Mexican Teachers’ Massive Strikes Crescendo to a Showdown

Mexican teachers from the dissident caucus la CNTE are camped out in Mexico City's main square, demanding repeal of an "education reform" law. Never have teacher protests been so widespread, in at least 12 states. Photo: CNTE Michoacán.

Update Friday, Sept. 13, 6 pm: Bloodshed was averted as la CNTE leaders decided to leave the square. Some clashes with police had already taken place in side streets. The government immediately sent in cleaners to mop up.

Update Friday, Sept. 13, 4 pm: A clash between teachers and police is imminent. The dissident caucus (la CNTE) of the Mexican Teachers Union has defied the government and refused to abandon the Zócalo, Mexico’s national plaza, in which thousands have been camping.

Hundreds of riot police and other police have been brought into position around the square and there are busloads nearby as well as tanquetas, armored cars with mounted water cannon. The riot police are armed with helmets, shields, clubs, and teargas launchers.

Many of the teachers began early this morning to remove their personal belongings from the square, and no doubt some are leaving to avoid what will in all likelihood be a violent confrontation. The remaining teachers have built makeshift fences, in effect barricades. Some teachers, the press reports, have armed themselves with makeshift weapons to defend themselves.

A longtime human rights activist in Mexico City reports that shops around the Zócalo have begun to close. Workers in nearby government offices have been sent home.

On Wednesday two enormous columns of teachers, tens of thousands in each, marched to Los Pinos, the presidential residence, to protest the Education Reform Act passed earlier this year and the Law of Professional Teaching Service which Congress has just passed. Several violent confrontations with riot police happened along the way.

At the same time there were demonstrations, some of them very large, in 26 of Mexico’s 31 states. In the state of Veracruz, 44,000 of 99,000 teachers demonstrated, according to protest organizers there.

Teachers are protesting the new laws that create a stronger system of evaluation, discipline, and control over the nation’s 1.2 million teachers, giving the government more power over them. La CNTE fears the law will be used to fire or otherwise discipline teachers and permit the state to hire new teachers with less seniority, earning lower salaries.

Several senators have called on the government to invoke the new Professional Teaching Service Law and fire striking teachers; in some states they have been out of the classroom for several weeks.

URGENT ACTION
POSSIBLE EVICTION OF MEXICAN TEACHERS FROM THE MEXICAN PLAZA OF THE CONSTITUTION
To sign this urgent action, please click here.

(Translation:) The organizations that make up the National Network of Non-Governmental Organizations of Human Rights "All Rights for All Women and Men" express our concern about the police operation taking place at this time in the Mexico City Zócalo where they are surrounding the teachers who are exercising their right to demonstrate.

We call upon the authorities and the National Coordinating Committee of the Mexican Teachers Union (la CNTE) to prioritize dialogue. We repudiate any provocation that may lead to violent acts and repression of the demonstrators.

The way to solve the conflict with the teachers is not by force nor by repression, but rather in looking for a way that privileges dialogue to achieve an effective negotiation.

We are aware that as non-governmental organizations we support the right to social protest, but we repudiate any act of violence.

It is the duty of the authorities to protect the life and the safety of those who are demonstrating.

We will remain alert to further developments and information.

THIS STATEMENT IS BEING SENT TO THESE INDIVIDUALS:

Lic. Enrique Peña Nieto
Presidente
Email: enrique.penanieto[at]presidencia.gob[dot]mx

Lic. Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong
Secretario de Gobernación
Email: secretario[at]segob.gob[dot]mx

Dr. Miguel Ángel Macera Espinosa
Jefe de Gobierno del Distrito Federal
Email: jefaturadegobierno[at]df.gob[dot]mx

[Original article, Sept. 10:] Teachers—whose unprecedented strikes and massive, militant protests by the tens of thousands have shaken Mexico over the past week—may be headed for a violent confrontation with the government as they call for a general strike tomorrow.

As the strikes and demonstrations led by the National Coordinating Committee (la CNTE), a rank-and-file caucus within the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE), have become more extensive and militant, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto has become more intransigent.

Some fear the government may strike out against the teachers now, others think it will act after Congress passes the president’s agenda. Everyone fears that Mexican history could be about to repeat itself.

It is a history in which the police and army have been used over and over to crush militant unions, peasant organizations, student protesters, and other movements for democracy. But if Peña Nieto decides to use force to put down the teachers’ movement, it will come at great political cost—removing the veneer of democracy from what he has called his “new” Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Unprecedented Scale

Mexico’s independent and democratic teachers’ movement has a 40-year history of massive demonstrations and sit-ins—by tens of thousands of people at a time—especially in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Mexico City, and more recently those in Michoacán.

But we have never seen anything as militant as these current demonstrations—nor as extensive, with teachers striking and protesting from Oaxaca in the south to Chihuahua in the north—as well as in the Federal District.

Teachers have occupied public buildings, blocked the Mexico City international airport for several hours, and seized highway toll booths. For several days 30,000 have sat in at Mexico City’s main square or zócalo. They have also threatened to take over banks and businesses. All of these are the traditional tactics of the militant teachers, but never unleashed on such a scale and simultaneously—and never finding such a response from teachers as well as from other workers and the public on a national scale.

The protests are driven by the Mexican Congress’s enactment of an education “reform” law, which subjects teachers to evaluations. Issues of wages, benefits, and conditions are also involved in each state.

The teachers’ protests, however, are not solely motivated by their concerns about their jobs and salaries. La CNTE also opposes the government’s plan to open the Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX) to private investment and to pass new tax laws expected to benefit the rich and harm working people and the poor.

Longtime labor activist Román Munguía says the teachers’ strikes have been accompanied by an unparalleled radicalization of the population throughout the country. The left-led CNTE thus finds itself at the head of an amorphous national movement opposed to Peña Nieto’s entire political agenda.

Leading the teachers’ movement has been Local 22, the Oaxaca Teachers Union—the historic leader of the teachers’ movement—which now has tens of thousands of its striking members occupying the zócalo in Mexico City with their tents, lean-tos, and huts.

La CNTE has now called for a “national civic work stoppage,” something like a general strike, for Wednesday, September 11.

While such stoppages called in the past have had very limited success—Mexico, unlike almost all other Latin American nations, has never had a general strike—the teachers have the support of 60 other unions, peasant organizations, and community groups that may join them. Among unions supporting the teachers are those at the National Autonomous University and the Street Car Workers. Most unions are, of course, controlled by the PRI, and would not join a strike against the government.

After meeting yesterday, the national council of the Mexican Teachers Union declared the need for a "counter-insurgency" strategy to deal with la CNTE dissidents. El SNTE President Juan Díaz de la Torre, who supports the education law, told the press that the key factor to be able to "sell the reform" to teachers would be adequate government funds for public education and for raises for teachers. He said that teachers who do their duty do not have to worry about being fired.

The Government Intransigent

Peña Nieto and the PRI have made it clear they are preparing to confront the teachers. Peña Nieto has said he will negotiate but “there is no turning back, the education reform law will take effect.” Education Minister Emilio Chuayffet says the government will deal only with the Mexican Teachers Union, not the opposition caucus la CNTE.

Most ominously, Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, in charge of the country’s internal security, told the press that tolerance has its limits, and that if the teachers’ mobilizations affect the country’s citizens, the law will be invoked. There are armored cars equipped with water cannons ready on the side streets of Mexico City.

At the same time, the Mexican press has begun to change its tone to an anti-teacher one. An article in El Universal, a major Mexico City daily, refers to “Mexican Teachers Provoking Chaos in Five States,” while conservative political columnists suggest that la CNTE is linked to left-wing guerrilla groups and warn that it is taking the country to “a national APPO.” That is a reference to the teachers’ strike that became a citywide uprising, complete with barricades, occupations, and takeovers of radio stations, in the city of Oaxaca in 2006. They faced massive repression; death squads killed several teacher leaders.

In late August, thousands of teachers blocked the streets surrounding TV Azteca and Televisa in Mexico City because, they said, those stations were “lying” about the teachers’ protests and their demands. Still, TV reports take the side of the government and portray the teachers as unreasonable and violent. Some commentators on the left have begun to warn of coming violent repression.

Up until now, Peña Nieto had been on a roll. He won last year’s election (though some say fraudulently) and his party, the PRI, won a majority in both Senate and House. Even before he took office he created the Pact for Mexico, uniting all the major parties around his political agenda of “modernization,” meaning privatization of state-owned companies, encouragement of foreign investors, and more open markets.

Congress passed his anti-worker labor law changes, and then his education reform. He jailed the controversial, corrupt, and unpopular labor and political leader Elba Esther Gordillo, head of el SNTE, for embezzlement. He stands poised to pass a bill permitting private investment in petroleum; until now the government has had a monopoly and progressive groups oppose foreign involvement in the oil industry.

The teachers stand squarely in the path of Peña Nieto’s parade—and he will not have them raining on it.

The confrontation could come on September 15, so that the government could clear the zócalo in time for Mexican Independence Day celebrations the following day. On that day the president stands on the balcony of the National Palace and shouts “Long Live Mexico!” In towns and cities throughout the country, governors and mayors do the same from state capitols and city halls.

The powers-that-be hope to sweep the movement away by that date, but they will need to dislodge teachers from the plazas and public buildings they occupy in some states. The confrontation could come earlier if one side or the other takes more aggressive action.

Benedicto Martínez, a leader of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) and of the National Union of Workers (UNT), believes the government won’t act right away because Peña Nieto is eager to pass his oil and tax bills and needs the support of all the parties involved in his Pact for Mexico. “After these are passed, however,” he said, “I do feel the government will harden its position.”

What Can Be Expected?

Historically, whenever the Mexican government has felt threatened by a mass movement that might become a challenge to its political power, it has mobilized the police and the army to crush that movement.

The 1959 railroad workers strike, perceived by the government to be a Communist-led assault, was suppressed by the army, with thousands fired, leaders jailed for years, and some killed and many injured.

When students protested to demand democracy in 1968, taking advantage of the fact that the Olympics were being held in Mexico, the government attacked, killing hundreds. A similar suppression of the student movement took place in 1971.

The Electrical Workers and their Democratic Tendency attempted a general strike in 1976 that was suppressed by the army with firings, arrests, and the break-up of the movement. More recently, in October 2009, the government sent police and army to seize the public Light and Power Company facilities, dissolving the company, firing 43,000 workers, and thus eliminating the independent and oppositional union from the workplace.

Peña Nieto himself is known for having a heavy hand. As governor of the State of Mexico he was responsible for police repression of a community movement in the town of Atenco in May 2006. Over 200 people (10 of them children) suffered cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, said the Mexican Human Rights Commission; some 145 were arbitrarily arrested, and 26 women were sexually assaulted. As one activist said, “With him as president, anything is possible.”

The teachers of la CNTE are well aware of this history. For years dissident teachers in Oaxaca and Chiapas faced not only firings and beatings but sometimes assassination ordered by union leaders. The activists in those states then, as now, were principally indigenous, bilingual teachers, mostly women organizers at the base, with elected leaders usually men.

The teachers have fought for 40 years to win control of their unions. Today the fight is against the education reform law, but also over the broader political agenda of Peña Nieto, and neither side seems prepared to back down.

As one Mexican activist wrote to me, “The coin is in the air…”

Dan La Botz is the editor of Mexican Labor News and Analysis.