Since the killing of nine demonstrators in the Oaxacan town of Nochixtlán on June 19, Mexico has been in an uproar over the force used against teachers resisting corporate education reform. As the school year started on August 22, teachers in four states refused to return to classes until the perpetrators of the massacre are held responsible and there is a negotiated agreement to change the government’s program.

The government says it will not negotiate. Mexico’s corporate leaders demand the government forcefully suppress the teachers and reopen schools. 

Resisting teachers are concentrated in a network, the National Coordination of Education Workers, within the National Union of Education Workers (CNTE), the largest union in Latin America.

“The real goal is privatizing education.”

— Tranquilino Lavariega, Oaxaca teacher and general secretary of his union

The reforms teachers oppose are largely the product of Mexico’s corporate elite, who began proposing changes to education over a decade ago, as part of economic plans that privatized much of the country’s economy and weakened rights and protections for workers and farmers. 

Supported by education reform groups in the United States and by the U.S. Agency for International Development, these corporate reforms concentrate on standardized testing for students, and especially teachers. Testing is then used to eliminate educators’ job security and punish resistance. 

“The real goal is privatizing education,” according to Tranquilino Lavariega, a classroom teacher and general secretary of his union chapter in Santa Cruz Ocotlan, Oaxaca. “These corporations see education as a business. And because our union has been part of the opposition to their growing power in Mexico, they see us as a political threat.”

Last year, as the government began implementing the tests, thousands of teachers refused to take them, with many refusing to report to classes. When resistance mounted, the government began arresting CNTE leaders and freezing bank accounts of CNTE sections and officers to paralyze the union. 

After the two top leaders of the Oaxaca union, Ruben Nuñez and Francisco Villalobos, were arrested, police fired on demonstrators at a blockade in Nochixtlán. Nine people were killed and dozens more wounded. Mexico erupted with outrage. A protest in Mexico City drew over 100,000 participants.

Teachers in the United States organized pickets of Mexican consulates in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Lita Blanc, president of United Educators of San Francisco, announced a campaign to convince the U.S. Congress to suspend military aid to Mexico “until the Mexican government stops these massive abuses of labor and human rights.”

CFT President Josh Pechthalt asked local unions to join the demonstrations and write the Mexican president. “The same corporate interests in both of our countries seek to privatize public education,” he said, “and undermine our ability to function as professional and socially responsible educators.”

On August 13 Nuñez and Villalobos finally walked out of prison, the last of nine prisoners held in federal custody, though other teachers remain in state jails. While some CNTE state federations have voted to return to the classroom, it is clear that teachers have no intention of ending their struggle to overturn the government’s education reform program. 

— By David Bacon, CFT Reporter