A crackdown on Oaxaca teachers

August 26, 2015

Afsaneh Moradian reports on the fight by teachers in Oaxaca to oppose neoliberal education "reforms"--and the response of the government that threatens the union.

OAXACA'S PUBLIC education teachers and their union suffered a major setback when the federal government oversaw a recent restructuring of the state's education department.

Waiting until summer vacation on July 22, Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto sent thousands of federal police, equipped with military helicopters, to close the Oaxaca State Institute of Public Education (IEEPO, by its initials in Spanish) building and seal it off from protests.

The federal government, with the eager cooperation of Oaxaca's governor, then proceeded to rename the IEEPO, rendering all employee contracts and union agreements with the former education department null and void. In addition, the government froze the bank account of the teachers' union, claiming it was under investigation for money laundering.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, the government's action has meant the firing of some 300 members of a group of dissident teachers in the National Coordination of Educational Workers (CNTE, by its initials in Spanish) from union-elected management positions in the IEEPO. The CNTE is a nationwide dissident faction of the larger National Syndicate of Education Workers, or SNTE. The jobs of thousands of union teachers are also on the line.

Oaxaca teachers organized in the CNTE face off with police at a mass march
Oaxaca teachers organized in the CNTE face off with police at a mass march

In Oaxaca, the local union Section 22 has been accused by the government of controlling hiring in public education in the area through, as the Journal put it in typical right-wing fashion, "practices like selling teacher posts and engaging in violent and disruptive protests." But teachers say such characterizations are meant to demonize and bust a militant union involved in a high-stakes fight to preserve public education and job security for teachers in Oaxaca and elsewhere in the country against disastrous neoliberal education "reforms."

IN RECENT months, Section 22 has been escalating its opposition to a federal education "reform" law passed in 2013.

According to Luis Stalin, general coordinator of Section 22's research department, the Center for the Study and Development of Education (CEDES 22), the reforms "do not include the people in the villages and communities."

In an interview with In These Times reporter Jeff Abbott, Stalin pointed out:

that one major new policy relies on wedding instructor compensation to student scores on Spanish-language tests, which the teachers do not have the option of offering in indigenous languages. This proves, he says, that the Mexican government "does not take into account the original peoples of Mexico who do not speak Spanish."

Other aspects of the reforms, advocates say, such as three-strikes-and-you're-out evaluation rules and discipline for instructors who miss days of work, are also likely to negatively impact Oaxacan students, teachers and communities. All in all, advocates say, the policies continue Mexico's legacy of colonialism by imposing the will of the centralized state on its entire population.

When the September 2013 law was passed, according to Stalin, teachers realized that "it was an emergency. We had to develop a plan in resistance to the government's plan."

The union had earlier been successful in defeating part of the law that required a standardized evaluation for teachers that counts towards performance reviews, but activists say there is still much that needs to be pushed back.

In early June, the union went on strike. With national midterm elections approaching, it also called for a boycott of local elections, at one point raiding the offices of the election authority and destroying ballots. The union also temporarily blocked access to the airport in Oaxaca City and blockaded the supply of gasoline, until the federal government sent in some 7,000 heavily armed police and soldiers.

In late July, members of Section 22 invaded the Oaxaca offices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico's ruling party and then set up an occupation in the city's main Zocalo, or square.

The union leadership, however, has been taken by surprise with this latest attack. They believed for the past few years that Oaxaca's governor was sympathetic to the teachers' movement.

THE UNION'S official response has been one of defiance and a refusal to recognize the new department of education. However, these structural changes not only threaten the jobs of several thousand teachers, but have undone the democratic structures implemented in 1992 after years of wildcat strikes and struggles by union members which led to Section 22 winning the right to be in charge of naming IEEPO officials.

In short, the new measures have severely weakened the union.

Administrative employees working in the department of education building, but officially listed as teachers, were forced to sign a pledge of allegiance to the new organization in order to keep their jobs, effectively renouncing their participation in the union and their former work agreements, including bonuses and benefits.

The move also puts an end to democratically elected department heads and staffing positions that had three-year terms. Applicants were active teachers who left the classroom to hold a different position and then returned to their classroom when the commission was over. They were voted into their positions at union assemblies.

In this way, many pedagogical and administrative roles were filled as well as the majority of union staffing, including the elected union officials. The elimination of commissions leaves union full-timers without a paycheck--and thousands of teachers without classrooms for the upcoming school year.

While the union leadership has officially maintained a militant stance, the government has successfully created a climate of uncertainty and fear. There is no information coming from the new education department as to what will happen to thousands of teachers who may by laid off or offered non-union positions as contract workers, without job security and benefits. Teachers with classrooms, who for the moment are not affected by the restructuring, are aware that missing three consecutive workdays is grounds for termination--in a move designed to prevent a strike.

The local union stands to lose thousands of members and much of its financial base--it isn't clear how the union will respond. The federal government now has a clear path to implement standardized evaluations of students and teachers that will lay the groundwork for more layoffs in the future.

In the meantime, the future of defending public education in Oaxaca will depend on the membership returning to their schools and rebuilding a relationship with parents based on solidarity and political opposition to the education reform. As one activist in Section 22 told Abbott, "The reforms affect everyone in Mexico...They are tearing the social fabric."

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