Mexican Teachers Fight for Union Reform and Quality Public Education

On a balmy late May evening in Oaxaca, Mexico, tourists sipped and supped at the sidewalk tables ringing the zocalo, or main plaza. Vendors hawked their wares from small tables and roamed the square with bouquets of inflatable superheroes and rainbow plastic hearts.

“El maestro luchando también está enseñando,” the teachers chanted.-“A teacher in struggle is also teaching.”

Tents, tarps, and makeshift kitchens surrounded the square too, and spilled into several nearby blocks. They belonged to members of Section 22 of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores en la Educación (CNTE), a democratic reform caucus of 250,000 members inside the national teachers union. The teachers’ encampment, or plantón, was part of a wave of actions being carried out across Mexico by tens of thousands of rank-and-file CNTE activists.


Teachers left their classrooms to use plantones, marches, and civil disobedience to pressure the federal and state governments.

One day, more than 80,000 of them marched on the presidential residence. Two days later, they occupied all of the Mexico City tollbooths and distributed information to commuters as they let them through for free. Yet another day, several thousand teachers blockaded the Mexican stock exchange.

They were fighting to democratize their union, their education system, and ultimately, their country. They wanted the government of President Vicente Fox to allocate sufficient resources for education. They demanded free school breakfasts and school supplies for all students. They opposed the impending privatization of public education, electricity, and social security. Their demands reflected the needs of all of Mexico’s poor and marginalized communities-not just those of the teachers and students.

“CNTE and the teachers understand we have an important role to play in the defense of our national sovereignty,” said CNTE Section 22 General Secretary Alejandro Leal Díaz. “Our fight is the fight for all workers’ rights and benefits-education, housing, work, liberty.”


In the streets, CNTE activists chant, “El maestro luchando también está enseñando”-“A teacher in struggle is also teaching.” This sentiment has inspired their struggle since 1979, when reformers within the national teachers’union, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores en Educación (SNTE), founded the CNTE. The 1.4 million-member SNTE is the largest union in Latin America.

Founded in 1943 by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years, SNTE was “born charro,” said Leal Díaz-charro being a put-down best translated as “sell-out” or “kiss-ass.”

CNTE activists accuse the SNTE leadership of stealing millions in teacher union dues and of assassinating over 100 CNTE activists.



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CNTE’s structure reflects its commitment to democracy. An assembly of elected delegates is its highest authority, explained Section 22 committee member Antunio Rangel Moreno.

Sometimes this means decision-making meetings can last far into the night. Sometimes it means big mobilizations can happen quickly.

Section 22 decided to do the planton at a meeting on May 3-and was on the ground with it by May 19. By the end of the three-week action, more than a third of Oaxaca’s 60,000-plus teachers participated.

Plantonistas from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, one of Mexico’s poorest regions, let out a torrent of reasons for being there. Schools and families are crippled by poverty, lacking food, clothes, books, pencils, and decent buildings.


Under the “quality schools” program, one of the privatization schemes proposed by the Fox government, investments from parents and businesses would bolster public schools. Jeremias Chiañas, who works near the Isthmus’ main city of Juchitan, scoffed at the notion.

“You can’t have ‘quality schools’ where there’s hunger, where there’s no money,” he says. The program would only deepen the gap between rich and poor, he says.

The official union has done little to resist the Fox policies, according to Díaz. “SNTE has supported the interests of the state in privatization,” he said.

To register their disgust, a group of activists from the plantón in Mexico City took over SNTE’s national headquarters by driving a truck into the building May 15. They remain there to this day, claiming they will keep the building until December when SNTE holds its national union elections.

CNTE lifted its Mexico City encampment on June 10, even though it hadn’t received the response it wanted from either the official union or the government.

“This is a battle,” Leal Díaz said. “The war goes on. For us it is important to be saying to society that the present economic policies aren’t right. We can teach by being in the streets.”

Marcy Rein works for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. An earlier version of this story appeared in the ILWU’s newspaper, The Dispatcher. Jill Freidberg is currently producing a documentary about the CNTE. For a screening of the film, contact Freidberg at 206/851-6785.