What's going on in my part of this tropical paradise? We have had the most wonderful few days preparing and celebrating Miss A's graduation. (Can you find her in the crowd?) First the graduation, then the prom preparations, and finally, the prom. Did you know that some schools in Puerto Rico hold a prom for the students and parents? I was surprised and slightly embarrassed when my husband in-Tux and me in a floor length formal dress, entered the Sheraton Hotel in San Juan to attend a High School prom. (I had never attended a prom!) All discomfort was over though, when I saw Miss A entering the ballroom on her father's arm and floating down the aisle in a silky Grace Kelly classically draped and styled midnight blue dress. We have had several days of excitement while I put the realities of our life on hold. It's time now to face the trouble!
The university has been on strike for just under a month. The semester was interrupted by the students a few weeks before the semester ended, and from there on it's gotten difficult. The students have three primary objectives, to stop Certificate 98 which would repeal tuition waivers for honor students, athletes, and children of university workers; they also want to block tuition increases planned for the summer and want the university to open its books so that everyone can see how the money is spent.
An undertow movement of greater political change in Puerto Rico is visibly apparent in posters and the discourse surrounding the strike; many of the protesting students desire some form of Independence and political autonomy for Puerto Rico. The strength of the strike comes from this group but most students are concerned about the overt fiscal issues, if not the Independence Movement. It's difficult because Puerto Rico is in a relationship with the United States that allows for US citizenship and self-government but these citizens cannot actually vote for the US President-though they can vote in the Presidential Primaries. Surprisingly, I have noticed that most Puerto Ricans are members of the Republican party. Still the majority voted for Hillary Clinton as their chosen leader in the United States but happily supported Pres. Obama when he was elected. (These statements are my observations only.) The political relationship is called a Free Associated State or Territory. It is a bit of a confusing love/hate muddle because the Federal government has a strong arm in Puerto Rico regarding law enforcement, and just as any US state desires their own say about what goes on withing its borders, Puerto Rico maintains the right of self-dominion.
[Evidence of the Independence Movement: The current Puerto Rican Governor, Luis Fortuno, is made to look like Batman's Joker in a prominently displayed poster near the UPR's front gate. Below the poster the word "fascismo" (fascism) is written-notice that the letter "o" is in the form of a peace sign. photo-me]
[Students camp out -eat and sleep- within the gates of UPR on all campuses island wide. photo-me]
Some harsh measures were taken to stop the student strike: water and electricity were shut off (later it was turned back on), for a time parents were not allowed to bring food and water, and a student and parent were injured by the police. Recently, Natalia Sanchez Lopez, a 21year old veterinarian student in Mayaguez was attending a student assembly and died from septic shock, which may have been caused by a viral infection and dehydration. Apparently, the Fire Department was warned about the lack of safe conditions-no water, no bathrooms, and no protection from the tropical heat. Regardless of these unsafe conditions, the Student Assembly took place. Students and professors grieve the loss of this lovely intelligent student. As a mother of a UPR university student and a professor dedicated to her students, I am seriously upset about this loss. (To read more about this loss in Spanish; and a detailed discussion about the negotiations click here.)
Finally, all the university professors, sin plaza (on contract), were called in on the 28th of May to sign a contract extension-the time and date was not flexible-everyone was to meet and sign. Professors from all around the island altered their schedules to cooperate;- of course thinking that this was an extension with pay. I should have been forewarned because of the date and time. We signed these contract extensions while an island wide strike took place, consequently, no union representatives were available to assist us in this unexpected turn of events.
When I arrived and spoke with a department director, I mentioned that all of the details of the extension were blank. I was told not to worry and that it would be filled in later by the administration. Friends, remember when your parents told you, "NEVER SIGN A BLANK CHECK"? I should have listened! Still I was concerned about the students because they haven't finished the semester. Without knowing, I signed up for a time commitment up to August 31-WITH NO PAY-excuse my redundancy but I am trying to understand what this means. I am ON CALL and then MUST WORK without pay. Most university semesters in Puerto Rico begin in the middle of August. Does this mean that professors are obligated to teach and cannot accept a position elsewhere? Does this mean that we are both employed and unemployed? Is this legal?
I do know it means that we have all lost our health insurance because I went to get a prescription filled on Saturday and there was no record of my account in the computer system.
[A rudimentary translation of this contract amendment from Spanish to English is:
As a result of the labor disagreement,
that is affecting the Rio Piedras campus, we are extending the second semester (Spring) to complete the required contact hours.
We are amending the termination date of your contract to August 31st, or whenever the Second semester ends for the academic year of 2009-10, whichever occurs first. photo and translation-me]
Do you notice it does not mention money or any of the ramifications of this adjustment? The professors were told that we could finish the semester anyway we wanted- on line, in person, by email?- or just turn in the grades. How is that finishing the semester or completing the required hours? Why isn't that orally given information in writing? I have noticed at least three serious problems: It appears because of the urgency and the timing of the meeting that this was a carefully planned out misrepresentation of the contract details. The university policy of signing contracts with blank spaces and missing details to be filled in later is worrisome at best and illegal at worst. Finally, in order to protect the universities accreditation, the students have a right and are obligated to finish their school hours when the strike is over. Why do the university officials tell professors that they can finish the contract "however they want" and yet put in writing that the hours must be completed? Is that ethical?
I am uncomfortable with all of these veiled secrets and subtle threats. Professors are worried about their future. Will I be hired next semester? Will I be full time? The uncertainty over career and the loss of income makes them "shut up and sign". The entire process of this contract extension was mishandled. I heard that the headlines in one of the local papers said that the professors were signing extensions- and that they were being paid for no work. (I haven't found the paper, but I think it was mentioned on local radio, too.) Why did the general public think that this extension of the semester was for pay? It seems that some of the confusion worked in favor of the administration. Everyone thought- because of past policy-that a contraction extension means you are being paid for the continued obligation. Most professors would expect that they have to finish the semester- at least for the sake of the students-and because of specifications in the original contract -therefore, no further arrangement needed to be made. We are routinely required to complete ethic's training hours!
(Read the complete poem from Shakespeare's Macbeth and/or enjoy the adapted lyrics in Harry Potter)