Wisconsin and Puerto Rico: Disturbing Convergences

News of gutting collective bargaining rights through parliamentary maneuvers by Republican state senators in Wisconsin was greeted with a sense of dé-jà vu in Puerto Rico.

An uncannily similar law "Ley 7" was passed two years ago here, but few in the United States caught wind of the coming storm because Puerto Rico is mostly invisible to the U.S. media, perhaps because of its territorial status since the Spanish-American War of 1898.

For the Pro-Statehood Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño, an unabashed Reagan aficionado, and the right-wing flank of his party, debate is superfluous, as ramming policy through the state legislature has all but become the norm.

The strongest opposition to his policies are manifest at its premiere public university, the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico, classified as a Carnegie Research Institution. Student protests repeatedly repressed by riot squads and the broadcast images of police brutality prompted the ACLU and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) to declare a human and civil rights crisis. Last week student protestors attacked UPR chancellor Ana Guadalupe, even pulling her hair, which stunned the university community and reversed many existing sympathies in the year-long conflict.

Wisconsin's state capitol last weekend drew about 100,000, which was similar in scale to the general one-day walk out in San Juan in October 2009 to protest Ley 7. Wisconsin's protests have so far been peaceful largely because local and state police there refused Gov. Scott Walker's orders to quell the protests.

In February, a recording circulated of Gov. Walker's deliberations on planting provocateurs among protestors. This week, a journalist for NCM Noticias reported testimony that identified two police informants as assailants of the security guards struck during last week's melee at UPR.

Yet another disturbing Wisconsin-Puerto Rico parallel: both governors have activated the National Guard for civilian purposes, no doubt in anticipation of massive protests.

Wisconsin is yet another grim reminder of how Puerto Rico integrates into right-wing agendas in the United States, as Puerto Rico has long been a testing ground for policies, be they military, corporate or governmental. To wit, pharmaceutical companies developed the birth control pill in the 1950s by first testing dangerously high doses on underprivileged women here without informed consent; the U.S. Navy bombed the Puerto Rico island of Vieques for more than 50 years to practice simultaneous land/air/sea exercises; Monsanto tested genetically-engineered crops in Puerto Rico as early as 1987, nearly a decade before wide use in the United States (according to Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety).

Now the frontier is disaster capitalism and the immediate target, public sector collective bargaining.

"Clearly this is coordinated at the highest circles from Washington D.C. or New York to go after what's left of the U.S. labor movement," says Prof. Dana Frank, a labor historian with the University of California, Santa Cruz. "They're going after the fundamental rights of working people."

Fortuño is busily networking with other Republican governors through such organizations as the National Governors Association. A recent interview on the Koch-financed Reason.tv, showcases Fortuño's policies as a model for newly elected Republican governors. Ohio now seems the next in line for public union busting.

As the state capitol in Wisconsin remains the center of protest, the University of Puerto strike was revived in December when an $800 student fee was imposed, forcing about 10,000 students to drop out during the country's worst economic crisis in decades. Though student strike leaders publicly denounced last week's student violence, the negative publicity could jeopardize whatever gains the student movement has achieved. As the campus returned to relative calm by end of week, 20 rallies in solidarity with the UPR struggle were held throughout the United States--including in Wisconsin--and in seven other countries.

Like Puerto Rico, Wisconsin also faces a $250 million cut to its world-renowned state university and a bid to separate its flagship campus from the rest of the system, to avoid state oversight of private research funds, especially in the areas of engineering and science, in the guise of autonomy. While the university is not the center of the conflict, the union of graduate student teaching assistants played a crucial role in the initial occupation of the state capitol, and the collective bargaining rights of recently unionized professors are now at stake.

With such parallels between Wisconsin and Puerto Rico, also come important divergences. Perhaps the key difference is redress: available in Wisconsin and absent in Puerto Rico.

As Wisconsin voters gather signatures to recall their governor and eight state senators, a mechanism that exists in 19 states, no recall option or midterm elections exist in Puerto Rico. Jesse Jackson lent additional symbolic weight to recent events in Wisconsin, reminding protestors of the importance of maintaining dignity.

"If we didn't have the recall, I don't know what would happen," says Jane Collins, a professor of Community and Environmental Sociology at University of Wisconsin, Madison. "The day Republican senators separated the bill, people were so angry and exhausted, that some had to prevent individuals from erupting in the crowd."

Puerto Rico not only lacks such redress, but also affords concentration of power by highly unpopular elected officials. Fortuño expanded and packed the island's Supreme Court, which banned protests on the UPR campus. He similarly expanded the University of Puerto Rico Board of Trustees with four fast-tracked appointees and named a commission to restructure the university with members openly hostile to its existence. Attempts continue to dismantle the state bar association, a key advocacy institution founded in 1840. Another audacious move has been to sign a law granting the state absolute powers to declare a state of emergency of whatever type to expedite projects without permits, public hearings, bids or environmental impacts studies. A declared energy emergency--though none has been previously noted--is expected to apply to a natural gas pipeline project called Gasoducto, which is also widely opposed.

No doubt sympathetic Republican governors in the United States are silently observing.