Trinational conference to defend education

By Sarah Knopp

LOS ANGELES--Public education activists from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. will meet here April 18-20 at the Trinational Conference in Defense of Public Education.

Hosted by United Teachers Los Angeles, this will be the eighth such conference since 1993. The goal is to coordinate efforts to fight the de-funding of schools and attacks on teacher organizing that have accompanied the free-trade agenda of NAFTA.

NAFTA and its neoliberal agenda has reached its tendrils into public education, with governments and the private sector pushing parallel agendas of the craze for testing, charter schools and an effort to undermine teachers' organizations.

In past years, the conference highlighted efforts to combat these attacks. For example, the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) led a successful strike in the fall of 2005 to defend teachers' rights and beat back attempts at privatization. Jinny Sims, former president of the BCTF, has been a leading participant in the Trinational Coalition and has spoken to teachers' unions all over the U.S. and Mexico about what kind of organizing it will take to win justice in the schools.

Similarly, 70,000 Oaxacan teachers (Section 22 of the SNTE teachers' organization) struck in 2006, for more than five months in a bitter struggle over the future of education in the Mexican state. The last Trinational Conference was held in Oaxaca in 2006 in an effort to build international solidarity with the struggle and to defend teachers from repression.

By contrast, "U.S. participation has lagged until recently," according to Rosemary Lee, UTLA member and leading coordinator of this year's conference. However, privatization has hit the U.S. schools with a vengeance recently, a process accelerated by Hurricane Katrina and the shuttering of almost all public schools in New Orleans. Charter schools have become the norm there, and are used as an excuse to strip teachers of collective bargaining rights.

Parent, student and community representatives from New Orleans will participate in the conference, as will Puerto Rican teachers, fresh from a 40,000-strong strike. At stake in that strike was the very right to strike itself, in defiance of Law 45, which outlaws public sector strikes in the U.S. colony. Additionally, teachers fought to maintain the right to participate in a democratic union, for higher salaries and against creeping privatization efforts.

UTLA's decision to host this conference is a step forward. "All are looking forward to working with UTLA," Lee said, "because we are one of the largest and most progressive teachers' unions in the U.S."

It will take large, militant, coordinated actions, with solidarity from social and community struggles, to push back against the forces that would like to slash education budgets, privatize the administration of education and strip teachers of their ability to organize effectively. Hopefully, this conference will be one step in the process of building those struggles.