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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Uniting to Defend Education as a Social Right

from the July 20, 2022 Bulletin

unions economy & economic reform education

María de la Luz Arriaga Lemus, a classroom teacher before joining the economics faculty at México City’s revered UNAM university, has been a long-time union activist. In 1993, she co-founded the Trinational Coalition in Defense of Public Education with her US and Canadian counterparts. Six years later, she helped launch, on a broader scale, the Social Network for Public Education in the Americas. Her latest effort: the Casa del Obrero Socialista “Antonio Vital.” Arriaga, all told, has spent half a century defending public education as a social right in México and beyond. 

When did México start guaranteeing education as a fundamental right?


María de la Luz Arriaga Lemus: Education — free, universal, secular — has been a guaranteed social right since the 1917 Constitution after the Mexican Revolution. This right gives young people from any background the possibility of greater life opportunities. 


But México, in the years since the 1990s, has adopted the neoliberal model for education from the United States. I’m not talking about the privatization, commercialization, and charter schools you see in the United States. Here in México we don’t have private entities creating single schools. We have a “privatization” of the entire public education system, a turn away from education as a social good to education as a commodity, a tool for individual advancement rather than a system to build capacity to resolve social problems. 


The education system, for example, introduced standardized testing. This became — who designs the tests! — a mechanism for reproducing class and racial divisions. The tests put the blame for not going to college on individual students. Their own parents castigate them for not doing well enough on the exams. But the real problem remains that our colleges don’t have enough spaces for students. 


The neoliberal “human capital” concept in México treats schools as the factory that produces the workforce that capitalism requires. One example: In 1995, Mexican president Salinas threw out fourth and fifth grade Mexican history textbooks with anything that put the US in a negative light. He even cut out the revolutionary role of Mexico’s “child heroes” during the 1847 US invasion. All this helped make it crystal clear that the education system serves US imperialism and creates a labor force at the service of the market.


You’ve been part of the fight for union democracy. What connection do you see between the right to an education and that democracy?


An important question. I’m convinced that without a democratic union teachers cannot ensure that the right to education goes beyond achieving universal access. The right to education must also be about the transformation of men and women into agents for creating democratic, humanistic, solidarity-based societies. Neoliberalism attacks the autonomy of teachers. But we can’t let them reduce teaching to just a skill-set. Teaching must always be an act of love.


The established SNTE teachers union, long closely tied to the PRI government, has controlled teachers through repressive means. How did the progressive CNTE alternative manage to break away?

The CNTE sees the SNTE — the National Educational Workers Union — as more a mafia than a union. 


Workers in México started rising up in the 1970s, with the state in political and economic crisis after the Zapatista revolution. Social discontent was running high. The CNTE started up in 1979, not as an officially recognized union, but a coordinadora of dissident SNTE sections.

In 2013, Guerrero state CNTE members, on strike against the neoliberal policies of then-president Peña-Nieto, attacked local political party offices armed with iron rods and rocks. Photo: Lenin Ocampo Torres/European Pressphoto Agency

The CNTE includes all workers in schools, from teachers and administrative personnel to cleaning and cafeteria workers. It exists within the SNTE. Its power comes from support from students and community leaders. The CNTE influences contracts, but doesn’t bargain directly for the most part. Only two sections of the CNTE, in Oaxaca and Chiapas, have official recognition. CNTE also has a strong presence in Michoacan, Guerrero, and Veracruz. But smaller sections exist all over the country. 


You cofounded the Trinational Coalition in Defense of Public Education. When did that form and why? 


We formed in the 1990s to protest the inclusion of education within NAFTA, a trade agreement — as if education were a product for sale! The Trinational Coalition brings together union and social organizations, including rank-and-file teachers, academics, and students, as well as parents and social organizations. We’re working to define the future of public education in North America as humanist, anti-authoritarian, and emancipatory. We develop common agendas and strategies to challenge our own governments and also support each other. Mexican teachers, for example, demonstrated in front of the US embassy when teachers in Chicago went out on strike. 


What can we learn from the Trinational Coalition’s success in getting people in one country to identify with people in other countries and act in concert with each other?


First, solidarity is not charity! Solidarity needs to be based on mutuality. In the Trinational Coalition, we have a place for discussion, friendship, and planning campaigns. We’ve organized ourselves horizontally, with equal say for US, Mexican, and Canadian voices. We look for ways to lend strength to struggles in any of the three countries. In 2005, for instance, the union in British Columbia went on an illegal strike. The government threatened to shut down the union’s internet. Mexican members of the Trinational created a website the British Columbian union could use if necessary. 


We see two interconnected premises for achieving real international solidarity. First, continuity. The commitment must be long-term and anchored in practice, not just words. The second, trust. And trust comes from sharing practice. Worker delegations across borders, I believe, can help create the personal connections that advance that sharing.


In critical moments of great uncertainty, such as those we’re experiencing in the world today, we need to ensure that public education strengthens the community — the collective — and promotes societies that inspire our children and young people to create a world that benefits us all.