Teachers, Education Reform, and Mexico’s Left

Jesús Villaseca Pérez via Flickr Commons

In early September Mexico’s Senate passed a series of sweeping reforms of the country’s education system, introducing standardized testing for the hiring and promotion of teachers and undermining the power of the teachers’ unions. Although the government bowed to certain union demands, teachers throughout southern Mexico remain on strike. Children in the states of Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Guerrero have yet to begin classes this academic year. The striking teachers claim that the reforms discriminate against teachers from poorer, more indigenous regions, and are designed to start the gradual privatization of the Mexican education system.

Left-wing commentators who have stepped up to defend the strikers accuse the mainstream media of a state-backed campaign against the teachers. With teachers still camped out in Mexico City, the strike has become the centerpiece of resistance to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s social and economic reforms. Drawing parallels between the school reforms and those of the petroleum industry and the fiscal system, they argue that the changes are steps on the way to a neoliberal apocalypse, the “elimination of social rights to education, housing, healthcare, and food.”

Without doubt, the teachers and their supporters have a point. The proposed reforms are ill thought out, disconcertingly vague, and have clearly been rushed through without proper consultation with either experts or broader society. The regulations fail to differentiate between professionalization and teaching evaluation. There is no national system for imposing a minimum level of teaching standards throughout the country. And as local governments remain in charge of interpreting and implementing the new rules, the control of teachers’ placements might simply pass to other, equally undemocratic powers. The reform of Article 67 of the General Education Law, which encourages parents’ organizations to help pay for local schools, clearly opens the door to the kind of cheap privatization schemes that have served to ruin the U.S. education system.

At the same time, government and media treatment of the teachers has been brusque, dismissive, and at times abusive. On September 15 police violently removed strikers from Mexico City’s main square before the president’s Independence Day celebrations. And public discussion of the strike has disintegrated into ugly right-wing name-calling. Like the student radicals of an earlier age, teachers are regularly described as “ungrateful”, “lacking in respect,” even “savages” and “barbarians.” Beyond these immediate reforms and their political fallout, the overall standard of public education in Mexico is appalling (Mexico ranks last of the OECD countries in terms of education) and this is primarily due to chronic and sustained government underfunding. Evaluating teachers will not reverse inequality or generate social mobility.

There is an important discussion to be had. And until recently, a broad dialogue involving all tiers of Mexican society could have taken place. Unfortunately, the teachers and their myopic left-wing supporters have managed to lose any popular support almost overnight. If President Peña Nieto’s government was not so incompetent in almost every other regard, one might imagine that it was directing the teachers’ union in order to discredit the left.


At the heart of the left’s total inability to generate popular enthusiasm for the strike is the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE). Dissident teachers, predominantly from the heavily indigenous southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, formed the confederation in 1979 to challenge the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the official teachers’ union closely aligned with the government’s single-party corporatism. For over a decade, the CNTE struggled against SNTE leadership, eventually ejecting the union’s head during a national strike in 1989. Behind contemporary hostility to the CNTE, many older parents retain sympathy and respect for the teachers of the 1980s. The CNTE was at the forefront of the democratization movement and often allied with other social groups to push for broader reforms.

But with the 1989 victory, things changed. The one-party state, well aware of the CNTE’s substantial strength, started to buy its loyalty with extraordinary concessions. For example, in 1992 the governor of Oaxaca signed a contract with the local branch of the CNTE that allowed the union to take control of the appointment and promotion of teachers, try cases involving teachers in their own separate courts, and decide on the allocation of government subsidies for housing, health, and scholarships.

Over the past twenty years, these ample powers have generated considerable corruption. The separate courts, staffed by union-selected lawyers, were originally designed to try crimes against teachers but are now used to try teachers who are themselves accused of crimes. Prosecution rates are low, leading to widespread accusations of impunity. Union control of appointments has led to pervasive nepotism. In Oaxaca, 36 percent of teachers have directly inherited their position from a close family member, as have nearly half the teachers who start their careers each year.

The Guerrero branch of the union institutionalized the practice of inheritance in its statutes in 2012. This practice has created a genuine labor aristocracy, in which stable jobs are passed from generation to generation, without even the pretense of equal opportunity or meritocratic selection. At the same time, it has also, ironically, created a market—albeit a black one—in teachers’ jobs. The scions of former teachers who do not wish to follow in their parents’ footsteps can sell their places to the highest bidder.

The union also controls the placement of teachers and their promotion. The difference between junior and senior teachers’ salaries is proportionally the greatest in the OECD, so ambitious teachers want to move up the remarkably precipitous pay scale fast. Most teachers would also prefer better-paid city jobs than tough gigs in more rural regions. Rather than rewarding passion or competence, the union uses placement and promotion as means of control. Teachers can only gain promotion or a more urban placement once they have fulfilled certain union duties, including voting for the right person, turning up to marches, signing petitions, and shouting the right things in heavily orchestrated “democratic” meetings.

The CNTE, whose threats and incentives can mobilize thousands, is now an extremely powerful political player. As strikes and rebellion have become the union’s currency, aspiring teachers now vie to promote themselves as leftist entrepreneurs. Such attitudes have grievously damaged education in southern Mexico. For three decades, the teachers of Oaxaca have spent the month of May camped out in Oaxaca City on strike for better pay and greater government donations. In 2006 striking teachers closed off the city center and refused to teach for seven months. This year students from Oaxaca have been without classes for another two. In fact, a child born in Oaxaca in 2000 has already lost well over a year (or a fifth of their education) to teachers’ strikes.

These strikes have not only affected individual children but Mexican society in general. As the poor and irregular provision of public schooling has pushed more and more to seek private education, the social mobility of the lower and lower-middle classes has declined precipitously. Children that can’t afford private education fall even further behind. Those that just manage to afford it use up their family’s vital extra capital. Long strikes have even caused mass migration. According to a study by Jeffrey Cohen, the 2006 teachers’ movement in Oaxaca forced thousands to make the dangerous trip north to earn money for private schools or get their children into the U.S. system. In short, the CNTE has done much of Peña Nieto’s job for him. Most Mexicans, many of whom struggle daily in the informal economy, now feel utterly alienated from the teachers’ movement. Fifty-five percent of Mexicans think education reform is a top priority and a depressing 59 percent of Mexico City residents favor the use of force to remove the strikers.

The reason is that, unlike many leftists, who are either transient revolutionary tourists or affluent residents of the capital city, normal Mexicans know teachers. They know that while their children lack regular education and will have to struggle for a professional job, teachers’ children will enter the teaching profession without a fuss. They know teachers’ permanent jobs get them credit (witness the new cars that regularly block the road by Oaxaca’s subsidized teachers’ hotel). They know that although beginner teachers start on low wages, if they are loyal unionists they can ascend the pay scale fairly rapidly. They might not know the exact figures, but they can sense that despite their protestations teachers are not comparatively poor. (According to the OECD, in 2012 teachers’ average earnings were 18,000 pesos per month. In comparison, two-thirds of Mexican earn less than the national average salary of 6,000 pesos per month. Insecure employment and economic inequality in Mexico are disgraceful, but they do not affect teachers directly). And, unlike the leftist literati, who send their children to expensive private schools, they know that public education in Mexico needs some kind of reform, albeit not necessarily privatization.


Despite the CNTE’s unpopularity and the disparity between teachers’ interests and those of the general populace, Mexican leftists have flocked to support the teachers’ movement. For many, the CNTE’s mobilization has become a symbol of resistance to Peña Nieto’s more general program of neoliberal reforms. For crime novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, the lack of classes is the fault of the president “and not Section 22” [the Oaxaca branch of the CNTE]. For UNAM professor and La Jornada journalist John Ackerman, “Mexican society at large has started to take to the streets” (ignoring the fact that most have to stay at home looking after their children). And for the leading left-wing magazine, Proceso, the teachers are victims of the neoliberal class war instigated by both the state and the mass media.

Well-meaning U.S commentators have joined in. Dan La Botz celebrates the CNTE as a group of “indigenous, bilingual teachers, mostly women” set to question issues beyond “their jobs and salaries.” Hilda Vázquez Medina and Adam Goodman, writing in the Boston Review, protest that the reforms “curtail the labor rights” of poor teachers who barely scrape 8,000 pesos (around $610 dollars) a month. This credulous coverage of the teachers is not simply an amusing sideshow, but has two crucial effects. On the one hand, it has helped make any debate over educational evaluation impossible. Had the CNTE introduced even some internal change (such as eliminating the inheritance of positions), many might have trusted the union to suggest alternatives to the reforms. But blind left-wing adherence has buttressed the power and self-confidence of the CNTE, allowing undemocratic practices to continue while all critics are dismissed as “servants of the tabloid press.” Between the right-wing television stations and the left-wing commentators, there is no common ground. Mexico, in the words of a recent Siglo de Torreón editorial, has entered “another cold war.”

Sadly, the left’s intransigence is also one reason why Peña Nieto’s more radical neoliberal reforms will succeed. During the September debates, Peña Nieto used the union’s unpopularity to push through a much more damaging revision to Article 67, designed to open the door to school privatization, without widespread outrage. Thanks in part to the perceived alliance of teachers and the left, the partial privatization of the state oil company—once deemed unthinkable—is now a viable proposal. In a recent poll, 53 percent of Mexicans favored the president’s proposed energy reform. And despite presiding over an ailing economy and the controversial release of major drug traffickers, Peña Nieto enjoys approval ratings of 51 to 54 percent.


The Mexican left’s blindness to the limits of the CNTE is depressingly familiar. At other key points in Mexican history, left-wing activists failed to build popular support for their causes even when government policies were widely unpopular. Strikes by railway workers in 1959 and by doctors in 1965 gained little support from peasants or workers. During the 1970s and 1980s, student-led guerrilla bands gained little popular purchase. And in 1968 and 1971, residents of working class barrios even volunteered to beat up student protesters. Most commentators blame this dismal record on media manipulation, government co-option, and violence. There is a great deal of truth to this. Government-controlled newspapers demonized railway workers and students as communists and foreigners. Left-leaning workers risked losing their jobs and being beaten by disguised soldiers or paid government thugs.

But after so many failures, the Mexican left must share the blame. As outsiders like Jorge Ibargüengoitia, Elena Garro, and Roberto Bolaño have observed, breathing the refined air ofMexico City neighborhoods such as San Ángel and Coyoacán,Mexico’s left-wing intellectuals have been poor at gauging the temperature of public opinion and interacting with those beyond their social class. Especially since the 1970s, when the Mexican government flooded the arts, the universities, and the department of foreign relations with money, left-wing intellectuals, like their right-wing counterparts, have become part of the elite. Like most Latin American elites, they don’t take public transport, hang out at popular diners, or send their children to public schools. While the late novelist Carlos Fuentes’s works on elite corruption and middle-class morality are cutting and precise, his depictions of working-class and indigenous customs read like crude parody.

The distance between intellectuals and the people they claim to represent prevents sustained and constructive dialogue, the creation of cross-class alliances, and the emergence of “organic intellectuals” (Antonio Gramsci’s term for intellectuals who speak convincingly on behalf of a social class). It also leads to crass and destructive strategic decisions. Supporting relatively well-paid railway workers, despite their remiss working practices and the constant threat of train crashes, was political suicide. Backing doctors and guerrillas was equally unpopular. And, although this is almost unsayable to a left that claims descent from the movement of 1968, supporting middle-class students was just as unpopular, at least until the state expanded access to higher education in the 1970s.

Perhaps the Mexican left, split between rebellion and co-option, will continue to fall into this same trap like some kind of socialist Sisyphus. But there might be ways out. The Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos writes movingly of how his reliance on Mayan villages forced him to abandon doctrinaire leftism, a conversion that allowed the Zapatistas to make sensible, agreed-upon, and strategically informed decisions. Perhaps ten years in the jungle is too much to ask. But as Claudio Lomnitz argues, in order to succeed, teachers must meet parents half way.

They need to reform nepotistic and corrupt practices, listen to and act upon parents’ concerns and desires, and explain the wider implications of the reforms in genuinely popular and democratic community-level meetings. Rather than listening to fellow travelers spout reassuring, if tired, clichés, teachers might start to understand that many of their platforms (including the continuation of nepotistic hiring practices and the refusal to teach English) are wildly unpopular. Only then, by engaging with and reacting to people they claim to speak for, will teachers and their intellectual supporters build an effective alliance against Peña Nieto’s reforms.


Benjamin T. Smith, an associate professor of Mexican history at the University of Warwick, has written widely on politics, culture, and indigenous society in southern Mexico. He has been visiting Mexico for over fifteen years and knows some teachers. His last book, The Roots of Conservatism in Mexico, looked at the relationship between religion and politics in Mexico since Independence. His latest book, co-edited with Paul Gillingham, Dictablanda: Politics, Work, and Culture in Mexico, 1938-1968, will be published by Duke University Press next year. He is currently working on a history of the Mexican press.

Correction 11/14/13: An earlier version of this article referred to a reform to Article 67 of the Constitution. The reform was actually to Article 67 of the General Education Law.

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