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As she stepped off a private flight from San Diego, California to Toluca, Mexico on February 26, 2013 Elba Esther Gordillo, the president of Mexico’s largest labor union, was surrounded by armed federal police and arrested on charges of “organized crime and illegal financial operations.” Her apprehension, ordered by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, surprised many although the charges levied against her did not.
In the words of Proceso writer Jorge Carrasco Araizaga “Peña Nieto’s government didn’t discover anything new, (it) took existent information” and acted upon it. For years reports of Gordillo’s personal enrichment as president of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE for its initials in Spanish) had circulated throughout Mexico but Gordillo’s abilities as a power broker who could manipulate voter responses had given her privileged status within the ruling hierarchy. She did not, however, support Peña Nieto’s 2012 presidential bid after aligning herself with the opposing National Action Party (PAN) in 2006.
The month following her arrest teachers throughout the southern states of Guerrero, Michoacan and Oaxaca announced work stoppages that included blocking major highways, massive marches and the takeover of some government installations. Their actions, though related to Gordillo’s arrest, were not in response to it but rebellion against the passage of federal education reforms that legislated national teacher testing and transferring financing of some school processes to the private sector.
Although the striking teachers were members of SNTE they had relative autonomy as state sections of the overall union and often had contested SNTE policies. The Oaxaca branch—Section 22, 76,000 members strong—led an uprising against former governor Ulisès Ruiz in 2006 that culminated in massive repressions by over 4,000 federal troops, hundreds of arrests and over twenty teacher deaths. Currently the Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacàn unions insist that the federal reforms are a prelude to privatization of education in Mexico and have less to do with education than with continuing a pattern of union busting begun during the previous presidential administrations.
In his blog www.johnackerman.blogspot.com Mexican journalist/academic John Ackerman explains, “In Mexico basic education teachers don’t receive salaries equivalent to the importance of their work. Their seven or eight thousand pesos per month ($550-$650 U.S.) doesn’t enable them to meet family expenses or devote the time they’d like to teaching. But instead of demanding the salaries they deserve the teachers have decided to set aside personal necessities and fight to improve the quality of public education.”
Although teacher testing—written examinations formatted by the federal Secretary of Education—is one of the central points of dispute, Oaxaca’s Section 22 Secretary-General Rubèn Nùñez insists that the dissident sections are not opposed to teaching evaluations but to standardized written tests that do not take local conditions and requirements into consideration. Oaxaca and Guerrero, along with Michoacan and Chiapas, have large indigena populations whose educational needs are very different from those in urban and suburban areas. Nùñez advocates local evaluations that include peer examinations and performance records that would take into consideration conditions of poverty and lacks of infrastructure in rural and impoverished school districts.
The dissident unions presented alternative teacher evaluation plans to their state governments. Governor Gabino Cuè of Oaxaca accepted Section 22’s plan but Guerrero’s Àngel Aguirre, after accepting a similar plan, reneged, setting off demonstrations that triggered a pitched battle between teachers and 2,000 armed federal police.
Syndicated Mexican journalist Francisco Rodrìguez points out that the reform transfers many costs of school maintenance and provisioning to the private sector via padres de familia (parents organizations). As a result schools in wealthy urban/suburban districts would be able to fund construction, classroom aides, cafeteria services and transportation while schools in poverty-wracked areas like those in Guerrero, Michoacan and Oaxaca would deteriorate, increasing the already existent gap between rich and poor school districts.
Mexico dedicates only 5.3 percent of its gross national product to education, far less than most other nations including Ghana, Bolivia, Cuba and Jamaica according to the Economic Cooperation and Development Organization (OCDE). The reform measure includes no new funding for education, and—lamentably complains Ackerman—curtails recruitment of normal school graduates. Nor does it offer opportunities for the 6.2 million school-aged youths who neither are enrolled in school nor have jobs.
Despite the publicity given the disputes and the federal crackdowns like those in Guerrero the majority of Mexican citizens remain aloof from the controversies asserts La Jornada’s Josè Blanco. The haphazardly structured federal education system divided among the federal Secretary of Education, the powerful federal SNTE and the semi-autonomous state unions has created an over abundance of high-paid bureaucrats and a struggling mass of poorly paid teachers, many of whom moonlight in other occupations to make ends meet.
Union marches, blocking highways and schools closures have evoked negative responses from both businesses and private citizens and laws to limit protests or to criminalize them have been proposed by various state legislatures including those in Guerrero and Oaxaca. Regrettably, insists Oaxaca’s Nùñez, government officials refuse to negotiate until they’re forced to do so by actions that inconvenience non-involved citizens.
The charges against Gordillo include “illegal operations” of over three billion 265 million pesos (22 million USD) “a minimum part of what she managed,” Carrasco Araizaga reported. Union finances are not subject to audit under Mexican law (an attempt to introduce audits was included in the proposed labor reform bill passed last December but removed prior to passage by President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Congressional representatives before passage). The counts against Gordillo do not include the millions she apparently spent on her real estate holdings, wardrobe, art and travel. The Mexico daily El Universal reported that over 60 percent of the union dues that Gordillo’s SNTE collected from its teacher members were diverted into private hands.
President Peña Nieto and his Secretary of Education Emilio Chuayffet announced on April 4 that the federal government “will not take a step backward” in enforcing the reform despite “isolated expressions of counter reform.” However, the Director of Central Studies of Mexico’s National University, Axel Didriksson, contends that the so-called “reform” contains “a great vacuum of content” and “lacks precise directions for elevating the spiny and deteriorating educational system.”
Ackerman perceives “a new social movement in favor of humanity” and “a wave of hope to satisfy the enormous thirst for justice that Mexican society feels.” He and journalists like Ricardo Rojo note that the “isolated expressions” are garnering support from other state organizations, particularly in the Estado de Mexico and the Federal District that includes Mexico City. Various national, state and local organizations, including the #YoSoy132 movement and Guerrero’s communal police, have united with Guerrero’s union in its protests and like the federal government have vowed not to retreat.
They have, however, expressed willingness “to negotiate.” Where those negotiations might lead remains undetermined.
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