Teachers Unions in Mexico: Corruption, Resistance, and Reform

Mexico’s biggest union, the teachers’ union, is currently under fire. The Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE) is the biggest and, therefore, one of the richest unions in Mexico – so far, its even the biggest union in Latin America. The trouble started in February 2013 when Elba Esther Gordillo, the president of the union, was arrested under allegations of embezzlement of union money. “La maestra,” as she is called, was the head of the organization since 1989, and could have kept this position for the rest of her life if this investigation would not have happened. But that was just a first step in the Mexican state’s current attempt to change the union’s structure.

While in April 2013, Jesús Salomé Rodríguez Manjarrez, leading member of SNTE Sinaloa was arrested for stealing 14 million pesos from the union (about 962,250 dollars); in August 2014, the head of SNTE Hidalgo was arrested for stealing 123,928,265 pesos from the union (about 8,517,850 dollars).  Yet the most recent case happened in November 2014 when the leader of SNTE-Nayarit was reported for financial irregularities. He is suspected of employing his four sons with an impressive salary for very little work, and this list goes on. Most of the money was stolen over longer time periods of time.

Such cases are typical in the SNTE. Gordillo, especially, was known for her almost obscene lifestyle: not only plastic surgery but tremendous shopping bills as well as a one million dollar house in Coronado, San Diego, another one in La Jolla, California — all of it paid with union money. What this shows is that it is not the irregularities that are new, but the attempts to investigate and punish them.

Under the new union leader, Juan Díaz de la Torre, it became visible how deep corruption and mismanagement are entangled with the union structure. One of his first activities was the implementation of a new law that, amongst other things, prohibited the inheritance of union positions and replaced this system with a regular application process. The law, created in November 2013 by the Peña Nieto Administration, was presented as a strong attempt to reform the corrupt system of the teachers union and to help (re-) build an organization that actually serves the workers as well as the education system. And on the organizational level, it is an important step in direction to a more democratic organization to no longer allow the inheritance of positions in the union or positions like “life-time presidency” which was held by “la maestra.”

Additionally, the law identifies a clear relation between the education that people receive and the conditions the teachers work in. Therefore the law does not just reform the teachers union but attempts to reform the educational system as a whole. Furthermore, a central element of the reform is a strict observation system over the teachers work, an element that is criticized by various teachers, but in this context, it makes clear that the union and the educational system are in the focus of the government and clearly thought of as directly related.

But is this an attempt from the government to actually better the working condition of the teachers and by this the education system? Is this the “New PRI” that was sold to the public during the elections campaigns in 2011/12?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand how an apparatus could develop that is basically stealing money from the workers and placing it in the hands of its very rich leaders yet remaining under the guise of a “union.” The explanation can be clearly found in the history of SNTE and the very beginning of the PRI’s domination in post-revolutionary Mexico.

It must be said, first of all, that the teachers in Mexico were traditionally involved in political activism such as protests against Porfirio Díaz, the dictator who was leading Mexico before the revolution. During the 10 years of revolution, between 1910 and 1920, the teachers remained a significant political force that was capable of influencing national politics.

In the 1930s and 40s the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) began to stabilize its position as leading party by including political and social institutions on various levels into the party’s apparatus. In doing so, the PRI basically nullified any separation between the government and the state in the meaning of a ‘collection of institutions’. Unions and other activists who were not willing to participate in this system were simply replaced by organizations that were founded by the government itself. The SNTE is a result of exactly this strategy: In 1943, the organization was founded with a presidential decree after a longterm conflict between existing teachers unions and the state. The state created a replacement for the politically active and critical unions and therefore became employer and voice of the employees all at once. In fact, the founding of the SNTE in itself makes clear that it was never meant to represent the teachers – for a good reason, it is usually illegal for the employer to found the union that represents the employees (the key expression is “conflict of interest”).

With this history, it is not surprising that the SNTE was, over decades, an integral part of the PRI state and, due to its size, one of the government’s most important power tools. Instead of representing the workers, the organization functioned to control the workers but, at the same time, managed to orchestrate the impression of worker participation. Actually, most of the money the state pumps into its education system goes through this union. (This might actually explain, why Mexico has one the highest rate of spending on education from all OECD countries while having the worst outcome).

Even though the PRI lost the federal elections in 2000 and needed 12 years to get back in power, the structure of the state did never really change. Too comfortable was the possibility of an almost total control over society, and especially control of the workers was needed to implement NAFTA regulations. A short view at regions that did develop a limited amount of self-organization, such as Chiapas, makes very clear that NAFTA, in the form the governments agreed on, would have been confronted with major problems in the case of a functional workers representation. Wherever the structures allowed it, the protests against the agreement began even before 1994 and the newly elected party of 2000, PAN, with its neoliberal orientation had no interest in a workforce with a democratic corpus of representation. A union that was basically part of the government was just too perfect to be reformed.

It is this background that has to be taken into account for an understanding of the current conflicts between the state and the SNTE. Knowing how important the SNTE had been for the PRI over seven decades, the question if the Peña Nieto Government is really working on a reform has to be asked again, and for various reasons it has to be answered with “no”.

First of all, the history of the organization shows that it was never meant to represent workers or to be their tool in labor-conflicts. The SNTE has no legitimation to speak for the workers. Even worse, it is exactly this organization that was created to wipe out the unions that fought successfully for their members. A reform of such an organization can solve minor problems but it is unlikely, if not impossible, to transform it into a real worker’s organization.

Linked to this argument is the fact, that it was the PRI that created this organization and also set its goals over decades. It is questionable whether this party is really willing to give up its own tools for some kind of greater good. In contrary, the current reports on the President and his family as well as the other members of his administration and party show that the country’s elites keep on profiting from corruption, money laundering, and embezzlement. What are the odds that this elite will, all of a sudden, change the system that gives them wealth and power?

And there are more signs that clearly signal against the government’s desire to really change the union’s structure. The beginning of the current unrest is directly related to the questions debated here. The 43 students who were kidnapped in Ayotzinapa were studying to become teachers. They were protesting against parts of the described law, such as the centralized organization of the planed observation of their work, and the low income that is planned to be paid to them. These students did not only mobilize by themselves, they were able to refer to a network, built by the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, CNTE – a leftist teachers union in which the majority of the members are from Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas — all states that are poor and largely rural, on the one hand, but that do have a tradition of resistance and self-organization on the other. CNTE was founded in opposition to the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la EducaciónSNTE and therefore never included in the PRI system of the 20th century. The union has a broader political program and is for example active in movements against the privatization of PEMEX, and demanded an investigation regarding the violent actions against demonstrators in Oaxaca. It is this union that was prominently involved in the organization of the protests in Ayotzinapa, before the 43 students were kidnapped.

An honest attempt to develop a union for the teachers that is worth the name of a union would be based on strengthening an existing organization that already reached credibility amongst the workers of the education system. But to almost suppress an investigation of a kidnapping, presumably attempted by the police, a local mayor, and a drug cartel is clearly an attempt to weaken such an organization.

The question remains, what is happening with the Government and one of its favorite power tools?

If the reform does not aim to really better the educational system, what might be the reason to begin such a conflict with this big organization? One important factor is that already short after the elections, Peña Nieto’s popularity was not exactly skyrocketing. As there is a broad agreement in society that the education system needs to be reformed and that the SNTE has to be part of such a reform, it might have looked like an easy step to better the reception of the newly re-elected PRI — especially because “la maestra” already had been a symbol for corruption in general. Going after her was clearly helpful for Peña Nieto to get the public opinion at least for the moment on his side.

Additionally, it seems like arresting Elba Esther Gordillo and passing the law on the educational system gave the Peña Nieto administration a new strategy to keep the workers under control. The discourse he developed around the arrest and the following reform of the SNTE was not that this union is extremely problematic due to its specific history but that unions – in general – are not the right way to represent workers. This discourse included the CNTE. The protests against the reform are coming from various sides. The CNTE is very active against bad salaries and a centralized observation that does not include the specific local conditions. The SNTE is very active for the protection of their system of inheritance. Clearly these are two very different demands and clearly the first one aims to better education, while the second one aims to protect elitist interests. But by investigating the SNTE, the PRI’s own child, so to speak, Peña Nieto is trying to create a general anti-union atmosphere that might help him to get rid of oppositional voices as well.

A final reason for the current attack against the SNTE might be that the system the PRI developed after the revolution (in which every bigger organization was at the same time a party organization) does not work out that easily any longer. Already the presidential election campaign in 2012 showed that despite the difficult conditions, a variety of social and political organizations developed and they were very willing to speak out against the PRI. At least the last part can also be said for “la maestra.” Despite from profiting largely from the PRI system she left the party in 2006 and became an active member and leader of the New Alliance Party (PANAL). With a lifetime president of the SNTE not being a party member, the whole organization lost its main function in the perspective of the PRI.

It must be said, then, that the Peña Nieto Administration is hardly interested in genuine education reform. It has recently adopted the strategy to reform its former institutions in hopes of reinstalling its almost absolute control over society in the 21st century.