Student Occupation, Teacher Firings Roil Puerto Rico

As the world watched the jubilant crowds in Tahrir Square erupt in celebration of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, few were aware that a modest, but also hard-won, victory for justice and democracy was in the making in Puerto Rico, half a world away.

February 11 saw another resignation—this one of José Ramón de la Torre, the University of Puerto Rico’s president, in the wake of a student strike waged since December 15. The resignation also followed 24-hour sympathy strikes by maintenance and administrative staff and professors. The police who had been occupying campus since before the student strike began were withdrawn.

The main reason behind the strike was a yearly $800 “special fee” imposed by university administrators. Total costs for a four-year degree, including expenses, have been estimated at $14,000 and rising—no small sum where annual per capita income is barely $17,000.

While administrators argue starved budgets force them to raise fees, strikers say the real purpose of the fee is to “streamline” the UPR along neoliberal lines, forcing thousands of underprivileged students out of the system. A massive 62-day student strike last year defeated a tuition hike.

Thousands of students struck to resist the fee starting December 15, halting classes and launching civil disobedience at campus gates. They braved a fierce police response from the notorious Tactical Operations Unit, masked SWAT agents, and mounted police. Hundreds were arrested, as police aimed rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, and nightsticks at the students.

After students marched on campus to protest a violent crackdown February 8, police encircled the marchers. Members of the faculty union and the administrative staff union formed a protective cordon between themselves and the students, until the crowd of strikers and sympathizers grew so large that hundreds of police retreated.

A governing party legislator, who has met with a student committee appointed by the student assembly to negotiate conditions for ending the strike, produced a fiscal report that could reduce the special fee to $200.

A general assembly of more than 2,000 students decided to put the strike on pause until March 15. A day of solidarity with the UPR is scheduled for March 11, with diverse activities programmed in cities around the world.

Teachers Union Leaders Fired

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Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Education Secretary Jesús Rivera Sánchez dismissed all 11 executive committee members of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR) from their teaching posts last week and blocked them from exercising their profession in public and private systems.

The teaching licenses of the FMPR leadership were permanently revoked.

The president of the independent union, Rafael Feliciano, together with the 10 other dismissed leaders, characterized the measure as repressive and unprecedented. He said the goal is to destroy the union leadership and intimidate the teachers from struggling against the administration's plans to privatize schools and liquidate the teachers' retirement fund.

The firings are just the latest in a long fight between the aggressive FMPR and the island’s pro-austerity governor.

The 40,000-member FMPR defied a no-strike ban to join with students and parents and close the island’s schools for 10 days in 2008. The strike, over inadequate school funding, classroom size, pitifully low teacher wages, and the threat of privatization, set in motion years of turmoil for the union.

The government decertified the FMPR as punishment for the strike, and the Service Employees attempted a raid. Teachers were asked to vote between SEIU and “no union,” as the government barred FMPR from the ballot.

Responding to a campaign from what they saw as their legitimate union, teachers rejected SEIU’s bid and voted for “no union.” FMPR continues to operate without legal recognition—just as it did before 1998, when public sector collective bargaining was legalized on the island.

The fired union leaders vowed to contest their dismissal.