Striking teachers hold out in Mexico

September 26, 2013

Mexico's teachers are a thorn in the side of the government, explains Todd Chretien.

AS TENS of thousands of Mexican teachers began their sixth week on strike, police stopped almost 90 buses filled with union members on their way from the southern state of Michoacán to prevent them from joining in a march to Los Pinos, the residence of President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City.

Led by the CNTE (the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers, a radical caucus within the larger National Union of Education Workers, or SNTE), a militant minority of teachers is striking to protest No Child Left Behind-like changes to the Mexican education code that will lead to mandatory high-stakes testing of students, teachers evaluations based on those tests, and the gutting of tenure.

Over the course of the strike, teachers from the poorest states in Mexico (Chiapas, Oaxaca, Michoacán, Guerrero) have taken their fight straight into the heart of Mexico City, blocking traffic to the international airport, picketing the U.S. and Spanish embassies, establishing occupations in parks and plazas, and repeatedly surrounding the National Assembly and presidential palace.

Striking teachers march past Mexico's presidential residence
Striking teachers march past Mexico's presidential residence

Thousands of teachers from Mexico City and beyond have followed their lead. In the last two weeks, university and high school students have joined in the marches in Mexico City, and the strike has spread to cities in most states.

This past weekend, hundreds of delegates representing teachers from unions all over Mexico met alongside student, community and political organizations as well as other union workers. The Third Teachers Summit, as it was named, voted overwhelmingly to call for a third national strike in defense of public education on October 2 and to oppose a whole host of Peña Nieto's neoliberal reforms.

Concretely, the CNTE is demanding that the government enter into negotiations over the implementation of the new laws before they take effect, in essence, refusing to recognize the government's right to legislate new contractual terms with the union. The scale of the response to the October 2 mobilization will be an important indicator of the staying power of the struggle, and the CNTE at its heart.

UNTIL NOW, Peña Nieto has played for time, applying harsh, but calculated repression with targeted arrests and police attacks. Yet his main strategy seems to be to wait out the teachers, knowing that only a minority is on strike. Unfortunately, the official union leadership of the SNTE remains safely in the president's pocket after he ordered the arrest and prosecution of the SNTE's longtime (and legendarily corrupt) President Elba Esther Gordillo in February.

Peña Nieto can also count on support from all but a handful of politicians from the three main parties--the PRI, PRD and the PAN. While support from his own PRI and the pro-business PAN parties is not surprising, the center-left PRD's support for Peña Nieto's reforms has gone far to strengthen Peña Nieto's hand and provoked a crisis among the PRD's supporters.

Teachers are not the lowest-paid workers in Mexico, with salaries averaging 18,000 pesos per month--the equivalent of $1,384 per month or about $15,000 per year.

By way of comparison, this represents roughly two-and-a-half times the (woefully low) canasta básica (or estimated family poverty line) in Mexico, which is around 7,000 pesos (or $500) per month. But when the government calculates the poverty line, it does not account for even basic costs such as water, electricity, telephone or transportation.

And because the value of the peso compared to the dollar has dramatically weakened, teachers' salaries have fallen dramatically in the last 20 years.

The combination of skyrocketing poverty among students, budget cuts, falling wages and new threats to job security--as well as larger political confrontations over indigenous self-determination in the southern states against the resistance of the mestizo ruling class--has led to open rebellions in states like Oaxaca, but the response to the strike call has been uneven in other parts of the country.

Peña Nieto sees disciplining the teachers' union, the largest union in all of Latin America, as a critical part of his overall package of neoliberal reforms designed to make Mexico into a low-wage manufacturing region that can compete with Asia for a greater part of U.S. trade and international investment.

ALTHOUGH THE economy is sputtering, trade continues to grow between the U.S. and Mexico, up from approximately $9.4 billion in 1993 (pre-NAFTA) to almost $40 billion (in 2012 dollars).

In order to raise funds to further consolidate Mexico's economic integration into the NAFTA bloc, Peña Nieto aims to finally force through a privatization of the national oil company PEMEX, something previous presidents have managed with only partial success. Mexico is the third largest exporter of oil to the U.S., behind Canada and Saudi Arabia, providing one of the most important sources of exports paid in dollars for the economy as a whole.

Peña Nieto hopes to open drilling and refining to U.S. and other international firms in order to attract investment, modernize production and thereby take part in the oil and natural gas boom sweeping the entire continent. If he succeeds, a significantly greater portion of oil profits will find their way into Exxon, BP and Shell's pockets, thereby reducing revenues for the federal government.

Spending on education accounts for 20 percent of federal expenditures and will have to be reduced if the PEMEX privatization scheme goes through, which helps explain why Peña Nieto is so intent on gutting the teachers' union.

There is widespread opposition to selling off PEMEX, as was demonstrated on September 22 during an enormous march led by populist ex-presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO, as he is known in Mexico), but unfortunately the movement is divided.

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, another former presidential candidate and the current PRD leader, and AMLO signed a joint appeal calling on Peña Nieto to put his privatization plans to a national referendum, but the two leaders have refused to join forces to mobilize, leaving the impression that they are both more concerned with keeping control over their followers than in throwing everything into the fight.

Despite this wrangling, thousands of CNTE teachers marched on September 22, and teachers in Chiapas have gone so far as to occupy PEMEX installations.

Thus, there are signs that the fragmentation of these potentially powerful class and social movements can be overcome; however, big challenges remain.

As left-wing activist and writer Gilberto López y Rivaz put it:

Each current has to overcome its self-serving behavior, because each by itself can't lead an opposition to victory. It's essential to connect these struggles into a force larger than themselves and to unite all the affected groups. If not, each will be swept away by the forces of cooptation, atomization and regionalization of movements.

THE COMING months are likely to reveal a great deal about the state of popular struggles in Mexico, the ability of the government to impose neoliberal reforms and the future of the Peña Nieto presidency.

You might think all of this would be worthy of coverage by the mainstream press in the United States, but you would be wrong. During the last three weeks, there has been an almost total blackout of coverage of these issues in the U.S. media, despite the high stakes (independent media sources provide the rare exceptions.

The New York Times did manage to write a few paragraphs during Vice President Joseph Biden's meeting with Peña Nieto in Mexico City on September 20, but they couldn't even muster a mention of the teachers strike or the movement against privatizing PEMEX. Although the Times glowingly referred to Peña Nieto's "ambitious agenda of new laws that would raise taxes, open up the energy sector and confront powerful monopolies," the article concluded that the main obstacle to these initiatives were the powerful storms that have ravaged cities and villages on both of Mexico's coasts.

Biden pledged support for Peña Nieto's campaign against the teachers and PEMEX's public status, quipping that he was "impressed by the proposals, which go beyond parties' disagreements," only to paradoxically swear off U.S. interference in these matters, insisting, "It is for Mexicans, and them only, to make these decisions."

Official protestations aside, the U.S. has never allowed Mexicans to make their own decision free from U.S. meddling. U.S. oil and banking interests as well as education "reform" consultants are licking their chops at the prospect of cashing in on Peña Nieto's attempt to "open," to use the Times' word, Mexico once again--coincidentally, only a few months shy of NAFTA's 20th anniversary.

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