How students won their strike in Puerto Rico

July 1, 2010

Eric Ruder reports on the successful student strike at the University of Puerto Rico.

A NEARLY two-month-long student strike that shut down all 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) ended in a decisive victory for the students.

The students' inspiring unity, determination and creativity serve as a magnificent example of how to fight and win in the face of neoliberal attempts to balance budgets in this era of global austerity.

The strike began April 21 as a 48-hour stoppage at UPR's main campus of Río Piedras to protest $100 million in budget cuts, a sharp increase in student fees and the administration's unwillingness to negotiate with student activists. As the strikers' confidence grew, their demands were transformed from a modest desire for negotiations with school officials into an ambitious platform to head off the administration's budget cuts and plans to privatize the university.

The students had strong support off campus. Parents made their way to the picket lines, bringing supplies of food and water when police used violence to threaten strikers and turned off the water supply to the main UPR campus. Some weeks later, a large number of Puerto Rico's unions organized a one-day general strike in solidarity with the students.

Participants in the University of Puerto Rico student strike celebrate their victory
Participants in the University of Puerto Rico student strike celebrate their victory (Puerto Rico Indymedia)

In the span of two months, students built ties to university professors and campus workers, found enormous support across the entire island and forced university administrators to abandon their most aggressive assault on students.

The university was forced to reverse Certification 98, which would have required poor students to choose between merit-based tuition waivers and financial aid grants. Administrators renounced plans to sell off parts of the university to private corporations, cancelled a special "crisis fee" of $1,500 that they planned to impose next semester, and committed to not summarily expel the strike leaders.

The agreement came after the intervention of a court-appointed mediator, former judge Pedro López Oliver, who brought the students' National Negotiation Committee and the university's board of trustees to the negotiating table to hammer out the terms of the settlement.

Four days later, the students' negotiating team emerged victorious, chanting one of the strike's slogans, "Eleven campuses, one UPR!" and announcing that they had won their central demands. In keeping with the democratic process established by student strikers in the course of their struggle, the strike continued until students had time to organize a UPR-wide assembly to vote on whether to accept the agreement agreed to by the negotiating team.

At a historic assembly June 21 of some 3,000 students from all 11 campuses, an overwhelming majority voted for the agreement. According to the Spanish-language Claridad newspaper, "The assembly unfolded with the same spirit that prevailed throughout the strike: motions, amendments to motions and direct votes by students (in this case, organized by campus and then tabulated), as well as open and democratic discussion at each stage in the process."

The students at each campus then decided how and when to reopen the gates to their respective campuses, an important symbolic victory in itself considering the near-constant threat of police violence that hung over the strikers who camped out by the gates for weeks to defend their closure of the university.

After the assembly, Shirley Rosado, a student spokesperson at the Ponce campus, triumphantly announced that "we, the students, have defended public education" and that "the sleeping youth have been awakened."

THE STRIKE not only transformed Puerto Rico's political terrain, throwing the widely despised administration of Puerto Rico's Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño on the defensive, but it also transformed the students themselves.

Within a matter of weeks, students set up an online radio station to disseminate news about their strike, planted an urban garden, held lectures and poetry readings, and took responsibility for organizing a round-the-clock defense of their struggle.

These marvelous forms of self-organization and the democratic accountability of the various committees to the student body as a whole allowed the strikers to prevail during the longest student strike in Puerto Rican history.

The culture of democracy and collaboration established in the strike will serve student activists well in the coming months, because though the students clearly won this round, university administrators have already announced that they plan to implement a "crisis fee" for the semester that begins in January.

This led the student assembly to pass a motion declaring that "the student body is opposed to a tuition increase, especially to the imposition of a fee in January 2011" and that "we declare that we will do whatever is necessary to stop such a fee." The assembly also took a "preventive strike vote," authorizing a strike in case the administration makes good on its threat.

"Students must be prepared to use any means necessary to protect themselves against injustices such as this fee," striker Aníbal Núñez told Claridad. "And if it's understood that the best way to defend ourselves is another strike, it's essential to prepare ourselves for this situation."

The university, backed up by Fortuño, is now clearly spoiling for a fight. Not only did the board of trustees refuse to open UPR's books--one of the only significant demands that the strikers didn't win--so students could study the university's finances and propose alternatives to tuition increases for balancing the budget, but Ygrí Rivera de Martínez, the chair of the board of trustees, made very clear her displeasure with the decision not to expel the strike leaders.

This issue was reportedly one of the key sticking points during the final negotiations. The logjam was only broken when the mediator brought the rest of the board into the negotiations. Rivera then found herself in a minority, and in a 9-4 vote, the board voted to accept the mediator's proposal. Rivera refused to sign the final agreement.

No doubt, Rivera wanted to deal harshly with strike leaders in the hopes of intimidating future strikes, but her intransigence may have backfired. According to the agreement, not only will students not face summary suspensions or expulsions, but they also won acknowledgment that they had a legitimate right to participate in marches, protests, meetings and other strike-related activities.

Only in the event that laws were broken or university rules violated could students face disciplinary measures, and the agreement stipulates that in that event, the students have a right to speedy appeals of administrative rulings and protection of their academic standing during the disciplinary process.

"The process is an extraordinary victory for students," Frank Torres Viada, a lawyer who assisted the students' national negotiating committee, told a reporter. "The big achievement is that, regarding penalties, it is a process that guarantees fairness, impartiality and legality, far beyond the current dispositions of the UPR student rules."

Now student activists have both the time and forewarning necessary to prepare for whatever the university tries to do next. And they can do so with the knowledge that they enjoy the enthusiastic support of the island's unions, community organizations and campus workers.

With the university considering a round of cuts aimed at the wages and benefits of professors, student activists will again have an opportunity to stand with them shoulder to shoulder as they jointly resist the neoliberal drive to balance the island's budget on the backs of students and workers.

This inspiring example--of determination in the face of supposedly impossible budgetary constraints, of solidarity in the face of repression--can and should be followed everywhere.

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