Lessons from the Mexican Dissident Teachers’ Unions

Above: The National Education Worker’s Committee (CNTE) in Mexico City, 2013

by Alonzo Ackerman

Among Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s campaign promises was the pledge to cancel the 2012 Education Reform, which had established that public-sector teachers would be subject to periodical job evaluations and their job positions would be dependent on their results. López Obrador, who was elected with over 50 percent of the vote, promised to create a new education reform, but this time, he argued, taking into consideration “the teacher’s [opinions].” In previous years, teachers had intensely opposed the 2012 reform.1 Their ability to shape the Mexican presidential elections in 2018 pushes us to think about how they constructed their political power. What explains such political force? The study of the teachers’ organization, the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación [National Education Worker’s Committee] (CNTE) can give us some answers.

Despite the national impact of the 2012 reform, opposition from teachers was concentrated in few states. The mobilizations were primarily seen in the southern states of Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca. It was in these states were the CNTE has consolidated its influence. Such mobilizations were possible due to the previous consolidation of a left-wing and anti-officialist teachers organization in the region. Why where these the states in which the CNTE gained such political and social relevance for teachers?

Born as a response to the ineffective official national teachers union — the Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores de la Educación [National Education Workers’ Union] (SNTE) –, the CNTE has spearheaded teachers’ mobilizations since the 1980s. The largest union in Latin America, the SNTE has had strong bargaining power thanks to its large membership but, more importantly, due to its corporatist link with the once long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institutional [Institutionalized Revolutionary Party] (PRI).2 The CNTE was formed in a context of economic inflation in which teachers’ mobilizations sought to increase wages and democratize the union in 1979 in the state of Chiapas. Similar movements emerged in other states, the CNTE was able to consolidate its influence in Oaxaca and Chiapas in the late 1970s, while in other states the movement eventually vanished.3 In my research as a Mellon-Mays fellow, I focus on how the CNTE was able maintain its presence in Chiapas. I argue that the pre-existing political and social organizational environment under which the teachers’ movement emerged was relevant for its subsequent consolidation as a stable organization.

In my research, I reconstruted the teachers’ mobilization efforts in order to identify the connection between their movement and peasant organizations, left-wing political organizations, and student groups. More specifically, the Agricultural Technical schools (Escuelas Técnicas Agropecuarias) provided organizational blue-prints for the Comité Central de Lucha [Central Struggle Committee] (CCL), which focused on negotiation with authorities, and mobilizations with student groups enabled activist training; peasant organizations, which were in close contact with teachers in rural settings, served as allies in teachers’ mobilizations; and the composition of members of left-wing political organizations (namely, Proletarian Line and Worker’s Revolutionary Party) shaped the mobilization tactics pushed by the CCL.4 In 1980, the CNTE faction was able to place its leaders as in the SNTE’s executive board in Chiapas.5

The literature on the CNTE tends to recognize the vibrant political environment at the time of its consolidation and the teachers’ mobilizations.6 And yet, little attention has been put on identifying the actual connections between political and social organizations. While some researchers focus on the increased grievances in the area, others focus on the political process as explanations for the teachers’ mobilizations. By relying on primary and secondary historiographic sources that describe different moments in the mobilizations, I reconstruct the relationship between organizations. I limit my study to one case of relative success. My study also seeks to offer an example of the “indigenous structures,”  as described by McAdam and Morris, as pre-existing organizational resources that facilitate a movement’s emergence and sustenance.7 Further research focusing on the role of civil society in the emergence of dissident factions within the SNTE could offer a comparative study with other similarly active teacher’s organizations.

In southern Mexico, dissident union teachers opposed the 2012 Education Reform intensely: in Oaxaca, teachers went on strike for months; nine protestors were killed in clashes with the police.8 Teachers lit fires in the state congress building of Guerrero as well as the PRI’s state headquarters.9 In 2015, protesters burned ballots and polling places in Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas to protest the reform. While the new president seems to be interested in responding to the teachers’ demands, it remains to be seen how the incoming education reform will take teachers into consideration, and how dissident union members will react to it.

In a context of limited school budgets and low wages, teachers in the United States have also mobilized in different states. American teachers will probably benefit from trying to mobilize in a non-corporatist and non-centralized union, as has been the case in Mexico. As long as their conditions do not improve, it is possible that we will see future mobilizations across the country with positive outcomes for teachers, as in West Virginia.10 Will their demands for better wages and a comprehensive health care system impact the 2020 presidential campaigns in some capacity, as in the Mexican case? To the extent that an anti-austerity political project influences the race, yes: in the past years, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Black Lives Matter movement have pointed out the need to achieve economic and social justice in America. In 2018, teachers in America have also come to the forefront of that battle.

Alonzo Ackerman is a senior undergraduate student majoring in Sociology. He is a recipient of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women’s 2017-2018 Constance Coiner Undergraduate Prize.

  1. Azam Ahmed and Kirk Semple, “Clashes Draw Support for Teachers’ Protest in Mexico,” The New York Times, June 26, 2016.
  2. Delarbre, Raul Trejo, Cronica del sindicalismo en México. (México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1990).
  3. Maria Lorena Cook, Organizing Dissent: Unions, the State, and the Democratic Teachers’ Movement in Mexico (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).
  4. Joe Foweraker, Popular Mobilization in Mexico: the Teachers’ Movement, 1977-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  5. Gerardo Peláez, Historia del Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (México: Ediciones de Cultura Popular, 1984).
  6. See Foweraker, Popular Mobilization in Mexico: the Teachers’ Movement, 1977-1987; Carlos E. Massé Narváez, Reivindicaciones Económico-Democráticas del Magisterio y Crisis Corporativa (1979-1989). (México: A.C.-Plaza y Valdez Editores/El Colegio Mexiquense, 1998); Rincón Ramirez, Carlos. Relaciones de Poder y Dominio en el Movimiento Magisterial Chiapaneco. (Tuxtla Gutiérrez: Facultad de Humanidades-Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas, 1996).
  7. See Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: Free Press, 1986).
  8. Patrick J. McDonnell, “Protesters say a massacre took place in this Mexican town,” Los Angeles Times, August 06, 2016.
  9. “Striking Mexican teachers go on rampage,” The Telegraph, April 25, 2013.
  10. Kris Maher, “West Virginia Teachers Strike Ends With 5% Pay Raise,” The Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2018.