Turning point in the UPR strike

May 18, 2010

Unions in Puerto Rico have called a one-day general strike for May 18 in solidarity with students and workers at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), who are striking and occupying against government plans to balance the budget on their backs. The same coalition of labor organizations that organized a general strike last October against the government's attack on public-sector workers made the call for today's walkout.

The general strike follows moves by the government to try to intimidate student occupiers at the main UPR campus of Río Pedras. The strike began at Río Pedras in mid-April as a two-day action, but when university officials refused to meet with the students, the protests escalated. On May 17, the one UPR campus out of 11 that wasn't shut down by a student strike came to a standstill after a walkout by the staff union.

On May 14, the day after students voted at a massive assembly to continue the strike, riot police surrounded the Río Pedras campus and clashed with supporters who came to bring food and supplies to the occupiers inside the UPR gates, resulting in several arrests and instances of violence by riot police. But students and supporters defied the intimidation, and the occupation has continued.

SocialistWorker.org columnist Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation, visited Puerto Rico to speak, and wrote this firsthand report of the battle for University of Puerto Rico.

I ARRIVED nearly three weeks into the student strike at the university campus that is to Puerto Ricans what UC Berkeley evokes in the United States--excellence in scholarship combined with a history of left-wing militancy.

The University of Puerto Rico's (UPR) Río Piedras campus has been the site of multiple strikes over the last few decades, and more than a few of the 200 to 300 students living inside its high gates in flooded tents from periodic tropical downpours are children of previous student battles--particularly, of veterans of 1981's months-long strike that ended in repression.

During the ride from the airport, my host Alma Torres' car radio was airing a live interview with the elected Student Negotiating Committee member Giovanni Roberto. All of San Juan is tuned to the news of these well-organized and defiant student rebels on the San Juan campus of 20,000--now joined by students from nine of the 10 other UPR campuses. The goal is "eleven campuses, one strike," Alma explains.

Members of the faculty union at the University of Puerto Rico show their support for the student strike
Members of the faculty union at the University of Puerto Rico show their support for the student strike (Puerto Rico Indymedia)

Sympathies with the strikers' demands have been expressed by everyone from international pop star Ricky Martin to street vendors eking out a living in a country with a per capita gross domestic product lower than Mississippi's. Conversations in bars, taxis and on the streets betray ordinary Boricuans' intimate knowledge of the negotiations, and the May 13 General Assembly of nearly 3,000 students held in the country's main convention center was followed on radio with the intensity of the final game in the World Series.

Students voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike at the assembly. As Giovanni explains, "They tried to ambush us. Today, we went to their assembly, at a place of their choosing, on their terms, and we won. This clearly demonstrates our strength."

LONG BEFORE the strike was called, I had been scheduled to speak in mid-May on a couple campuses about my book, Sexuality and Socialism, at meetings sponsored by the Organización Socialista Internacional (OSI) and the Committee Against Homophobia and Discrimination.

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.

Instead, I spoke to student strikers and supporters on the global crisis and fightback, from UPR to Arizona, on the steps of the museum inside the occupied campus--after a brief appearance on Radio Huelga (Strike Radio), the student-run mouthpiece of the strike located inside UPR's gated walls.

In the days leading up to the assembly, the campus occupation had the air of liberatory enthusiasm, mixed with organized defense. Jerry-rigged wifi access, feeding stations and a crude shower were functional and free, and internal campus roadways bore the signs of more menacing preparations, with barricades made of tires, scaffolding and industrial jetsam set up by students with a flair for Rube Goldberg ingenuity.

The 1903 campus is the jewel in the crown of Caribbean public education, and its academics are of world-class stature, on par with many of the best U.S. institutions. Its old buildings and breezeways project a mix of classical beauty alongside modern concrete structures in semi-repair.

The campus' lush trees are surrounded by a massive gate with multiple entrances. Each entrance is padlocked by student occupiers, each gateway with its own political coloring. I was welcomed by strikers, climbing over and around the radical left-controlled "Sparta Gate," festooned with anti-homophobic, pro-labor banners and colorful signs. Student strikers speak proudly of the unprecedented inclusion of LGBT activists in their struggle, which includes an openly gay representative in their strike leadership.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Sherry Wolf at Socialism 2010 in Chicago and Oakland, speaking on "Sex Wars: From McCarthyism to Prop 8." Check out the Socialism 2010 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

After bringing me to a midday street protest that blocked traffic outside the trustees' downtown bank, Alexandra, Marimel and Giancarlo escort me onto campus to introduce me to others. They describe their elected structure, inter-campus communication network and democratic processes for preparing for the next day's assembly, which will determine the strike's future.

My Spanish is too crude to catch more than snatches of the hours-long, open-air meeting of 150 or so strikers coordinating their responses to the administration's maneuvers to pressure them to concede. The debates are friendly, but serious and occasionally heated. They come away nervous about the next day, but committed to extending the strike until victory.

Inside the occupation, there is even a new huerto huelga (strike garden), where some strikers have carefully tended passion fruit, vegetable plants and other foods in pesticide-free plots. The student gardeners I talked with are hoping the university will keep their garden intact long after the strike. "The campus claims to be green," Selma tells me. "What could be more green than a garden with healthy foods grown in sustainable soil?"

Notably, there is no trash or human detritus strewn anywhere. The students are not out to destroy their beloved institution. They are fighting to stop $100 million in cuts, threats of privatization, and attempts by administrators to get rid of tuition waivers for students.

The clear strike mandate coming out of the May 13 assembly appears to be a turning point of sorts in the strike.

My friend Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, on sabbatical from the University of Chicago and doing research in her native San Juan, is a veteran of the 1981 strike. Her mother and sister teach at UPR, and she speaks passionately of the school as her intellectual home. The day of the assembly, she's critical of the students' strategy and wary that they will be done in by the administration as her class was in its struggle--which led to her own suspension, along with the others, and the quashing of student protest for years.

Those criticisms subside as she witnesses the police crackdown on the strike and the persistent and well-organized efforts of both strikers and their allies outside the gates, where she went to lend support the next morning.

Agnes tells me of a father who is beaten by police the morning after the assembly for delivering food to his striking son, as he had every other morning. Agnes joins the hundreds of parents and faculty ringing the police cordon around the gates to deliver food and water, some throwing packages over to the strikers inside.

She expresses pride in the new generation, who are grabbing the baton from their parents and garnering the solidarity that no previous UPR strike has ever accomplished. Like other vets of '81, she is proud of the students' defiance and the lessons that their own parents' experiences may be teaching them.

To my surprise, the students' talk of getting the workers to call a general strike succeeds. In response to the repression of May 14, unions have called a one-day strike in solidarity with the students for Tuesday, May 18, and all of civil society is calling on Puerto Ricans to bring food, water and solidarity to the strikers--and for an end to the police repression.

It seems our slogan here in the U.S.--Todos Somos Arizona (We are all Arizona)--must be extended this day to Todos Somos Puerto Rico!

Further Reading

From the archives