The Struggle to Democratize Education in Mexico

For the past two years, teachers unions have battled the Peña Nieto administration’s creeping authoritarianism, democratizing the movement in the process.
September 28, 2014

The neoliberal, anti-labor constitutional reforms promoted by the administrations of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-) have had a major regressive impact on Mexico’s educational system. The government has now assumed management demands as its own, and imposed conditions set by international organisms like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to divest elementary education teachers of their labor rights.

The reforms have imposed new regulations that weaken job security, invalidate union participation in the administration of teachers’ work, and abolish the system of collective hiring. They have introduced a new system of teaching evaluations based on test performance and standardized measurements, justified as the “periodic evaluation of teachers’ work.” They were passed with minimal input from the teaching profession. (For the political background of these reforms see “The State Against the Working Class,” NACLA Report, Spring 2014.)

As a consequence, Mexico has experienced, throughout 2013 and into 2014, a historic teachers’ movement in opposition to the neoliberal transformation of education. The struggle has been as broad-based as it has been forceful, with existing teachers organizations from the states of Oaxaca, Michoacán, and Guerrero, joining forces with returning or new organizations from Chiapas, Veracruz, Quintana Roo, Baja California, and Jalisco.

Between the spring and the fall of 2013, more than 600 thousand teachers participated in partial or indefinite work stoppages of up to three months, as well as marches, rallies, sit-ins, highway blockages, international airport blockages, occupation of oil plants, and pickets in front of federal and state congresses. Protests at the headquarters of the principal political parties, PRI, PAN, and PRD, at the television monopolies, the Stock Exchange, and shopping malls, along with informational visits to embassies, have all been part of the struggle. In addition, the teachers have organized regional and local forums to explain their position, as well as national and international conferences.

Currently, no serious negotiations seem to be in sight. During the three decades of teachers’ struggle led mostly by the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), the progressive, democratic oppositional group within the authoritarian National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), state-by-state negotiation had always been an option. Now the path of negotiation appears to be blocked for two reasons. First, the nature of the constitutional reform and its regulatory laws has changed the rules of the game. The constitutional reforms restrict the powers of local governments and state congresses. Moreover, they allow for the recentralization of education management in the federal government.

Second, the teachers’ mind frame is set in such a way that the teachers will not accept anything less than the abrogation of the anti-labor laws; the only way out is the abrogation of the constitutional reform. For this reason, the striking teachers consider it necessary to broaden and deepen the “national front” struggle by engaging other popular sectors, especially college students.

The teachers’ movement of 2013-2014 is momentous because of the massive action of hundreds of thousands of teachers, as well as the presence of mobilizations over the course of more than a year. Having spread over the entire country, it is historic for its rebelliousness; the government has warned the teachers that it would not accept their demand that the reforms be abrogated. Moreover, the state has resisted the establishment of a true national dialogue to bring about a transformation of the educational system, a measure that might have resolved the pressing problems of education. Instead, the state has decided to criminalize and repress the movement.

In response, the teachers have extended their struggles and their demands, reinforcing their protest. Meanwhile, a political opening has emerged in the SNTE, the national union dominated by an authoritarian and criminal bureaucracy, after the imprisonment of the union’s long-time leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, on charges of embezzlement. With this opening, the SNTE can seek new leadership in order to become a more independent force. There is a real possibility that the teachers’ struggle can actually democratize the union itself.

Taking as a thread the intensity of the movement and the strategy deployed, we can identify four periods of the teachers’ mobilizations:

1) From the indefinite strike of the teachers of the state of Guerrero, which erupted on February 25, 2013, until the signing of an agreement with the Secretariat of the Interior on May 23. The strike was called in response to the enactment of the constitutional changes; the strikers and the government subsequently agreed to convene nine regional and one national forum to draw up proposals that would be more responsive to the voices of the teachers and society. These proposals would later be submitted to the legislative and governmental bodies.

One of the characteristics of this movement—both hopeful and worrisome—was already outlined since the beginning with the strike at Guerrero: The movement was so massive that the CNTE, which had always been recognized as the national historical reference of combativeness, saw that the number of mobilized teachers greatly exceeded the contingent traditionally affiliated with that progressive group. New groups emerged, many of them under the influence of the institutional charros (unionists affiliated with and taking orders from the federal government).

This was predictable because the SNTE, despite its pro-government connections, was displeased with the reforms as well. The union had expressed its disagreement with presidential initiatives in a “lukewarm” fashion, partly because of the discontent of the bases and partly because with the reform the union would lose a large part of its reason for managing the workforce.

2) From the agreement with the government to convene the forums to their implementation (May-July 2013).

When in May the CNTE agreed with the government secretariat to carry out nine regional and one national forum, the government’s intention was to enclose the CNTE into a discussion of the secondary laws. With this the government sought to have the principal reforms accepted de facto. However, since the strike at Guerrero, the CNTE has defined its principal demand to be the abrogation of the laws and the participation of the teachers in a true educational reform. This demand has been deeply rooted in the mobilized bases and has forced the CNTE to reject any negotiation that might open the possibility of acceptance of the reform.

As work progressed on the forums, it became evident that it had been a major achievement to open this channel since it allowed the teachers to break away from the stereotypes projected by the media. In these stereotypes they had appeared as violent activists, solely interested in their job positions, and unwilling to be evaluated. The forums let teachers show that the democratic sections in Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán had, for some years, promoted alternative educational programs of a humanist leaning; programs that focused on the comprehensive development of children. Furthermore, these programs recovered the multicultural qualities of our people and the collective character of the teaching-learning process. These alternative models include true options for evaluation rather than standardized measurements.

Also, the CNTE achieved two additional political accomplishments in the forums: it acquired recognition as a mediator and it broadened its area of influence to regions of the country where it had garnered little participation.

3) Repudiation of the agreement on the part of the government and approval of the regulatory laws.

From August 19 to September 13, 2013, the struggle experienced some of its most critical moments. There was a national sit-in at Mexico City’s central square, the Zócalo, followed by indefinite strikes in the states of Oaxaca and Michoacán. The teachers’ insurgency increased all over the country as a response to the obvious deception of the state. Confronted with the siege of the legislative palace, politicians had to hold sessions in alternative locations. On August 21 and 22, the legislature passed the regulatory and “evaluation of education” laws.

The first sign that the democratic teachers would not accept the imposition of the reforms and their secondary laws was the decision not to initiate the school year. This decision was accompanied by the declaration of an indefinite strike in Oaxaca and Michoacán, and with the reinforcement of the sit-in in the Zócalo. These actions demonstrated that even when the government, deputies, and senators cheated them, and the media criminalized them, the teachers were willing to prove they had cause and strength enough to defend their rights and dignity. It was evident that they would not accept a negotiation of a few changes in the secondary laws.

The siege of Congress made the disarticulation of the Mexican political class apparent. It also brought to the fore the contempt in which the deputies and senators held the institutions of the republic. The blocking of the airport and attendance at embassies made the teachers’ discontent visible in the international arena; however, these measures may have prompted a repressive intervention. The blocking of streets, installations, and highways found its limit in the de-legitimation of the struggle that followed the discontent of the general population.

A very important initiative that generated considerable expectations was the CNTE’s call for the first Teachers Popular National Meeting. The strength of this initiative lay in the fact that the CNTE recognized that the movement was much bigger than itself. Furthermore, it called upon other social organizations to join the defense of public education, thereby building a national front against neoliberal reform.

4) Current period: Eviction from the sit-in at the Zócalo, relocation to the Monument to the Revolution. Rebelliousness is renewed; resistance is prepared.

The government attempted to promote a negotiation that would return teachers to their states while at the same time warning that there would be no backing down on the reform. Members of the political class signed false commitments assuring teachers that labor rights would be unaffected, that evaluations would not be punitive, and no layoffs would take place. Behind these promises there was no intention of addressing the teachers’ demands; instead, such measures aimed to deactivate the protest and wear the teachers down. The criminalization of protest held, and the threat of eviction was permanent.

The struggle of the democratic teachers has had diverse impacts. It has unveiled the essence of Peña Nieto’s government by showing the illegality and authoritarianism with which it operates and the illegitimacy in which it is held. It is clear today that this government will not apply political solutions to political problems but will rather resort to authoritarianism and measures of force to impose its illegality as law. There is no dialogue, no search for consensus; instead, the legal frame is broken and replaced by the use of deception and repression. The use of public force and the deployment of the armed forces for intimidation and repression have become ever more frequent.

Another achievement of the movement is the generation of social questioning around constitutional changes. Today, public opinion considers Peña Nieto’s educational reform to be a failure. Resistance to the reform will be constant among teachers and among parents.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the movement is that of transitioning from minority dissidence to the national directive of a large teacher’s movement. In this transition the movement has come to dispute the orientation of the union and generate guidelines in the economic and labor dimensions of the teaching profession across the country. The movement has also learned to attend to the rhythms and developments of the profession itself, channeling the teachers’ claims and solving nationwide problems, even when confronted with repression.

The CNTE is today the most militant segment of the teachers’ movement. It has fulfilled the role of union and political movement; it has been a great school for training cadres; and it has developed fundamental experiences of direct democracy. The challenge is to push the maturation of the struggle forward and consolidate a national political movement in defense of public education, labor rights, and union democracy.

Finally, whatever the outcome of the teachers’ conflict, thanks to the struggle of thousands of teachers who have risked everything over the past two years in order to impede the devaluation of the right to education and the labor conquests in working conditions, we have gained the opportunity to change the correlation of power in favor of the popular forces and thus opened a way to the radical transformation of society.

María de la Luz Arriaga Lemus is a professor in the faculty of economics at the UNAM, and member of the Tri-national Coalition in Defense of Public Education and RED SEPA, the Network for Public Education in the Americas. Translated by Sebastian Muñoz-Najar Galvez. 

Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Fall Issue: Horizontalism & Autonomy



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