Mexico to ‘Reform’ Education, Too

Mexico has passed a national “education reform” bill that will reassert government control over the education system, wresting it from the hands of a corrupt teachers union leadership. Mexican unions have a long history of control by political parties and by corrupt and violent bureaucracies, and the teachers union is one of the worst examples.

The Mexican Congress approved the measure December 21. Mexican unions were already stunned and reeling from pro-business changes to labor law passed in September.

The education overhaul was supported by both of Mexico’s major pro-business parties, the PRI and the PAN, and by the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). It was opposed by some PRD legislators, a new left party called Morena, the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE), and the powerful opposition caucus in the teachers union, la CNTE.

President Enrique Peña Nieto said he wanted to reestablish the government’s role as director of the country’s education system and create a system based on “genuine merit.”

The Unnamed Culprit

While her name was never mentioned and her union only alluded to, everyone was aware that, when Peña Nieto talked about retaking control of the schools, he meant taking them back from Elba Esther Gordillo, head of the Mexican Teachers Union and a powerful figure in national politics for 30 years.

Virtually every major group in the country, from government officials to business leaders and politicians left, right, and center, and including la CNTE, agrees that her power—and the power of the corrupt bureaucracy she commands—must be broken.

Gordillo colludes intimately with the Secretary of Public Education in rampant corruption in the running of the schools. Most believe that Gordillo usually has the upper hand, giving management positions and teaching jobs to loyalists.

Yet while there is unanimity on breaking Gordillo’s powerful grip on the union, there is little agreement on how to go about it.

Peña Nieto’s new law modifies Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution, one of the three revered articles that arose from the demands of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, leading to the establishment of free, public, secular education. (The other two recognized workers’ right to organize unions and redistributed land to indigenous and peasant communities.)

At the center of the changes is a national teacher evaluation. Other important elements of the law are a census of schools, teachers, and students, and standardization of the responsibilities and salaries of school principals and other supervisors.

Supporters and Opponents

Several years ago, Mexico decentralized its national education system, giving somewhat greater latitude to state governments, which meant that Peña Nieto had to win their support—a task he has already accomplished.



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Now that the law has passed, Gordillo says her union will challenge it in the courts and carry out a legal, peaceful resistance campaign against it.

Gordillo was one of the top leaders of the PRI for most of the last 25 years, and then a close ally of former President Calderón of the PAN. The PRI, which has an authoritarian reputation, ruled Mexico for most of the twentieth century and has recently returned to power.

Gordillo also has her own political party and has formidable influence because of her knowledge of what deals have gone down. The new law threatens her and the powerful and notoriously corrupt political machine that she has constructed.

In a victory for Gordillo—and possibly also for rank-and-file teachers—on December 19 legislators added an amendment that indicated teachers who failed the evaluation would not necessarily be terminated.

La CNTE, the opposition caucus, founded in 1979, which controls several state teachers unions, also opposes the new law, though for quite different reasons, fearing that it will reduce teachers’ power and open the door to the privatization of education.

La CNTE organized protests, beginning with a demonstration in mid-December by 3,000 teachers in Morelia, Michoacan. The caucus is also seeking an injunction against the national teacher evaluation.

“We consider the educational reform, and especially any changes to Article 3 of the Constitution, to be an attack on the Mexican people,” said Rubén Núñez Ginés of SNTE Local 22 in Oaxaca.

Núñez Ginés said the plan was driven by right-wing business interests. “The project hides its real objective: the labor issue,” he said. “It is an attempt to do away with collective bargaining in education and to institute instead individual contracts based on evaluations with a punitive character, in order to justify firings.”

He objected to the notion of a “universal evaluation,” given the diverse character of Mexico. States such as Oaxaca are home to many different indigenous cultures.


Sounding a note familiar to teacher unionists in the United States, Martí Batres, president of the new left party Morena, said the plan is an attack on teachers’ job security and makes them scapegoats.

The pro-union Mexico City daily La Jornada warned that Peña Nieto’s plan presents teachers as the ones “almost exclusively responsible for the existing deficiencies in the government educational system.” La Jornada noted that in the United States punitive teacher evaluations have been pushed as part of an overall plan to privatize education.

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