By RICARDO CASTILLO
Every May 15, Mexico commemorates Teachers’ Day.
But the festivities – celebrated at every school – public or private – by the millions of students, parents, labor unions, communities and government branches, who pamper teachers that day (even if it is just once a year), may turn out in 2019 to be different from what we’ve had for the past several years. Or, then again, maybe they won’t.
Mexico in preparing to launch a new version of the education law approved last week by Congress. Late Tuesday, May 14, at least 17 states congresses approved it (the minimum number for it to become law and be published in the Official Gazette).
The one thing that most Mexico City residents were hoping for this year was the absence of the massive protests carried out by so-called teachers’ unions, especially by the Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), which represents mostly educators the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, as well as the radical offshoot, Section 22 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE), based out of Mexico City.
Since former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto managed to come up with the approval of his Education Reform law back in 2013, the CNTE teachers have gone berserk. They saw the reform as an attempt to trample on their union, which, for the most part, is made up of the nation’s underprivileged (read: poor, indigenous farmers), who considered universal testing requirements imposed by the Peña Nieto law as “punitive,” mainly because the education they receive at rural normal schools is not up to the standards of the national tests.
CNTE teachers have for several years staged protests against the Peña Nieto law wherever they want to make their dissatisfaction with the reform felt. They have blockaded federal roads for weeks on end. And as if that were not lethally harmful for public transport activities, in May of each year they would unleash their worst tactic: arriving to the capital by the thousands (the CNTE union has 200,000 members) to take over already-overcrowded downtown streets.
Their main strategy has always been to take over Bucareli Street (In case you’re not familiar with the urban design of Mexico City, Bucareli Street – named such only for six blocks – is not only the location of the Interior Secretariat, but also one of two streets long enough to actually circumvent the city.) Bucareli’s circulation is from north to south, so by invading the street on blocks – from Avenida Reforma to Ayuntamiento, normally – the CNTE teachers know they are achieving their objective of getting attention by (their words, not mine) “strangling the city.” Believe you me, every time they have done this, it has turned out to be an ungodly mess for city dwellers and, of course, traffic. When you live in the area (I used to), their presence, their tents, their makeshift kitchens and the stench of the row of public toilets can really get on your nerves.
This is where we come to my statement that May 15, 2019 – today – may just be different from previous years. As of noon Tuesday, May 14, the CNTE had not announced any planned “march” in Mexico City. But be late Tuesday night, the word was out: The group was planning (albeit in a last-minute way) to march after all, from the Monument of the Revolution to the Zocalo main plaza. How many protesters will turn out is anybody’s guess, since the march does not seem to have been planned much in advance.
If the protesters do not show up, or if they show up in only small numbers, it may translate into a victory for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) new education law. It could mean that the CNTE unionists have achieved their goals and have no more reasons to squabble with their employer, the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), and, of course, Peña Nieto’s education law.
Also, the stifling levels of air pollution in Mexico City as a resut of a surge in forest fires might act as a deterrent for the protesters.
But there is no telling what the CNTE will do. Mexican industrialists will never forget the truly beastly move the CNTE teachers took last January, when the Michoacán unionists shut down the railroad out of Port Lázaro Cárdenas for 24 consecutive days, inflicting serious harm to the auto industry established in neighboring state of Guanajuato. It literally cost Mexican businesses billions of pesos. That same railway feeds thousands of pass-through-Mexico containers on their way to the United States.
The new law abrogates the 2013 Education Reform and establishes assurance of education for all. It also will annul the still-existent National Institute for Education Evaluation (INEE), which applied the universal testing. The INEE will be replaced by an upgraded and revamped System for Teaching Careers (which rural teachers can question), which will oversee hiring, promotion and competence recognition through competitive rulings equal for all.
One of the things the CNTE union leaders have long wanted to have back in their domain was the right to hire and fire, a privilege they enjoyed before Peña Nieto imposed his reform. It was accepted general knowledge that the union leadership was selling available openings to the highest bidders or, in another mode of corruption, retiring teachers would allow their offspring to “inherit” their jobs. Under the new law, the practice will be no more.
With the new law, the legal rights of education workers will come under the now-amended Mexican Constitution Article 123, Section B, allowing the union to dispense 50 percent of new jobs, “but always with the prevalence of the rectory of the state.” This means that the union may propose candidates, but it will be the federal government’s call whether to grant them the positions.
Public Education Secretary Esteban Moctezuma explained it thusly:
“All available vacancies will be placed over a crystal clear table, meaning aspiring applicants, the available budget, the procedure for everyone, how the vacancies will be assigned, will be public knowledge. Vacancies will be managed transparently.”
This clause was negotiated with the union bosses, who, of course, wanted the whole enchilada to keep on with the very corrupt practice of “selling vacancies.”
Other objectives of the new law are to improve teachers’ education levels, particularly in rural normal schools, and carry out constant consultation with the unions, specialty teachers and municipal and state governments in order to adjust education subjects to local community needs, if necessary.
Again, AMLO (and Mexico City residents) will have scored a major victory if school celebrations go uninterrupted this year and if the CNTE vandals don’t set up in the capital.
Will that happen? Who knows? For now, we can only hope.