What the UPR strike taught us

For two months this spring, students went on strike at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) that eventually closed all 11 of campuses in the system. The strike was against tuition increases, privatization and the administration's heavy-handed tactics.

Marimer Berberena is a member of the Humanities Department base committee and elected representative to the National Campus Coordinating Committee; Keyshla Rivera is a member of Education Department base committee and member of the Committee in Defense of Public Education; and Jean Carlo Betancourt is provisional coordinator of the Social Sciences base committee.

They spoke to Héctor Tarrido-Picart about how the strike was organized and the challenges that now lie ahead for students and workers.

Thousands of UPR students marching to show their support one month into the strike (Puerto Rico Indymedia)Thousands of UPR students marching to show their support one month into the strike (Puerto Rico Indymedia)

DESCRIBE WHAT prompted the campus-wide strike. How did the initial demands evolve as the strike progressed?

Marimer: Everything started when the UPR administration announced that there would be a $100 million cut to the university's budget without consulting the student body--as well as a proposal to balance the budget through Certification 98, which would have put a moratorium on student tuition fee waivers and made students choose between tuition waivers or having the federal Pell Grant. They also proposed a drastic reduction in the number of summer courses at the university.

The student body began to organize actions such as a protest against UPR President José Ramón de la Torre. From the level of combativeness, it was clear that we could start to escalate our tactics by employing occupations. We successfully occupied the humanities and sociology departments. Immediately after the successful occupations, there was a mass assembly of students at UPR's Río Piedras campus.

There were rumors of a general strike already spreading in the university's hallways, and when the general student assembly was organized, the proposal to have a general strike was won, based on the three points the administration had pushed for implementing--first, opposition to the $100 million budget cut; second, removal of Certification 98; and third, opposition to a tuition hike that we already saw coming.

Those were the initial demands of the strike, which began with a 48-hour work stoppage. We agreed that if the UPR administration refused to negotiate with the students, we would escalate to a general strike.

Jean Carlo: The media and the administration reported our demands as if they were separate, rather than a united whole. The administration wanted to focus solely on Certification 98 and the plan to balance the budget. We had to be prepared to counter all their arguments on that question.

We can say that we managed to win on that issue, and it looked like they were going to concede, but that left unresolved the problem of increased fees. This was something that those of us who were closely involved knew already, but the student movement as a whole did not.

We knew that, due to the fiscal crisis and the deficit, they wanted to push for a tuition hike as they did in 2005. And there was another demand that crystallized during the strike--namely the fight against privatization of the university through public-private enterprises.

The demand for summer courses also evolved during the strike, but became obsolete since the strike had already extended well into the summer, and many were committed to continuing the strike until victory.

Keyshla: I want to add something about the administration's proposal to raise tuition. After we made the concrete demand that the administration open up UPR's books so we could see how the university was using existing funds, we discovered a letter signed by UPR Board of Trustees President Ygris Rivera to the department responsible for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The letter stated that a tuition hike was not going to be considered because it would not be able to cover the deficit. So she was committed on paper to not raise tuition cost, but in the context of an already existing fixed increase in tuition cost. So the Board of Trustees came up with the idea of imposing a special fiscal emergency fee, since it's the only way they can legally justify indirectly raising tuition.

Marimer: We established the national negotiating committee to negotiate with the board of trustees, but in the middle of discussions, the administration declared that there was going to be an additional fee added to the tuition. This was after we already won an agreement to abandon Certification 98, which was exclusionary and discriminated against poor students. This simply proved that the board of trustees wants to balance the budget by taking money away from the students.

CAN YOU talk about how the strike evolved and the organizing bodies created that helped the strike win?

Jean Carlo: We organized coordinating committees called "comités de acción." They were mass organizing bodies open to anybody who wanted to join them, regardless of their political leanings. What was important was that the people who joined them were committed to fighting.

You could have differing views on the way forward and go to one of the base committees and debate your point of view. It was a space where anybody could go, including people with no political affiliation--in fact, some people said they hated politics, but they could come and debate.

We grasped that in order to organize the whole student body, you can't just have one immense group with everyone there. You need subdivisions, so we decided to divide into departments, but that didn't happen immediately.

Last semester, two departments had their base committees--social sciences and humanities [at the Río Piedras campus]. They were not fully developed until this semester when we strengthened them with the expectation that they were not necessarily going to remain organized by department, but knowing that we wanted them to exist on a long-term basis.

Other committees that already existed prior to the strike were the Committee Against Homophobia and Discrimination (CCHD) and the Committee in Defense of Public Education (CEDEP). With our base-building work, we managed to organize committees in all departments.

Once we had our committees, our main challenge was to coordinate the different committees together. Having solid actions where everyone came together was the best way to foster unity in action. For example, when we set up our camps by the campus gates where we slept throughout the strike, we pushed for having all the students coordinate and set up the camps inside the university together, rather than doing it individually.

We also suggested that we needed a place to have open debates, where people who had previously not talked or been involved could have a venue to propose new ideas and to have active communication from different faculties. Out of this discussion came the Student Coordinating Committee. One or two elected representatives from each department committee would go to the Student Coordinating Committee to put forward the discussions and ideas from the rest of the students in their department committee.

This allowed for departments to hear each other's ideas and exchange information, but this was not a decision-making body. This was very important. It was crucial in organizing a very democratic structure so that everyone felt comfortable making decisions as a team. The only decision that took place in the Student Coordinating Committee was when to convene a mass assembly or a multilateral meeting.

It was at the mass assembly that all department committees convened and where decision-making took place. This was very democratic, and even when you came with a proposal and lost, the important thing was to collaborate and work together.

Marimer: When we had the mass student assembly in Río Piedras to vote in favor of our strike, we decided to also organize a student negotiating committee that would negotiate with the board of trustees.

This committee would be composed of not only the student council, but also members of the department committees and other committees, such as the previously mentioned CEDEP and CCHD. That committee was composed of 16 students, but after the rest of the campuses decided to go organize assemblies and go on strike, we recognized that the student negotiating committee of Río Piedras had to become a national committee to encompass all the campuses. A new series of assemblies were convened and through election the National Student Negotiating Committee was formed.

Keyshla: We also had the National Campus Coordinating Committee (CONARU), which emerged out of the discussions at the base in the committees in Río Piedras. It was important to build solidarity and to maintain communication with other campuses so we could strengthen ourselves.

Although each campus had its own specific demands, we also had demands that affected all 11 campuses, like opposing the budget cuts, the privatization of the university and Certification 98.

So we decided we needed an organizing body that could help us address that challenge. We had gate committees to guard the entrances of the campuses and include students who did not fully identify with the department committees, and out of that, in Río Piedras, we held an assembly that elected Marimer to represent us in the CONARU. We went to other campuses with the proposal so they could elect other representatives and we could start organizing joint national activities.

The first event CONARU organized was a march for our right to work and the right to a public education. It was organized the day Gov. Fortuño was delivering a speech to Puerto Rico about why he was pushing for further budget cuts as well as other measures. That day we marched to the governor's mansion close to the Plaza de Armas, and we were joined in solidarity by some labor unions.

The CONARU's role was to help with any problems we might face at each campus and help strengthen and grow the bases. We hope that this organ transcends the strike and that we maintain it even during the low points of our struggle. This will hopefully lead to the formation of a student union at the national level.

CAN YOU talk more about how the decision-making process worked?

Marimer: I can talk about Río Piedras and Mayagüez, which are the two campuses I'm familiar with. After the strike started, we realized the necessity of turning the department committees into strike committees. So each gate committee in Río Piedras, for example, elected a gate coordinator that was to represent their gate at a coordinating body of all the gates.

Each gate committee had a daily meeting, at which decisions were made, then the gate coordinator took the resolutions to the gate coordinating committee, so we could know what other gates decided. While trying to avoid redundancy, we also took proposals from other gates back to our respective gate committees after discussing them in the coordinating committee. With full knowledge of all the proposals and discussions, a mass assembly was convened where the final decision-making took place.

The Mayagüez campus did the same. I don't really know how the other campuses organized decision-making, but it could have been different given that their campuses are not as big as Río Piedras and Mayagüez.

The CONARU organized a tour to all the campuses to hear how other students made their decisions and to explain the model I just described, which we call participatory democracy. We also asked them about how they were relating their base to their student negotiating committee.

We started realizing that not all campuses were organizing in a participatory manner. We hope that in future struggles we maintain that model in which the base of the movement discusses and makes decisions.

HOW DID the student movement confront the repressive and violent measures that the board of trustees and the Fortuño administration ordered, such as the mobilization of the police and riot squad?

Keyshla: The repression against us was very intense, but they failed because of the students' creativity in fighting back. The administration's attacks were outrageous.

For example, as soon as we went on strike, Río Piedras's rector Ana Guadalupe decreed an academic recess and pushed for a lawsuit against the Río Piedras negotiating committee and the president of the Río Piedras student council, claiming it was the student strikers who were blocking the academic recess. All of the lawsuits against the striking students were never pursued, though.

Starting on the first day of the strike, there were police at the entrance gates. They even mobilized the cadets to fill in. There is a clause in the university's laws that if there is a confrontation between university students and the university police, the state police can intervene. They were waiting for that confrontation to happen so they could come into the campus and throw everyone out.

The administration tried to weaken the strike by sending people in to infiltrate and misinform, but the students were prepared for police repression.

Marimer: The support of the rest of the country was key also. Every time the menace of a violent police assault loomed over the campus, we remained alert but also calm. We knew they were trying to bait us.

The support of mothers and fathers of Río Piedras students was crucial. They were attentive when the police were mobilizing and called for early morning pickets whenever they thought the danger was high--and that happened multiple times. They were our shield.

The only bad situation that developed was when students went to the Sheraton Hotel to protest Fortuño's fundraiser. This ended in a mass riot caused by the police, but overall, the police never got a chance to enter the occupied campus.

Jean Carlo: We also shouldn't forget the long history of police repression of the student movement, especially in Río Piedras. A couple of decades ago, the police could enter the campus freely, and we also had the ROTC inside the campus. When students took up the struggle against the ROTC, they left a mark on history and shook the country.

That struggle was what led to the creation of the non-binding "no confrontation" policy. During our strike, no police entered the campus, but researchers doing investigations were allowed to enter so their experiments were not ruined. We chose to abide by the no confrontation policy, and if the police didn't want to, it was going to be their fault.

But this policy has no legal weight to it, so it was up to us to give it weight by explaining it to the students and the media, and carrying it out in practice.

There were two extremes--the people who were afraid of the police and the people who were eager to throw some rocks against them. As organized students, we had to learn how to deal with both extremes and explain to both sides how it's not just about throwing rocks or just receiving beatings from the police. The most important argument we made was that of self-defense--if they are going to initiate violence against us, we are going to defend ourselves.

HOW DO you and the rest of the country see the UPR strike in relation to Law 7, the measure that the government passed in attacking public-sector workers?

Marimer: As soon as Fortuño came into office, he pushed for the fiscal emergency Law 7, which was passed last year, and the proposal for joint private-public enterprises as a solution. The whole package is an attack against the working class. In particular, Law 7 allowed for mass layoffs of public sector workers.

It took the country by surprise, especially unions which have had a bureaucratic leadership and have not organized their rank and file in years. There was some struggle against Law 7--in particular, the one-day general strike on October 15, 2009.

The students already knew that it was an attack against us, and we knew that we needed to organize on the streets to show public discontent. The students started organizing not only in solidarity with workers, but also directly against Law 7. Although our strike was student-based and had student demands, we wanted to relate it to the struggle against the public-private partnerships, Law 7 and the layoffs.

In this way, the country could see how Law 7 was related to our strike, and it explains why people channeled their fury against the government through support for our strike--they had no other venue to do so.

Keyshla: The implementation of the public-private partnerships is not something new at UPR. One example is Plaza Universitaria, which the UPR administration built in order to provide services such as registration, financial aid, etc. They did not want to take the financial burden of maintaining the building, so they privatized the complex.

The building is not currently ours, but we still own the land. This is an example of "alienation," which was also another demand we had: to not have any buildings not belong to us.

Many people talk about privatization as if a chunk was going to be sold off, but what people don't realize is that within the university, there is already a lot of privatization. Small things. For example, the copy machines used to cost 3 cents, and now they cost 8 cents. There is a company that was hired to keep an eye on that.

The student center is rented out to Burger King, Sbarro, Pollo Tropical and Church's Chicken, when instead we could have a normal cafeteria that is more affordable and healthy for students. There was a university bookstore that was closed, which sold books cheaper.

We wanted people to see this in their respective workplaces. Privatization is always seen as something global and big, but there is also privatization that happens piece by piece.

Jean Carlo: Through our struggle, we were also able to unmask a lot of things the country needs to know about. For example, Law 7 was a project that a small group with a corporate agenda for Puerto Rico wanted to implement.

It was taken to congress, and the congressmen didn't even read what they had signed. When the press went and asked them about the layoffs detailed in the bill, they responded by saying they didn't read it! The country is voting for people who are supposedly representing them, but in reality, they aren't. Our student movement knows what we are fighting for.

We were not going to wait until the government approved something in order for us to fight. We were fighting before any changes were implemented. As students, we educated ourselves around how the administration was attacking us by reading their proposals and documents. That is what the whole country should do--educate ourselves.

We can no longer trust politicians doing our bidding. We need to have a participatory democracy were everybody is informed. We also need to be organized in order to get what we want.

Marimer: When Law 7 was implemented, there was sentiment to organize an indefinite general strike. But in order to pursue such a course, there needed to be a level of previous organization that did not exist. The majority of trade unions don't go to the rank and file and organize their base. They don't foster debate about why we need to fight.

We realized that the call for a strike was not going to materialize, so we decided to take our own independent route with a student strike. But we always keep in mind the need to come back to that call to have a general strike. We hoped that through our student strike the rest of the country could see that a general strike is possible to organize. It is now our responsibility to maintain a relation with workers so they can organize when it comes to organizing a general strike.

THE CURRENT UPR strike ended up victory, but there are still some unresolved issues regarding tuition. Can you talk about that and other next steps?

Marimer: When we finalized negotiations, UPR agreed not to impose the special tuition fee in August. Now, they want to try to impose it in January 2010. So we won the first round, but now we have to continue organizing for next semester and fight against the imposition, either through another strike, negotiations or whatever other means.

Jean Carlo: We need to emphasize that the structures that we built for organizing were not solely for the strike. We need a permanent student organizing body where students have the opportunity to organize joint events from the bottom up. It's crucial for students to understand the need for a a bottom-up democracy.

Another goal is to organize a general strike that will elevate the spirit of struggle and push back against the government and employer's attack against us. That is the goal, but we need to have contact with the labor movement, specifically the rank and file.

Many workers want to fight back, but didn't do it because of their existing organizing methods. There should always be some fightback or action because that is where you learn concrete lessons and develop really fast. Our strike developed out of the 2005 strike, and many leaders of this strike developed out of that process.

We need to spread our organizing method and lessons to other areas--communities and neighborhoods, environmental struggles and unions--unify all these struggle to fight back against government policies that favor the rich.

Marimer: Some people are kicking around an idea for a national congress where we can discuss issues that don't necessarily relate directly to our demands and where the groups Jean Carlo mentioned could join in. We want to create a national student union where the student body operates as a political force that has decision-making power and to get this union recognized by the government and the rest of the country.

Through this, and without forgetting about our own demands, we can work with other forces. We also need to maintain the work at the base through the CONARU and through the department committees--week in, week out, locally, regionally, nationally. We have huge tasks in front of us, but I think that this strike will contribute to this in some way.