The U.S. ruling class is trying to make workers and youth in the 50 states and in Puerto Rico pay for a crisis we didn’t create. Puerto Rican youth have stood up, fought back and won!
In response to the world economic crisis and a state budget deficit in Puerto Rico of $3.2 billion, the government of Puerto Rico passed Law 7 in 2008, giving itself the power to make emergency budget decisions. This law dismisses 20,000 public employees and declares null and void all public sector union contracts for three years.
In line with waves of recent layoffs and budget cuts in other areas, the intensely unpopular Republican governor, Luis Fortuño, announced severe budget cuts for the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). The administration announced the cuts in spite of the fact that, according to Puerto Rico law, 9.6% of the government budget must be earmarked for the university, which has a student body of about 65,000. The governor, in alliance with the UPR Board of Trustees, alleged that the austerity plan would pay for $200 million in debt. Their plan consisted of tuition hikes of $1,000-$1,500 per semester over three years, summer term tuition hikes, and the implementation of a program called “Certification 98” which would eliminate tuition waivers for honors students, athletes, and university employees and their families.
In addition to this, the corporate-controlled UPR Board of Trustees announced $100 million of budget cuts, including reductions in scholarships and tuition exemptions and waivers for students receiving federal Pell grants, thus disqualifying poorer students from merit-based financial aid. Cutbacks included dropping popular sports and fine arts. There were also plans for cuts in salaries, university courses, professional services, supplies and scholarships. This is in a country where 45% of the population lives below the U.S. poverty level.
Establishment media and UPR administrators have claimed that the university’s dire financial straits are due largely to the incompetence of previous university administrations. The actual financial state of UPR is unknown because the university has long refused to open its books to public scrutiny. UPR claims to have a $700 million debt traded on Wall Street. According to a May 18 article on MRZine.org, the New York financial publication The Bond Buyer reported UPR obligations to financial markets at $718 million in various “financial packages.” This included $78 million in bonds used to finance the construction of the University Plaza complex in the main Río Piedras campus, a complex which is now privately owned. According to MRZine.org, the university needed $40 million in new loans to cover its July payroll.
Half of UPR’s annual budget of $700 million is accounted for by the Puerto Rico government. For the past several years, U.S. educational accrediting agencies have pressured UPR authorities to privatize university operating costs. Students have pointed out that tens of millions of dollars have been budgeted to fund expensive dinner parties, special galas and other non-academic events, displaying an opulence that is remote from working-class concerns. MRZine.org reports allegations that the UPR Board of Trustees, a group of volunteer private citizens, may absorb up to $4 million annually to pay for secretaries, administrators, drivers and other costs. The board’s executive secretary earns more than the UPR president.
The Puerto Rican journal Claridad claims that UPR’s central administration, which takes in $16 million annually, is overflowing with politically connected advisors and assistants. Throughout the almost two-month-long strike, observers were puzzled by the apparent fact that the UPR administration preferred to lose millions of dollars rather than satisfy demands to open its books to the strikers, the state licensing agency, or the court. These presumed losses include an estimated $16 million from limiting waivers, $60 million in fees, and the $4 million daily claimed to have been lost during the strike.
Strikes, Demands and Momentum
For the past several years, UPR students and the Puerto Rican working class have fought back against the imposition of neo-liberalism. In 2005 a student strike against tuition hikes at Río Piedras lasted 29 days. In 2008 there were mass protests and a one-day general strike against plans to lay off between 16,000 and 30,000 public sector workers, at a time when the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico was 16%. These strikes had widespread support from students, who staged protests - often led by student LGBT groups - and sympathy strikes. In San Juan, 200,000 people marched in support of this strike.
The student strike this year began April 21 with a 48-hour work stoppage at the University of Puerto Rico’s largest campus, Río Piedras in San Juan, which has a student body of about 15,000. Student strikers supported the above demands and stood in solidarity with the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors and the Brotherhood of Non-Teaching University and Exempt Personnel.
The students’ three main demands were the preservation of tuition waivers for honor students, athletes, and employees and their families; the stopping of summer term tuition hikes; and the opening of the university’s books to public scrutiny. Reflecting frustration over the imposition of austerity on the working class to pay for the crisis of the bankers and financial elite, a spokesperson for the students' negotiating committee said that “the government should tax the pharmaceutical companies and the rich to provide the funds to cover the budget cut,” according to a May 11 article on SocialistWorker.org.
Puerto Rico’s large arts community showed its support for the students with a fundraising concert on April 28. Performers included Hispanic and Caribbean artists such as Robi Rosas, the reggaeton band Calle 13, and the singer Ricky Martin. The Puerto Rican independence leader and former political prisoner Rafael Cancel Miranda was a keynote speaker.
The UPR administration initially refused to negotiate with or even recognize the elected 16-member student negotiating committee. A few days after the 48-hour work stoppage, students at Río Piedras declared an open-ended strike. Students at nine and then 10 other campuses in the 11-campus system responded to appeals from Río Piedras students and joined the strike, making the action system-wide.
During the first two weeks of the strike, the administration continued its blanket refusal to recognize the student negotiators. Then, on May 13, a tentative agreement was reached between student representatives and UPR trustees. A vote was taken of 3,000 UPR students, who met at an off-campus assembly held at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan. The university administration, hoping the tentative agreement would be ratified, provided free bus service for the students. In prior negotiations the administration had offered a trade-off between grants and tuition waivers, keeping a system of grants but eliminating the waivers, decreasing financial aid available to needy students.
The 3,000-student assembly reflected divisions among the student body. It included a moderate faction, later termed “Disney,” willing to compromise with the administration and a larger group of students, termed “Vietnam,” who saw the student struggle in terms of a general fight-back against budget cuts and privatization. The administration hoped to take advantage of divisions within the student body and, in effect, do an end-run around the opposition of more militant students. This tactic failed when the student’s participatory process was able to convince the vast majority of students of the need to continue the strike. The UPR students closed ranks and overwhelmingly voted down the tentative agreement.
In response to the student assembly vote, Chancellor Ana Guadalupe declared an administrative lockout and closed the Río Piedras campus until July 31. The campus was then occupied by about 300 students. UPR trustees obtained a court order evicting the students from the university.
The next day, San Juan police and Puerto Rican security forces began laying siege to the Río Piedras campus while a complex legal battle began over the UPR Board of Trustees’ right to police the university gates. The administration hired a private security company to prevent students occupying key buildings and the university gates within the campus. When it became apparent that the private security force couldn’t cope with the large number of students, Chancellor Guadalupe, who led the administration’s court fight, declared an academic recess and requested that police take control of the gates.
A police riot squad known for its brutality cordoned off a one-mile radius around the Río Piedras campus on May 14. According to a May 19 article by José Laguarta on LaborNotes.org, the San Juan police superintendent confirmed that he had given the orders to cut off all food and water deliveries. “Anyone with a problem should try the courts,” he was recorded as saying. The administration also announced it was cutting off water and electricity to the campus.
The police crackdown triggered a massive surge in public support for the students. Early in the strike hundreds of supporters broke the blockade by tossing bags of food and bottles of water over the fence and over the heads of police. Thousands of people arrived at the scene throughout the day, with huge picket lines forming at the gates. The father of one student who tried to throw food and water to students over the university fence was brutally beaten and dragged away by police. Later the same day a physically disabled graduate student who had temporarily left the campus was beaten unconscious by police and then dragged into a squad car. Police pepper-sprayed onlookers who attempted to help him.
A few days after this, a march of artists in solidarity with the students, carrying food and supplies, was blocked by the police. The police blockade of food and water created public outrage throughout Puerto Rico. Massive picket lines by thousands of students and university staff from all campuses, as well as their supporters, sprang up throughout San Juan and other cities. Heavy police pressure often made picket lines difficult to maintain. According to LaborNotes.org, student and university staff scabbing was minimal. On June 3, students demonstrated in San Juan's financial district against Wall Street complicity in UPR’s financial dilemma.
Provocations at several of the gates by university administrators frequently occurred, including an incident in which Chancellor Guadalupe, under police protection, drove her SUV though a line of students.
UPR students had support and solidarity from unions and the working class of Puerto Rico. Shortly after the strike began, a coalition of unions called for a 24-hour solidarity strike in support of student demands, and union activists carried out civil disobedience in front of the Justice and Labor Department buildings. Throughout the almost two-month-long strike, large numbers of union members and supporters came to show their solidarity, joining the huge crowds of up to 5,000 in front of the Río Piedras main gate. The electrical workers’ union, UTIER, and the teacher’s union, FMPR, staged enthusiastic solidarity protests.
During the strike students occupying campus buildings spent time discussing politics and strategy. Films were shown, and students picked up trash, planted gardens, and mowed the campus lawn. Students maintained an online radio station, “Radio Huelga,” (Strike Radio) to break through administration and corporate media distortions and keep the outside world informed of developments.
With mass pressure from students and the community, the UPR Board of Trustees finally agreed to negotiate with student representatives. In early June, the administration offered students a few concessions but without ruling out tuition increases and ending tuition waivers. These terms were not accepted by the students, who continued with their demands for no tuition increase, the preservation of sports and arts programs, no penalties for strike participation, and an open financial audit of university records.
On June 21, with the university suffering an estimated loss of $305 million and after intense negotiations with student representatives, nine out 13 members of the UPR Board of Trustees voted against Ygrí Rivera de Martínez, the board of trustees’ chair, to accept the student negotiating committee’s demands. According to Giovanni Roberto, a member of the UPR student negotiating committee, the Puerto Rico government also agreed that it "would not bring charges against students and members of the university community who, in the exercise of their constitutional rights to the liberty of expression and association, participated in the strike, marches, riots, pickets, or any other related legal activity conducted anywhere within the University of Puerto Rico." According to Roberto, it was also unofficially agreed that students or others accused of university property damage would not be charged. This was considered a victory in light of the violent repression which marked previous UPR strikes. This agreement was accepted at a student meeting of 3,000.
The struggle successfully won guarantees that students with tuition waivers will continue to receive grants, forestalled tuition hikes, and prohibited alliances leading to university privatization. The UPR Board of Trustees, however, continued its refusal to open the UPR books to the public, and Board Chair Rivera made clear her displeasure with the decision not to expel the strike leaders.
The UPR strike was a big victory for the students. It reflected the unity created though democratic debate and decision making, skillful use of modern communications technology, and the importance of working-class alliances developed through common struggle with unions.
Immediately after the student victory, the Puerto Rico state legislature, dominated by a right-wing pro-statehood faction, began a series of repressive countermoves. The legislature ended the longstanding UPR tradition of open debate at student assemblies, replacing it with private electronic voting. The UPR Board of Trustees was expanded and the new board quickly imposed a permanent $800 tuition hike starting in January. Other cuts were made affecting professors and adjunct instructors, who make up about 40% of the UPR faculty.
As the capitalist economic crisis continues, students and the working class of Puerto Rico must be ready for continued counterattacks. Immediately after the student victory, the right-wing government seemed bent on a brutal crackdown against civil rights.
Police violently broke up a student rally at the Capitol in San Juan, injuring students and supporters. According to a July article by Maritza Stanchich on HuffingtonPost.com, the hard line being taken by the state government and the crackdown following the accord are part of an ongoing broader wave of repression that targets cultural and social welfare organizations with crippling budget cuts, lifts environmental protection from protected lands, and increases restrictions on civil liberties and the media. Stanchich quotes Judith Berkan, a civil rights attorney and UPR law professor, as saying, "I don't think there is any doubt that the intention of this government is to set back civil rights." Berkan said that the administration has enacted a staggering number of measures to neutralize and debilitate all those perceived as a threat to a local oligarchy acting in concert with U.S. interests.
The struggle continues. UPR administrators announced that they plan to implement a “crisis fee” for the coming spring semester. The student assembly passed 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 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.