Teachers in México have been in the vanguard of social change for a century. Why have they played such a militant role?
Eligio Valdés: Teachers and priests have been the main educated people in small towns across México. Teachers have always lived among the people, as part of the community. Through many phases of history they’ve been in a position to see what needs to change, and they have the ability to develop alternatives to the existing system.
Today, in Michoacán, in spite of great difficulties and limited resources, we’ve been able to construct and put into practice a “Democratic Program for Education and Culture” for our state that challenges the official program of the government.
The 1.4-million-member SNTE teachers union — Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación — ranks nationwide as México’s largest union. But in Michoacán the independent Coordinator Nacional de Trabajores de Educación — the CNTE — has become the primary teacher voice. How does the CNTE operate?
In the CNTE, a broad collective of democratic teachers, all members make decisions and act together to solve the problems we face, a process completely different from the authoritarian charro union structure, where the leader alone makes the decisions, behind closed doors with government officials, all acting with complete impunity. This opens the door to corruption.
Teacher protests in México have inspired US labor activists. Do you see the independent teachers movement as part of the union movement or more of a social movement?
The CNTE has gone through different stages. At first, it functioned like a conventional union. At its first congress, in 1989, CNTE’s demands focused on raising salaries and building a more democratic union. In the next period, we became more involved in social issues like the privatization of energy, social security, and, acting together with our communities, protesting police attacks.