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Mexico’s Dissident Teachers Union CNTE Proves Tough to Tame

The union uses radical tactics and required attendance at protests among its members to pressure federal authorities who want to overhaul Mexico's poorly performing public school system. Will the CNTE ever be satisfied?
Photo by Luis Alberto Hernandez/AP

Teachers in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca marched in the streets, burned ballots, and disrupted gasoline deliveries during the June 7 midterm elections — but they weren't exactly protesting the voting process itself.

The teachers union known as CNTE was instead using its well-oiled protest strategies to force the federal government to roll back an education reform that would require all Mexican teachers to undergo performance evaluations in order to keep their jobs.


The election proceeded anyway in the capital of Oaxaca state and areas in southern Mexico with a strong CNTE presence, but only after the federal government announced it was suspending the teacher evaluations. Authorities later flooded Oaxaca with soldiers and police. Military choppers buzzed over the city throughout election day.

"It's not an education reform, it's a labor reform," teacher Hugo Dominguez, 33, told VICE News as he marched in Oaxaca City. "It's just another way to control us."

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The tension between Mexico's teachers and the government has simmered for years, partly because there are two powerful unions at play at the negotiating table: the dissident CNTE, or the National Education Workers Coordinator, and the official-leaning umbrella organization for all Mexican teachers, the SNTE, or National Education Workers' Union.

Tensions have grown since President Enrique Peña Nieto and the country's major political parties agreed on an education overhaul package in early 2013 that teachers say would directly affect their livelihoods.

The laws, part of an agenda of structural reforms presented by Peña Nieto as a "Pact for Mexico," set out to improve a public-education system under almost total control of the teachers unions.

The result of union control, critics contend, is a scandalously poor profile for Mexican students among the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).


'It creates a perverse incentive every year to have this kind of behavior.'

Mexican schools are notorious for high dropout rates, absenteeism among both students and teachers, and chronically shoddy facilities lacking everything from electricity to toilet paper.

The 2013 reform ushered in evaluations, proposed making merit the basis for promotions, and ended common practices such as teachers selling the positions to others.

It also followed Peña Nieto jailing the once-untouchable "leader for life" of the SNTE, Elba Esther Gordillo. Gordillo, known for her limousine lifestyle and mansion properties in Southern California, was tossed in prison on charges of corruption and illegal enrichment in February 2013.

Protest graffiti marks an electoral office in Oaxaca City. (Photo by David Agren/VICE News)

Euphoria over the suspension of the evaluations was short-lived. The day after the election, Mexico's Public Education Secretariat, or SEP, said it would reinstate the evaluations, while blaming the suspension on "technical" and "political" reasons.

On Tuesday, Emilio Chuayffet, Mexico's education secretary, repeated his position that neither "rain nor thunder" would prevent the evaluations from eventually taking place.

The statements backtracked on the stance taken by the government just before voting, leading some observers to accused the Peña Nieto administration of playing politics with the school system. Critics said teachers were once again wearing down the government and beating back attempts at booting them from positions of influence over policy, pay, and perks.


"If they were only afraid of the CNTE [election] boycott, then why suspend evaluations in the entire country?" said Aldo Muñoz Armenta, a labor expert at the Autonomous University of Mexico State. "It doesn't make any sense."

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The evaluations are unpopular with teachers who insist that they're okay with being tested, but not with a centralized system for the process. CNTE teachers in Oaxaca, also known as Section 22, say their protests are legitimate, and reflect the difficulties of working in a state with widespread poverty and isolated indigenous villages.

In many places, educators are expected by the population to do more than provide classes in schools lacking computers or basic supplies such as chalk. Mexican teachers are often the only person with a professional title in their towns — lending them a certain social standing in rural regions and making them a reference for social mobility in states with meager economies.

"It's been 30 years of struggle," said Dominguez, who teaches in a remote coastal region of Oaxaca. Protesting, he adds, "is now part of the culture in the teachers' movement."

Indeed, teacher protests are commonplace, especially in Mexico City, where the major bargaining happens, and in states such as Oaxaca, where teachers have walked off the job annually for more than 30 years.

The protests show the teachers' political strength, forcing governments at all levels to back down — or pay them off — in the face of "mega-marches," sit-ins occupying city centers, and the prospect of millions of children going without classes.


Union members are required to participate in the demonstrations, or face demotions and public shaming by colleagues.

'We're all screwed, when it comes to work.'

Many Oaxaca residents expressed exhaustion with the perpetual protests, which they accuse of damaging the state's tourism economy and turning the central square in Oaxaca City into an encampment of tents.

"They see themselves as the authority here in Oaxaca," said a taxi driver, Juan Carlos Navarro, who was unable to work for three days during the elections protests because teachers blocked a gasoline delivery plant.

Carlos Perez, who shines shoes among the tents in central Oaxaca City, said: "We're all screwed, when it comes to work."

Analysts say the teacher protests aggravate average citizens, but produce results for the unions.

"Every time, the state and federal authorities end up providing more resources as a result of these protests and sit-ins," Marco Fernandez, an education expert at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, told VICE News. "It creates a perverse incentive every year to have this kind of behavior."

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A Mexican federal police officer guards a gas station in Oaxaca City during the CNTE teacher protests. (Photo by Mario Arturo Martinez/EPA)

Ironically, the CNTE has had more money to expand its reach in the past two years; the federal government has paid it bonuses and provided more paid teaching positions in exchange for abandoning protests.

A report in the newspaper Milenio, citing government documents, said CNTE teachers in Oaxaca have received 10,000 additional positions in negotiations with the interior ministry in just two years, a big bargaining chip released by the Peña Nieto administration.


Separately, the Reforma newspaper reported on Tuesday that the SEP paid the Oaxacan teachers the entire time they spent trying to sabotage the elections.

"Right now, the CNTE represents the biggest threat to governability in the country," said Juan E. Pardinas, director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness think tank, in an interview.

The federal midterm elections left Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and its Green Party ally with roughly the same near-majority in the lower house of Congress that it had previously. A smaller party controlled by SNTE teachers known as New Alliance is also considered a steady congressional ally to the PRI.

The results are fueling suspicions that the suspension of evaluations was more about Peña Nieto propping up his political base with support from SNTE teachers — known for electoral organizing skills and also not fond of evaluations — than caving to CNTE radicals protesting in the streets.

"It's good cop, bad cop," Federico Estevez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, told VICE News. "To hold down the bad cop [CNTE], you give into the good cop [SNTE]. What is the [SNTE] going to demand for its propping up of Peña Nieto's majority? Gutting the reform."

The evaluations will remain, but details are to be determined — and will likely favor teachers, Estevez added, even with a new autonomous institute, the National Institute for the Evaluation of Education, created to carry out such functions.

Meanwhile, CNTE teachers said they would return to their classrooms tomorrow, on June 17.

"They'll just take over the system from the inside. That's what they did before" with state and federal public education ministries, Estevez said. "We're going to a status quo ante with [education], because in the end it was a weak election for the government."

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Follow David Agren on Twitter @el_reportero.