“How many deaths will there have to be for the government to understand?”
One teacher’s question, posed after the education workers’ June 14 mega-march against neoliberal education reform in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, has become especially urgent in recent days. Teachers have occupied the center of the state’s capital city of Oaxaca City, and Mexican federal police are threatening to forcefully evict them. June 14 marked the ten-year anniversary of the last time the police attempted to evict a teachers’ encampment, and that assault sparked the six-month “Oaxaca Commune.” Striking education workers and social and indigenous organizations tied to the Popular People’s Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO) took over radio stations and erected thousands of barricades then, and since 2006, dozens of dissident teachers have been killed or disappeared.
Mexico, and especially the highly indigenous state of Oaxaca, is at the center of the global struggle over education reforms that stipulate standardized testing and privatizing schools, and unionists of the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE) and the Oaxaca local (Sección 22) of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE) have attempted to defy federal orders to implement the sweeping national reform of 2013. The reform erased the constitutional guarantee of free public education established in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century. As I noted in December, a massive media campaign in 2015 to denigrate union teachers as lazy, ignorant, and even criminal allowed the Oaxaca state government to dramatically dismantle the state education agency, abrogate contractual agreements with the union, and ultimately impose the national-level reform on the only state that had successfully rejected it. Equally important, the moves allowed the state government to seemingly break the back of the democratic education workers’ movement, one of the country’s most powerful and consistent voice for democracy and social justice.
Yet 2016 is proving that the struggle is far from over.
Insisting that the reform’s focus on the standardized-test evaluations of teachers are not about “quality education” but are really a means to fire education workers, shrink the labor force, and close schools in rural indigenous areas, education workers have occupied the central city plaza, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and tourist favorite. Using rocks, tear gas, and clubs, the state government evicted a smaller occupation in front of the state education agency the night of June 10. But teachers erected barricades that night in the city center as threats of a police assault circulated. Streams of taxis and partiers emptied the city center around midnight, long before clubs usually close in the active historic area of the city. The tension was high. But since then, the occupation, or plantón, has just gotten bigger. The next day, according to a report by Pedro Matias, education workers and supporters erected 23 blockades in Oaxaca, including an intersection leading to the international airport.
Local solidarity with the teachers is extensive and wide-ranging. The State Coordination of Parents and other supporters blocked a caravan of busses of federal police headed to Oaxaca in Asunción Noxchitlán, a short distance from the state capital. The same thing has happened elsewhere in Oaxaca and in the state of Puebla. In several communities in Oaxaca, especially in indigenous areas, parents themselves closed schools, urging teachers to head to the plantón. The state healthcare workers’ union has marched in support of the education workers and initiated a 24-hour strike on June 14. Seventy-one organizations signed on to a letter demanding the opening of negotiations between the President, the Oaxaca governor, and the union. From nearby Chiapas, the Zapatistas have announced their support.
That kind of solidarity is also evident in the efforts of the education workers themselves. After years of asserting that education workers came out to massive marches not out conviction, but because of union financial incentives to do so, the reform eliminated those benefits last year. But the plantón this year is comparable in size to those in recent years. Neither the consistent rainy weather nor the threat of violent eviction is driving occupiers away. As I walked through the occupation on Sunday night, I saw teachers sleeping on wet pieces of cardboard. Nearby, a group of retired teachers had delivered hot coffee and sweet bread. Volunteer medical students maintained a free medical services tent.
Not only do occupiers not receive benefits – they are risking their jobs. The government continues to threaten firing them for missing classes. One teacher from Oaxaca City was told to come to work on Monday, “or else,” he said. Instead of a total strike, Sección 22 initiated a rotating one: schools and grade levels take turns maintaining the occupation. But the government is using fines, paycheck deductions, and administrative maneuvers to economically punish the teachers, who are already among the lowest paid in the country. Some participating teachers are having their entire paycheck withheld for participating occassionally.
Much like it did in 2006, the state government seems to hope increasingly repressive measures become the new normal for Oaxaca. It has refused to negotiate with the teachers’ union, and over the weekend arrested its two highest officials, imprisoning them hundreds of miles from Oaxaca. It has installed cameras in the city center. It has utilized the presence of federal police since it dismantled the state education agency last July. Increasingly aggressive intimidation measures are part of the repressive landscape as well; squadrons of helicopters circle the city during marches, and police trucks swept through some neighborhoods on the night of IEEPO eviction.
Ten years ago, hundreds of thousands of local residents joined marches and barricades when the police tried to evict the plantón. In the comings days we will likely see if the same will be the case ten years after the uprising of 2006.
Eric Larson is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Crime and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth.