A different kind of strike

June 3, 2010

Rossana Rodriguez, recently returned from Puerto Rico, reports on the dynamics of a long student strike that has won widespread popular support.

THE STUDENT strike at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) system has been strengthening since it started more than a month ago. The students' demands have changed as they have become more confident and identified specific needs in the struggle--and UPR officials have been forced to back off some of their most draconian demands.

On June 1, a student negotiating committee reported that the UPR Board of Trustees had agreed to drop Certification 98, which establishes that a student will only be eligible to receive one form of financial aid, either a Pell Grant or tuition waiver. The trustees have also agreed to back away from plans to privatize the university.

But the UPR administration is holding the line on its push to raise tuition in the form of a $1,500 "crisis fee." University officials also rejected students' demand that they abstain from taking legal or administrative action against the students on strike. Another student demand--to open the university's books--has also gone unmet. And in a press conference, student negotiators cautioned that UPR representatives have not negotiated seriously, but rather have shifted their bargaining positions by the day.

Students on strike at the University of Puerto Rico
Students on strike at the University of Puerto Rico (Alvin R. Couto de Jesus | Puerto Rico Indymedia)

To understand how the students managed to capture the national imagination and force authorities to negotiate, it's worth looking back at how the strike developed from it's inception.

THE STRIKE at the Río Piedras campus started as a 48-hour strike called by the students with support of the vast majority, after the administration announced budget cuts of $100 million and raises in tuition costs.

At other UPR campuses, students had their own demands. Such is the case at the Mayaguez campus, where, after the strike started in Río Piedras, a 24-hour action was held to demand that the administration cease attempts to raise tuition costs for the summer session and cutting 30 percent of the salaries of professors during the summer.

After another 24-hour strike, Mayaguez joined the Río Piedras students on an indefinite strike that is also gaining force. All the campuses finally united under the slogan, "11 campuses, one UPR." In early May, students at the Mayaguez campus, by a vast majority, voted again in favor of continuing the strike.

All 11 campuses of the UPR system have joined the strike. Ten are totally closed and under student control--the only exception is the School of Medicine, where patients receive medical attention.

An assembly of professors in the university system officially supported the student strike. The professors decided by majority that if the government uses the police force to remove the students from the campuses, they will go on strike.

The UPR struggle is characterized by a very democratic decision-making process and excellent organization.

The students elected a National Negotiation Committee, which has representation from each campus. This committee delivers the demands of the base to the negotiations. However, any decision to agree at the negotiating table has to be brought back to the base for final decision. The base is formed by the gates committees, the people who are living at every gate of the 10 campuses.

Another group that was formed as a result of the evolution of the struggle is the National Campus Coordinating committee CONARU, according to its initials in Spanish. The purpose of this committee is to coordinate national actions with other groups such as unions and other sectors of the community in order to strengthen and expand the struggle.

These developments are part of a variety of events that have strengthened the movement in defense of the UPR.

On May 27, Gov. Luis Fortuño announced the appointment of a religious leader to be a mediator between students and the administration. While Fortuño was making this announcement on TV, thousands of students and workers were marching to Plaza de Armas, near the State Department building and the Fortaleza, the governor's official residence. Fortuño supported the university president's statement that the students have until June 7 to get out of the campuses and continue negotiations during the summer--with the gates open.

SINCE THE strike started, the administration has tried to intimidate students through different tactics that only show how desperate they are. The first maneuver used by the administration was to announce an academic recess. When that didn't work, they sued the students to make them open the university, but that, too, failed.

Then, administrators called the riot police, who tried to stop the students from getting inside the campus. The police beat people up and pepper-sprayed them, but that didn't succeed in breaking the strike, either. Instead, massive community mobilizations arose to support the students.

Next, the state police superintendent of Puerto Rico, José Figueroa Sancha, ordered UPR officials to prevent the delivery of food or water inside the campus. Figueroa was the second in command for the FBI's 2005 assassination of Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojedas Río.

But Figueroa Sancha's hard-line stance toward the students caused the community to get even angrier, so people started coming from everywhere, bringing food and challenging the police. Cops even beat up and arrested one parent when he tried to deliver food to his son.

As a consequence of these repressive tactics, the image of Puerto Rico's police has deteriorated, despite Figueroa Sancha's propaganda aimed at convincing the population that the students are criminals--and that they're a minority of people with hidden agendas. But his efforts were undercut when a few cops' Facebook profiles were leaked to the media. The police officers' status included statements like, "I could finally break some skulls in this fucking strike!"

The excessive use of force by police has been remarkable during this struggle. For example, on May 20, students and workers organized a protest in front of the Sheraton Hotel, where Fortuño was holding a fundraising dinner at $1,000 a plate. Around 300 people gathered to picket in front of the hotel, and the students decided to get inside and try to see the governor.

The action ended with the riot police beating people up and pepper-spraying them, including those who were still picketing outside and never went in. One of the students was subjected to a Taser device three times while laying down on the floor, and with two riot police officers on top of him. According to the paramedic who attended to the student, the electric shock the student received was enough to kill him.

Along with the physical crackdown came a legal one. The UPR administration filed a lawsuit against student strike leaders, most of whom are on the Negotiating Committee. This has slowed the negotiating process even more. But rather than being intimidated, the response of the students and the community has been to fight back. People have started defending themselves against the police, which has not been common in past struggles.

HOW DID we get here?

In 2008, the administration of UPR's Rio Piedras campus announced the closing of the Social Sciences College library. A handful of student activists started a movement to keep it open, including an occupation by a huge group of students who took over the buildings with the sounds of Brazilian drums and chants. They went into every classroom telling everyone to join.

By 10 a.m., the whole college was shut down, and a big cultural activity took place until the next day. Three more occupations followed: In the main library, the College of Humanities and again in the Social Sciences College.

These actions must be understood in the island's current political context. Puerto Rico, like every country, is facing the effects of a global economic crisis that was caused by the rich and powerful, who are obviously trying to place the burden on the poor. The party in power is the New Progressive Party, which is affiliated to the Republican Party, and which seeks the statehood for Puerto Rico.

Fortuño is both a Republican and rich business magnate. As soon as he took office in 2009, he declared the country--which is a U.S. colony--to be in a state of fiscal emergency. He used this to justify Law 7, a plan to drastically reduce public spending, create public/private alliances to outsource government jobs, lay off tens of thousands of public employees and nullify all union collective bargaining agreements.

The bureaucratic and corporate-oriented unions failed to develop a struggle that could stop Law 7 from taking effect, except for the Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers (FMPR), which went on strike in protest. They were severely attacked, not only by the government and the media, but also by other unions.

Notwithstanding these examples, Puerto Rico has had a very rich tradition of struggle, and in the last 12 years, we've had considerable massive movements, such as the 1998 People's Strike against the privatization of the public telephone company, the Vieques struggle against the U.S. Navy's use of a small Puerto Rican island for target practice, the strike of the water service workers in 2006, and the struggles of the residents of the Villas del Sol community to resist a real estate development project and eviction from their houses.

So the fact that there's another big struggle isn't surprising. But many people have said that this has been a different kind of strike.

During the FMPR strike, the media, the government and mainstream unions got together to turn public opinion against the teachers. This has not happened with the students' struggle. Instead, the strike has been marked by the solidarity from all sectors.

One aspect new to me, after having participated in many struggles while I was a student at the university, is the participation of parents in this strike. As soon as the strike was up and running, parents got organized to support their children in the fight--and with parents came the whole family. When this happens, it's more difficult for the government to say that the student leaders were just radical agitators with hidden agendas.

In addition, international artists like Ricky Martin, Alejandro Sanz, Ruben Blades, Silvio Rodriguez, along with Eduardo Galeano, author of The Open Veins of Latin America, have sent messages of solidarity with the students on strike.

The use of technology has also been a factor on this strike. Through the Internet, students have been able to set up strike radio stations that have been transmitting the events from the students' perspective. They have organized demonstrations, posted pictures and videos, and received video messages of solidarity from many countries in the world.

All sectors of the university are in support of the strike, which is historic. The professors' association (APPU), Brotherhood of Non-Teaching Employees (HEEND) and even the conservative Workers Union of UPR (STUPR) have all supported the strike.

Also, the LGBT community has played a big role in the building of the struggle. There is an openly gay student member on the National Negotiating Committee, who has respect and trust from the base.

The strike has also been an opportunity for people to learn about many important topics. Documentary films are being shown and talks are being held frequently. Professors come to the campus and teach informal classes that matter. Some students from private universities have joined the strike and are even saying that they want to come to study at UPR. In the words of one of those students: "I have learned more on this strike than in all the years I have spent studying at the other university."

Art has also played a big role in the process. The students have painted beautiful murals inside the university, people have written songs, done beautiful short films about the democratic process of the strike and much more. Even the UPR choirs and bands have been present, and have prepared specific pieces for this historical moment. Actors are involved, too: A group called the Unit of Clown Police makes fun of cops who blindly follow absurd instructions.

The students at the gates have also organized to cook and clean the spaces, and keep the campuses beautiful. One student even went fishing and cooked fresh fish for his comrades at the gate in Mayaguez--one of my favorite images of this struggle.

With the success of the strike so far have come challenges. The left in the university has played a fundamental role in the construction of the strike, but the numbers of students in left organizations is small. However, there are many people involved who are interested in radical socialist politics.

At a different level, there are important contradictions that appear in the process. For example, sexism and homophobia need to be constantly challenged and discussed. For example, at the Rio Piedras campus, there are discussions about why it's mainly women who do the cooking.

The major challenge in the UPR struggle is building a strong student left that can give direction and perspective to the movement--and take advantage of the momentum of the struggle to build a radical mass movement against the government's policies.

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