Thousands of teachers (seven thousand, according to detractors, more according to organizers), members of a dissident caucus within the dominant Mexican teachers union, blocked access to the Mexico City airport for about 11 hours on Friday July 23. The action was part of a series of escalating protests against the passage, without discussion, of an education “reform” package in the congress in the first day of the term of new president Enrique Peña Nieto, inaugurated in December amid charges of electoral fraud.
News reports have focused more on passengers’ and airline employees’ lamentations about inconvenience than about the teachers’ demands. One newspaper carried the complaints of a flight attendant who hurt her feet because she had to walk a mile or two to the airport in high heels, as if her unfortunate choice of footwear were the teachers’ fault. Teachers were about to enter and shut down the airport when some of their leaders paused, negotiated with authorities, and decided to limit the action to a blockade of all roads that lead to the airport (a highway and several major thoroughfares). This, while disappointing some of the more avid participants, still had the effect of forcing the delay or cancellation of most flights.
The week of intense protests began when the congress was to begin a special session to pass legislation that would enable the reform measures, which include more standardized testing for students and teachers and a fast-track route to fire teachers in violation of collective bargaining agreements. Media, business, and government leaders here tend to blame teachers for the low academic achievement of students who attend school only a few hours every day in schools with peeling paint, crumbling walls, no running water, soap, toilet paper, or nutritious food and a teacher shortage (not for lack of applicants) that creates class sizes of 40 or 50 in the early grades. In rural areas it is common for teachers to appear only via closed circuit television.
Teachers surrounded the lower house of the congress and forced the legislators to try to meet in the senate chambers. When that didn’t work, legislators went to a business conference center in a distant suburb. The congress has yet to vote these proposals which, if not for the protests, the dissidents believe would have been voted immediately and without discussion.
Manuel Pérez Rocha, education critic and retired university administrator, wrote recently in La Jornada newspaper about the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), the dissident caucus:
“The CNTE is not perfect, but it is a reality that is separate from the vice-ridden Mexican political system: It is not a party, nor a sect, nor an economic interest group. It is a ‘movement’ with two basic objectives: the democratization of the SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, the mainstream teachers’ union) and education reform. The latter is not possible without the former.
Francisco Nicolás Bravo is general secretary of Section 9 of the SNTE. Located in Mexico City, Section 9 has always been a hotbed of the dissidents, so much so that the national leadership doesn’t recognize the local’s officials and stages mock elections to put more loyal leaders in office. Bravo, therefore, doesn’t benefit from the reduction of classload that logically is granted to teachers’ union leaders everywhere. His work in Section 9 and in the CNTE is in addition to his fulltime school assignment. He speaks of a campaign, complete with a movie that imitates “Waiting for Superman” (“De panzazo”), to convince the public that recalcitrant teachers are against being evaluated.
“The question,” he says, “is what kind of evaluation are we talking about? Because we’re in favor of an evaluation that is holistic, not partial–formative evaluations, not punitive evaluations.” He calls the goverment’s project “labor and administrative reform, not education reform” and notes that it eliminates all possibility for a fired teacher to appeal his or her dismissal: “Even a delinquent–we need only look at the case of Caro Quintero–has the right to legal defense.” (Caro Quintero is an accused drug trafficker convicted of the murder of a DEA agent who was unexpectedly freed from prison a few weeks ago.)
This week, teachers continue to occupy the Zócalo, the central square of Mexico City, engage in surprise protests, and decide whether to participate in the negotiations agreed to during the blockade of the airport. Many rank and file members are opposed because they believe the government will not dialogue in good faith.
JOHNNY HAZARD is somewhere where the banks won’t find him, but he can often be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org