Mexico: Teachers resist neoliberal attacks

Mexican teachers on strike.
Monday, September 16, 2013

Striking Mexican teachers from a dissident union leading popular resistance to the government’s neoliberal reform agenda in recent weeks.

Despite enduring relentless media hostility, the teachers' strike is now starting to broadened out to merge with protests against plans to hand over key national assets, such as Mexico’s state-owned oil industry, to the profit-hungry multinationals.

Since coming to power late last year after yet another presidential election dogged by claims of electoral fraud, PRI President Enrique Pena Nieto’s agenda has included eliminating Mexico’s teacher unions.

Mexico's teacher unions represent some of the last bastions of opposition to the market-based profit-scramble of a society envisioned by the globalised, corporate-dominated new world order.

Since the passing of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement deal, the taming or smashing of “hold-out” or “recalcitrant” unions has been a key objective in the campaign to ensure Mexico's working class is at the mercy of transnational capital.

As well as radically militarising the “war on drugs”, which also involved a covert crackdown on dissent, Pena Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderon took on the Mexican electrical workers’ union, leaving it crippled.

Calderon received Washington’s enthusiastic backing, as has “pro-business” Pena Nieto.

On September 5, the Pena Nieto administration passed an education reform package through the senate. The vote was preceded by a government-organised propaganda campaign that characterised Mexico’s state school teachers as a lazy bunch of criminal thugs who parasitically live off ever-increasing sums of public money.

Some of the government’s claims about teacher ineffectiveness and union embezzlement may be based on fact, but the campaign was clearly based on absurd exaggerations about the general scale of the problems.

The education ministry claims that its reforms are aimed at introducing a “meritocratic” principle into the allocation of permanent teaching positions. For this it received the endorsement of venerable “liberal” media outlets such as The Guardian, which described the Mexican school system as “notoriously dysfunctional” while lambasting the unions’ “virtual lock on teacher hiring and promotion”.

Yet hidden behind this rhetoric lurks the educationally discredited standardised testing agenda, which the government has embraced as a key platform of the reforms.

Spreading out from the US, standardised testing is beginning to creep into school curricula everywhere, including Mexico.

Standardised tests lead to a deterioration of the overall educational experience as teachers are forced to “teach to the test” to boost student performance in basic, easily-assessable skills.

Under standardised testing, which is generally accompanied by contract-based employment rather than tenure, if a teacher wants to keep their job, they must prove that they are “effective” by boosting their students’ scores in essentially meaningless tests.

Behind the rhetoric of a “culture of accountability” is the aim of lowering job security and undercutting teachers’ ability to engage in collective industrial action.

In response to the educational initiatives flagged by the government, the smaller and more militantly leftist of Mexico’s two main educational unions, the National Education Workers’ Coordinating Committee (CNTE), has called for a nationwide action campaign in opposition to education reform and other neoliberal policies.

In the words of one CNTE organiser from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca: “The committee today makes a fraternal call to all the organisations, comrades we are all going to show Enrique Pena Nieto that the educational reform and structural reforms will not pass in any of the regions where this union has a presence….

“Let us go forward together to the national strike in this time of resistance and civil disobedience.”

The administration has made no secret of the fact that its changes to education form part of a much wider push to finish the job that NAFTA started, namely, the complete “liberalisation” of the Mexican economy and the privatisation of all Mexico’s natural resources.

The inevitable result of this process will be the transfer of state-owned assets to private corporations.

Of particular sensitivity to the Mexican electorate, as the government well understands, is the oil industry, a symbol of national pride to many Mexicans. The oil industry was nationalised to popular acclaim in 1938, after decades of exploitative practices by the foreign companies that Pena Nieto now wants to let back in.

Mexico has the third-largest oil reserves (13 billion barrels) in the Western hemisphere, which have long been eyed-off by US-based oil companies. Even after NAFTA came into effect, however, the oil remained in state hands, protected by the Mexican constitution.

Today, as the Pena Nieto administration signals that it is planning to allow significantly raised levels of private investment in Pemex, key players in the international market such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Halliburton are lining up for a piece of the action. This will include not only oil drilling but coal seam gas “fracking” in the Mexican agricultural heartland.

Whether in the realm of education or oil, the Pena Nieto reforms stem from the same neoliberal ideology that has overseen a dramatic shift in the distribution of national income in Mexico since the 1980s.

It is no accident that Mexico is now home to the world’s richest individual as well as many of the most desperately poor. Decades of neoliberal reform have resulted in this deliberate inequality.

By scapegoating the CNTE teacher union for the problems in Mexico’s underfunded education system, and depicting himself as a champion of transparency and efficiency, Pena Nieto plans to enlist public support for an expanded neoliberal agenda.

This may ultimately bring about the oil privatisation demanded by the fossil fuel industry. In return, he promises a sprinkling of welfare benefits.

On September 8, striking teachers and anti-oil privatisation activists converged in a major protest involving tens of thousands of citizens in Mexico City’s central square, the zocalo.

Amid the tent city where teacher activists have been camped out for weeks, the rally was addressed by left-of-centre populist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (widely believed to have been denied the presidency in 2006 due to electoral fraud): “I am sure we are going to stop these anti-patriotic reforms. Don’t let anyone think it’s not possible.”