Students on strike at University of Sao Paulo


Workers’ Voice reporter Ava Fahy interviewed Francisco, a 26-year-old student in the Languages course at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), and a militant in the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU) of Brazil. Francisco is a director of his students’ union, and a leader in the ongoing strike and university occupation at the USP. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ava Fahy: Can you explain to me how the strike began, and what the students are struggling for?

Francisco: Our strike was not our first attempt to have a dialogue with the university. We have been demanding a lot of things, but we haven’t been heard. Our most important demand is that we need more teachers. Since 2014, the university does not automatically replace teachers who pass away or retire, and because of this, the amount of teachers is reduced every year. The course of Korean will no longer take new students, because there are not enough professors. In the course of visual arts, 11 subjects were cancelled because there were no professors to teach them. The course basically collapsed.

We also have some problems with scholarships at USP. The public universities here are for free, but if you are a poor student, you can’t just stop working and study. Therefore, we have this program called PAPFE [Student Permanence and Training Support Program], which was not a gift from the government but the result of a long struggle of the students here in Brazil. In this last year, we had an increase in the amount of the PAPFE scholarship; but this scholarship is not enough for a student, and they have made it more difficult for the students to access it. We also have some particular demands from each course, but these are the two main demands.

AF: How many people have joined the strike so far?

F: Well, USP is not just the best university in Latin America, but also the biggest. My course, for example, the languages course, has about 5000 students, and my college, the Human Sciences Institute, has around 10,000 students. But for a strike to be victorious, it needs to grow across USP, not just at this institute.

On the main university campus, almost all courses have joined the strike. In the next weeks we expect the whole university [around 90,000 students] to join. Already, the demonstrations we had this week were huge. At the assembly where we declared the strike, we had more than 1000 students. The other two sectors of the university, the professors and the workers, have already showed their support. The professors in some areas are in a short, seven-day strike in support of the students, and we expect them to join it fully at any moment.

The demonstration we had on Thursday was maybe the biggest I have ever seen here in our college and in our university, so we are very, very happy. And we hope we will succeed.

AF: That’s incredible. Why are so many people joining the strike?

F: First, the lack of teachers has become worse and worse. It’s very common to see human sciences suffering with this kind of problem, but it’s not just human sciences suffering—this lack of professors is reaching even some courses that are very important for the market. This problem started in 2014, and just now, teachers are being hired again. It’s far from enough.

Also, I can say that we here in Brazil had four years of far-right government under Bolsonaro. That was the worst government in our history since the dictatorship. Now, we have a so-called “progressive” government of the Workers’ Party, and we see—not just in our strike, but in other social movements in Brazil—that not everything is going to be perfect just because we got rid of Bolsonaro. We still have to fight. Just this week we had an important victory against an attack on the Indigenous population over rights to their lands, against a project called Marco Temporal. We have important struggles against the reform of the high school curriculum, and we have an important struggle against a budget cut for social services made by this “progressive” government.

We have a lot of fights here in Brazil. The government we have here in Sao Paulo state—USP is a state university, not federal—is connected to Bolsonaro, so it is a big enemy to the education of the students. Especially in Sao Paulo, we are probably going to have even more struggles because we have a very bad government, which really wants to destroy all kinds of social services and privatize all services as well.

AF: How has the PSTU been participating in the strike?

F: The youth wing of the PSTU is a collective called Rebeldia, which means “rebelliousness” in Portuguese. Here in the university, Rebeldia is in the direction of the Language course student’s union, one of the three courses that started building the strike in the first semester. There have been months of demonstrations, and a long process of building to generate the strike we have now. We can say, and we are proud to say, that the process started where we led.

We put a lot of effort on building a collective space where all students will join and build commissions to organize other students, and to prepare the field for this strike. Because it’s an important strike, not just for getting the teachers we need, but also to reeducate a generation on strike methods, on working-class methods of fighting. During the pandemic, we kind of lost the tradition of the student movement in Brazil—the tradition of fighting to keep and to gain anything we need. This scholarship program and any social program in any university in Brazil—they came with a lot of struggle. I think that even more than getting the teachers, this is the most important thing to show the students: that if we fight, we can be victorious. I think we are doing all we can to achieve it.

AF: How has the school administration responded? How has the student body responded?

F: Just last week, we had our first strike negotiations with the vice president of the university.

We had a lot of trouble with the director of the Human Sciences College, and this is a funny thing, because this director is from the Workers’ Party, so technically, he’s from the left. He’s “progressive,” right? He has always tried to pass this image of being a friend of the students’ movement, but in this process, the mask fell down. He showed his real face, which is completely subordinated to the government and to the president.

Our strike in the Languages course was supposed to start on Tuesday. On Monday evening, all students got an e-mail from the director saying that the classes that evening were cancelled, and that all the buildings of the college were to be shut down by the university guards. This was very shocking because we had a few one-day strikes this year, and this measure was never before taken by the director. The students of philosophy, in the middle of their assembly to vote if they would join the strike or not, were interrupted by the university security and were told that they would have to leave the building.

This was considered an aggression to our movement and our answer was very quick. In about 15 minutes, the students disobeyed this order to leave, and we occupied the three buildings. Here we have this tradition of using the bars of the classrooms as a barricade. We just said no to the guards, and put them outside, and took control of the building. And not just that; we also thought that we would have to answer this aggression from the director. So, the students ran to the administration building of the college and occupied it as well, and demanded four things from the director before they would leave: (1) a letter of apology for what he did; (2) the police and the university guards must leave the college—so that we can take control of the buildings without violence and repression; (3) stopping the classes; (4) and he should press the president of the university to open negotiations.

So, he was forced to accept it, but not in a specific way. There were around 1000 students in front of the building shouting against him. He was very aggressive, and he was even swearing at the students. This was the answer from the administration of the college—repression, and then a step back, a retreat, and they started to negotiate. On Thursday, we had our first negotiations—and usually in a strike it takes weeks to start negotiations. We think it’s a good sign that we managed to force it on the very first week of the strike.

In these negotiations, we just trust our own strength as a movement to force our demands to be accepted. They showed that if they can, they will repress our movement. But they know now that if they put the police inside the university, it’s going to be turned upside down—so we can say we have the advantage at the moment. For that to continue, we need more students to join the strikes, and we expect the other units to join one by one in the next two weeks. Maybe the whole university will be shut down.

AF: Mandi Coelho, another student striker, recently told the PSTU news in an interview (translated): “This dismantling is part of a neoliberal education project that has been implemented by Governor Tarcísio de Freitas in the state of São Paulo and by the Lula government nationally.” She then went on to criticize the Workers Party’s rollout of the “new high school” project, “approved by Bolsonaro’s corrupt and reactionary government.” Do you agree with her, and could you say a little more about that?

F: The expectations that the students and part of the working class had for Lula’s government are starting to vanish. The New High School Project is a good example. It was approved by Bolsonaro, and Lula is refusing to take it down even though he has the power to do that. So why is he not doing it, if he was elected by the workers to change what Bolsonaro was doing? Why is he maintaining so many of his projects? He could take down a lot of the neoliberal reforms, but he refuses to do it. Although Bolsonaro was indeed more aggressive, more neoliberal, and worse than all the previous governments, it doesn’t mean that Lula is going on a different path for the workers.

We see that the interests of the rich people here in Brazil are still the agenda of the government. The project is the same: to take away some labor rights and some social services provided by the government in order to increase the amount of money that’s going into the public debt. No matter if it’s the Workers Party, we still need to fight against this project, and the struggle at USP is part of a national struggle in defense of education in Brazil.

AF: How do you imagine education under socialism?

F: First of all, everybody would have access to it. Here in Brazil, universities are still a place where just a privileged sector of the population has access, but I don’t think that’s the only problem. Here in Brazil, and anywhere else where capitalism rules, everything that is produced here—all the knowledge, all the science—is not to benefit the majority of the population or to answer our problems as a society; it’s produced in order to increase profits for a group of companies.

Education is a right, not a privilege, and all that is produced in the university should be produced to answer the needs of the working class. Our strike will not change this part of the university, and this is important to say. Even if we expand the university, as long as we have a capitalist system, we’ll have capitalist universities. In a socialist society, this university that we have now will have to be—we like to say that it will have to be exploded. So, for sure we will need an all-new university project to reach our goals.

AF: What are the next steps for the strike?

F: The most important step to be victorious is to gather the three sectors of the university—the students, the professors, and the workers—and expand our struggle. We already have visibility in our society because, as I said, the demonstrations are massive, and we have a lot of support from some courses that usually don’t join strikes. We need to get that to defeat the government on this strike.

After that, I think it’s very important to make students realize that we will have to be on strike every other year, if we don’t change the whole way that the university works. We need to put it under control of the professors and not under control of the government, which basically is putting the university under control of the rich people here in Brazil.

We need to expand our struggle about this to other forms of national education, like our struggle against the new high school project, or the struggle against—the words in Portuguese are arcabouço fiscal—basically a cut in the budget of the government in order to balance their finances. It’s cuts in social services and getting more money to the banks. This is maybe the worst project being implemented now, and it was implemented by the Workers Party government. We can get the teachers we need now at USP, but with this fiscal project in place, the university will collapse again because it will not have enough money.

I think it’s very important that the students see that the only way to fight against the problems we have at USP, the problems we have in Brazil, the problems we have across the world, is to build an organization. In my opinion, this organization is the PSTU, with our youth movement. [This is necessary] in order to have knowledge that passes from generation to generation, from strike to strike, and to bring forward this consciousness about the necessity of building a socialist alternative here in Brazil and in the world.

AF: How can our readers help you?

F: It would be great to receive some support messages from foreign universities. Students, professors, and workers in other universities, if they could send support to the USP strike and our demands of hiring more professors. Being on strike is not an easy thing. Myself, I barely slept five hours per night in the last week, sleeping inside the college. It’s a very exhaustive thing and to see some support from comrades around the world, it would cheer us up.

Please send solidarity statements to +55 11 94101-1917 and/or the PSTU Instagram page.

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