Mexican Teachers Unions on the Move

Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

Several hundred Oaxacan teachers gathered early in the morning on Monday May 15th, National Teachers Day, outside the San Cosme metro stop in Mexico City. Many more planned to join them, as they prepared to march to the National Palace, and camp out in front in the Zocalo, Mexico’s central plaza and seat of government. Mestizo office workers walked quickly out of the metro stop, pushing through the crowd composed of many indigenous teachers from Oaxaca.

I asked a female teacher the reasons she was here that morning. She replied, “Pensions, wages, and healthcare.”

Earlier that morning a group of students rallied near the national palace at 8 am. Police erected barricades and clutched blue metal helmets, preparing for the protest.

The metro was clean and well lit, with public bathrooms that cost seven pesos to enter through a turnstile. The subway was packed. One section of Mexico City subway cars is reserved for women and children, 12 years old and younger. Here, female workers can avoid the wandering hands of men commuting to and from work each day.

Busses and cars clog the rush hour city streets. Street vendors sell phones on blankets on the sidewalk. A few sell hats with red stars and display books of left-wing political theory.

A few teachers bought hats with red stars.

I spoke to a man and woman. Both were indigenous teachers, middle aged, from Section 22, the Oaxacan section of CNTE, the National Coordinator of Educational Workers. Section 22 is the most radical section of CTNE, the reform caucus within Mexico’s education workers union, founded in 1979, that operates like an independent union within the old union’s structure. CNTE and Section 22 have a long and storied history of struggle, including leading mass strikes in 2016, and mobilizing along with Mexico’s student and human rights movement against the disappearances of 43 student teachers in 2014. For more on the history, read Jacobin.

Fifteen hundred teachers will march today in Mexico City. They will be negotiating with the federal government, and many will camp out at the Zocalo for at least 24 hours. “We’ll see if the police let us in,” the female teacher huffed.

“Our issues include public services and infrastructure in our community. Many schools don’t have internet, or preschools for indigenous Oaxacans.” Salaries, pensions, and improving the healthcare sector are also key issues. Healthcare workers also aren’t paid well. Many teachers died in the pandemic. In rural areas sometimes there is only one teacher for multiple grades. In some cases, there is only one teacher for all of primary education.

On the street, a woman sold the Communist Manifesto, a book opposing sexual abuse, the Diary of Anne Frank, and a biography of Isabelle Allende, wife of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, deposed in a CIA backed coup de eta in 1973. Books on Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and 48 Laws of Power were displayed on a cloth blanket on the sidewalk.

The teachers began to line up in columns behind banners of their organizations, one standing behind the next, each clutching their backpacks. Some held sun umbrellas, some held tents they would later assemble in the Zocalo. Small signs hoisted on sticks displayed the name of each sub-region of CNTE Section 22. That way, teachers could assemble with their colleagues in the same Oaxaca union unit.

43 Ayotzinapa was painted on a bus behind us. The kidnapping and murder of 43 Normalista student movement teachers in training from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero in 2014 on their way to a protest led to mass demonstrations against disappearances and government impunity that discredited the government and paved the way for the rise of the Morena political party.

As the march began, groups began chanting.

“Norte al Sur, Este a Oeste, Ganaremos Este Lucha, Cueste lo que Cueste.”

North to South, East to West, We’ll Win this Fight, No Matter what it Costs.

“Zapata Vive. La Lucha Sigue.”

Zapata Lives. The Struggle Continues.

“Aqui, Ahora, Con La Coordinadora.”

Here and Now, with the Coordinator.

“Cuando el Pueblo se Levanta, por Pan Libertad y Tierra, Ganeremos este Lucha, de la Costa Hasta la Sierra.”

When the People Arise for Bread, Liberty, and Freedom, We Will Win this Fight, from the Coast to the Mountains.

We passed through the city streets. Some office and municipal workers stopped to watch the procession, but most just passed by as if nothing interesting was happening. A new office tower rose above us to the left. A crane erected at the top of the tower’s concrete and metal structure hoisted beams upwards.

Stopping in a major intersection in a normally busy commercial center, the group of 1,500 to 2,000 people split into small sections, blocking the city streets in an area of office towers of shining blue glass in an orderly and disciplined manner. Some held red and black CNTE flags. Small groups of teachers from Hidalgo, Acapulco, and other states displayed their organizations’ banners on the city street. A banner from Chilpancingo, Guerrrero displayed the insignia of both the more conservative Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion (SNTE), and the more militant Coordinadora (CNTE). Among several demands listed on their banner included the construction of a level three hospital in Guerrero, and an emergency wage increase.

A banner for the largest group, Section 22 of the Oaxacan CNTE, opposed the federal educational reform initiative to transfer control of indigenous education from the Public Education Secretariat (SEP) to the National Institute of Indigenous People (INPI). A slogan read, “For the defense of education for original peoples and Afro-Mexicans and for workers’ labor union rights.”

Several speakers took turns addressing the crowd. A microphone was attached to two large speakers affixed to the top of a pickup truck. Two thick wires snaked from the back of the truck to underneath the hood of the white pickup, plugging directly into the car’s battery to power the mobile sound system.

One orator discussed discrimination against indigenous bilingual education, and how the union was taking community demands to the national government.

“El Paro! El Paro! Es Culpa Del Estado”

The strike. The strike. It’s the Government’s Fault.

The speaker continued. May 15th is National Teachers Day. But the CNTE and Section 22 are not just celebrating. They are in the streets, fighting for their rights and for quality bilingual education for the indigenous communities they serve. The educational reform will break indigenous education in our country. Several teachers booed. The reform was passed by the previous government, of Peña Nieto, and many feared it would dismantle the autonomy of bilingual education.

Not all the teachers’ demands were social demands, however. Section Uruapan’s banner raised the issue of pay differentials. In many union contracts in the U.S., two tiered systems pay young workers far less than those hired before a certain date. Here, low wages, some less than the minimum wage, and disparities between different pay grades spark grievances.

“Los Maestros Luchando, Tambien Esta Ensenyando.”

Teachers fighting are also teaching.

Aqui, Alla, La Lucha Siguera.”

Here, there, the struggle continues.

Using string tied to lampposts, strikers had hung a banner over a side street to block traffic, as well as sitting in the street. An announcement was made. Quickly, everyone arose from sitting on the sidewalk, and returned to their single file columns behind their union banners. Two men reached out with pocketknives and cut loose the banner they had hung over the public way. The line that stretched behind a gas station bathroom dwindled.

“Lucha! Lucha! Lucha! No Dejes de Luchar! Por Un Gobierno Obrero, Campesino Popular”

Fight! Fight! Fight! Don’t Give Up the Fight! For a Worker and Peasant Farmers’ Peoples’ Government.

The march swelled as we passed by Plaza Bellas Artes, close to the center of state power in the Zocalo. On the northwest side of the large, shaded plaza with boardwalks and fountains, sits the Jose Marti Cultural Center, with adult education classes, art, film screenings, and multidisciplinary programming. Murals of Jose Marti, the Cuban poet and early revolutionary, and other leaders of Latin America’s independence movements, line a back wall.

On the southeast corner, is a new anti-monument. A giant pink woman symbol with a fist in the middle is held up by a rough concrete foundation hastily poured in a massive protest against Femicides on International Women’s Day March 8, 2019, the first International Women’s Day after Lopez Obrador and Morena won the national election the previous July. Etched into it the anti-monument it reads, “In Mexico Nine Women are Assassinated Every Day. Not One More.” Strings with banners surround the monument, signaling the borders of the encampment around it, where within shifts of women sell bandanas, artisanal crafts, and defend the sculpture from attack.

In Mexico City’s back alleys, street vendors sell pornography and sex toys. Young men stand guard, rolling joints. Here the innuendo of human trafficking, prostitution, and the sex trade permeates the air. But it’s not just here. Models in tight bikinis cover the front pages of national newspapers. As the teachers marched towards Bellas Artes, we saw the graffitied slogan, “Misogynists,” outside the shuttered front of Excelsior, a national newspaper. A quarter sheet flier distributed at the Anti-Monument reads “Existimos por que Resistimos. Resguardo Antimonumenta de Femicidios.” We Exist Because We Resist: Guards of the Antimonument to Femicides.

The march continued to the Zocalo, past independent bookstores and other small shops, and snaked past the national cathedral built on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire burned to the ground in 1521. To this day, long lines of visitors wait for Aztec priests to bless them in ceremonial rites in the plaza between the national cathedral and the ruins of Tenochtitlan’s Aztec temples.

The crowd passed a marker by the entrance to the central city’s Zocalo plaza, a white dove above etched words acknowledging the massacre of student protestors here in October 1968. The monument was erected in 2018, the year Morena won power.

When we arrived, the columns of teachers quickly dispersed to begin stringing up tarps, assembling tents, and preparing their encampment. A bus with loudspeakers hoisted on each corner of its roof parked in front of the national palace. There was little police presence. Red, black, and red and black flags of the CNTE waived. A leftist group strung up portraits of historical figures between two lampposts.

The teachers’ union leaders began a press conference.

We have thousands of grievances. We are united with the people. We are fighting for fair salaries, and also for the boys and girls we teach. Our rights are not negotiable. Our rights we defend, sisters. We will return. Like the comrade from Durango said, we are here. We are here with everyone in a strong fight.

A man from Chiapas spoke. There were marches in southern Mexico today as well, including a mass march on Tuxla Gutierrez.

Today, we mobilized in this march to the government so they would receive our demands. We did it the 1st of May and again now. This is a government that says its for the people. They closed the doors, the doors of transformation on us. Our demands are political, economic, and for social justice and social change.

It’s important we exercise our labor rights to fight against educational reform. Communities need this information. We are moving a national fight, especially with regard to education for indigenous people. Section 22, we will stay here 24 hours. Tomorrow we are going to the legislature. In Oaxaca, we have children with needs. We are discriminated against. We will take to the streets, organized and united, to defend our rights.

“Obrador, entiende, la CNTE no se vende.”

Obrador, listen! The CNTE will not sell out!

The next day, healthcare workers also marched through the streets for a better health system and higher pay. Lopez Obrador announced that the teachers protest at the national palace was due to a lack of information, and that he supported them. Oaxacan CNTE Section 22 leader Yenny Perez announced to La Jornada that negotiations were successful, and that the government agreed to halt the previous President Peña Nieto’s education reforms that would move indigenous education from the Public Education Secretariat to the National Institute of Indigenous People. Negotiations will continue May 25th over teacher pay.

Despite many obstacles, freedom of assembly exists in Mexico City. People are in the streets. Strikes and mass protests over neoliberal education reform and government repression of the student movement discredited the government of Peña Nieto. In its wake, Lopez Obrador and Morena won power. Through popular mobilizations, people continue to demand change.

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