Presentation From California Conference To Defend Public Education San Francisco State University, 10/30/2010 by Oduarto Gamelyn, a Law student at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus
It is more than a pleasure for me to be able to share my experiences with you of the more than 2 month long strike at the University of Puerto Rico.
Well, as you know, or you should know, Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, ever since 1898. Despite all of the attempts at assimilation ,through the failed imposition of the English language through the public education system, still today more than 75% of Puerto Ricans do not speak English and we have reaffirmed our cultural identity as a Latin American nation.
As in the rest of the world, the globalization of neo-liberal capitalism has meant cuts on state spending and the privatization of state enterprise. Students in Puerto Rico have a long history of struggles against imperialism, militarism, ROTC programs, and against government-imposed austerity measures like tuition fee hikes that affect the access of working class people to the public university system.
In the last year, the neo-liberal offensive in Puerto Rico has gone so far as to lay-off over 20,000 public sector workers and reduce the budget of public services in general. This has resulted in the crippling of the usual government functions like providing education, water, and electricity. While a brave private sector appears more than willing to privatize and take over even the government itself.
The student movement as we know it today was organized to fight this neo-liberal offensive, not only in the university but organizing for a General Strike of all along with all other organized sectors: labor unions, communitarian groups, and the students actually paralyzed the country on October, 2009 for 24 hours in protest. As the social momentum came to a climax, labor unions and the civic leadership pulled out from the idea of a more prolonged General Strike that would halt the government’s authoritarian legislation.
Students then turned to the university and its issues. The university’s budget has been cut about $300 million in the last 10 years. This has caused a deficit of about $200 million. The administration personnel are still being paid six-digit numbers while the working conditions have been degraded for all other sectors: maintenance workers, clerical workers, and the faculty have all suffered reductions in their marginal benefits and even direct reductions in their salaries. Many were laid off. For student this meant worse studying conditions, less services provided and less courses were available. The administration then implemented policies directly affecting students that receive tuition waivers as a benefit for their outstanding academic performance or for their participation in sports. Imposing raises in tuition fees on students was also being discussed at the moment and the possibility of privatizing university property through the public-private partnership model.
By then students were already organizing to fight back. Students formed action committees in the School of Social Sciences, the Law School, the Humanities Department, the Department of Education, and the School of Natural Sciences. These committees have now proliferated on a nationwide scale and others have been organized in the Rio Piedras campus that is where I study. Action Committees are constructed as a united front of students from all political backgrounds in Puerto Rico who are willing to defend public education and workers’ rights.
From the beginning, these committees have held radical democracy as a deeply rooted principle. And what is radical democracy? Well horizontality in structure. We do not produce hierarchical structures of organization. Rotating spokespersons help us keep it fresh while keeping egos in check. At the same time every willing student has the opportunity to develop his or her speaking skills.
Participation: The LGBT community and the women’s movement were very actively involved in the student strike and held leading roles as negotiators, coordinators, and active militants. We understand that there is no democracy without pluralism.
Deliberation: All political decisions and collective actions are discussed in the base in action committees by students in their respective Schools and Departments. Proposals approved by the bases are then discussed in a body of coordinators where all of the committees have representatives who share information that will then go back to the base of every committee. These coordinators do not make political decisions. In this way, we prevent centralization of the process. But they do share information and organize student assemblies. After all proposals are discussed in that by the bases, an assembly takes place where all the students from all of the action committees participate. There all of the proposals are again discussed, this time to be deliberated and finally decided upon.
Democracy and efficiency have always been clashing ideas. Although radical democracy is important to guarantee a healthy group dynamic amongst people with different ideas, action committees still have autonomy to act upon ideas in any way they consider pertinent. This helps the diversity and the changing nature of our struggle.
The student movement in the UPR is indeed very diverse, but we are grounded in this: before, during, and after the strike, deliberation – the passionate and sometimes calm discussion of ideas – were the only way in which we could reach the happy and sometimes unhappy mediums that held us together as one student movement.
Action committees and the structures built upon them were the building blocks of resistance and of our strike. Organized students turned to the bases through information and direct action, pickets and rallies were held, handouts were given out, public forums were organized, documentaries were shown, guerrilla billboards were put up, murals were painted, letters were sent, and buildings were occupied in protest. We tried everything. You name it.
By the 3rd of April, the Rio Piedras campus was set on fire. The strike was our last resort. The student strike was approved in an assembly of over 3,000 students the 13th of April. We demanded transparency in the administration of university resources, the protection of the existing tuition waiver system, and a statement from the university Board of Trustees in which they agreed not to raise tuition fees or privatize any of the campuses in any way, including public-private partnerships. In order to guarantee the continuity of the student movement, the assembly also demanded a general amnesty for all striking students and workers.
We decided to occupy the whole flagship campus of Rio Piedras, establishing campsites and controls in all of the gates. The first hours were hectic as a private security company was hired by the administration to prevent the strike, by force if necessary. As a measure of self defense, we protected our identities and used only the force necessary to get things done – and maybe we sprayed them with a little pepper spray. Our mission was accomplished in a matter of hours. By the 21st of April, the Rio Piedras campus was under student control.
After a couple of weeks, ten out of the eleven campuses throughout the island were also under student control. Our occupations received massive support from labor unions, religious groups, organized communities, local and international artists. A committee of mothers and fathers was also created by the parents of striking students. They provided food and overall home cooked moral support and good loving to students who lived in the university and didn’t go home for days in a row. We even celebrated Mother’s Day at the university and we showed our mothers and grandmothers our barricades!
We also received support from people engaged in the struggle for public education throughout the world, including California, which was of very special importance to us. We watched the students in California take the streets, occupy Wheeler Hall, we have seen you walk-out of classrooms, we have seen you strike, we have seen you defy authority. We have seen the Student Worker Action Team (SWAT – UC Berkeley) in action, we have seen UCLA fight back, and we know that we work and will continue to work in mutual inspiration.
Students patiently waited for the administration to negotiate, which they didn’t do for over 60 days and meanwhile the strike went on. Soon enough, a National Coordinator of campuses was up and running, organizing massive marches with participation of students of all of the campuses and with the logistic and material help of labor unions such as UTIER and the Federation of Teachers.
Technology and alternative media played a very important role in our struggle for public education. Youtube, Facebook, texts, Twitter, were some of our major ways of communication and of assuring rapid, spontaneous mobilization.
Also, a web publicity campaign – www.UPResunpais.com was developed to communicate everything we had to communicate to Puerto Ricans and to the world. We created Radio Huelga, a radio station that would serve as a model for other alternate radio stations that was actually inspired by Free Radio Berkeley and is still running today at www.radiohuegla.com. This radio station even produced a radio soap opera “Amor de Barricada” or “Barricade Love”. The student press collective “Desde Adentro” was also created to inform of what was going on from inside the campus and the corporate media was soon feeding off of our news system because, of course, we were the primary source.
Professors and clerical workers stood their ground picketing wit the students and also providing material help and logistics. They even set up campsites around Rio Piedras campus to protect the students. Students always took from their time to provide maintenance for the university cleaning up, painting the walls, and even mowing the lawn. Arts in every way, shape, and form, was also very important in our struggle. Music, poetry, documentaries. Global artists played to striking students both inside the university gates and in massive concerts, organized for the community. Professors taught all classes outside their classrooms, in the strikers campsites – courses on democracy, participation, civil disobedience, resistance, the history of the student movement, art workshops, and many others were taught. Even four organic vegetable gardens were created on campus grounds.
Meanwhile, as time went by, pressure from above and below mounted on the administration. Public opinion was obviously with the students, and even the right-wing government wanted the strike to stop. They tried everything, and failed- miserably. At first they sued many students, including the ngeotiating committee that was elected on a nation wide scale. This resulted in the slowing down of the negotiating process as it is an obvious sign of bad faith – if you want to negotiate, don’t sue me, I think that’s pretty fair.
As this did not work, the courts eventually urged the administration to solve the disputes through mediation. Then they turned to publicity, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a publicity campaign of defamation and lies against the student movement that went on constantly on all the major television, radio, and all of the newspaper.
We turned the issue into one of public spending . As they justified tuition hikes and budget cuts with the financial crisis, they were still willing to spend maybe millions of dollars hiring private security officers to prevent the strike, spending million of dollars for legal services in the major corporate firms of San Juan and publicly bashing on the students with this defamatory publicity campaign.
As this did not work, they turned to politics, and the student council , under heat from the administration, called for a general assembly about a month into the strike in which they thought the strike would be called to an end. The strike was ratified with the landslide support of this time more than four thousand students who then marched to the state legislative building, demanding respect for the university’s autonomy and a stop to budget cuts on education from the state legislature.
The next morning, we woke up under siege. The riot police surrounded the Rio Piedras campus, preventing students from coming inside to support the strike and preventing parents from delivering food to students. The police even beat up and arrested a father as he brought breakfast to his son before going to work.
Instead of stopping the struggle, this gave us more fuel. The community took to the university and to the streets, forming massive pickets that went on for hours. Hundred sof people went to the super markets and took food and supplies to students just for the thrill of defying police authority and throwing all kinds of stuff over the fences. For every incident of police brutality, there was a whole community and labor movement willing to picket for hours. Before long, the riot police met face to face with a specialized unit of clown police, as local performers banded together to make fun of local police blindness in following orders and their notorious brutality. Sometimes they met face to face with groups of students who offered flowers to them. And on various occasions, they just beat students up for trying to come into the university or for defying police orders.
Police brutality, as I said, sparked shock waves of solidarity. Labor unions called for another 24 hour General Strike in solidarity with the students. Other more radical unions set up campsites to provide on-the-ground support to students in numbers and resources. By this time, barricades were set up at all the gates of the campuses and the roads were also barricaded as a defense strategy in case of police intervention. Students started to mobilize outside of the university, blocking major streets in commercial areas. Also, a massive protest was organized in the biggest mall in San Juan, affecting big corporate interests. The Sheraton hotel in San Juan was also raided by students as we received news that local politicians were spending public money in a lavish banquet. This resulted in more police brutality and arrests, which in turn, caused more mobilization.
A graduation was organized by the striking students and the committee of mothers and fathers. Striking students, the graduating class of 2010 and the graduating class of the university high school received diplomas of excellence in citizenship and social responsibility. The strike was indeed a learning process.
The negotiations only advanced as we put more pressure on the administration and the government as a whole. One night, the administration personnel even stood up from the negotiating table, insulting students’ representatives. But in a matter of minutes, students rounded up the central administration building and by this time they knew they weren’t coming out unless they negotiated. The administration agreed not to change its tuition waiver policy, not to privatize any university property, not to raise the cost of tuition at least in the subsequent semester, and they also agreed to a partial amnesty, renouncing their power of summarily expelling any of the striking students or workers.
The agreements were ratified by a massive national assembly. Students had indirectly caused an overall problem to the government and the establishment , putting forth the idea of taxing the rich, corporate sector to pay for the public school and university system.
Today, the Board of Trustees still insists in imposing a fee of $800 to every student, while reducing worker benefits and services. The legislative branch has enacted laws to impose restrictions on student assemblies and as recently as last week, they proposed to prohibit work stoppages at the university through law. Most of the students are convinced that only through true radical reform can the university be fully autonomous from the changing tide of politics. Autonomy and democracy in our administration are some of our major long-term objectives.
Now as we speak, action committees are already occupying buildings in protest for tuition hikes. Last week, three departments were shut down and occupied by students. This Monday, students massively picketed against government intervention into the university’s issues and most of the students dressed in black to attend the funeral of our university’s autonomy. Assemblies are taking place and we are organizing a possible strike to come that will hopefully directly defy not only the administration but the neo-liberal establishment as a whole.
Students of course can not do this alone. This is why one of our major challenges for the future is to strengthen our ties with the rank-and-file workers and the workers’ movement.We need to encourage a multi-center, prolonged General Strike to halt the government’s offensive. We cannot predict the future, but based on our experience, we are confident and we want California students to know that students are a catalytic force in the struggle against neo-liberal capitalism and, when wielded among workers, the community, and students, the strike is one of the most effective weapons to fight the power.