Mexico’s Teachers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Christian Bracho*

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Members of Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) at a mass mobilization in 2013. / Eneas De Troya / Flickr / Creative Commons

Teachers in Oaxaca and other Mexican states are increasingly fearful and resentful of both their union and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).  Since the 1970s, Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) has operated as a formalized dissident caucus within the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (SNTE), the national union that has been an essential part of state machinery since the 1940s and strongly aligned with the PRI.  CNTE rallied for many causes, such as union democratization, regional autonomy, and economic justice, and enjoyed the most popular support in the 1980s.  As they accumulated power in the 1990s in states like Oaxaca, CNTE leaders turned to neo-corporatist strategies to incentivize teachers’ participation in union mobilizations.  An extensive point system, for example, rewarded teachers for going to marches, camping out during strike periods, and attending rallies in Mexico City; teachers who failed to participate in a minimum amount of activities lost union privileges and benefits.  By 2005, Oaxaca’s union had split over its focus on politics rather than pedagogy.  Over the last ten years, dissident teachers have increasingly faced government pressure and violence.

  • In 2006, military police broke up a rebellion led by striking teachers in Oaxaca state, in which dozens of activists were killed. In 2013, the massive teacher strike against President Peña Nieto’s constitutional reforms – which would require states to implement national education policies – ended with the violent eviction of teachers from Mexico City’s zócalo.  In 2014, 43 student teachers in Guerrero state were massacred, and last year over a dozen protesters were killed in Nochixtlán, outside of Oaxaca’s capital city.

Although these incidents provide teachers’ unions considerable cause for continued mobilization, my research indicates that teachers in states like Oaxaca are less convinced that their ongoing struggles represent authentic political resistance.  Many say they are fulfilling syndical obligations – less a reflection of personal convictions – because attendance is recorded and assures payment.  Teachers tell me that they trust neither the government nor the union; they see government as an entrenched century-old political machine that has resurged with more impunity than ever, and the union – both nationally and regionally –as driven by special interests and cronyism.  Maestros feel they have little recourse but to fend for themselves and families.  They fear the violence that the government may visit upon them, but they also fear the public shaming they face if they criticize the union’s political tactics or support government reforms.

Education reform in Mexico is vital to improve the overall quality of teaching and learning – and to address the social and economic inequalities across the country.  Government action is essential to such efforts, but endemic corruption has stained the public’s image of national and state leaders, cultivating distrust of top-down policies.  The union is also essential to protecting teachers’ interests and challenging the hegemony of the national government, but its neo-corporatist strategies such as the point system delegitimize the activist banner waved by leaders in states like Oaxaca.  Especially with increasing symbolic and physical violence, teachers are in an impossible position, stuck between two forces they don’t trust and facing dire consequences if they challenge the authority of either the government or union.  Though dissident teachers are important to putting a check on government impunity and corruption, the union’s sustained mobilizations have negatively impacted their profession and student achievement.  While “the teacher fighting is also teaching” – a common refrain in Mexico – teachers must also be free to step away from the march and into the classroom.

March 16, 2017

* Christian Bracho teaches in the International Training and Education Program at American University’s School of Education.

Mexico: Repressing Organized Dissent

By Marcie Neil*

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A photo from the protest on June 19. Credit: LibreRed / Google / Creative Commons

The Mexican government’s latest reaction to the country’s largest teachers union’s challenge to education reform is triggering accusations of gross human rights violations at a time that President Enrique Peña Nieto is already under severe pressure over the case of the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa, even if the union’s reputation – and the government’s historical demonization of it – may undercut the teachers’ cause.  Protesters associated with the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) clashed with state and federal police in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, on June 19, leaving eight dead, more than 100 wounded, and at least 25 detained.  The clashes culminated a series of CNTE-led protests over a 2013 reform that puts the onus on teachers for student success through government-mandated tests and teacher evaluations – akin to the U.S. “No Child Left Behind Act.”  CNTE members consider the reform disconnected from the realities of teaching in Mexico’s underprivileged, indigenous, and rural environments, and view it as a threat to their collective decision-making authority and hard-won benefits from the 1980s and 1990s.

  • The CNTE denounced Nochixtlán as another example of excessive police force, and press reports and citizen testimony have refuted the President’s claim that police met protesters unarmed. The administration subsequently offered to meet with union leaders to discuss the reform, but it was seen as offering too little too late.

The CNTE is not the country’s most respected institution, but its complaints about the brutal police reactions to its protests have merit and have stimulated a national debate on Mexico’s commitment to human rights.  The union’s reputation has been tarnished by repeated disruption of school schedules, internecine strife, recent arrests of leaders on corruption charges, and a recently eliminated, but oft-cited, benefit that allowed union members’ children to inherit their jobs regardless of merit.  But the state’s implicit culpability in the disappearance of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa and the death toll on June 19 seems to have tipped the perceptions of its dispute with the state momentarily in favor of CNTE.  That dispute and others with popular organizations have deep roots – going back to mobilizations in the 1960s, including the Tlateloco Massacre in 1968, and the brutal repression of a 2006 teachers strike in Oaxaca.  The historical pattern is one of state abuse against mostly harmless citizens who feel denied democratic participation.

The Peña Nieto administration’s reactions thus far do not suggest a desire to break with that pattern, even in the face of public outrage over this month’s killings.  The Mexico representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and others have called for an independent investigation into the Nochixtlán violence, but the government’s stonewalling of the Ayotzinapa investigation suggests these attempts at overcoming impunity face dim prospects.  Education Minister Aurelio Nuño’s statement the day after the confrontation confirming the government’s commitment to uphold the education reforms further fueled public anger.  Absent an independent evaluation, the bloody events of June 19 could remain as evidence that the Mexican government is simply unwilling to overcome its historical tendency to attack those it considers subversive. 

July 1, 2016

* Marcie Neil received her Masters in Latin American Studies at American University in 2015 and served as a Graduate Assistant at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.