From The Dispatcher, newspaper of the International Longshore and
Warehouse Union, June 2003 © 2003 by the ILWU
MEXICAN TEACHERS CAMP OUT FOR JUSTICE
OAXACA, MEXICO-On a balmy late May evening here, tourists sip and sup at
the sidewalk tables surrounding the zócalo, or main plaza. Vendors hawk
their wares from small tables, or roam the square with bouquets of
inflatable superheroes and rainbow plastic hearts.
Bits of yearning guitar melodies and determined speeches drift
over the bustle. A small crowd gathered around a microphone at one end of
the square cheers as the speaker rails against privatization.
The banner behind the speaker reads, "En defensa de la
educación." Oaxaca's teachers are in the house-or rather, in the streets.
The tents, tarps and sleeping bags ringing the square and
spilling into several nearby blocks belong to members of Section 22 of the
Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE). Their
encampment, or plantón, was just one of dozens of actions being staged
around Mexico by tens of thousands of rank-and-file CNTE activists.
Teachers left their classrooms to march in the streets of Jalisco state and
take over government buildings in the state of Guerrero. They have camped
in the plazas of 113 cities and towns in Michoacán, and occupied the
education building in the state capital of Morelia. Activists from several
states have converged on Mexico City to set up a plantón there.
They want the government of Mexican President Vicente Fox to
give up policies they say will privatize schools and rob the children of
the country's poor and working families of their right to education. They
want to block privatization of the country's energy resources and other
social services as well. They want to democratize their union and preserve
social security. They voice demands as basic as school lunches and visions
as broad as the need to bring down neoliberalism.
"CNTE and the teachers understand we have an important role to
play in the defense of our national sovereignty," says CNTE Section 22
General Secretary Alejandro Leal Díaz. "Our fight is the fight for all
workers' rights and benefits-education, housing, work, liberty." Across the
front of Section 22's headquarters hangs a vivid 10-foot-long red, yellow
and blue banner reading, "No to the imperialist-Yankee war against the
people of Iraq. Section 22 wants peace."
Reformers within the national teachers' union, Sindicato
Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), founded CNTE in 1979. SNTE
folds in everyone from pre-school teachers to college professors, which
makes the 1.4-million member union the largest in Latin America, according
to Section 22 Policy Committee member Antulio Rangel Moreno. Founded in
1943 by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for
more than 70 years, SNTE was "born charro," Leal Díaz says-charro being a
put-down best translated as "sell-out" or "kiss-ass."
Now the more radical CNTE has members all over Mexico, with
active chapters in Michoacan, Guerrero, Tlaxcala, Zacatecas, Durango,
Mexico City and Chiapas. Section 22 is the strongest of all, and actually
has taken over the union structure in Oaxaca.
CNTE's structure reflects its commitment to democracy. An
assembly of elected delegates is its highest authority, Rangel Moreno says.
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 May 3-and was on the ground with it May 19.
Each of the seven regions of Oaxaca state took responsibility
for filling the encampment for three days at a time. Each region brought
around 3,000-4,000 teachers. By the end, Rangel Moreno estimates, more than
a third of Oaxaca's 60,000-plus teachers will have participated.
The plantonistas are no bunch of scruffy kids, either. Many
seem middle aged. Many look fresh, pressed and well-dressed despite
sleeping on cardboard cartons on the sidewalk. Some have brought children
To pass time in the plantón, the teachers chat, nap, sew and
read, sometimes fanning themselves with their newspapers and magazines in
the muggy afternoons. One man twists long balloons into animals, to the
vast amusement of several kids.
Jeremias Chiañas lives and works in one of Mexico's poorest
areas, near Juchitan on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. He shifts uncomfortably
on his piece of corrugated cardboard when asked for an interview, but then
starts ticking off the reasons why he's there.
"We tried to have a dialogue with the government, but they
didn't want to negotiate or dialogue," Chiañas says. "We're starting out
with calmer actions. If there are no negotiations, we'll move to stronger
"There's so much misery. We need school lunches and financial
aid for the poorer students. They live with hunger. They sleep with hunger.
Children can't learn if they're hungry. If you go to the mountains you see
children 10, 12 years old with no clothes, no shoes to wear to school," he
Another group of teachers from the city of Tehuantepec go off
on the state of the schools themselves.
"The buildings are falling down," they say. "There are not
even any pencils, any notebooks or textbooks. The students can't go to the
library because it's closed-if they were lucky enough to have a library."
Under the "quality schools" programs, one of the privatization
schemes proposed by the Fox government, investments from parents and
businesses would bolster public schools. Chiañas scoffs 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.
CNTE also blasts the growing trend towards hiring teachers by
the class, with no benefits, no seniority and lower salaries. So far Oaxaca
only has about 300 of these temps, Rangel Moreno says. But other states
have more, and CNTE worries the practice will keep spreading, because it
aids government efforts to weaken the union.
"The government is trying to split the union by playing divide
and conquer, giving more resources to one state than to another," Rangel
Moreno says. It is also giving the states more power over education
policy. This decentralization dilutes the union's strength as well.
The official union has done little to resist these trends,
Leal Díaz says. "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 were still there at press time.
The Oaxaca teachers took other actions while in the plantón,
marching through the city and blocking highways in and out. Their June 2
blockade sent out-bound buses winding through barrios and bouncing through
empty lots on a roundabout route to the highway. At the toll booths,
teachers waved motorists through, free of charge.
After marching 20,000-strong through the city of Oaxaca June
3, Section 22 disbanded the plantón, though hadn't received the response it
wanted from either the official union or the government. Elections for
Mexico's Chamber of Deputies are set for July 6, and the results may set
the climate for the next round of actions.
"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
When I was in Oaxaca, I met Jill Friedberg, the documentary film maker who
directed and produced "This Is What Democracy Looks Like," an inspiring
piece about the 1999 demonstrations at the WTO meeting in Seattle. Now
she's working on a film about the Mexican teachers. She had been filming in
Mexico since March and documented the mobilizations all over the country in
May and June. Now she's trying to raise $5000 to go back in September to
film the teachers' protest at the WTO meeting in Cancun. She's already
gotten donations from dozens of individuals, three foundations and the
British Columbia Teachers Federation. Contributions in any amount will
help. You can write checks to Corrugated Films and mail them to 3515
Meridian Ave N, Seattle, WA, 98103. The project has a 501c3 fiscal sponsor
for those who need to write off donations.
Having met Jill and gotten a little sense of the teachers' movement, I
really want to see the film! Here's some more information about the project
that Jill sent me:
We are producing a documentary film about the Mexican teachers' movement
and their struggle to defend and democratize public education. The primary
goals of this project are to: build solidarity between education workers in
the U.S., Canada, and Mexico; raise awareness about how neoliberalism
impacts public education; and foster dialogue about strategies for
defending public education and furthering models of multi-cultural,
When the project is completed, we will be touring with the film throughout
the U.S. and Canada showing the film to teachers, unions, parents, and
other communities fighting for social and economic justice.
For more information on the project, I can be contacted at: Jill Freidberg,
Corrugated Films, firstname.lastname@example.org, 206-851-6785.
We are also interested in hearing from organizations and unions who would
be willing to organize screenings when we are touring with the film.