How to break the cycle of massive teacher strikes in Mexico

Disruptive teacher strikes are a tradition in Mexico. Students suffer most from the practice, which can end if the federal government admits to its use of excessive force against the teachers union and if the union admits that its arm-twisting tactics do more harm than good.

Marco Ugarte/AP
A federal police vehicle sprays water on a group of protesters near the Zócalo, Mexico City's main plaza, Sept. 13. Minutes after a late-afternoon government deadline for teachers to leave the plaza, where they camped out for weeks, riot police moved in, firing tear gas and ducking hurled rocks in a confrontation ending weeks of protests against education reform.

In the Netflix series "House of Cards," Washington’s politicians scramble to deal with a chaotic national teachers strike that threatens the new president’s agenda, leaves children with nowhere to go, and pits citizens against each other. It’s hard to imagine a strike of that magnitude actually happening in the United States.

But in Mexico, this fictional narrative is not just a reality: It is a tradition. The only way to end this disruptive practice is for the national government and the union to stop pointing fingers, and for each side to make concessions.

This summer, teachers in Mexico’s southern states, including Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán, took over the streets of the Mexican capital multiple times, setting up a tent city, blocking roads, and creating chaos as they protested the new president’s education reforms. The protesting teachers – in the tens of thousands – form a dissident faction of the national teachers union, and have been using these kinds of tactics in their home states for decades.

On Sept. 13, a couple of days before Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto authorized the use of helicopters, tear gas, and military police to evict the dissident teachers from the main plaza, where they had set up camp. While many teachers left the plaza hours before the government forces moved in, the teachers from Oaxaca State stayed behind, ready for what has become, for them, a familiar confrontation with police authorities. 

In 2006, Oaxaca’s teachers gained international fame when they led hundreds of thousands of people in a popular insurrection against the state and federal government, following their forced eviction from the strike camp they have raised every May since the early 1980s. The rebellion ultimately failed, leading to the deaths of dozens of teachers and activists, and some teachers I have met in the course of my own research fear that more violence against teachers looms on the horizon.

Given the potential for violence, why do these teachers continue to protest?

For Oaxaca’s teachers, the president’s newly signed reforms, which shift considerable control over the country’s educational system from the union to the federal government, are dictatorial. They mean selling out and giving in to the government, the ultimate enemy. They see federal government professional and academic standards as undermining professional and regional autonomy. In their view, universal systems for certification and evaluation are ill-suited for a region with numerous indigenous, rural, and poor people. Teachers argue that the local union chapter should decide education policy, and that politicians in Mexico City have no authority to determine what’s best.

In spite of the recent eviction from the Mexico City's Zócalo square, Oaxaca’s teachers continued to wage their campaign, refusing to return to classes, while the government authorities refused to negotiate. Over the weekend, the Oaxaca union decided that 80 percent of teachers would return to the classroom Oct. 14, while 20 percent will carry on the strike in Mexico City against the federal reforms.

To end these annual standoffs, the government must admit that it has used excessive force in dealing with the teachers movements at both the state and national level. Although the teachers express views that rub government officials the wrong way, the Mexican government must acknowledge the union’s valid critiques regarding government corruption, lack of resources, poverty in the southern and southeastern states, and a one-size-fits-all approach to reform. The teachers, for instance, aren’t against mandatory teacher evaluations, but they do object to the top-down administering of them from the federal government, as the reforms stipulate.

The union, meanwhile, must acknowledge that some teachers just aren’t qualified to teach, and that its political tactics can do more harm than good. Even some of Oaxaca’s teachers admit that the “Movimiento Magisterial,” as the teachers movement is called, has far overstayed its welcome, lost its purpose, and exhausted the goodwill of Oaxaca’s citizens. While the movement did attain considerable gains in the early ‘80s, leading to job stability and pay raises for Oaxacan teachers, in the decades since it has become a tired script that relies on a point system to reward participation in marches, strikes, and rallies. 

For many teachers, meeting the union’s expectation of 80 percent participation is a matter of obligation, not conviction. Failure to participate can lead to demotions, loss of voting rights within the union, the denial of loans by the union’s lending branch, and public shaming by colleagues and supervisors.

Though it’s commendable that some union chapters can and do stand up to government authority – particularly in a country where the 1968 massacre of students and activists still looms large in the collective memory – they must recognize that the Mexican education system is broken. Students in southern states have some of the highest illiteracy rates, rarely graduate from high school, and can lose 10 to 20 percent of the school year to union activities.

The teacher corps must evolve and embrace professional standards. Traditional practices of buying, selling, or willing tenured teaching posts cannot continue, and teachers must concede that more rigorous certification and evaluation systems will benefit the profession as a whole. If the union in Oaxaca accepts these changes, it might earn back citizens’ support for teacher movements, as it had in the 1980s.

But the union can only make these changes if the Mexican government stops painting teachers as ruffians and accepts that, as a professional body, the teachers deserve to be treated with respect – not with military force.

Christian Bracho is a former public school teacher completing a doctorate in international education at New York University, where he is writing a dissertation about Mexican teacher activism in Oaxaca.

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