Mexican Teachers Struggle for Democracy and Survival

By Bob Peterson

When a teacher is absent in a public school in Mexico, a substitute is never sent to fill in. There are no substitutes. If a desk breaks, teachers must pay for the repairs. If chalk is needed for the blackboard, teachers must buy it.

Lack of resources is not the only problem confronting Mexico’s teachers. During the 1980s, more than 100 teacher activists either were murdered or “disappeared.” Many more were fired or transferred because of their activism. In addition, the bureaucracy controlling the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) has worked with the government for decades to stifle union democracy and to thwart reforms.

Since 1982 teachers’ salaries have declined, in real wages by over 50%.

Given such realities, one might think that Mexican teachers would feel defeated.

While some do, insurgent democratic forces in the SNTE have organized against both the government and the union bureaucracy.

Their successes are impressive. A three-week wildcat strike by 500,000 teachers in the spring of 1989 helped consolidate important gains for the democratic forces. An important section of the union in Mexico City, for example, is now run by democratically elected teachers. In addition, the democratic forces are going beyond traditional union issues to confront the very content of education in Mexico, such as the authoritarian methods used by many of the teachers.

The democratic forces in the union are organized into the National Coordinating Group of Education Workers (CNTE). They face three daunting tasks.

  • They must confront basic bread-and-butter issues of securing a living wage for teachers, improving dismal working conditions, and increasing the low level of funding for public education.
  • They must solidify their democratic reforms and expand them through the entire national union.
  • They must consolidate their new approach to education in the classroom, one that is sensitive to all students and communities, particularly indigenous students.

“The government says it wants to ‘modernize’ education in Mexico,” said Jesús Martín del Campos, a CNTE spokesman and leader of the secondary school union section in Mexico City. “If that were really its intention, it would raise teacher salaries, reduce class sizes, and allow democracy in the classroom, in the community, and in our union.”

The significance of the struggle goes beyond the Mexican border. The SNTE is the largest union in Mexico and in fact larger than any union in Latin America. Further, the democratic forces in the union are grappling with questions facing teachers in both South and North America: How can we build democratic organizations that prevent the union bureaucracy from stifling the initiative of the classroom teachers?

How can we build what in North America has been called a multicultural education, one that offers respect and equality for people of all backgrounds, particularly minorities? How can we build alliances with parents and communities?

Who Keeps the Schools Poor?

The Mexican Constitution guarantees the right to a free public education and, unlike the U.S., schools are run primarily by the federal government. Federal financial support is minimal and it is decreasing.

The government’s weak support of public education has been eroded by the economic crisis facing Mexico. While a few government officials and private businessmen have become extremely wealthy, the overall standard of living for the majority of people has plummeted in recent years. And the International Monetary Fund has refinanced the country’s huge national debt ($80 billion) to foreign banks, mostly US banks, only on condition that the government cut spending on social programs.

The government’s decline in educational spending runs counter to the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommendation that governments allocate at least 8% of their Gross National Product to education.

According to the latest official figures the Mexican government spent 3.3% of its GNP on education down from 3.8% in 1982. But most sources put the figure closer to 2%.

“We need more money for education, not less,” said Francisco Chañez, a physical education teacher in Mexico City. “We are a population that is growing very rapidly.”

Yet the Catholic Church bureaucracy and the wealthy business community have lobbied against increased government spending for education. The Catholic Church runs its own schools, and the business community often sends its children to private schools.

The lack of support for education by the government, the church, and business has combined with widespread poverty to discourage school attendance. Nearly half of Mexican students who start primary school never finish. Those that do show up are often hungry.

During a recent tour with U.S. educators to schools in Mexico City and the southern state of Oaxaca, I randomly asked classes how many kids had breakfast that morning. Often, only half the hands would go up. Among those that did eat, the most common breakfast was “cafe y pan” — coffee and bread.

The schools I visited were in a state of disrepair, with broken desks piled in corners. The classrooms were barren, without basic supplies. Textbooks were scarce and those that existed were printed on newsprint. The elementary schools didn’t have libraries. “They don’t even buy us chalk,” one fourth grade teacher told me. “We must provide everything.”

Although the government builds all the schools in Mexico, the teachers must pay for maintenance and repairs. As a result, most schools ask families for a financial donation at the beginning of the year. In addition, classes are extremely over-crowded. Chañez, the physical education teacher in Mexico City, said he must teach eight groups of 60 students every day. “It is exhausting,” he said. “It is difficult to cover the curriculum with such huge groups and no materials.”

Nor are teachers financially compensated for such working conditions. The average teaching salary of $200 per month is down 50%, in real wages, from 1982. Yet a two-bedroom apartment in Mexico City rents for about $140 a month, and the “official” inflation rate averages about 30% a year. The cost of basic necessities is going up much faster than that. For example, a major employers’ confederation reported that the time the average worker had to work to earn enough to buy a pound of beans increased by 162 percent from December, 1987 to April, 1990. Virtually all teachers I spoke with had another job to make ends meet.

“The biggest problem we face is low salaries for the teachers,” said Jose Luis Vasquez, an electrical teacher in Oaxaca. “It has hurt the morale of the teachers. They all have to find other work. They don’t have time and become disinterested in teaching.”

100 Teacher Activists Murdered

The SNTE has historically been a mainstay of support for the Mexican government, which has been ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the past 60 years. The government, in turn, has supported the union bureaucracy.

There are 1.2 million members in the SNTE. For three decades it has been ruled exclusively by a bureaucracy that did not even allow members to elect the national and state union leadership, except in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas and recently in parts of Mexico City, where insurgent democratic forces have met with success.

Union dissidents say they can document the murder or “disappearance” of more than 100 teacher activists during the 1980s. Most of those killed were teachers of Indian heritage who had built alliances with their indigenous communities in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. Such alliances often not only demand better schools but challenge the underlying power structure which has kept the indigenous people down for centuries.

In addition, many more teachers “have been fired or transferred as punishment for speaking out and organizing,” according to Noe Garcia, a leader of the democratic teacher forces in Mexico City.

The effort to reform the teachers’ union goes back over 30 years. Some people trace some of the roots of the current movement to the student unrest of 1968 which culminated in a massacre of 300 people by the police and Mexican army on the eve of the 1968 Summer Olympics. Others point to the Army’s smashing of a 1979 strike at a teacher training college in Mexico City. The college was “the center of the democratic movement,” according to one professor who worked at the college at the time. “Teachers went from there to many parts of the country and carried with them their democratic ideas.”

The biggest step forward for the democratic forces came in 1979, when they came together to form the CNTE. Throughout the 1980s, the CNTE became the organizational vehicle through which democratic-minded people could work for change. They organized around three basic demands: an increase in salaries to keep up with spiraling inflation; democracy in the union; and opposition to cuts in public spending on education.

Slowly, the democratic forces gained strength. They published newsletters, held conferences and worked with parents and community groups. In the late 1980s, democratic forces won control of the union sections in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca through the use of strikes, sit-ins, and massive rallies. These victories spurred on teachers throughout the country, particularly in Mexico City, the largest city in the world.

The Wildcat Strike in the Spring of 1989

In April and May of 1989, the CNTE coordinated a three-week nationwide wildcat strike. Some 500,000 teachers — nearly half of the Mexican teaching force — walked out, demanding union democracy and a living wage.

A week into the strike, the President of Mexico, Carlos Salinas was forced to ask for the resignation of the head of the SNTE, Carlos Jonguitud Barrios, and his top aide. The wildcat strikers weren’t satisfied, however, and they continued their action. They organized simultaneous “plantones,” or sit-ins, in front of the offices of the SNTE and the federal education agency, the Secretary of Public Education.

The government severely condemned the strike and put out anti-teacher propaganda. But the strikers received support from many parent and community organizations. Three weeks after the strike began the government gave in. It raised salaries by 25% and accepted democratic control or power sharing in several SNTE locals.

The national union leadership, unfortunately, remains in the hands of the bureaucrats. The new SNTE head was chosen at a private meeting between government officials and the official union executive committee. The new leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, is closely allied with the Mexican President Salinas and the ruling PRI. She opposes the democratic election of the SNTE’s national or state leaders, and refuses to organize against government cutbacks in education.

The 1989 strike, however, led to the CNTE’s control of important sections or districts of the national union — including Section 9 which includes 65,000 pre-school and primary teachers in Mexico City. One of the first things the new leadership did was “advertise that if parents were having problems in school — no teachers, no books, etc. — they should call the union,” according to Noe Garcia, a Mexico City teacher. “The response was enormous.”

Besides controlling the elementary school section in Mexico City and the entire state sections of Chiapas and Oaxaca in the south, democratic forces also control half of the executive board of Section 10, the 66,000 secondary school teachers in Mexico City, and have influence in five or six other state sections throughout Mexico.

Democracy in the Classroom?

One of the tasks facing the democratic forces goes to the heart of teaching: the classroom. “We want to not only have democracy in our union, but in our schools and classrooms as well,” said María de Lourdes Gómez, a former primary school teacher who is now an official of Section 9 in Mexico City. “We are promoting educación alternativa (alternative education), which challenges many of the teachers who were schooled in traditional methods.”

While alternative education means different things to different people, documents from the Oaxaca union section have characterized it as “new education in the service of the people.” The old methods and curriculum have not met the needs of the indigenous population, according to the documents. Alternative education, meanwhile, encourages students to try to solve problems within the community. It also encourages parents and community members to be more active in the schools.

Teachers must also change their ways. “Our education practice is not in accord with our political practice,” according to one democratic union official in Oaxaca. “Many teachers have not transferred their social-democratic beliefs into the classroom. They are still repressive and dogmatic, using the official curriculum. This impedes the success of teachers.”

The democratic forces in Oaxaca have done the most work in developing alternative education. They’ve held several statewide conferences on the subject, and publish the monthly newspaper Alternativa and the quarterly magazine, Alternativa Educación. Educators there spoke highly of the techniques of the Brazilian educator Paulo Friere and the late French educator Célestin Freinet, both of whom stress the importance of linking education and literacy to the learner’s everyday life and encourage a critical examination of social issues.

In the small rural town of Santa Marta Chichihaltepec in the state of Oaxaca we visited a 300 student elementary school that is using the techniques of Freinet. Instead of the rote memorization and dry teacher lectures that we witnessed in many of the other schools we visited, this school was alive with student activity. Children of all ages were engaged in “texto libre” — a free write — in which they wrote about their lives and thoughts. A kindergarten class was making murals of city life, while a 5th grade class worked on a mural on the Mexican Revolution. In a 4th grade math class children studied on multiplication using kernels of corn as manipulatives.

Despite a paucity of resources similar to what we had seen at most schools, education was flourishing at this one.

Yet resources are an issue. When asked what was the biggest obstacle to learning at their school, the teachers were unanimous in response. “We want a school library. Our children have no books.”

The leaders of the Oaxaca section point to this school, and others like it, as models for what they would like education to become. They have an extensive plan to transform education in the region. They have begun with meetings between teachers, students, and parents to discuss educational problems faced by the people, possible solutions, and revising and implementing reforms.

“We are asking fundamental questions,” one Oaxaca official said. “What are schools for? Whom should they serve? What should be the content of our schooling?”

The Oaxaca approach contrasts sharply with the “modernization” campaign in education that the federal government began last year. That campaign’s stated purpose is to promote academic excellence and expand educational opportunity for all. But many teachers and community leaders say it is doing the opposite. The government failed to involve teachers in a meaningful way in the “modernization” planning and has used it as a cover to decrease school funding without addressing the content of education, all in the name of “efficiency.”

Teacher María de Lourdes Gómez of Mexico City characterized the government’s campaign as a way “to cut the education budget during a time of educational crisis, while talking like they are really improving education.” Other teachers described the government effort as a “vertical decision done without consultation.”

Jesús Martín del Campo, the CNTE leader of the secondary school union in Mexico City, said that under the government’s approach teachers have not been involved in developing curriculum plans and programs. “Therefore they are indifferent as to the quality of the learning process,” he said.

A key issue in the reform struggle being waged by democratic forces is the treatment of the Indian population in the schools. The 10% of the Mexican population considered “indigenous” includes 159 distinct language groups, 19 in the state of Oaxaca alone.

According to census figures the state of Oaxaca is 44 percent “indigenous”; Chiapas is 29 percent; and the Yucatan is 53 percent. Teachers I spoke with supported using students’ native language in instruction and pointed proudly to those few schools with bilingual programs.

Bilingual Education

At a bilingual primary school in Magdalena Teitipac, Oaxaca, children learn in both Spanish and Zapotec. The mayor of the town said serious problems existed, however, including frequent teacher strikes and an insufficient number of bilingual teachers. He said such problems were rooted in the economic crisis facing all of Mexico.

“Indian education is still viewed as second class,” according to one Zapotec kindergarten teacher. “Bilingual education really doesn’t exist; it’s an illusion of the authorities.”

Zapotec teachers I spoke with in Oaxaca were concerned not only about bilingualism, but the content of the education for indigenous peoples. Like other democratic teachers I met in Mexico City they see the need to connect schooling with the lives of children, and in the process have students, parents, and teachers work together to solve community problems.

Some teachers in Oaxaca have formed a Coalition of Teachers and Indigenous Promoters, and publish a periodical entitled Education? which deals with all areas of cultural life for the indigenous communities. Leaders of the coalition are also active in countering Eurocentric activities and analysis of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. They are promoting the slogan, “500 years of popular Indian resistance.”

The future

The democratic forces in the CNTE remain optimistic despite the difficult political and economic conditions they face. In addition to key tasks such as securing democratic control of the entire union and developing a new type of education in the classroom, they are sensitive to other concerns.

Maintaining good relationships with parent and community groups is essential, but unfortunately parent support has waned in recent months. This is due partly to government media barrages against the democratic forces, and partly due to frequent strikes and work stoppages which keep children at home. “Over-use of the strike tactic can turn parents off,” one activist noted.

Union reformers are also trying to increase the role of women in the CNTE leadership. Although women comprise the overwhelming majority of primary school teachers, even in the democratically controlled Section 9 only 30% of the leadership is women. While this is an improvement over the old guard leadership, it still falls short of the CNTE’s goals.

Currently, leaders of the CNTE are planning a series of strikes and actions this spring to pressure the government to further increase teachers salaries, raise educational spending, and support efforts to democratize all parts of the union. The actions would follow a one-day strike in November supported by 250,000 teachers with similar demands. The CNTE leaders hope that the strikes will last increasingly longer, until an indefinite walkout forces the government to give in to their demands.

The CNTE is also holding national meetings and state conferences on alternative education as it attempts to build democracy in the union and in the classroom at the same time.

“The union movement has an opening to try to change the type of education that exists in this country,” said the CNTE’s Jesús Martín del Campo. “We will do that as we achieve the democratization of the largest union in Mexico and all of Latin America.”

Bob Peterson teaches at Fratney School in Milwaukee. He participated in a delegation of teachers to Mexico in November sponsored by the American Labor Education Center, based in Washington D.C. He would like to thank Matt Witt of the American Labor Education Center for assistance with this article. For more information about the growing solidarity between workers and unions from Mexico, the United States, and Canada, subscribe to Labor Notes, 7435 Michigan Ave., Detroit, Michigan 48210.