a Mar. 5 primary in Ohio, where the agreement is unpopular. Clinton's husband, then-president Bill Clinton, pushed ratification of NAFTA through Congress in 1993. There are also questions about the depth of Obama's opposition to NAFTA. According to a memo by Canadian political and economic affairs consular officer Joseph De Mora, Obama's senior economic policy adviser, University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee, met Canadian officials at the Chicago consulate in February and told them that Obama's position was "more reflective of political maneuvering than policy" and "should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans." (New York Times 3/4/08)

*3. Colombia: Bush, Uribe Push FTA
On Mar. 5 US president George W. Bush suggested that a diplomatic crisis which broke out between Andean nations after a Mar. 1 raid by Colombia on a rebel camp in Ecuador [see Update #937] was a reason for Congress to ratify a Free Trade Agreement (FTA, or TLC in Spanish) with Colombia. Congress has been reluctant to back the deal, citing the Colombian government's human rights record. "If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere," Bush said, apparently referring to Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. (New York Times 3/5/08)

Colombian trade, industry and tourism minister Luis Guillermo Plata was in New York on Mar. 8 to push the FTA. Accompanied by Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and other officials, Plata participated in a roundtable in Queens to defend President Alvaro Uribe's human rights policies. "At this time, the government of Colombia has more than 1,900 unionists under its protection," he said, claiming that the number of murders of unionists had fallen to 26 in 2007 from 196 in 2006. Outside the restaurant where the meeting was held, a group of youths from a local group, the People's Referendum on Free Trade, chanted slogans against the FTA. (El Diario-La Prensa 3/7/08)

On Mar. 6 about 200 people rallied outside the Colombian consulate in New York to protest murders in Colombia by rightwing paramilitaries. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against the paramilitaries in Colombian cities on Mar. 6; on Feb. 4 there were even larger government-backed marches against the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). (ED-LP 3/7/08)

Correction: This item originally gave Mar. 8 as the date for the marches against the paramilitaries in Colombia; the marches were on Mar. 6 both in Colombia and in New York.

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