Student strike reignites a fire

May 11, 2010

Héctor Tarrido-Picart explains the background to the struggle that is gripping the campuses of the University of Puerto Rico--and how it is affecting the wider struggle.

WHAT STARTED as a 48-hour student takeover of the University of Puerto Rico's (UPR) Río Piedras campus last month has turned into an ongoing occupation and strike--one that has captured the attention and imagination of not only unions and politicians, but the country as a whole.

The striking students are fighting a series of initiatives by which the university administration intends to balance a budget gap of $100 million on the backs of the majority working-class students at UPR. Many of the administrators' measures are contained in Certification 98--under which tuition waivers would be eliminated or limited, and guarantees against tuition increases and privatization of services would be overturned.

The students are also fighting for UPR's Brotherhood of Non-Teaching and Exempt Personnel (HEEND, by its Spanish initials) and the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU, by its Spanish initials), which face the threat of layoffs, cuts in health care coverage and pensions, and a freeze and possible cuts in wages. In return, the unions have expressed solidarity with students by showing up to the university gates and picket lines to show support and providing food as the occupation progresses.

Mass march of UPR student strikers to the university president's office to draw attention to their struggle
Mass march of UPR student strikers to the university president's office to draw attention to their struggle (Puerto Rico Indymedia)

On April 23, the action at the university, originally planned for two days, escalated after UPR President José Ramón de la Torre, Río Piedras' Campus Rector Ana Guadalupe Quiñones and the UPR Board of Trustees refused to meet with the strike negotiation committee that was democratically elected by the student body in Río Piedras. The indefinite strike that began on the 23rd was an escalation of tactics by the students.

The university administration claims there is no other way to resolve the massive budget gap except with cuts. The students, along with the APPU and HEEND, on the other hand, refuse to accept that the austerity measures proposed by the administration are the only solutions to the problem.

For one thing, students point out tens of millions of dollars have been set aside in the budget to fund expensive dinner parties, special galas and other non-academic events--showing not only the level of opulence that administrators are used to, but also their detachment from the reality for the majority of working-class students.

What you can do

Students at UPR are asking for solidarity at an international level. The Student Organizing Committee has set up a PayPal account where donations can be made to help the occupiers. E-mail [email protected] for more details.

The students are also demanding that the board of trustees open the account books so that a transparent assessment of the budget can be made. This reflects students' mistrust of the administration and the government--and for good reason: last year, a significant number of public-sector workers were wrongfully laid off due to "accounting errors." Further grounds for suspicion include the rumors that the government is seeking to sell portions of its public higher education institution to the private Ana G. Mendez University.

The students have put forward a proposal to address how the budget crisis could be solved, but the Board of Trustees, after sitting down for an initial meeting, made no comments on the proposals.

Giovanni Roberto Caez, a spokesperson for the students' negotiating committee, said that Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortuño "and the government should tax the pharmaceutical companies and the rich to provide the funds to cover the budget cut."

The pressure on government officials has been growing, which led Fortuño to denounce the striking students in a televised address to the Puerto Rican Congress.

Calling the students a minority that was asking for too much, the governor then embarked on a discussion of finances which, according to students, revealed that the government has cut funding for UPR to a level below what is stipulated by the colonial commonwealth constitution. Students rightly identify the cut as connected to Law 7, the so-called Fiscal Emergency Law, which prompted massive layoffs of public-sector workers and proposes to privatize a sizable section of the publicly owned state industries.

Fortuño's intention with his speech was to intimidate the students into backing off from their demands. But the students responded with a strong statement, confirming their militancy and their determination.

Victor Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Union of Socialist Youth in the UPR, said: "Fortuño is wrong if he thinks that he is successfully intimidating and threatening us. They are not going to remove us."

THE STUDENTS have framed the conflict as an attack on a public institution and the right to affordable education. This has tilted public sentiment in their favor and explains why the strike has been received with a high degree of solidarity on other UPR campuses and beyond. As sociology student Fernando Nieves said to Primera Hora: "This struggle is not only ours, it's also for each and every worker that has been laid-off by the government."

Thus, the call put forward by the Río Piedras students for other campuses to join the strike has spread like wildfire to the other 11 branches of UPR. As of this article's writing, the UPRs in Ponce, Humacao, Carolina, Cayey, Bayamón, Mayagüez, Utuado and Arecibo joined the Río Piedras students on an indefinite strike, and the other three of the 11 campuses held a two-day solidarity strike.

There are also reports that students at private universities, including Ana G. Mendez University, are also taking action in solidarity. Some are joining the UPR students in the occupation, in a recognition that their universities may end up with high levels of debt.

The strike has also been welcomed internationally. In the U.S., a statement by CUNY students in New York City pointed out that they were facing the same austerity measures, while Wall Street and the big banks get a bailout. Students from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and the University of Bern in Switzerland have sent letters of solidarity--the students in Bern staged a two-day solidarity strike in support of UPR students.

This strike has had the highest level of participation and support in many years--not even the 2005 strike at UPR against tuition hikes can match it. The students have even organized two new low-frequency AM radio stations to communicate and entertain the students and supporters, with Río Piedras leading with their own Radio Huelga.

Solidarity beyond the university has snowballed with each day of the occupation. On April 23, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (Teachers' Federation of Puerto Rico) staged a sit-in to protest the loss of their pensions and then marched to the UPR Río Piedras campus to show their solidarity with the striking students.

In Ponce, a picket line to protest Fortuño's layoffs included participation from two unions, the Central Puertorriqueña de Trabajadores and the Sindicato Puertorriqueño de Trabajadores. Workers went to the UPR campus in Ponce and provided students with food and water to get started with their indefinite strike.

In Rio Píedras, the community, which is facing attack from a gentrification project pushed by the mayor of San Juan and also puts up with a heavy police presence and harassment, mobilized in solidarity with students. Future students have shown their support--contingents of elementary school children have marched to the UPR gates.

The largest show of support so far came on April 28, with students organizing a concert under the title "¡Qué vivan los estudiantes!"--named after a verse from Violeta Parra's famous song "Me gustan los estudiantes."

The event was inspired by support for students from people like reggaeton artist Tego Calderon, Latin rock star Robi "Draco" Rosas and former political prisoner Rafael Cancel Miranda. Jose García, a spokesperson for the Committee Against Discrimination and Homophobia and the Student Negotiating Committee, also invited singer Ricky Martin to join in.

The event, which served as a fundraiser and a show of public support for the strike, featured a number of artists. The highlight of the night was a video created by Réne Pérez, of the reggaeton phenomenon Calle 13, which featured Alejandro Sanz, Rubén Blades and Ricky Martin expressing their solidarity with the students' fight for education as a right.

THE CONCERT also marked a victory in the strike. UPR Rector Ana Guadalupe had requested an injunction to allow security to move in on the occupying students and take control of the campus. But Judge José Negrón Fernández ruled in favor of a student counter-suit and ordered the police mobilized to the UPR gates to be removed by May 3.

Students celebrated this victory and insisted--against claims from the media and a minority of students and professors who oppose the strike--that students and faculty have been allowed onto campus by the occupiers. In fact, it is the police and the riot squad that is blocking access to campus.

But Negrón is under pressure to overturn his decision and grant the UPR administration's request for an injunction requiring the students to call off the strike and demobilize students occupying the entrances. In particular, Río Piedras' Student Council President Gabriel Laborde is targeted by the injunction--but he has stated on multiple occasions that he alone doesn't have the power to call off the strike, since a student assembly empowered a Student Negotiating Committee to make that decision.

Throughout these legal maneuvers, administrators have kept a strong presence of law enforcement on hand.

At the start of the strike, the administration relied on a private security company to try to prevent students from taking over key buildings and the university gates. When it became clear that the private company couldn't deal with the large numbers of students, Guadalupe declared an academic recess and requested that police take control of the gates. This prompted clashes leading to the police mobilizing the riot squad, which is known historically for its brutality.

After Judge Negrón issued the ruling calling for the university to be opened on May 3, Guadalupe and Río Piedras administrators tried further acts of intimidation--Guadalupe even drove her SUV to break the picket lines, with the support of a heavy police presence.

The police escalation of violence and harassment is a reaction to the growing solidarity of students at Río Piedras and other UPR campuses. But students aren't backing down. The growing support for the strike, not only among students, but among unions and across the working population, shows that the occupation is a force to contend with.

THE IMPORTANCE of the UPR strike and occupation comes at a critical moment in Puerto Rico. Last October, a one-day general strike supported by the unions closed most schools and government offices, and drew more than 200,000 people to a march in San Juan. But the spirit and energy of the strike was followed by months of confusion. The major unions and organizations that led the one-day walkout made multiple calls for a national general strike, but didn't mobilize for one.

But the UPR students' strike has set an example that struck a chord with much larger numbers of Puerto Ricans. Though they have not yet won their demands, there is a sense that what the students are doing can lead to something bigger.

The students are well aware that their struggle is one of many against an international onslaught on public education. Their sense of momentum and growing confidence comes from a year's worth of activity that preceded the strike.

Over last summer, students in UPR organized forums to discuss the nature of the neoliberal university and how other students fought against privatization internationally. They organized two committees in the wake of the October 2009 general strike--the Committee Against Homophobia and Discrimination and the Committee in Defense of Public Education (CEDEP). During the general strike, UPR students were the most militant demonstrators, staging a sit-in on a street that goes through the heart of San Juan.

All this organizing laid the groundwork for the current strike. In fact, one of the earliest fights this year, prior to the strike, was a CEDEP surprise meeting with the new UPR president, de la Torre, in which students forced him to sign a document that rejected any initiatives to privatize the public university.

Now students are asking for unions, other organizations in Puerto Rico and the international community to support them and join them in a fight for higher education as a fundamental right.

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