Student strike shuts down University of Puerto Rico indefinitely
¡Que vivan los estudiantes,
porque son la levadura
del pan que saldrá del horno
con toda su sabrosura!
– Violeta Parra, Chilean singer/songwriter (1917-1967)
Over 3,000 assembled students at the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico, at Río Piedras, on Tuesday, April 13, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a tentative 48-hour campus occupation the following week, to be followed by a full-fledged “indefinite strike” if the administration refused to negotiate in good faith.
The occupation began on Wednesday, April 21, and became a strike at midnight the following day, after a meeting between the students’ Negotiating Committee and UPR President Ramón de la Torre. De la Torre and campus Chancellor Ana Guadalupe had failed to show up at meeting after meeting with the Negotiating Committee, while attempting to speak exclusively to the centrist Student Council, which initially opposed any strike action (but is now part of the Negotiating Committee).
In addition to Student Council, the 16-member Negotiating Committee, created by the Assembly for that purpose, includes representatives of grassroots groups formed within the campus over the past year or so to address numerous issues facing students, ranging from privatization and budget cuts to homophobia in the surrounding community.
Upon leaving the meeting with De la Torre, student negotiators informed that he refused to budge on any of their demands. The students’ main demand is the repeal of Certification 98, a diktat of the Board of Trustees that paves the way for eliminating fee exemptions for athletes as well as university employees and their families. Students have also denounced potential budget cuts of up to $100 million, as part of the current government’s “austerity measures”, and they demand that the university open its financial records to public scrutiny.
Early in its term the far-right, pro-statehood administration of Luis Fortuño, elected with a broad margin as a result of the previous, centrist, pro-status quo government’s deservedly huge unpopularity, approved the infamous Law 7, which among other things allows the sacking of tens of thousands of public sector employees. Puerto Rico faces a severe fiscal deficit since at least two years prior to the current world economic crisis, but UPR students and other opponents of the measures claim it has only worsened the crisis while further impoverishing the poor and the working class. Indeed, economic indicators, including both unemployment and “growth”, continue to decline steadily. Despite much posturing about a “general strike”, however, and with few but notable exceptions, a bureaucratized, domesticated, and fragmented labor movement has shown itself terminally inept at opposing any serious resistance to the neoliberal offensive.
Although Law 7 technically does not apply to the UPR, it allows the administration to take its own “austerity measures”, and eliminates budget items that previously fed into the university’s constitutionally-mandated budget. Instead, students argue budget shortfalls, in the short term, should be compensated (among a long list of other alternatives they have included with their demands) by reducing the budget of the President’s Office, which include unjustifiable luxuries and “assistants’ ” salaries often occupied through political or personal favors.
The historic Río Piedras campus is surrounded by a gated fence. Students camped out inside the campus overnight, and proceeded to perfectly execute a carefully designed plan, storming the gates from within as the sun rose on April 21. After a brief melee with confused and surprised security guards, several hundred students shut themselves inside the campus, and have remained inside since. Shortly thereafter, however, Chancellor Guadalupe declared an administrative lockout, and the notorious Police Riot Squad was ordered to custody the outside perimeter of the campus, while awaiting for the courts to resolve a request for injunction by university administrators against student leaders.
Tenured and non-tenured employees have been supportive of the students, joining the labor stoppage during the initial occupation, and refusing to cross picket lines afterward. Professors and administrative personnel have their own demands to add to the students’ list, and have been very active in both protecting the students, organizing food and water covoys, as well as support demonstrations outside the campus.
All but two UPR campuses are now on strike. The majority are being occupied by students for 48 or 72 hours, while the initial 48-hour occupation of the Río Piedras campus has become a full-fledged strike, to be ended only through negotiation or force.
At the Mayagüez campus, the UPR system’s second largest, the student body was split during a massive assembly plagued with irregularities on the part of the Student Council President, an operative of the governing party. As a result, campus operations have not been shut down, although militant students are organizing resistance. At the Arecibo campus, similar dirty tricks on the part of the Student Council were nearly successful, but students were able to turn the tide, and a campus occupation is now ongoing. At the Bayamón campus, the Chancellor attempted to impede the Assembly by replacing it with an electronic “referendum”, but students upheld their rights and approved a 48-hour occupation.
On Monday, April 26, the fourth day of the indefinite strike, and the sixth since the initial occupation, protests by labor unions and community groups of the governor’s yearly budget address were held outside the main gate of the Río Piedras campus, in solidarity with the students, rather than at the Capitol building, as customary. This is significant, since the labor movement has been highly fragmented in its response to the current government’s onslaught. This year, unlike the last, leaders of all the major unions and coalitions shared the same podium. All of the speakers stressed the importance of the student movement as an example of both militant initiative and unity in action. This observer estimates an attendance of at least 3,000.
The governor’s message itself contained no “surprises” concerning the UPR, although the way he urged students opposed to the strike to scab and provoke was irritating even for the most jaded observer of Puerto Rico’s rotten governing elite.
Meanwhile, negotiations with university administrators are ongoing. President De la Torre has passed the students’ demands on to the Board of Trustees, which in turn has created a committee of its own members to “study” the demands. Said committee, however, appears to be dragging its feet, arriving at no conclusions after three days.
All in all, however, the students’ position seems much stronger at present than at the outset, as the strike process has become nearly system-wide, and the tide of public opinion seems to have turned in favor of the students.
This is due in some part to the fact that the right is in office (the “center” tends to opportunistically support and co-opt oppositional movements when not in power), but primarily to the high degree of discipline and organization that the students have displayed and maintained throughout the process. Students occupying the campus have held numerous teach-ins, artistic events, clean-up squads, a highly participatory democratic decision-making process, and communal living arrangements that have so far received surprisingly good press.
The Riot Squad, however, remains at the gate, awaiting the order to enter and sweep the campus clean of striking students. A judicial order, however, in response to two requests for injunction filed by the administration and pro-strike law students, respectively, has ordered mediation between the parties, which in theory buys the students time, making it difficult for the government and the administration to play such a risky hand, at least for now.
The next few days will be crucial to the outcome. Support is urgently needed and much appreciated.