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: Peña Nieto’s big push

By CLALS Staff

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Peña Nieto’s reformist agenda wins kudos from the business and financial class, but both a recalcitrant leftist opposition and mass organizations previously aligned with his party are taking to the streets in protest – raising serious doubts about its prospects.  In his first state of the nation speech, delivered last week, Peña Nieto pledged to plow ahead with “transformational” reforms, giving flesh to the PRI’s slogan that it is Transformando a México. In education, he’s proposed a more rigorous system for hiring, evaluating, promoting and firing teachers who have resisted change despite evidence that the current system is not equipping Mexican youth for employment.  In the energy sector, he wants to open up the oil and gas industry to foreign investment, an idea that was strictly off-limits in the past even though lagging investment has caused production in Mexico’s leading export industry to decline steadily.  He is also pursuing tax reforms that, although watered down when announced on Sunday, entail political risk and, tellingly, raise marginal rates by 2 percent for higher earners and impose a levy on capital gains.  In June, he picked a fight with powerful business leaders over control of the country’s telecommunications industry, an oligopolistic structure that imposes excess costs on consumers and producers alike, diminishing Mexico’s economic competitiveness.

The teachers unions, whose symbiosis with the PRI in the past ensured cooperation, mobilized huge protests in Mexico City, forcing Peña Nieto to delay his speech by a day and then causing monstrous traffic jams during it.  The President cloaked his announcement of the energy reform in nationalistic rhetoric, and PEMEX, the oil company, followed it up with predictions of positive results – huge increases in oil investment and production that purportedly would help to create 500,000 new oil-sector jobs by 2018 and 2.5 million by 2025. But opposition to the reform has been strident, and tens of thousands filled the Zócalo on Sunday to protest it as a “covert privatization.”  Opposition leaders are already pledging demonstrations to oppose taxes, though the likelihood of this may be diminished because the long rumored reform unexpectedly left untouched the value-added tax exemption for food and medicines, which would have been a major rallying point for the Left.

Some Mexican commentators say Peña Nieto’s leadership is already losing its shine and that his Pacto por México, the loose coalition he engineered in Congress, is at risk of falling apart.  He prevailed in his congressional showdown over the long overdue education reforms, but success in transforming the underperforming education sector appears uncertain, as the teachers are threatening more protests.  The arrest of narco bosses from the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas have not given him a bounce on the security front; indeed, Mexican press reports indicate that kidnapping, extortion and other crimes that more directly affect citizens’ lives continue to rise. Further complicating Peña Nieto’s life is news last month that the economy is slowing down.  The first contraction in four years has forced the government to cut its 2013 GDP growth forecast in half, to 1.8 percent.  The administration will undoubtedly point to data showing that PEMEX production has fallen by about a quarter in the past decade because of low investment, and will emphasize that this makes modernization of the oil sector all the more imperative.  But Mexicans have heard promises before, during NAFTA debates and since, that economic reforms and greater openness to trade and investment will massively improve their lives.  Whether there is any fuel left in that rhetorical tank remains to be seen.