UPR Student Strike Ends, New Chapter in the Struggle Begins
On June 21, 62 days into what was initially a 48-hour occupation of the flagship campus at Río Piedras, the University of Puerto Rico’s first-ever National Student Assembly put an end to what had now become the first-ever system-wide strike in the institution’s history. The nearly 3,000 students from all 11 campuses of the UPR, assembled in the city of Ponce, unanimously ratified the agreements reached on June 16 by the students’ National Negotiating Committee (NNC) and the UPR Board of Trustees, thereby ending the strike on condition that the administration upheld the agreements. The Assembly also approved a “preventive” strike vote, in case the administration attempts to impose any increase in academic costs starting in January of next year.
The agreements between the NNC and the Trustees stipulate, among other things: that tuition waivers for athletes, artists, honor students, and employees and their families will not be adversely modified in any way; that no campus of the UPR system will be privatized in part or in whole, nor will they be subjected to the so-called Law of Public-Private Alliances approved earlier this year by the administration of neoliberal governor Luis Fortuño; that the $1,000-plus “special fee” proposed by the administration (and discovered in the course of negotiations, as a direct result of the strike) will not enter into effect in August; and that no member of the university community will be subject to summary sanctions for any incident occurred during the course of the strike. The agreements also make clear the positions of each part concerning the possibility of implementing the special fee in January of next year: the administration considers it necessary, while the NNC will not accept any increase on academic costs.
Despite many attempts, especially in the corporate media, to distance this “good” strike from all previous (“bad”) student strikes, continuities are evident. For many student leaders, this victory is a personal and political vindication of the notorious 29-day student strike over tuition hikes of 2005, which, unlike the strike of 2010, was almost universally derided in public forums, and even among some members of the UPR faculty who supported the students in 2010 (even though the demands, tactics, and many of the actors were essentially the same). In turn, many of the professors and parents who stood firm in support of the strike this time around (not all of whom did so as firmly, or at all, in 2005) are veterans of the legendary three-month strike of 1981 (and even of earlier strikes), which resulted in hundreds of expulsions. That was the first major student conflict at the UPR motivated by economic demands. Previous student strikes had orbited around the themes of colonialism and nationalism (1948), selective service (1960s), and ROTC presence on campus (1970s).
Neither the 2005 nor the 1981 strike, although both had a lasting impact on subsequent university policy, achieved their main objectives (namely, to stop tuition hikes). Thus, the 2010 Student Strike is the most complete victory, if not necessarily the first (as some have claimed), in 107 years of the UPR’s institutional history. It leaves in its wake a quarry of hundreds of new student militants formed in struggle, experienced in vigorous political debate, and with a clear(er) understanding of what it means to build and defend a strike. That is perhaps the most important achievement of the student strike of 2010, the value of which on its own would be incalculable even is fewer tangible results had been achieved. The results achieved further strengthen the idea, among students and working people in general, that victory can be obtained through struggle and pressure in the streets, which represents a subjective break with the dominant legalistic ideology.
Among the factors that made the 2010 student trike successful, in contrast to the 2005 strike, are the economic crisis, the unpopularity of the current government, and the change of ruling party (as in the U.S., it’s no secret that many who protest against the “right-wing” pro-statehood party openly collaborate with the allegedly more moderate pro-status quo party). One factor that stands out is the participative character of a process that allowed practice to determine the course to follow, without ruling out any method beforehand, so that the two main “lines” of the strike movement remained mutually engaged, avoided the thousand divisive traps laid by the enemy, and closed ranks in crucial moments. The solidarity of the people, of course, should also be noted. This solidarity sprang from the broad sympathies the process generated, almost automatically (thanks to the dishonesty, clumsiness, and pettiness displayed by administrators), and managed to break the cuasi-military police stranglehold placed on the occupied campuses, gaining precious time for the strikers.
Nonetheless, perhaps the single most important factor that distinguishes the 2010 strike from that of 2005 is the political preparation of the students to enter the strike process. Nothing gained in the 2010 process would have been possible without the dedicated and conscious work of politically organized students, following the defeat of 2005. Back then, the unexpected approval of the strike by an angry but rudderless student body caught everyone off guard, practically forcing a handful of organized radical students to carry the burden of a highly unfavorable and diffuse process. In 2010, on the contrary, the strike was the culmination of a wave of mobilizations and informative and deliberative processes that lasted at least two years, during which thousands of leaflets were distributed and numerous pickets, stoppages, and college occupations were held (at least in Río Piedras), and the grassroots participative organisms that served as backbone to the strike were built.
None of the above should be construed to imply there were not serious differences between different sectors of the striking students. There were, there are, and they should be aired and vigorously debated, particularly during this brief respite before the new semester arrives and the hard tasks of building an even broader and stronger movement to stop the special fee in January (among other dirty tricks up the administration’s sleeve) are at hand. In any case, although the war is far from over, the historic battle that was the 2010 UPR Student Strike should be a beacon to students, workers, and oppressed people everywhere: it is possible to fight, and to win!