Passing the law that stripped the powerful teachers union of most of its powers turned out to be only half the battle for Mexico’s new President Enrique Pena Nieto. The second step – which now presents the bulk of the problem – is getting the union on board with a new power structure that sees their influence markedly reduced.
Teachers expressed their dissatisfaction with the changes by going on strikeat the conclusion of the school Easter break, leaving support personnel in charge of supervising students and delivering lessons. Meanwhile, teachers were marching en masse throughout the streets of the capital to showcase their displeasure over the education reforms Pena Nieto has implemented.
The fight is dominating headlines in Mexico and freezing progress on a national education reform that Pena Nieto hoped would build momentum toward more controversial changes. Those include opening the state-owned oil company to foreign and private investment and broadening Mexico’s tax base, potentially with the first-ever sales tax on food and medicine.
Pena Nieto’s first major legislative victory after taking office in December was a constitutional amendment eliminating Mexico’s decades-old practice of buying and selling teaching jobs, and replacing it with a standardized national teaching test. That’s heresy to a radical splinter union of elementary and high-school teachers in Guerrero, one of the country’s poorest and worst-educated states. The teachers claim the test is a plot to fire them in mass as a step toward privatizing education, although there is little evidence the government plans that.
Those who advocate for reform in Mexico claim that the strikes and protests are the dying gasps of a movement that hasn’t accepted that its power has been substantially diminished — and union members have struggled with losing access to the substantial mount of money that used to be under their direct control that’s now the responsibility of the regional and central governments.
More than 20,000 teachers have been striking off and on for over a month now, creating chaos for more than 100,000 students across Mexico. When strikes alone didn’t put Pena Nieto in the mood to compromise, unions resorted to more disruptive methods of protesting.
On Wednesday, the protesters won support from a wing of the armed vigilante groups that have multiplied across poor Mexican states in recent months. On Thursday, they blocked the main highway from Mexico City to Acapulco for at least the third time, backing up traffic for hours. On Friday, they shut down entrances to some of the biggest stores in the state capital.
After returning Mexico’s former ruling party to power, Pena Nieto won international acclaim in his first five months by taking on some of the country’s most powerful people. He jailed the head of the far-larger national teacher’s union when she threatened to fight school reform. Then his push to open the telecommunications business provoked a multi-billion-dollar drop in the stock of the market-dominating phone companies owned by the world’s richest man.