Over the past few months, plazas, airports and roads in Mexico City and several other cities across the country have been paralysed by teachers and their supporters.
They have been protesting against neoliberal reforms to the public education system proposed by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and recently approved by Congress.
These so-called structural reforms to education coincide with other neoliberal attacks pushing the privatisation of education, oil and electricity industries.
However, such reforms face mass opposition led by hundreds of thousands of public-sector teachers. Many teachers have maintained an occupation in the heart of Mexico City for more than 80 days.
Contrary to media myths that teachers are lazy and self interested, the length of their struggle (including months without pay) shows their deep commitment to their principles.
Some sections of the National Coordinating Council of Education Workers (CNTE) have spent close to 100 days on strike and engaging in community pickets.
Thousands of teachers from all over the country are approaching their 80th day at the occupation camp. At the same time, the leaders of these dissident teachers are seeking dialogue with the federal government to repeal the laws.
This comes as a result of a long struggle over the past 20 years to fight the economic and political agenda imposed by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The CNTE is a dissident faction within the larger corrupt National Union of Education Workers (SNTE).
With 1.5 million members, the SNTE is the largest union in Latin America. Formed in 1979, the CNTE has publicly advocated for democracy within the union and independence from the state and political parties.
It has been alleged for decades that SNTE leaders have been responsible for severe cases of corruption, including nepotism and selling of teaching positions, as well as assassination of dissident members.
Its former leader Elba Esther Gordillo is now in jail facing charges of embezzlement. Gordillo has been accused by the Public Prosecutor for Social and Political Movements of the Past of being behind the 1981 assassination of Misael Nunes Acosta, a teacher activist who campaigned for union democracy.
Many sources allege that over the past 30 years, more than 200 dissident teachers have been killed. The SNTE has deep links with state, especially the main establishment Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The SNTE has historically been loyal to PRI-led governments, which have given free reign to the SNTE's criminality in exchange for favours during election periods.
In this context, the CNTE plays an important role in demanding union democracy. But most importantly CNTE, usually referred to as La Coordinadora (“the coordinator”), plays a vital role in the class struggle for democratic rights in broader society.
As La Coordinadora says on its blog, the CNTE is “a mass organisation built by democratic education workers, independent from the bourgeoisie and the state that represents it, independent from yellow unions or any political organisms, this is, it does not belong to anyone other than the education workers themselves”.
It also says the CNTE is a class organisation that works under the universal principle of class struggle: “the fundamental value is the members’ disposition to fight for their class interest, for the solution of their economic, social, industrial, political and professional demands.”
As part of the commitment to large corporations and to NAFTA, Pena Nieto's electoral promises included a reform to the education system. These reforms mainly consist of changes to the employment contracts for teachers, including introducing teacher performance evaluations something that may ring a bell for Australian teachers.
Under these evaluations, teachers job security and promotions will be linked to standardised tests.
In a country with huge economic disparities and with 50 million people living under the poverty line, how would it be possible to assess schools in rural areas without electricity, blackboards or even chairs, with well-funded schools for the rich?
How would students demonstrate their proficiency in English as a second language in indigenous education schools where Spanish is the second language?
Such tests will be used as a punitive measure to strip away teachers’ rights. They do not represent the great diversity of educational settings and needs.
In the words of a teacher interviewed by Magenesen Rebeldia during the teachers’ blockade of the international airport in August: “These reforms and the changes to the curriculum in the last 20 years are designed to create workers for maquiladores ['free trade' manufacturing zones], with some English and some IT knowledge, but no reasoning skills.
“That is what the foreign capital wants.”
As it is, the reform simply targets teachers and does not commit to any transformation that could improve the quality of education. Resources for school improvements will now be responsibility of “the public”: that means the parents, and profit-seeking individuals who would provide this service, making public schools become private.
The fundamental right to education, guarded by Article Three of the constitution, has now disappeared.
On the other hand, since the start of the year, the CNTE has been campaigning for education reforms by meeting with parents, students, teachers and communities to assess what needs to change in the education system.
Its proposal involves the improvement of living conditions of students (including the wages of parents and the provision of basic needs for communities), and real improvement to school infrastructure that is equitable over all regions.
The proposal involves evaluating school communities, including students and teachers, but also government responses to school needs and the provision of services and resources (rather than standardised tests).
So far, there is no agreement between the federal government and the CNTE. It is important, however, to emphasise that this dissident faction became the recognised negotiator in the discussion, as the official union failed to combat government decisions.
Despite not reaching agreement on the federal level, at state level there are some gains. In the state of Chiapas, the state government has accepted teachers' demands. The governor has committed to all the industrial, economic, professional and social demands of teachers.
The agreement also includes the creation of round tables to discuss the public education system, calling off of all warrants placed against teachers and activists, among other points. With this agreement, an 85-day teacher strike ended in Chiapas. In other states and at the federal level, the struggle continues.