SEATTLE - The American Federation of Teachers convention here honored 300 Filipino teachers in Louisiana who fought back against an unscrupulous recruiting agency that lured them to the U.S. where they worked under conditions of near-peonage.
Dr. Lorretta Johnson, AFT executive vice president, presented the President's International Democracy Award to Ingrid Jomento-Cruz, founder of the Filipino Educators Federation of Louisiana, in a July 9 ceremony. "It took great courage for the Filipino teachers to come forward," Johnson said. "Just think about the qualities these teachers have: personal courage, the willingness to speak up and the belief in collective action."
Johnson pointed out that her home local, the Baltimore Teachers Union, has welcomed many Filipino teachers into its ranks and elected Filipina Aileen Mercado to the BTU Executive Board.
When the Filipino teachers contacted the AFT, the union responded quickly, Jomento-Cruz told the convention. "A few years ago, we were voiceless, vulnerable, and scared. Today we are organizing and we will never be silent again about our human rights and labor rights."
A video projected on giant screens told the harrowing story of the Filipino teachers. They paid the Los Angeles recruiting company $15,000 each as a placement fee for teaching positions promising $40,000 in annual salaries.
But when they arrived in Los Angeles they were told they had to pay thousands of dollars more and would be placed in Louisiana, contrary to earlier promises. The video shows the prison-like building they were housed in when they arrived in Louisiana, surrounded by a chain link fence with razor-wire coiled along the top.
The teachers were held incommunicado but Jomento-Cruz managed to contact the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, which launched an investigation and helped the teachers organize.
An AFT lawsuit resulted in the Louisiana Workforce Commission ordering the company to refund the $1.8 million in hidden fees to the teachers.
The Filipino Educators Federation also filed a complaint with the U.S. Labor Department protesting inflated fees, commissions and rents their recruiter attempted to collect from them in return for U.S. work visas.
Jomento-Cruz said the AFT solidarity was in the Filipino spirit of "bayanihan," in which neighbors help a relocating family by carrying the family's house on their shoulders to their new location. "We can clearly see the heroes in the community collectively work and sacrifice for each other," she said. "In essence, bayanihan is ... one with the spirit of unionism."
Others were honored at the convention for acts of solidarity. A resolution praised the outpouring of humanitarian aid for the people of Haiti after the January earthquake, including members of the AFT-affiliated Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals who flew to Haiti to provide emergency health care after the disaster. The resolution calls on the U.S. government to help Haiti establish a system of public "free, universal education" which it has never had.
The convention approved a resolution calling for a speedy end to the war in Afghanistan, opposing "further escalation" and urging a "specific timetable for the rapid, orderly withdrawal of all armed forces and military contractors from Afghanistan."
The resolution calls for "the reallocation of the funds that would otherwise be directed to the war in Afghanistan for job creation, education, health care and other urgently needed social programs for working people in this country."
Another resolution calls for an end to repression of teachers and trade unionists in Honduras and ending the U.S. recognition of the "illegitimate government" in Honduras.
Progressive teachers submitted a resolution lauding Cuban educators "who have worked diligently over the past half-century in eradicating illiteracy in their country" and supporting "their continued work in this area."
The same resolution condemned the half-century U.S. embargo for causing the Cuban people hardship. The resolution urged the government to increase the "remittances" Cuban-Americans are allowed to send their relatives in Cuba, "end individual and group travel restrictions to Cuba, and "begin fruitful discussions with Cuba" on increased exchanges between the two nations.
However, the resolution was "precluded" in favor of a resolution hostile to the Cuban government and expressing support for a dissident Cuban group called the Colegio de Pedagogos Independientes.
Photo: Filipino teachers from Louisiana receive the AFT's award, July 9 in Seattle. AFT President Randi Weingarten is second from right. (Filipino Educators Federation)