Editors’ Note: In 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, teachers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States came together to form the Trinational Educational Coalition. The purpose was to provide a space for dialogue and mutual support. The coalition’s last conference was in the southern Mexican state Oaxaca in March 2006, just before the major teacher strike and social revolt. The next conference is in Los Angeles, Calif., on April 18-20, co-sponsored by among others the California Federation of Teachers and United Teachers of Los Angeles. Nearly two months before the Los Angeles meeting, Rethinking Schools editor Bob Peterson interviewed Larry Kuehn, one of the founding members of the Trinational Coalition and Research Director of the British Columbia Teachers Federation. For more information go to www.trinationalcoalition.org.
Bob Peterson: The Trinational Education Coalition started the same year as NAFTA. How has NAFTA affected teachers in these countries?
Larry Kuehn: For Mexico I’d say two things: corn and testing. The corn is important because NAFTA opened Mexican borders to corn exports from the United States. Initially it was a partial opening, but now it’s a full opening. The impact has been devastating.
During our conference in Oaxaca we divided into groups and went into indigenous communities and schools to get a better idea of what the reality of life was for people. One teacher in my group from Los Angeles said that several students in her classroom were from Oaxaca and that people from these indigenous communities were being forced off the land because NAFTA meant that cheaper corn was coming in from the United States and flooding the market. People couldn’t afford to stay on the land and survive. Many decided to head north.
Paradoxically, another of NAFTA’s results has been to send corn south but to push people north. More and more people from Mexico are trying to get into the United States. So NAFTA has had a huge social effect for both Mexico and the United States.
Peterson: You mentioned testing as well. What does that have to do NAFTA?
Kuehn: The testing effect is indirect, but it’s felt. Since NAFTA, a new organization in Mexico developed that is the equivalent to the Educational Testing Service in the United States — not a government agency, but a quasi-governmental nonprofit. The idea was to develop tests that would sort students coming out of secondary school into the university or technical training. We’ve been working with teachers in Mexico who have been fighting this and they’ve managed to make it a significant issue in the media. Although the tests themselves continue, some proposals for testing for certification in professional areas were defeated. This happened largely because our colleagues in Mexico saw the negative impact of testing in the United States and were able to raise the alarm. While NAFTA does not mandate testing, a key aspect of NAFTA and all trade agreements is liberalization and doing away with national and local rule — making everything global. So there is encouragement to modernize by which people mean follow the patterns of the U.S., even if they are not appropriate in the U.S.
Peterson: What about Canada?
Kuehn: In Canada there is a somewhat similar domination by the U.S. in education research and policy. Canadian policy makers get ideas at joint conferences with their United States counterparts, and before you know it, Canada is pursuing policies like those of the United States.
For both Mexico and Canada this U.S. dominant relationship is an important factor in the setting of educational policy at all levels.
Peterson: Could you be specific?
Kuehn: There are features in the trade agreements pushing privatization and commercialization. This is also true in the U.S. Provisions in the trade agreements encourage governments to move more and more into deregulation and privatization. NAFTA was the first multinational trade agreement that included services. In fact, there is a part of NAFTA’s services section that is specifically about education. The language has also been included in World Trade Organization provisions. There are significant sections on education in which countries that sign the trade agreements commit themselves to open public services to private forms of investment, including education.
Peterson: In Jill Freidberg’s movie Granito de Arena (Grain of Sand) some of the striking Mexican teachers spoke of wanting their union to adopt a more progressive, social justice approach to teaching. What role, if any, does this notion of teacher unions encouraging members to teach for social justice play in your trinational educational coalition?
Kuehn: In Oaxaca, the teachers’ strike became a social movement because they put forward not just demands for better wages for teachers, but also meals for kids, textbooks, the basic kind of conditions that weren’t there for many children. Mexico is complex. The main teacher union is tied to the government and is rather status quo-oriented, but significant teacher unions are part of what is called the “democratic current” and these unions focus on social justice a great deal, especially as it relates to building ties with the community.
At our conferences, we’ve talked about it, particularly at sessions on democratic alternatives in education. In fact, Michoacan teachers produced a plan for a pedagogy that was based in students’ lives and that engaged students more actively in their education, not just relying on traditional lectures. The union, with leadership from Michoacan’s “democratic current,” set up its own school to develop and promote alternative teaching methods, based on their social justice commitment.
Peterson: You mentioned that your last conference was just before the uprising of Oaxacan teachers. Can you give examples of solidarity around the Oaxaca struggle?
Kuehn: One thing that came through our trinational work was that the president of the British Columbia Teachers Federation went to Oaxaca in the middle of the struggle to show support. We also had a conference in Vancouver a year ago to which we brought some Oaxacan teachers, and together we planned how teachers outside Mexico could express solidarity. We will continue those conversations at our upcoming conference in Los Angeles — both on the current state of the struggle in Oaxaca and the nature of the solidarity movement.
Peterson: We’ve written in Rethinking Schools about how teacher unions need to become “social justice unions” incorporating three components: the struggle for rights and working conditions of teachers; the struggle for teacher unions to be “professional” organizations taking more responsibility for teacher quality and professional development; and addressing social justice issues that include alliances in the community and broader society to promote social justice generally, as well as the promotion of social justice teaching in our classrooms. Could you comment on how the trinational coalition views these aspects of what we call social justice unionism?
Kuehn: Most people involved would agree to all three of those being important aspects of teacher unionism. The concepts stretch some people, but the international solidarity that is woven into our coalition helps teach people about what’s going on in other places, and they realize that their struggles are very similar to those facing colleagues elsewhere. It deepens one’s own understanding of problems in one’s own country.
A small example of this came during a two-week campaign of civil disobedience by British Columbia teachers that shut the schools in October 2005. We received messages of support from our colleagues in Mexico as well as other countries. It was a morale booster for our people at rallies to hear those letters of solidarity. Teachers began to realize that the struggle here is connected to the struggle there.
Peterson: In the long run, what would you like to see as a result of the trinational cooperation?
Kuehn: I would really like to see a new movement that gives the kind of hope for change that there was when I came into teaching in the late 1960s. We need to engender a sense of social movement tied to the struggles of the past, and work to forge solutions to some of today’s new problems. Maybe the current U.S. presidential campaign is giving some new hope in this regard. Who would have thought that in 2008, the choice of candidates for one party would be between a woman and an African American man. That’s encouraging. However, what is going to be more important occurs post-election: Will electoral involvement of young people transform into a significant movement for change and social justice?