Oaxaca, Mexico:
An Expatriate Life

Writing by Stan Gotlieb
Photos by Diana Ricci

Teachers in Oaxaca

These are two articles written for readerships in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Mexico At The Crossroads: Politics and Economics overshadow Union-Management Dispute ©2006 by Stan Gotlieb

Oaxaca de Juarez, June 19 2006:

In an annual ritual, the teachers’ union of the state of Oaxaca (one of Mexico’s three poorest states) put down their chalk and put on their marching shoes to come to the capital city and camp out in the heart of town. Some 50,000 plus marched in on May 22, and about 30,000 stayed to occupy the town square and some 50 blocks surrounding it, effectively choking off the tourist watering holes, and most of the upscale stores and restaurants that remain in spite of the appeal of the new malls in the suburbs.

On about the 15th day of the sit-in, elements of state and city police moved to dislodge the protesters by force. Dropping massive amounts of teargas from helicopters and using attack dogs, about 1,500 police cleared the center. Witnesses described the exodus, as thousands of crying refugees streamed out, leaving their tents and tarps to be slashed and burned by the police. Some tarps were set afire while their occupants, half-asleep, were still under them. Nobody – tourist, resident, unionist – escaped the tear gas. Everyone in the area at the time has stories to tell of people screaming and running.

During the dislodgement, the teachers’ union headquarters was invaded and sacked. Records, supplies, office machinery were tossed out the windows into the street. Strike co-ordinators still in the building were beaten and arrested. There are persistent rumors of people being injured, disappeared, and killed – including a baby smothered by tear gas – but nobody has been able to come up with any names.

Within hours, the teachers had regrouped and returned to chase off the heavily padded and armed forces of “law and order”, using sticks, rocks, and machetes. The cops offered little resistance. The next day, a spontaneous march drew some 70,000 teachers, unionists from other trades, their friends and families.

Since then, there has been a planned “mega-march” - the third so far - that took six hours to clear the route and has been estimated at as much as 400,000 people, although around 150,000 making it the biggest labor march in Oaxaca history - is probably closer to the reality. Nary a cop was to be seen. At the moment (Monday morning), calm appears to prevail. The teachers and their friends leave the Zocalo each night and return each morning. Police presence is negligible.

The national internal secretariat – which functions in Mexico as the enforcement arm of executive policy – has set up shop in one of Oaxaca’s fancier hotels, where they are trying to broker a settlement. While things have calmed down some, and while each side has made concessions, nobody is expecting the current standoff to end any time soon. The problem is that this has long since ceased to be a normal labor-management dispute.

Mexico, until the current President was elected in 2000, was a “perfect dictatorship”. The PRI party ruled the country for over 70 years, using a combination of carrot and stick. The loss of the presidency threw the Party into confusion, back-biting and fear. Other “arrangements” began to fall apart. In labor, independent and very dissident formations attacked the “business as usual” arrangements whereby union “leaders” delivered votes to the PRI in exchange for personal fortunes while the rank and file suffered. Intertwining of politicians, bosses, and “company unions” (the company in this case being the PRI) began to be seriously challenged.

In Oaxaca, the state “local”, Section 22 of the teachers’ union, rebelled against the national leadership, without leaving the larger formation. The “radicals” demanded not just more salaries, but also hot meals, shoes, and shelters for rural classrooms: students who are hungry, cold, and under-dressed can’t be taught, they said. They also began to demand a restructuring of the salary scale (set state-wide) to reflect the skyrocketing cost of living in the more urban areas, particularly the city of Oaxaca.

In the end, most of these demands will be met – by a promise, which may or not ever be delivered upon. In past years, agreements have not produced all that was agreed. But there is much more going on, under the surface. While the state board of education sets the salaries and distributes the funds, actual teachers’ appointments are made by the Union. That is to say, if you want to leave your job in the mountains, to which you commute several hours on Monday, and return from on Friday, and get a job closer to home and family, you must petition the proper authority at union headquarters. It’s a great way for authoritarian union leaders to develop “loyalty” among the troops. Beyond that, a few decades ago the union demanded – and got – the right to appoint officials to the board of education. That’s right, folks, the people who oversee the teachers are themselves creatures of the union.

Governor Ulises Ruiz wants to take that away from the union, and to a large extent that is what is behind the current conflict: who gets to dictate to whom. Faced with the governor’s challenge to their monopoly, the union bosses have escalated the conflict. Now, they say, they will not leave until the governor resigns.

Ulises is a tremendously unpopular governor. He is widely believed to have won by massive electoral fraud, and has angered Oaxacans by a series of expensive and un-needed public works projects which operate, many say, to funnel clandestine profits to the campaign of PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo. If an election were held today, he would lose by a large margin. Even so, he could probably put down the teachers by calling for federal troops – under different circumstances.

Right now, there are labor wars going on in several states. Striking miners in Sonora, Chihuahua and Michoacan have held off raids by federal troops, and peasants resisting the imposition of an airport on their land in Mexico state were recently massacred by state troopers in a continuing struggle. Other dissident elements in various places in Oaxaca have been raising their banners, taking over city halls, and blocking roads. The feds have their hands full.

The issue in almost every instance is economic in nature, primarily about dislocation of jobs and destruction of environment seen as a direct result of twelve years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). With a presidential election (and many legislative contests) coming up on July 2, the national miners, telephone workers, and others are calling for a general strike on the 28th. Clearly, this is an attempt to influence the voters.

The question on many minds these days is whether Mexico can turn the corner (presidential candidate Lopez Obrador of the PRD party is calling for a re-negotiation of some key points in NAFTA; he is the front-runner) to a more democratic and economically viable state; or whether it will continue to slip into conflict and chaos.


Southside Pride article, June 28:

Oaxaca, Mexico, at the end of June. At 3:00 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, it is warm and sunny, with a hint of rain in the air. Four expatriate Gringos are sitting in one of the sidewalk cafes ringing the Zocalo (central park) having a drink and talking about the current situation, a “situation” which is up close and immediate.

The teachers are in town – tens of thousands of them. They have been here since the 22d of May, and they show no signs of leaving. They are camped out in the park, and on the streets surrounding the park. They leave at night to sleep in schools, churches, houses of relatives and sympathizers and union halls, as they have ever since June 14, when thousands of padded and armed police using tear gas and attack dogs chased them off in a pre-dawn raid and burned many tarps and tents before being themselves chased off by regrouped teachers armed with clubs and machetes; and they return during the day to occupy the center, blockade crucial highway intersections, sit in at various government offices, banks, malls and in other ways to disrupt “business as usual”.

Later this afternoon, there will be another “mega march”, the fourth. The last one, a week ago, involved anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 demonstrators. It took almost six hours to clear the route. Oaxaca has a population of about 600,000. That’s like putting at least 300,000 people marching up Lake Street from the bridge to Lake Calhoun [editor's note: Mpls has about 450,000 residents; the twin cities about 600,000]. Pretty dramatic.

A few days ago, the “anti-teacher” forces, consisting of the Governor (the central demand of the teachers has switched from wages and working conditions to “the governor must go”, a theme that has a lot of appeal among the populace in general: this governor is seen by the vast majority as arbitrary, corrupt, repressive and destructive of what is unique in Oaxacan culture), the chamber of commerce, the hotel and restaurant owners’ organization (several of their members have closed their doors for the duration), and stalwarts of the PRI party to which the governor belongs and which has ruled Oaxaca state for almost 75 years, held their own march. Estimates of the crowd size varied from 10,000 to 100,000. Rumors abounded of marchers being paid up to 50 dollars for attendance, of government workers told to march or else, of shopkeepers and other businesses who rent space in government owned buildings pressed into service.

By the time most of you read this, Mexico will have a new president. On July 2, results will indicate either a pro-NAFTA conservative or a very moderate Leftist social reformer who vows to renegotiate key parts of the much-hated “free trade” agreement. Whomever wins, little will change for the teachers, or for Mexico in general. If the teachers decide to go home after the election, it will be because the school year has ended, not because of changes at the top.

“I am the only able-bodied working age man in my village”, a teacher told me a couple of weeks ago. “All the men have left to find work. The trees are logged out and the soil has eroded, but even if there is good growing dirt, how can they compete with subsidized corn and beans being imported by U.S. based multinational corporations? It costs more to grow them than to buy them in the store. All the government subsidies have been removed. We invented corn, and now we can’t afford to feed ourselves.”

The teacher, who commutes from a town in eastern Oaxaca state to a remote village of Mixtec indigenous to which he has to walk for three hours from the end of the bus line, must abandon his own family from Monday morning to Friday afternoon. He has to carry books, supplies, and his own food, on his back. He teaches school in a lean-to he has constructed in which he hangs his hammock at night. His students suffer from malnutrition and preventable diseases that make learning difficult. By age 14 they are gone. Alcoholism is endemic, made all the more common by the practice of feeding pulque – a mild fermentation of the maguey cactus from which tequila and mezcal are made – to children, to stop their crying from hunger pains, and for what little food value it contains. Shoes are rare and infections and infestations from various foot-seeking pests are common.

“The only help comes from the non-governmental organizations, such as EDUCA (founded by Maryknoll lay workers), and even their resources are limited”, he says. “Right now, they are working to empower the women; to get them to move into the essential tasks previously done by their men. For example, the village has a bus. It has not run for several months. The reason is that nobody who is left knows how to drive it. A co-operative of women is being organized to learn how. A bus cuts the three-hour walk to about 20 minutes.”

Remittances from absent family members are the largest – and in some places the only – source of cash money; the Mexican version of AFDC. Displacement of farmers due to NAFTA and other socially destructive practices has created a new “welfare state”, in which the means of survival comes not from the government, but from ones’ own relatives, living far away under often oppressive conditions; and along with returning relatives comes AIDS and other social diseases. No wonder that teachers like the one I was talking to don’t care in the least about whether or not their occupation of the Zocalo adversely affects tourism in “far away” Oaxaca city. Tourism doesn’t do anything for them.

A commission of the national congress is now in possession of petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of Oaxacans, gathered by the teachers, asking for the forced removal of the governor. “We recognize that even if he is removed, the realities of daily life will not change much for most Oaxacans”, the teacher says. “The problem is much deeper, much more entrenched, than any governor or any president. But at least we will have removed a tyrant who has no respect for the people from office. This strike is as much about dignity as about economics; as much about economics as it is about politics; as much about politics as it is about wages and working conditions. If we cannot prevail now, how will we ever find our way to democracy in this country?”