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.