Rebellion of the teachers in Mexico

November 4, 2013

In February of this year, Mexico's Congress approved an education "reform" law proposed by the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which was supported by the rest of the political establishment from the National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

In response, hundreds of thousands of teachers have transformed themselves into the vanguard of the struggle against neoliberal reforms promoted by this tri-partisan alliance. The struggle has extended beyond teachers to involve millions of people, including parents, students and a wide range of national and statewide unions. It has involved strikes, protests and occupations, including in Mexico City's enormous central Zócalo.

Peña Nieto's reforms are part of the neoliberal agenda of pushing deeper austerity measures on workers and the poor. The education reform is aimed not only at privatization, but destroying the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE in Spanish), the biggest union in Latin America, with 1.2 million members.

But the government's austerity agenda has sparked a strong resistance, with enormous and permanent occupations in public plazas and parks in major cities across the country, workplace occupations, blockades of major roads and highways, and national work stoppages. The National Coordinating Council of Education Workers (CNTE in Spanish), an organization of militant teachers within the SNTE, has played a leading role in this struggle.

In an interview for Obrero Socialista (Socialist Worker's sister publication) held during the Chicago stop on a speaking tour of the U.S., Graciela Rangel, a member of the National Political Committee of the CNTE, which serves as a collective evaluation and leadership body for the organization, spoke to Orlando Sepúlveda about the state of the struggle.

CAN YOU tell us about yourself, your role in the union, and how you became involved in union activities in general and the fight against the education reform in particular?

MY NAME is Graciela Rangel Santiago, and I am a member of the CNTE. I belong to the CNTE's National Political Committee. I have been a preschool teacher in the state of Michoacán for 12 years. Section 18 [sections are the equivalent of statewide union locals] of the SNTE, my state's section, has a congress every three years. At the last one, I was elected to be part of the Section Executive Committee. I was assigned by this committee to represent it in the National Political Committee in Mexico City.

Ever since I was a young person, I have been concerned about social issues, and I quickly became an activist. So it was easy for me to begin to participate in the activities of the union delegation when I started teaching, like attending marches, meetings, etc. Very soon, I began to join various committees. Working as a teacher, I realized more and more that they were riding roughshod over our rights--little by little, they were taking them away. That's when I became convinced I had to join the CNTE.

Teachers face down heavy police repression
Teachers face down heavy police repression

WHAT IS the CNTE and how is it different than the union, the SNTE? How are they related?

THE CNTE was established more than 30 years ago to contend with the problems with the way the unions were and are being run by the leaders. We are dissident teachers because we don't agree with the policies carried out by the SNTE. The union doesn't do anything other than take our dues, which are automatically deducted every two weeks. In terms of representation or other services, this money never comes back to help us.

Among other things, the CNTE grew to fight against the union's practice of giving out jobs to family and friends who did not deserve them. [The SNTE has traditionally controlled the hiring process for teachers.] So the CNTE struggled so that these jobs were assigned without deal-making or in exchange for something. We argued that available jobs should be assigned to the graduates of the teacher training schools--these are the people who are really best prepared to assume a job of this importance and responsibility, based on the education they receive.

Also, the CNTE was necessary because the union didn't take on adequate responsibility for defending union rights or the teachers' contracts. It didn't even take up the job of defending teachers and the profession from the attacks we have been suffering at the national level, such as education reform today. The SNTE impeded real resistance against the reform law, and when it finally opposed it, it did so in a completely deficient way.

In each state, there is a union section. Some of these sections decided to coordinate their action through the CNTE. In the National Political Committee of the CNTE, which met in Mexico City, with delegations representing each section of the CNTE, we discussed the actions and policies that would be needed in order to defend teachers' rights at the national level. We met every week, more or less, with contingents or representatives from each of the member sections.

The biggest sections--like Section 22 from Oaxaca, Section 18 from Michoacán, Section 14 from Guerrero, and Sections 30, 9, 10 and 11 from the state of Mexico in the metropolitan area around Mexico City--send bigger groups of compañeros to the meetings. Other smaller sections or those that are farther away from Mexico City send fewer people, like those from Jalisco, Zacatecas, San Luis de Potosí, Sonora and Chihuahua. Some can't come each week, but do so when then are able to, so they can keep informed about what we are doing.

More compañeros come for our monthly representative assembly--that's when we have 400 or so teacher delegates gathered to discuss and make decisions about the plan of struggle.

WHAT POSITION has the SNTE taken with respect to the education reform?

WE ARE against the policy taken by the union, because the union has supported the proposals for education reform put forward by Enrique Peña Nieto.

At first, the SNTE said the reform law was fine and opposed mobilizations by teachers who were against it. When the national union leadership realized that its own relevance and privileges were in danger, they decided to put up a timid opposition. But their idea of mobilizing was to bring their troops together on the weekends, so as to not bother the government, and to organize a physical education demonstration in a totally apolitical way. Whoever didn't do these exercises was docked for the day.

This provoked two interesting reactions in the movement. First, the compañeros who participated in these sorts of actions began to feel used and led around like cattle, and this precipitated a rupture between the rank and file and the leadership. That's how the base began to reject the union leaders and join in with CNTE, even within these actions themselves and even when their sections weren't part of the CNTE. In many states, the rank and file ignored the national union's directives in order to follow the CNTE.

Secondly, even the timid opposition from union leaders convinced the government that the leaders were no longer useful. That's when the government created this whole theatre of accusing and arresting SNTE President Elba Esther Gordillo, directly intervening in the national union leadership and imposing new leaders.

This has allowed us in the teachers' rebellion, as we call it, to begin agitating for a new convention where we can democratically choose our own leaders. This has always been one of the most basic tasks of the CNTE--that is, the democratization of the SNTE.

WHY IS it so important to oppose the education reform proposed by the government?

FIRST, BECAUSE we understand that this reform is aimed at privatizing public education. The law that was approved by the government doesn't say anything about school curriculum or educational programs.

Upon entering the education field, when we leave the teacher training school, where new teachers are prepared, we are assigned to a community--not where we choose to go, but where there is a need. After six months of working, we receive tenure.

Now, according to the third article of the reform, in order to enter teaching, all you have to do is to take an exam, but not the same preparation exam taken in the teacher training schools. Anyone with a professional title or degree, be they an engineer, architect or a doctor, without any pedagogical preparation, can get a teaching post.

Very often, the government and the media accuse the teachers of not being prepared, but can you believe that an engineer or an architect without any pedagogical training is going to be ready to teach children?

Also, job security and promotion for teachers will be based on a standardized test given to all our students. Who keeps their job and who receives a pay raise or even a pay cut will be determined by the results the students get. This is the part of the reform they call the "professionalization of teaching."

The same standardized test will be applied in the mountains of Guerrero, in the forests of Oaxaca, on the coast of Michoacán, and in Mexico City. How can the government believe that a child who lives in the forest, who doesn't have the same access to services, instruction or the Internet, is going to be on the same level or have the same knowledge as a child who lives in the city? At times, a child in the countryside can't attend school because of powerful rain storms that make it impossible to cross rivers, or because their house is about to collapse, or because it's better to stay at home instead of getting drenched.

We teachers don't refuse to be evaluated, nor do we deny that it is necessary to evaluate children. But the testing of children should be done with a measure that considers their personal situations. A standardized test cannot do this, nor can it take into account local or regional differences, or the infrastructure of the schools, or the students' reality and their environment. We say that any exam should be matched with the realities facing each child.

What they want to avoid is a conversation about how to create a test that begins from the community, the locality, the living and education conditions in which child is immersed.

It's really more than an education reform--it's a labor and pension reform as well. The reform eliminates tenure--what we call the base. New teachers will receive three-year contracts, instead of getting tenure after six months on the job, and the contract will no longer be with the Secretary of Education, but with private companies and third parties, so it will be harder for us to make our demands.

This education reform is a frontal assault on teachers, their profession and labor rights. Through the use of standardized tests, they want to put teachers' job security at the discretion of the school principals, without taking into account their rights and seniority. It won't matter if a teacher has 20 years or more of service--they want to allow the principal to tell them: You didn't pass this test, so you have to go.

Just like that, a teacher can lose their right to retire and get their pension. And what happens to your 20-something years of service if they can fire you just like that? We teachers have a dignified retirement. Women retire after 30 years of service, no matter your age. Now you have to have 30 years of service and be over 60 years old in order to retire, and men have to have 35 years of service and be 65 years old. With this set-up, someone who starts teaching as a second career--let's say when they are 40 years old--can never retire because they're never going to accumulate 30 or 35 years of service.

Before, our retirement consisted of cashing in what we had saved during our years of service, so we could use it on what we thought was most appropriate for us, and then we had our biweekly pension, which was a portion of what we earned as teachers. Now, we will only have whatever we saved during our career, which they will give to us in part every two weeks, until it runs out. If this only lasts you for 30 or 50 biweekly periods, that's all they're going to give you, and then you're on your own.

THE STATES which are most involved in the struggle have been the poorest states. What's the relationship between struggle and poverty?

THE MAJORITY of the compañeros who have been in the struggle for education are those of us from places far away from the city--isolated and poor regions, where the kids come to school sometimes without having eaten breakfast, or they don't come because they have to help their parents in the fields. Of course, teachers have to help them. We can't say that because a student didn't come to school for three days, or for a week, we're going to kick them out.

This privatization will affect us the most because even now, the budget we get isn't enough. Even though free education is guaranteed in the constitution, it has always been the case that parents have to help the schools with money and with work, because the resources that are supposed to be sent to the schools never arrive.

The reform law will make the parents responsible, by law, for the resources needed by the schools through a process called "school self-management." Before, for example, electricity and water were paid for by the government--now, that's all finished. Now, the parents are the ones who must find the money to pay the bills.

That's why parents are also helping the teachers' struggle--because they're already receiving electricity bills for the schools of up to 30,000 pesos [about $2,800]. Where are they going to get the money to pay this? With this "school self-management," the government is taking many of the responsibilities it used to have for schools, and delegating them to the parents. The government is saying to them: This is your school, and you have to find a way to help the principal.

That's one reason why the teachers in Guerrero, Michoacán and Oaxaca always seem to be the most rebellious--it's because we're in the poorest states, and we're closest to the reality that the children are living in, one which the federal government prefers to ignore.

We, the teachers, are the ones who really know about the conditions in which our students are living and studying, but the people who sit behind fancy desks are the ones who want to design education programs. They have no idea what it means to be a child in school without having eaten breakfast. Their kids are probably doing fine and go to school under conditions where it's easier to learn. This is the reason why we want to create tests that are closer to the reality in our states and localities, closer to each child.

In the state of Oaxaca, there's an alternative education program that has spread to the majority of schools--it was created by the teachers and parents themselves. In Michoacán, for some years, thanks to our own struggles, we have had a grant from the Secretary of Education to design our own educational materials. In this alternative program, we concentrate on getting the children to reflect--to think about what they are doing and not just fill in bubbles. We find out what our children are worried about based on the questions that we ask.

EXPLAIN SOME more about the political context in which this reform is being pushed.

THE EDUCATION reform is only one part of what is being implemented by the leaders of the government and the corporations. They are also pushing an energy reform policy--what we call the privatization of PEMEX. We know, of course, that PEMEX isn't as national as it used to be, but it's still the case that at least 40 percent of its revenue are used for public services and support public-sector workers.

If this is lost, the government will be able to say that there's no money to pay public-sector workers, including teachers. This fits perfectly with their plans to make parents responsible for costs related to public education.

There's also a financial reform plan. Among other things, this reform will increase the value-added tax [essentially, a sales tax on consumer goods] on everything from soft drinks to junk food. The government says this will benefit the poor because it will encourage healthy eating. But the tax is really a punishment that disproportionately targets the poor, who consume more junk food and drink more sugary soft drinks--not because they want to, but because they're cheap.

This question is related to their plan to bring private food companies into the schools. The government says it wants to reduce the consumption of junk food, but what is it offering as a healthy alternative? The same junk food, only in smaller portions--this is what they want to bring into the schools by privatizing the school cooperatives. They say parents lose too much time preparing food for the children, so it's better to bring in private companies that are going to provide "healthier" food--but, like I said, this is just the same junk food in smaller portions.

This will especially impact schools in my state of Michoacán, for example. We have what are called junk food-free schools, where parents, either at home or in the school itself, prepare food for the children. The reform law will eliminate this and replace it with junk food provided by private businesses.

CAN YOU describe the development of the teachers' struggle over the last few months?

WE HAVE BEEN struggling against the education reform since February 26, when Congress approved it. The CNTE is a national coordinating committee, but each state faces different conditions. Guerrero was the first state where teachers went on strike, right after the Senate approved the reform. They have stayed on strike continuously since April.

When Guerrero ended its strike in April, Michoacán teachers started theirs for the months of May and June, which involved all teachers. During July, which is a vacation month, we dedicated ourselves to coordinating other sections so they could join the struggle.

In August, there was a call to not start up classes. That was when the compañeros from Oaxaca joined the struggle with an all-out strike. The strike continued in Michoacán, even though it wasn't complete--it was a symbolic and representative strike. Guerrero remained on the margins this time. I'm speaking of these three states because, along with Chiapas, they are the strongest bastions of the national struggle and of the CNTE.

In October, Michoacán returned to an all-out, indefinite strike, while Oaxaca continued the fight in a symbolic and representative manner with its occupation [of a public park] in Mexico City--the same was true of Gererro and Veracruz. It's worth emphasizing that Veracruz joined in with a total and indefinite strike, even though they aren't part of the CNTE. Veracruz ended up bringing more than 10,000 teachers to the occupation of the Zócalo in Mexico City.

HOW ARE negotiations with the government going?

THE GOVERNMENT has basically waited for us to become exhausted, but through discussion and coordination in the CNTE, we have changed the character of our struggle, combining national and regional levels, as well as mass and representative or symbolic actions.

Until now, unfortunately, we haven't been able to have the debate we are concerned about having with those who are pushing the reforms. At one point, we came to an agreement to carry out a national initiative to discuss all this between teachers, parents, students and society at large, with the aim of presenting all this to the federal government. Across the country, we held 10 regional forums to discuss problems facing public education--and to present alternative proposals, some of which are already working in some states, like Michoacán.

There were student protests and parent protests, including some proposals from administrators who were helping us. But despite all these forums, which had been done in conjunction with the Secretary of Education, all the concerns of the teachers, parents, etc., and all the agreements and resolutions presented at the final forum were ignored.

This was all in preparation for the approval of the secondary laws [the small print for the overall reforms] after the reform law itself was voted on. Once the secondary laws were approved, we realized that nothing at all of what the people and the society had said during these forums had ever really been considered.

THE STRUGGLE has developed and expanded, as you say, from resistance to the education reforms to the rest of the neoliberal reforms promoted by the three main parties. In this context, new coordinating initiatives have emerged. Can you tell us about this phenomenon?

STARTING in August, we began to organize what we called Teacher and People's Gatherings. We called them "people's" because we understand that the CNTE, solely based on the power of the teachers, isn't strong enough to win. We believe the power of the people and the power of other unions is needed.

At these gatherings, we have been coordinating actions, not only with the leaders of the SNTE, but also with other groups and unions, like the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME). Four years ago, they were fired in a mass layoff, but recently, they have been resolving that situation, thanks to the fight they carried out during those years.

Besides the electrical workers, we are coordinating with our compañeros in the Public Transportation Union and the university unions at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), as well as with high school and university students. That's how the struggle has been expanding through other popular and social organizations--it's not just the CNTE.

Also, on October 3, we organized a meeting with labor and community representatives, where more than 170 representatives decided to form the Patriotic Union to Save the Nation (UPRN). Through these alliances, we are seeking more and more people to join in the struggle. Concretely, we are looking to find the forces that can paralyze the country for one day, two days or more.

THE OCCUPATION of the Zócalo in the middle of Mexico City has been at the center of the mobilizations. Can you describe the impact of this occupation and how it was organized?

IN MAY, we initiated the occupation in the Zócalo in Mexico City. In June and July, it was easy to maintain a huge number of teachers in the occupation, but exhaustion began to affect many people, and there were people who had to return and start up their school activities in their states. So we have decided to maintain this in a symbolic and representative manner. That's why, for example, we say that we designated some teachers to remain at the occupation.

So we were in the capital's Zócalo, under tarps and tents, in the cold and the heat, until September 13, when the government militarily occupied the Zócalo. We were pushed out violently. Some compañeros decided to resist and not let this happen. They were the ones who suffered the worst of the repression.

One of the claims that the government and the media made against us was that we wouldn't let anyone else use the Zócalo--that we were disturbing the free development of daily life in the nation's central plaza. But now, the militarized police occupy the plaza, doing the same thing they accused us of doing--except that instead of massive numbers of people, they are using massive armaments, and no one says anything.

After we were kicked out of the Zócalo, we decided to reestablish our occupation at the Monument of the Revolution, and we are still there today. We use the occupation as a way to inform the population about what's happening. We pass out leaflets right there, or we go "brigading"--this is when we send compañeros out into the streets to pass out leaflets and publicize events. They hold political and social events, cultural performances, book discussions and other things at the occupation, and we invite the community to participate. Even though the occupation is now representative or symbolic, there can be up to 20,000 people a day.

We decided to have a representative or symbolic occupation because we know we have responsibilities to the parents and students back home in the states--they are the people we have to be working with in the struggle. For that reason, we voted to make a tactical retreat, as we called it, which allowed us to reach a broader consensus among the key actors in this struggle: parents, guardians and students.

Then we organized a National Assembly to listen to the different sections and the results produced in this conversations. On October 20, we conducted this National Assembly where we built this broad consensus with proposals from the states and as well as a proposal to strengthen the occupation at a national level.

The protests and occupations aren't only in Mexico City, but all over the country. On October 12, there was a march in Mexico City that was matched in 27 states. And the following week, we took over tollbooths on highways in various parts of the country, where we allowed all drivers to pass for free, without having to pay the toll to the private companies that control these highways.

WHAT ARE the next steps for the movement?

THERE IS a lot of debate in the movement about that, and that's a good thing, because it means that the different sectors are joining up with the idea of nationally coordinating our efforts in order to confront the neoliberal reforms. I have a lot of hope, for example, that the Patriotic Union to Save the Nation can become a broad model for the struggle.

There are also very serious discussions about how to put forward a people's candidate, independent of the three parties, who can politically represent this anti-neoliberal struggle. Although the National Renovation Movement (MORENA) of Andrés Manuel López Obrador [an ex-PRD politician who many believe was cheated out of winning the 2006 presidential election] had wanted to put him forward as the movement candidate, the people involved in the struggle do not see him as a legitimate representative, basically because of his vacillating posture.

Besides, we sincerely believe that the future of our struggle lies in our ability to link it to many other struggles with a similar character all around the world. The teachers in England are striking against a similar attack. The teachers in Argentina, Brazil and Chile are confronting similar conditions. And the teachers in Chicago, just last year, were also on strike to stop the privatization wave.

That's why I'm here this weekend. We didn't know that the Illinois Teachers Federation was having its convention this weekend--it makes us very happy to be included in this unexpected manner. The federation wanted us at its assembly to tell the history of our struggle, and this is how we can begin to build links.

It also gives us the opportunity to make contact with the Chicago Teachers Union and to participate in organized events, one by the Black Caucus and the other by the recently formed Latino Caucus. We hope that representatives of all of them will be able to visit us in Mexico--and in that way, we will continue building an international front against the privatization of education.

Translation by Todd Chretien

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