Tag Archives: social justice union

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Has Been Confirmed; And the Resistance Has Too

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Students in Seattle take part in a walkout on November 14th, 2016, following the election of Donald Trump. (Photo: mitchell_haindfield_/_Flickr)

Betsy DeVos–platinum card member of the 1% and leading corporate education reformer–was voted in today by the Senate as the next U.S. Secretary of Education.  With the vote deadlocked at 50-50, Vice President Mike Pence, cast his vote for Ms. DeVos and announced that President Trump’s nominee for education secretary had been confirmed.  As I explain in this interview with journalist Sarah Jaffe, Secretary  DeVos has no experience with public schools besides trying to get rid of them with privatization schemes.

But while DeVos has been confirmed, so too has the resistance. Parents, students, educators, and their unions are organizing grassroots movements that have the potential to defend and transform public education.


Posted as part of Interviews for Resistance at http://www.sarahljaffe.com on January 31, 2017

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. In this series, we’ll be talking with organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who are working both to challenge the Trump administration and the circumstances that created it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. This series will introduce you to some of them.

Public schools have been a bipartisan battleground for years now, with teachers unions taking attacks from elected officials at all levels as part of a broader movement to “improve” education by handing control over to private companies. Donald Trump’s nominee to run the education department, Betsy DeVos, is a stalwart of this privatization drive, never having met a public school she liked (and barely, as many have pointed out, having met a public school at all, since she neither taught in any nor attended them nor sent her own children to them). But teachers around the country are organizing against privatization, and gaining support from parents and students. We talk to one of those teachers, Jesse Hagopian.

Hagopian teaches high school in Seattle and is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. He is also active in his union with the Social Equality Educators.

Sarah Jaffe: The school where you teach in Seattle, Garfield High School, has had a lot of activism from students, as well as teachers, in the past, hasn’t it?

Jesse Hagopian: It has a legacy of activism. It was the school where Martin Luther King spoke when he made his only visit to Seattle. Graduates of our school founded the first chapter of the Black Panther Party outside of California, here in Seattle. It is a legacy we are proud of and that we are seeing revived.

Earlier this year, our football team (the entire team) took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police abuse. Then, it spread to the girls’ volleyball team and the girls’ soccer team and the cheerleaders, even the marching band. Everyone was taking a knee to raise awareness. Then, after Trump’s election, there were some five thousand students across the district, or more, that walked out, including large numbers at the school. It is exciting to see a new rebellion amongst young people today.

I have been hearing from teachers who are having a hard time figuring out how to talk to their students about Trump’s election. Can you talk a little bit about what it is like being a teacher in this moment, talking to your students about what is going on?

The first example I want to use is from my son’s school. The day after the election a young Muslim girl came in and she hadn’t yet heard that Trump won the election, so she found out there at school. When she found out, she fell to the ground and was pounding her fists into the ground and crying. She was just terrified about what could happen to her and her family — whether they would be split apart — [and] fears of violence. I am so proud of what my son’s teacher did. She decided right then and there to gather all of the classes at the grade level and bring them together, and all the families who were there for drop-off, and hold a discussion, allow kids to discuss their fears and their thoughts and let them know that this is going to be a safe place for them.

That is an example that I try to use, to have my classroom be a place that facilitates dialogue, that allows the kids to discuss the fears and anxieties that they have when they hear Trump’s plans for banning Muslims, for deporting immigrants, all of his atrocious sexual assault exploits, his fear-mongering and hatred and bigotry of all kinds. The students need a place to talk about it. I try to facilitate that, as well as letting them know my classroom is a safe place. On the door, all the teachers on my hallway have put up signs that say, “This is a safe place for our students and a place where we will oppose homophobia and sexism and racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia.” We want to communicate that message clearly with our students.

Then, we also have to do it in the curriculum. It is so critical that our curriculum is talking back to the textbooks, which too often just glorify American history without engaging kids in critical thinking about the real challenges and forms of structural oppression that have been perpetuated throughout US history. We have to allow them to dig into the curriculum and into the history to figure out how we arrived at a moment like this. It’s really crucial to helping support them right now.

The Seattle Education Association had a strike fairly recently and I believe one of the issues at stake there was racial justice, in particular, in the schools.

Absolutely. Last year we went on strike for five days. One of the main demands was about having racial equity teams in every school. The district opposed us and didn’t want to add any racial equity teams. We wanted them in every school building. By the end of the strike, we had negotiated 30 racial equity teams across the district, which was really critical to advancing social justice education in Seattle for a number of reasons.

One, it brought us together with the community. Some of the key leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement signed onto a letter supporting our strike because of our desire to fight for racial justice in our schools. Then, this past fall, this October, we were able to build on that victory. We actually built a monumental action. It was called Black Lives Matter at School Day. It started with a few teachers, but it mushroomed into an action [where] some two thousand out of five thousand teachers in Seattle wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school. Many hundreds of teachers taught lessons about structural racism and the Black Lives Matter movement that day.

It really helped to expose the fact that there are a majority of us in the school district that see a much bigger purpose for education than just preparing our students for a low-wage job or shipping them through the school-to-prison pipeline, that we want education to be about empowering our students to create a better future.

The Seattle strike was one of several teachers’ strikes in recent years. Can you talk about what has been going on among teachers’ unions nationally and the challenge to the attacks that public schools have been facing?

The assault has been brutal on teachers’ unions across the country. It has been bipartisan. It happened with an increased strength against our unions under George W. Bush with the No Child Left Behind act. It only accelerated under Obama and his Race to the Top scheme that would further link teacher evaluations and pay to test scores, destabilizing the work force.

Now, we just see the attack unabated with Donald Trump’s new proposed Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, and we know that everything she has in store for our schools is absolutely wrong and we have to build a vigorous opposition to her.

I think that this attack is so strong because the richest 1 percent in this country know that teachers unions are the biggest unions left in America. They are one of the most concentrated sources of organized labor. They have the ability to really transform the labor movement and our communities, to make ties with parents, students and teachers, and because of that source of strength they have also become a target.

When Betsy DeVos was nominated I was struck by the fact that she is a figure that is very closely associated with school vouchers, which in recent years had kind of fallen by the wayside in favor of this really big bipartisan push for charter schools. Can you talk a little bit about those two things and these waves of privatization?

I think privatization is the central aim of the corporate education reformers. The Democrats, over the last eight years under Obama, had worked very hard to give charter schools a liberal gloss and make them seem as if they were part of a civil rights movement to rescue inner city kids, Black and Brown children, from a failing school system, when in reality these charter schools often underperformed the public schools. They function to siphon off money from the public school system to privately-run schools.

They often have some of the most draconian discipline policies. We have seen that Black and Brown students are suspended at much higher rates in charter schools, from recent studies. These schools were just the opposite of what the Democrats had promised, but they were able to cobble together a coalition for a while of people across the political spectrum who were advocating for these schools as an alternative to what they called “failing public schools.” I think that action really laid the groundwork for what we are seeing now, with the revivals of vouchers, which are just another strategy for privatizing public education, giving kids a limited amount of funds to use to go to any school they want rather than actually investing in the public schools and making every public school a quality one with the resources it needs to succeed.

We live in a country that can find trillions of dollars to bomb people all across the world and can find trillions of dollars to bail out the banks that sabotaged the global economy, but when it comes to our kids’ education, they want to try to do it on the cheap. They want to actually try to make money off of it rather than fully invest in the schools that we would need to help our kids succeed.

When Trump announced Betsy DeVos, I said, “She has no idea what is coming her way,” because the movement around public education has gotten so big and so strong in the last couple of years. I wonder if you can talk about the way that students and parents and teachers are really coming together to fight for community public schools.

Absolutely. That is really what we need. The advantage that people like Trump and the rest of the 1 percent have is their immense wealth. The advantage we have is our numbers. Those numbers are really visible around education, because it draws in so many diverse groups together in one place. It brings together labor with parents from all different backgrounds, and students. It has been a source of power for community organizing and social justice initiatives around the country.

In Chicago, I think they have brilliantly organized social movement unionism strategies. They have organized the power of labor to get behind community issues. Then, community groups have come and supported them when they are on strike. And with our recent action here in Seattle with the Black Lives Matter at School Day, it just took us all by surprise. When we passed the resolution in our union to wear these shirts to school we thought maybe a few dozen social justice teachers would wear these shirts and teach lessons. Then, the orders went through the roof and families began setting up tables at schools with materials out front to pass out to other parents about how to talk to your kid about race. We had a wonderful evening forum that was packed out and displayed the talents of our youth. I think that action is one that can be replicated around the country and already has been.

Last week, the teachers in Philadelphia launched Black Lives Matter at School Week. The whole week, they had a different theme every day, within the Black Lives Matter movement, to highlight the different intersectional identities within the Black community and teach lessons and hold dialogues around those actions. That has already been a powerful example of bringing together families and labor in a common struggle.

I could see this type of movement flowering across the country, especially as police brutality continues unabated. The next time we see a horrific murder of a Black or Brown body, I think it will further convince educators in other cities that we need to transform our schools into sites of resistance to everything that Trump stands for. I really hope that is where our movement can go, because Trump emblazons his name on everything he owns. He has the Trump Towers, the Trump golf courses, the Trump Hotels. I would like to see our schools become public sites of resistance to all the bigotry that he stands for. The school reader boards here in Seattle said “Black Lives Matter” at many of the schools on our day. I think if we keep at it, we can help to transform our schools to become these sites of resistance.

Do you have specific tips from the work you have been doing in Seattle for educators in other places who want to start talking to people in their community, their students and their students’ parents, particularly around issues of racism, but in general around the issues that their communities are facing?

One is, for fellow educators, it is really critical to form a caucus inside the union to gather together like-minded social justice advocates and begin to present your ideas to the broader union, to help make your union strong enough to fight back against the privatization attacks and to help raise social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. Oftentimes, beginning with a study group is a good way to go, getting a book to read. In Chicago, the social justice caucus that won the election and took over the union began by reading Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. It was just a small study group and now they have quite a bit of influence in that city.

Right here, we recently held a study group on Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. Finding a book that can bring people together to discuss their ideas and then talk about how we want to implement them in the union is critical.

Then, I think picking a couple of key issues that you can organize around that will bring in parents, students and teachers. Here in Seattle, one of the main issues that we are rallying around right now is the fight for Ethnic Studies. I would add Gender Studies, as well. I think in this time where our president disparages Black Lives Matter, where our president is an open sexist and a proud sexual assaulter, I think we need to teach our kids the truth about the contributions to this country of people of color, and of women, and the struggles that they have been through. We are launching an initiative with the NAACP here in Seattle to demand that every school include Ethnic Studies. A recent study out of Stanford showed huge benefits academically, for Ethnic Studies programs, in raising graduation rates. I really think that is something that needs to take off across the country.

Betsy DeVos has not been confirmed yet. Even some of the Democrats within Congress who have rubber-stamped most of Trump’s other nominees are saying that they are going to fight on hers. People who are following that, what can they do?

We need to fight as vigorously as possible against her confirmation because she has absolutely no idea what she is doing with public education. She never went to public schools, her kids didn’t go to public schools, her only association with the schools is her attempt to privatize them with her foundation. During her confirmation hearing they asked her questions about her family foundation because her family foundation has given millions to the Republican Party, but even more despicably, has funded things like gay conversion therapy, which is a pseudo-science that is an absolute atrocity in the way it psychologically abuses LGBTQ youth. She has no business being anywhere near a public institution that is meant to nurture all of the kids in the United States.

I think that we have to raise public protests. We have to agitate in our unions to make sure our unions are vocally opposing this and letting the politicians know there will be consequences if they vote to confirm her. Joining local rallies and demonstrations against her confirmation is really important.

Lastly, how can people keep up with you?

My website is IAmAnEducator.com. They can follow the work I do there or on social media. Most importantly, I think getting a subscription to Rethinking Schools and bringing social justice lessons into your classroom is the best way to stay connected to the movement.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast.

“The reforms are introduced with blood”–A Oaxaca teacher on the life and death struggle against the testocracy

The teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico have been setting the international standard for social movement unionism and the defense of public education for many years.

In her 2005 release of Granito de Arena, my friend, award-winning Seattle filmmaker Jill Freidberg, captured the story of hundreds of thousands of public schoolteachers in Oaxaca who have built a powerful grassroots movement, endured brutal repression over some 25-years of struggle for social and economic justice in Mexico’s public schools.

In 2013, when teachers at my school refused to administer the MAP test as an act of defiance to the corporate education reform test-and-punish agenda, I was worried about the consequences that such an action could have. I also remember talking with other teachers about the fact that if the teachers in Oaxaca could build barricades in the streets to defend their schools from corporate takeover, we could manage to organize the MAP boycott. And, in fact, teachers from Oaxaca came to our aid, writing the Seattle boycotting teachers a letter of solidarity.

Today, the struggle to stop the abuses of standardized testing of teachers and other corporate reforms in Oaxaca has literally become a life and death struggle with police officers brutally gunning downing at least eight protesters, including community members and teachers (for information about sending letters of protest, please visit the NPE site).

My good friend Shane Dillingham recently moved to Oaxaca, Mexico where he is working on a book about the history of indigenous struggle in the region.   Shane conducted this remarkable interview for Jacobin magazine with René González Pizarro, a Oaxacan teacher and union member, to discuss the impact of corporate education reform, union democracy and this history of his local 22 in the struggle for social justice.

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"The reforms are introduced with blood," mural in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2016. A. S. Dillingham

“The reforms are introduced with blood,” mural in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2016. A. S. Dillingham

Ten years ago, as a group of striking teachers slept in their encampment during the early hours of June 14 in the state capital of Oaxaca, Mexico, government forces launched an attack to remove them from the zócalo, or town square. Riot police cleared the plaza while helicopters dropped tear gas from above.

The striking teachers were beaten, arrested, and pushed out of the city center. But not for long; the teachers and their supporters quickly regrouped, fighting back, block by block, and took the plaza back by midday.

The violent repression of striking teachers in 2006, ordered by the state governor, launched a social movement — called the “Oaxaca Commune” by supporters — that grew to encompass much more than the local teachers’ union.

The movement mobilized large swathes of Oaxacan society against the repressive governor. Aggressive federal intervention hobbled the movement, but failed to wipe it out. Today the dissident teachers’ movement is in the streets again, this time in opposition to the federal government’s “education reform” program.

The teacher’s movement is also more widespread than in 2006. Militarized attacks on striking teachers have occurred in Mexico City and throughout the country’s southern states. In the last month, the state of Chiapas has seen pitched battles between teachers and police forces, and the Zapatistas have spoken out in favor of the striking teachers.

Last week the Mexican attorney general’s office arrested two of the leaders of the Oaxacan section of the teachers’ union, Local 22, on corruption charges. Then on June 19, federal and state police attacked protesters in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, a town on the highway between the state capital and Mexico City, resulting in the death of at least eight protesters.

The blatant attack on outspoken government opponents unleashed a wave of protests in the state capital in response.

2006–2016. Street graffiti in Oaxaca City, commemorating the ongoing teachers’ struggle. Shane Dillingham / Jacobin

It’s become somewhat of a cliché to describe the situation in Mexico as a “crisis.” Indeed, la crisis is frequently satirized in Mexican film and popular culture, with Mexicans unsure when the last crisis ended and the next began.

Yet it’s true that in Mexico has experienced a wave of tragedies since 2006. Over one hundred thousand thousand people have died, over twenty-five thousand have been disappeared, and more than one hundred journalists have been killed in the decade since former president Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels.

Some of the crisis’s numbers are unforgettable. The forty-nine children burned to death in a government-outsourced daycare center without safety protections in the northern state of Sonora in 2009; the seventy-two migrants found in a collective grave in the state of Tamaulipas in 2010; and most recently the 2014 disappearance of forty-three Ayotzinapa Normal School students in the southern state of Guerrero. Tragedy’s numbers are a defining part of daily life and conversation in Mexico.

Enrique Peña Nieto’s election in 2012, coming after years of drug-war-related violence, was seen by many as a possible reprieve, a return to the nostalgic days of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule when governance was at least stable, if not democratic or transparent.

Yet President Peña Nieto’s sexenio (six-year term) has been marked by continued mass violence, corruption, and impunity at seemingly all levels of government. From shady government contracts in Mexico City, to his wife’s extravagant home paid for by dubious means, to the flagrant and repeated government lies over the forty-three missing students, Peña Nieto’s popularity has plummeted.

Recent state-level elections saw the PRI lose power in a number of its former strongholds. Mayors in Mexico are targeted by cartels, in a way that suggests they are siphoning funds directly from the state, in addition to drug and human trafficking.

The multiple captures and escapes of “El Chapo” Guzman, the infamous drug trafficker, lent credence to the popular belief among many Mexicans that the line between the traffickers and the state is blurry, at best.

Peña Nieto’s 2013 education reform plan — the piece of legislation under contention today — is just one component of a broader set of structural reforms pushed through by the president and the PRI.

While other reforms — such as the partial privatization of the state-run oil company, PEMEX, and corporate tax reform — have been relatively successful (on their own terms), the education initiative has proven the most difficult to implement, sparking opposition by not only the dissident section of the teachers’ union, the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), but also broader sectors of the national teachers’ union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE).

This opposition and the militarized approach of the government employed to implement the reforms, with thousands of federal police securing teacher testing sites, has led the international press, much of which until recently was supportive of Peña Nieto, to declare him a failure.

The education reform is better understood as an attack on labor. Much like the discourse of recent education reform movements in the United States, the Mexican reformers invoke notions of “accountability” and “quality” instruction.

But the reform itself contains numerous measures aimed at undermining the power of teachers’ unions including measures that weaken the union’s control of the hiring process at normal schools (which they historically controlled), eliminate teachers’ ability to pass down a position to their children, make it easier to fire teachers who miss work, and limit the number of union positions paid by the state.

These measures are all directly aimed at undermining the union’s power, but the central point of contention has been the evaluation of teachers through state-administered standardized tests.

At the end of last year, teachers across Mexico sat down for new nationwide teacher evaluations. In Oaxaca, the scene outside the testing site resembled a military exercise.

Ten thousand federal police were deployed to facilitate the administration of the evaluations, reflecting both the federal government’s desire to see their reform implemented as well as the widespread opposition to the new law.

Oaxaca is home to one of the most outspoken union locals in Mexico, Local 22, a member of the dissident CNTE movement — a movement that emerged in the late 1970s in opposition to the authoritarian, PRI-aligned SNTE.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the CNTE struggled against entrenched PRI control of union locals, with newly minted indigenous teachers playing a key role in southern states such as Oaxaca and Chiapas. The CNTE has remained a powerful force and controls, in addition to Local 22, sections of union locals in Michoacán, Guerrero, Chiapas, and the Federal District (Mexico City).

Given Local 22’s historic militancy, the state’s response was not surprising. Yet similar scenes of police coercion played out across the country, alongside a massive media campaign denouncing the dissident teachers’ union as self-interested and corrupt.

Historian A. S. Dillingham sat down with René González Pizarro, a Oaxacan teacher and member of Local 22, as well as a former delegate to its assembly, to discuss the nature of the reforms, the government’s strategy, and the history and culture of Local 22.


Can you first tell us a little about your own experience as a teacher? Why did you choose the teaching profession?

My professional training was originally in graphic design, but I’ve been immersed in the education world ever since I can remember. Actually, as a baby I was part of the teachers’ demonstrations of the 1980s and I remember that as a six- or seven-year-old I’d chant along with the slogans of the teachers.

After eight years teaching in private schools, I entered Local 22 thanks to my father. One of the benefits of the union members (eliminated by the recent reform) was the ability to inherit the position of one’s parents upon their retirement, as long as one had initiated their teacher training.

My father was in the indigenous education system, so I started there, with lowest category of promotor bilingüe or bilingual promoter. These positions were created in the 1970s and it is the category I continue to hold.

I started work in an indigenous boarding school in Coixtlahuaca, a rural, mountainous region in the western half of the state.

Let’s begin with the June 19 attacks on the teachers’ blockade in Nochixtán.

The federal and state police’s recent violence merely demonstrates the total obstinacy and refusal to negotiate on the government’s part. The teachers’ movement and much of the public generally have spoken out against the structural reforms, not just the against the education program.

On Sunday, the federal police first denied their use of live ammunition against demonstrators. Then later, after the confirmation of the first two dead, the secretary of government claimed it wasn’t police who fired, and said the photographs of police firing assault rifles were from another date and time.

But the media reaction was quick and the Associated Press confirmed the photographs of police firing on crowds were indeed from that Sunday and not manipulated.

Finally, at a press conference late that afternoon, the police admitted to their use of live ammunition.

Protesters carry a banner featuring "The Virgin of the Barricades" on June 14, 2016 to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the Oaxacan social movement. Shane Dillingham / Jacobin

The key from the government’s point of view has been the implementation of last year’s teacher evaluations. More than ten thousand federal police arrived in Oaxaca to facilitate the new evaluations.

The state government and Ministry of Education claimed it was a success. How do you view what took place with the evaluations?

The new state education ministry (IEEPO), which was legally reconstituted during the summer of 2015 to weaken the union’s control, has been trying to legitimize itself since its restructuring last July.

They’ve begun a series of actions, particularly on social media, to try to show that the Oaxacan teachers wanted to get rid of the “yoke” of the union.

On social media they have bombarded Oaxacans with messages like, “The new IEEPO is better, nothing remains in the union’s hands, now union coercion is no longer needed to access labor rights, the evaluation isn’t meant to take peoples’ jobs, now children will have all their classes.”

But the message is funny, if not ironic, in the face of the deployment of federal forces, not just in Oaxaca but in other states where the CNTE hasn’t had much presence.

Two or three years ago, before the reforms began in earnest, many non-CNTE teachers in the rest of the country viewed the evaluations as a good thing. (Actually some Oaxacan teachers did, as well.)

But with the full implementation of the reform there has been an upturn in the scale of opposition to it. Even in places where one hasn’t seen teacher protests before, one sees them now; the state of Jalisco and the state of Mexico are clear examples of this.

You mentioned the “new IEEPO” and what took place last July when the state government legally abolished — with the support of the federal police — the previous education ministry, in order to facilitate President Peña Nieto’s reforms.

How do you view that action? Does this constitute a death blow to Local 22’s power?

The government’s actions last July were a major blow to Local 22. But they weren’t a death blow. It wasn’t enough to merely freeze the union’s bank accounts, prosecute them financially, invent connections to organized crime, or try to do something from the financial side.

Nor has it been sufficient to detain the leaders. Actually, the detainment of four leaders and recently three members of Local 22’s executive committee sparked more desire to resist within the union.

Now the new state education ministry, supported by the reforms and federal education authorities, says that there will be no more marches and no missed class days. Three absences will mean the loss of one’s job, one absence will mean your pay would be docked.

The same happened with the federal ministry, after the first three days of the strike that began on May 15, 2016 the federal education ministry announced the firing of over four thousand teachers in Oaxaca, Michoacán, Guerrero, and Chiapas.

Do the authorities have the power to do that? To fire the teachers? That seems to be something new, given the union’s previous control over hiring.

According to the new reforms, yes they do have the power. The IEEPO asked the teachers to either go to class or have a day of pay deducted, because that is what the new law stipulates. Many teachers took to the streets. Some, out of fear or because they didn’t want their pay to be docked, stayed in the classrooms. Yet the threat of firing hasn’t stopped collective action. In fact, since May 15, the start of the strike, the movement has only grown.

The reform has allowed the state authorities to change how the IEEPO functions, right?

The new IEEPO is a mess. Within the actual office building, they have no idea what they are doing and they dismantled the apparatus, which, even if it was overly bureaucratic, knew how to function.

That is why they have turned to their massive publicity and social media campaigns, to improve the image of the new IEEPO.

In your opinion, what is the worst part of the education reforms?

That it’s not about education. That is the part that bothers me the most. From reading Peña Nieto’s reforms, the laws, and the auxiliary laws, it isn’t at all clear — and I’m not the only one that says this — that it’s about education reform.

It’s about yet another neoliberal government attack on trade unions that demonstrate any type of opposition. When one looks at the structural reforms in this country (and globally) one notices these reforms are directed at eliminating trade unions.

The strong unions have either been co-opted or eliminated. This happened in Mexico first with the railway workers, then the telecommunications workers’ union, the Luz y Fuerza union, the Federal Electricity Commission, and PEMEX. All that’s left are the teachers and public health workers.

With each reform, there is a direct attack on trade unions or civil society organizations.

You mentioned that you attended teachers’ marches as a baby with your parents. Not just in Oaxaca, but also in many other states, the democratic teachers’ movement emerged around that time. Local 22 and the CNTE nationally have their origins in that period. Is that history important for those in the movement today?

Yes. That generation from the 1980s just retired a few years ago (my father is one of them) and now there is a whole new generation of teachers. I know the history of that struggle because I lived through it but I’m not sure other comrades do because even those whose parents were also teachers in the 1980s don’t always seem very interested today.

There are two factors that might explain this dynamic. One is the distance that has developed recently between the union leadership and its bases, and the other is social pressure, particularly in the media, that casts the union in a negative light.

So the new comrades are often not interested in, nor committed to, the idea of struggle, either because they don’t feel represented by their leadership — because of corruption or poor management of the union — or because the media accuse the movement of being lazy and something bad for the country.

Yes, and many teachers say the relationship between the union leadership and the rank-and-file has changed dramatically since the 1980s.

Among the comrades that do participate, one major difference between today and the 1980s is the mandatory participation in union activities.

Today (although the state education ministry says the restructuring has taken this power away from the union), los puntos sindicales, the union point system, determines whether teachers can change their job category, school, or school zone, move between levels, and it also determines benefits, such as union-sponsored personal loans.

How do you see the Oaxacan struggle relating to the national context in Mexico? After Ayotzinapa, and the struggle for the missing forty-three students, have things changed in Oaxaca?

Unfortunately, Local 22 didn’t immediately join the movement for the missing forty-three students. The lack of solidarity among resistance and left movements in Oaxaca and Mexico generally is symptomatic.

After 2006, it has been virtually impossible to organize and unite the Left in Oaxaca. Many of us teachers have watched and followed the Ayotzinapa issue, and we are part of that movement, but not formally as Local 22.

It was only during the one-year anniversary of the disappearances that Local 22 made official statements of solidarity. I remember the first national teachers’ action in Mexico City after the disappearances; there was nothing in the official accords or assembly demands about Ayotzinapa.

The march was full of signs and banners addressing what had happened but it wasn’t even discussed, let alone made an official demand, by the organized union movement.

And why do you think the union leaders haven’t focused on supporting Ayotizinapa?

I’m not sure. Since I joined the union I’ve noticed a lack of interest in other movements and a basic lack of solidarity.

And that dynamic, of not taking up demands of other movements, contributes to the notion that the union is only concerned about its own interests. You can’t ask for support if you’re not supporting other struggles.

Exactly.

This brings me to a longstanding frustration with the reporting on teachers’ struggles in Mexico that leaves out important conflicts and problems within the union. As Benjamin Smith points out, there are problems within the dissident union movement itself, like the ability of teachers to pass their job on to their children, corrupt internal arbitration practices, and pay scales that benefit the union hierarchy.

What we shouldn’t lose sight of is that, even with the problems within the CNTE leadership, we cannot blame teachers themselves entirely for the education situation in Oaxaca or Mexico.

And there are real fights within Local 22 for internal union reform and alternative education reform. For example, Local 22 has developed a counter-proposal to the government’s so-called reform over the last few years.

Our counter-proposal is an effort from the union and the base-level membership, organized around two important points. First, it proposes a curriculum based in the local culture and context of Oaxaca, which is diverse, indigenous, and multicultural. Secondly, it is based in the theories of critical pedagogy.

Of the most important changes it proposes, in my view, regards the system of teacher evaluation. The union’s proposal eliminates standardized testing (there will be exams but the use of standardized exams will be abolished) to evaluate either students or teachers. It focuses entirely on the qualitative aspect of education.

I served as advisor for a process in which indigenous teachers from all over the state of Oaxaca discussed and debated methods of evaluation that fit indigenous education and what we aim to accomplish as indigenous teachers.

“No to the Education Reform! Only Books will Bring this country out of Barbarism.” Street graffiti stenciled on offices of Banamex, a Mexican bank. “No to the Education Reform! Only Books will Bring this country out of Barbarism.” Street graffiti stenciled on offices of Banamex, a Mexican bank. Shane Dillingham / Jacobin

With the imposition of the new law, our proposal has lost steam. Now there is no openness on the part of the government or education authorities to even listen to our proposals.

In terms of the crisis of participation and distancing between the base and the leadership within Local 22, that is something far too complex to be solved with one or two actions but I would venture two reforms that, to me, would be fundamental in shifting toward a more democratic and militant unionism.

Within the union, one important change would be to eliminate the mechanisms of coerced participation. The teachers’ movement of the 1980s had a genuine interest from the bases in fighting against union corruption and in favor of the people and their right to a public and quality education.

Teachers participated with conviction. They slept on sidewalks waiting for the results of the state union assembly and valued the actions decided there.

Over time, that same leadership promoted a system of coerced participation, in which, through the point system, gave benefits or transfers, even salary raises, to those with the highest points.

This has meant that in the last few years union activities continued to have large levels of participation but not necessarily due to political conviction.

The other important change would be for us teachers to regain the parents and general public as allies in our struggle. In many communities the teachers left to participate in union actions without explaining to the parents why they did so or convincing them of the importance of their activities.

In the recent struggles it’s encouraging that more parents seem to be upset about how the reform will affect public education and are joining us in the streets.

It’s important that the school becomes once again part of the community and that the community itself becomes part of the education system.

For example, since June 19 of this year many NGOS, be it local, national, or international, have shown their solidarity with the movement and rejected the government’s use of police repression.

As I mentioned, the support of the communities and parents’ groups is decisive to reinvigorating the movement and one has begun to see that in the recent highway blockades, maintained for many days by parents and community members.

That popular participation is what held back the federal police across the state. The state violence over the weekend has only released a bigger wave of support from local communities.

What you raised at the beginning, that one cannot isolate the teachers from the broader social context in Mexico, seems crucial. Even the OECD, whose statistics are trotted out frequently to describe the poor quality of education in Mexico, notes the statistical correlation between poverty and education outcomes in southern Mexico.

The notion that poorly administered teacher evaluations will solve this problem is laughable and that teachers are primarily to blame for poor education conditions in their communities absurd.

Precisely. One has to keep in mind the structural poverty in this country.

The education reform doesn’t address the physical conditions of public schools, classroom technology, continuous teacher training, nor the distinct pedagogies that might fit particular regional contexts throughout the country. For me poverty is the principle problem affecting the education system.

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