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The Agony of Mexican Labor Today

Monday 5 October 2015, by Dan La Botz

For the last year and a half, tens of thousands of Mexican teachers have been involved in demonstrations, weeks-long strikes, seizure of highway toll booths and government buildings, and violent confrontations with the police and the army. [1] These teachers, in the southern and western states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán, oppose the education reform passed by the Mexican Congress in 2013. President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) claims that the reform will improve education for the country’s youth, but teachers argue that it is intended to break the power of the union and weaken public education, and that it will be bad for students and the Mexican people at large.

The dissident teachers also joined parents and students in militant protests in Guerrero, in Mexico City, and throughout the country over the massacre and kidnapping that took place on September 26, 2014, when police and other assailants killed six, wounded twenty-five, and forcibly disappeared 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. Beginning in late September, protestors—striking out at symbols of government and politics—burned the Iguala, Guerrero, city hall, as well as the office of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in the state’s capital of Chilpancingo. Teachers also joined a large protest on November 8, where protestors set fire to the door of the National Palace in Mexico City. Protests reached a peak on the November 20 anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, when tens—some say hundreds—of thousands marched and rallied in the zócalo, the national plaza. By early December, students, labor unionists, and community groups had taken over the Sonora state legislature, while teachers blocked the Highway of the Sun that links Mexico City to the resort city of Acapulco, with the Christmas holiday season just about to begin.

The central issue has been testing and evaluation of teachers. Led by the National Coordinating Committee (known as “la CNTE”), a dissident left-wing caucus of the Mexican Teachers Union (“el SNTE”), the teachers have prevented teacher exams from taking place in their stronghold states, closing test sites, burning testing materials, and cutting the hair of teachers who attempted to take the test. When the national elections for congress, state governors, and mayors took place this past June, teachers called for a boycott, arguing that all the parties were corrupt. In Oaxaca, the union blockaded polling places and burned ballots in the street, coming into conflict with the police and army and sometimes with grassroots community groups that wanted to vote. The Oaxaca SNTE Local 22 is planning on striking on August 24, at the beginning of the school year, unless they can work out a rollback of the evaluations with the federal government.

Yet, despite the show of power, Mexican labor unions and workers are, overall, in the worst situation in decades. President Peña Nieto and the PRI, along with their allies in the equally conservative National Action Party (PAN), have succeeded in passing a series of so-called reforms—education, labor, energy, and communications—that will have devastating effects on an already weakened labor movement. And so far there seems to be no labor or broader social movement capable of resisting, stopping, and overturning these reforms. All of this is taking place in a country wh