MEXICO CITY, — With a presidential election approaching, the crowds assembling here Tuesday for International Workers’ Day — or May Day, as it’s know the world over — were more animated than usual, the floats and rallies resembling performance art. Thousands poured into Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, to hang in effigy the wage-killing labor reforms of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto and depict the suffering and struggle of Mexico’s workers. A giant lemur wearing prison stripes represented the oligarchs who privatized the country’s telecommunications industry. Indigenous rights groups from San Salvador Atenco marched solemnly, their placards held high in opposition to plans to build a new Mexico City airport on their ancestral lands.
The electricity of today’s May Day events here underscores organized labor’s discontent with their politicians’ neoliberal economic policies, and an appetite for change that is expected to result in the election of the leftist candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is this city’s former mayor. But the energy of today’s rallies also shines a light on a labor movement that has learned from its neighbors in the U.S. and Brazil that the election of a liberal or labor-friendly president is no time to rest on your laurels. To the contrary, labor unions and social movements are sending strong signals that they plan to turn up the heat on Lopez Obrador if he indeed wins the presidency.
Graciela Rangel, a board member of the national teachers’ union known by the Spanish acronym CNTE, told MintPress News:
We are aware that, should a progressive government come to power in Mexico, we have to be alert; we cannot be patient, waiting to see what will happen; instead we must go further … We’re going to keep organizing so that after the election we can continue with the struggle.”
Neoliberalism and Mexico’s education system
After his inauguration in December of 2012, one of Peña Nieto’s first major policy shifts was education reform, which was promoted as an upgrade. Instead, it was largely a labor reform, intended to weaken the power of the teachers and strengthen the government’s role in dictating education policy unilaterally.
Consequently, the CNTE has been at the forefront of the struggle against Peña Nieto’s neoliberal structural reforms, and say that the real objective of his educational program is not better schools but more docile workers.
The CNTE’s secretary-general in Oaxaca, Eloy Lopez Hernandez, describes the reform as «an administrative-labor reform that condemns the worker to continue working more hours and with a really low salary.”
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According to Lopez Hernandez, the government’s changes to the curriculum are driven by neoliberal ideology and seek to make it so the country’s children are “suitable to life of a proletariat,” selling their labor to employers for a song. He concluded, «Neoliberalism aims to plunder, finish off, and condemn the working class.”
Similar to the efforts of the progressive Chicago Teachers’ Union, the CNTE recognizes the seismic societal shift that school reform portends.
Roberto Soto, a teacher and supporter of the CNTE, told MintPress News:
I always tell my students that I won’t be in class, (but) not because I’m taking an extra day off, I’m going to a day of struggle so your children’s children can have a better future.”
Despite intense mobilization by the CNTE – including a militant 2013 walkout and a months-long occupation of Mexico City in 2016 – the government managed to force its reforms through and has since refused to negotiate or pursue dialogue with teachers.
Reforms, resistance, and elections
Lopez Obrador has twice run for president but the third time is shaping up to be the charm, according to polls. He has publicly committed to reviewing or repealing Peña Nieto’s structural reforms, including his educational policies.
Yet that commitment is not enough for the CNTE, which is wary of him and has even gone so far as to declare that there is no “left project” on the ballot in the upcoming elections. Victor Manuel Zavala, secretary-general of the CNTE in Michoacan, told a crowd of supporters at a rally in Mexico City in April:
We have political independence, we are not with any political party … we have the moral fiber to tell this government and the one to come that we will [remain] in resistance.”
By holding Lopez Obrador at arm’s length, the CNTE hopes to avoid repeating the mistakes made by other labor movements in Latin America, where there have been major demobilizations of class-conscious forces after the arrival of progressive politicians to power.
In places like Brazil with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Ecuador with Rafael Correa, this demobilization weakened the progressive cause and allowed right-wing forces to creep into the halls of power and ultimately return to government, where they have engaged in campaigns of persecution against leftist leaders.
“We don’t believe, and we discussed it thoroughly, that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or whoever wins the presidency, will solve the problems Mexico is facing,” Enrique Enriquez Ibarra, secretary-general of the CNTE in Mexico City, told a press conference after the conclusion of the organization’s most recent congress.
Graciela Rangel says Lopez Obrador will be under immense pressure from both the domestic and international investors to continue with the previous neoliberal reforms and betray his supporters.
“They have the media, more resources, but I believe the workers have the strength to continue organizing ourselves and to continue fighting against all these interests,” said Rangel.
Organizing from below
The CNTE struck a combative tone at the Fourth Extraordinary Congress, held in March of this year, where the union called for a series of escalating strikes. That began last month with a 48-hour teachers’ strike, and a 72-hour strike began Monday.
The CNTE are confident that they will find receptive ears among disaffected sections of the Mexican working class. The immense discontent over Peña Nieto’s reforms gives them the opportunity to reach a layer of workers that previously would not have considered engaging in political mobilization, and the CNTE are actively working to win over support through grassroots organizing.
Pedro Gomez Bamaca, secretary-general of the CNTE in Chiapas, told MintPress News:
We have realized that the only way to reverse all these structural reforms is by bringing together all the people of Mexico. We know that it is a complicated, difficult task, but we recognize that we have capacity.”
As a show of force, the organization aims to launch a general strike before election day and turn the tide against neoliberalism in Mexico and beyond. Said Eloy Lopez Hernandez:
We understand that all teachers throughout the world are living the same situation . . . in America, Asia, Europe, Africa, everywhere is a fight against neoliberalism.”
Top Photo | Delegates from across the country gathered in Mexico City to participate in the IV Extraordinary Congress of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) where education workers discussed the organization’s strategy in light of looming presidential elections and the challenge of overturning neoliberal structural reforms in Mexico, March 15, 2018. (Photo: José Luis Granados Ceja)
José Luis Granados Ceja is a writer and photojournalist based in Mexico City. He has previously written for outlets such as teleSUR and the Two Row Times and has also worked in radio as a host and producer. He specializes in contemporary political analysis and the role of media in influencing the public. He is particularly interested in covering the work of social movements and labor unions throughout Latin America.