Saturday, May 28, 2011


'Tis the season for the annual teacher's strike and "planton," basically a sit-in, camp-out that goes for several days in and around the zocalo. What this means, invariably, is that I get entangled in many, many arguments in May and June. It seems that many expatriates, middle-class people, tourists, and wealthy people do not support the teachers. Say what?

So this year I did my research. I went to my neighborhood public schools. I interviewed public school teachers and their children off-site. I interviewed parents of children in public school, many of whom are greatly inconvenienced by the yearly strike because it affects their work schedules. I read the fliers and the pamphlets, though not the local newspapers which I do not trust as reliable sources. I read the articles and analysis at the links in my Oaxaca Study Action Group political news group. I wanted to know what the people around me thought about the presumptions of the petit bourgeois, foreigners, politicos and so on. Here are some of the arguments. To my sources, please forgive any awkward translations of your poetic and well-reasoned Spanish and Spanglish.

Complaint 1: The teachers are well-paid already.

This one is hard for me to even stomach. Public school teachers in Oaxaca have up to 40 or 50 kids for a half-day, and many have another set for another half-day. Teachers reported having to purchase basic supplies for the classroom and using their own money for photocopying primary curricular materials. Also, from the Latin-American Herald Tribune:

"The decision to go on strike was made Saturday after SNTE Local 22 members
decided that state officials had not made satisfactory concessions in
negotiations, union leader Azael Santiago Chepi said.

The teachers plan to occupy the main plaza in Oaxaca city, the state

The union is not making any pay demands, focusing instead on educational and
social issues, Chepi said.

Teachers want better uniform allowances for students, computers in all of
the state’s elementary schools and electricity in all schools, the union
leader said.

Union members also want officials to find Carlos Rene Roman, a teacher who
disappeared on March 14, Chepi said."

Complaint 2: The teachers' union is corrupt.

Every poor and lower-middle-class Mexican I interviewed scoffed at this comment. They point their fingers at the much larger force of corruption in Oaxaca society, the PRI (which has managed to keep keys to offices, important documents, and major funds out of the hands of the new ruling party). My favorite Oaxacan anarchist echoed what my husband Steve said, "The dead bodies aren't piling up because of the teacher's union. The PRIstas were deadly."

A Oaxacan grandma added that the wealthy and politically powerful like to confuse the issues, blaming the teacher's union for skimming or causing problems when small factions that have nothing to do with the teachers are at fault. On this issue, I'm less clear because I did not understand the examples she gave. There are a lot of abbreviations in Oaxacan political lingo!

Complaint 3: The zocalo is ugly.

This complaint has many permutations, including:

The teachers hurt local businesses.
The teachers scare tourists away.
The teachers cost the city money by striking.

The people I interviewed--and I should underscore that I did not interview people who own businesses, except those who may open up their garage to sell used clothes or serve a daily meal--could give a damn regarding these issues. Oaxaca and its neighbor Chiapas are the poorest states in Mexico. When it comes down to workers (teachers) fighting for basic rights against the major political machine, my neighbors know who has their best interests at heart.

My radical anthropologist buddy had another way of putting it, "It's time to break shi* up." I agree--when you have propaganda for your mainstream journalism, a government that funds dance festivals instead of access to clean drinking water, and an entrenched wealthy class that does everything it can to maintain the status quo, where do you turn? Block the streets, sit in the zocalo, make speeches, pass out pamphlets, fight the good fight! Viva la huelga!


Steve Lafler said...

Beautifully articulated. Thanks.

Meranda said...

Great article. It is interesting how unions get blamed the world over. Amazing the range that the rich man's propaganda will reach.

Cyndie Katz said...

Hey thanks, that was enlightening. Here in Michoacan the teachers are strike quite a bit as well. And they also get very little sympathy from many people. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in looking into it more closely.

Anonymous said...

I encourage all to read up on Elba Esther Gordillo and the systemic problems of public education in Mexico. Unions, like political parties, can be corrupted like any other organization and indeed "La Maestra" has more power and influence than any politician, indeed, she got Calderon elected. Chepi is doing her bidding here in Oaxaca and what is really being brokered is more of the same... graft and patronage. The teachers have no choice but to "go along to get along"...

Serena said...

Thanks to all for the comments. Anonymous, I will definitely ask my interview subjects about your points. The teachers and parents with whom I spoke expressed no fear of the union's power and seemed ardently in support of the demands.

Anonymous said...

I certainly commend you on your interest but also remember that this is the way it's always been done. The teachers and parents have no other option, this is the way it is. What Chepi is asking for (computers, electric bills paid by state and not parents etc.) are all good things. What the union is more nervous about is short term contracts without benefits given to non-teacher college grads that is being pushed nationally. Of course, this is a bad thing but not much worse than the current state of the teacher college system that graduates unqualified teachers on a regular basis, some who are marginally literate. If you're privy to the chismes from your friends you'll hear the horror stories. In short, engaging in class warfare over this is counterproductive. The system is broke but not "broke", Mexico should have a better educational system based on the amount of GDP it expends on education. Follow the money...

Ron Mader said...

Good essay! Thanks for summing up the various points.

As happens so often in Oaxaca, the issues are quickly polarized so my question that we should be asking is where to get accurate and timely info? I'd love to see more details about the current state of teacher salaries as well as simple matters such as the status of the planton.

Serena said...

Ron, I appreciate your stopping by. I asked one of my contacts your question about the status of the planton. She had heard that tomorrow (Tuesday) there will be a big march leaving from several points in the city. She thought the teachers might return to the classroom as early as Wednesday.

Kim Fogel said...

Sounds reasonable to me. Then again, you were always the smart one in the house! Love, Kim

Serena said...

Kim Fogel as I live and breathe! How the heck are you? You were always a brilliant revolutionary, if I'm to remember correctly. xoxo