Mexican Teachers Rebel Against Government’s Educational Reform

President Enrique Peña Nieto, they do represent a challenge, and it is the first major challenge from below.

The question is: Will the movement confined to the southern regions? Or will it become a national movement involving teachers and communities throughout the country? If it remains contained in the south, it is likely that the state governors backed by the federal government will be able to crush these components one at a time, while if it spreads and become a national movement, and especially if it spreads to other unions in the public sector and perhaps even in the private sector, it could change the balance of forces in the society and might well set Peña Nieto back on his heels. We turn now to look at the events that led to this situation and to see how they played out and what that suggests about future developments.

The Background: Education Reform

Teachers have been fighting what they see as an elite-imposed education reform now for almost six years. During the previous administration, President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) of the National Action Party (PAN) formed an alliance with Elba Esther Gordillo, then leader of the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE), the Alliance for Quality Education (ACE). While the union leadership embraced the plan, the 35-year-old rank-and-file opposition group, the National Coordinating Committee (la CNTE), opposed it at every turn with protests by tens of thousands. While la CNTE proved unable to stop the plan's implementation, in some areas of the country the teachers simply boycotted the meetings, examinations, and other elements of ACE.

When President Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) took office on December 1, 2012, he succeeded in convincing the other two major parties—the conservative PAN and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)—to join his party in signing the "Pact for Mexico," fundamentally an agreement to support the new president's neoliberal agenda. The new president then presented to the Mexican Congress his education reform bill intended to reassert government control over the country's education system, break the power of the Mexican Teachers Union bureaucracy, and improve the quality of education. At the heart of the new law is a regular teacher evaluation with increased emphasis on merit.

Congress put the bill on a fast track and passed it in short order, despite verbal opposition from el SNTE and demonstrations organized by la CNTE). In the following months, Mexico's 31 states also ratified the educational reform. Throughout the process, Mexican teachers, particularly in the south of the country, engaged in protests in front of the Mexican Congress and state legislatures, marched, demonstrated and sometimes struck. While the protests were national in scope, they were strongest in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas and in the western states of Michoacán and Guerrero and in Mexico City in the Federal District.

On February 26, 2013, Peña Nieto's Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam charged teachers union president Gordillo with embezzling millions of dollars in union funds, engaging in money laundering, and depositing the funds in foreign banks. She was jailed and remains there awaiting trial. Gordillo had for more than twenty-five years been a major political leader in PRI and later became an ally of President Calderón of the PAN, though in the end both parties abandoned her. She had become a despised symbol of political and labor union corruption. Her arrest won support from all of the political parties, from many teachers, and from a wide swath of Mexican society. Peña Nieto, meanwhile, had removed a powerful political player who opposed his education reform scheme, even if she did so for her own reasons and not for the reasons that the union's leftwing rank-and-file movement objected to it.

The Opposition's Rejection of Reform

Why did la CNTE object to the educational reform? And what were the demands of the movement? Francisco Bravo, general secretary of Local 9 in the Federal district, a local aligned with la CNTE, said, "We have always insisted that teachers are not against evaluation, nor against the idea that the best should be chosen for the teaching career, but you can't simply disqualify everything that we do in the classroom without knowing the conditions we confront and the educational achievements we accomplish, even if these thing are not reflected in standardized tests."

Speaking before the violent events of April 24, Bravo said that Peña Nieto's educational reform "is condemned to failure before it reaches the classrooms, because it is a proposal that was reached by [political, governmental and union] leaderships in a unilateral way. We teachers have never been part of the discussion."

He said that an alternative was needed: "First, is to decide how decisions about education are going to be made, but also how to eradicate an authoritarian and vertical system that is imposed from the federal and state administrative offices down to the school classrooms."

Gilberto Maldonado, the leader of teachers in the National Democratic Executive Committee, another dissident teacher organization, said that the opposition teachers throughout the country agreed with the need for a "humanistic educational project that educates critical citizens not malleable consumers for the whims of the market."

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Virtually all of the political parties in government or in the congress called for law and order. President Peña Nieto condemned the violence and offered his full support to Guerrero governor Aguirre Rivero. Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, Minister of the Interior, said that he would support the state in responding to the teachers' violent acts. "I will send federal forces if they should be needed," he said. Congressional leaders of the PRI, PAN, PRD and the Green Ecological Party all repudiated the violent acts and called upon the government to use the law to prosecute those responsible.

Most outspoken was Governor of the State of Morelos, Graco Ramírez Garrido of the PRD, who called for a "heavy hand" to be applied against those who had committed violent acts in Guerrero. Saying that the teachers involved in the movement represented no more than 10 percent of the teachers in the state, he called upon the government to act as forcefully against the protestors responsible for the violence as it had against former teachers union head Gordillo. As a person of the left, said Ramírez Garrido, he could not accept protestors' threats against legislators. Yet within two days other PRD leaders were calling upon the government to avoid a heavy-handed approach and to seek dialogue with the teachers.

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While recognizing that the violent events that took place in Chilpancingo, Guerrero represent a challenge to the movement, the dissident teachers' movement continues to prepare its next actions to press the government to withdraw or renegotiate the education reform law. The local unions controlled by the dissidents and the opposition movement in the states of Chiapas, Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, and some locals in the Federal District plan to participate in the strike planned for May 1, the International Labor Day. Teachers in Durango and Zacatecas also support the protest, though it is not clear how many will participate in a strike. Some teachers say that will be the beginning of a national teachers' strike of long duration. Teachers in the northern state of Nuevo Leon said that they will work, but under protest. In Local 56 in Veracruz the leadership said it will not participate in the May Day march for fear of provocation by "anarchist cells." Jesús Villanueva Gutiérrez, head of Local 6 in Colima, denounced teachers in Michoacán and Guerrero who would disturb law and order, saying that his members would not participate in the May Day march so as to avoid provocations.

The movement is demanding the return of fired teachers in various states to the classroom, and the liberation of teachers who have been arrested and jailed in the states of Sonora, Hidalgo, and Guerrero. In some states activists demanded the removal of leaders imposed by the national union and the right to elect their own union officials. Everywhere they demanded that this education reform be cancelled and that teachers, including teachers from the dissident movement, be involved in future discussion of reform efforts.

At the Fifth National Education Conference called by la CNTE in Mexico City on April 28, and involving teachers from about 25 states, speakers declared that they continue to reject the "elitist" reform and the process that has excluded teachers, families, and students. 

Mexican Teachers Union, the National Coordinating Committee, the Secretary of Public Education, and Mexicanos Primeros an organization that supports the education reform.]


Mexican Labor News and Analysis.

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