What’s the Deal With “Zocalo Ocupado”?

Hello All!

don't want to be clipped

don’t want to be clipped

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that would also protest against evaluations with teeth.

In this week’s post, we’ll look at a month long sit in by teachers in Mexico City who are protesting new government mandates in education. After reviewing why the teachers are protesting, we’ll look at:

  • What Mexico’s political history and union history may tell us about how and why these changes were made


  • What the changes for education in Mexico mean for the country

The Current: “El Grito” ends the shouting teachers protest

In 2008, the then Mexican president Felipe Calderon signed the Alliance for Educational Quality – a piece of legislation intended to improve Mexico’s awful ranking among rich-world countries in educational performance. The AEQ aimed to modernize school facilities, upgrade school resources, and promote joint efforts between federal and local education officials to use an increased federal education budget to improve education overall.


The Bully Pulpit of La Maestra

President Calderon also signed an agreement with the leader of the teacher’s union, Elba Esther Gordillo known as “la maestra”, the teacher. To improve student’s results, better teachers are an imperative in Mexico but Gordillo (with the agreement) made sure that getting rid of teachers (even ineffective ones) was not the aim. The power of Ms. Gordillo and the teacher’s union casts a long shadow over Mexican education and has come to a head this year.

The 2012 presidential election saw the return of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) to the Presidential palace with the election of Enrique Pena Nieto. Despite the PRI’s long history of corruption and strong state control, Nieto was elected on the premise that his administration would be a reformist one that could shatter the reputation of the PRI and open up state controlled and monopolistic industries in an effort to revamp the economy.

education reform has been a head-scratcher for Pena Nieto

education reform has been a head-scratcher for Pena Nieto

One of the reforms that Mr. Pena Nieto has pushed vigorously through a coalition congress is an education reform meant to yield the results that the 2008 efforts failed to achieve. The Mexican president realized that one of the keys to improving education results was to be able to get rid of bad teachers. This has been rigorously opposed by the teachers union, of course, who are now without their powerful leader Gordillo who was arrested and faces charges of embezzlement of over $200m in union funds.

Despite Gordillo’s absence, the teachers’ stance has been steadfast over reform. After the lower house of Congress passed the legislation to make teachers accountable for educational performance based on a yearly review, the teachers put their nails to the chalkboard and walked out.

not using a power point to  demonstrate

not using a power point to demonstrate

The protests were taken to El Zocalo, the main square in Mexico City and became extremely disruptive to daily life as the teachers barricaded themselves in for a month blocking traffic, and even the airport. They were protesting the lack of attention and funds received by poor performing schools in southern Mexico, but they were especially vehement about the reforms that include performance evaluations with consequences. After allowing the protests to proceed unfettered (with the exception of negative press), the Mexican authorities warned of an upcoming forced removal of the encampments for the annual independence day celebration on September 15.

Instead of having to speak over disgruntled educators at El Zocalo, President Pena Nieto instead reenacted “El Grito” , or shout of Mexican independence, without incident as the protesters had momentarily vacated the square. The length and animosity of the protests shows, however, the fight that Pena Nieto’s education reform is in – this even with the powerful Gordillo out of the picture.

Shout not interrupted

Shout not interrupted

As you may recall from our previous post covering Mexico’s election from last year, President Pena Nieto is the first President from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to be elected in 12 years. The hiatus (with 2 stints of the PAN party in the Presidential Palace) came after 7 decades of PRI rule. Let’s look at the leadership of Mexico in the 2oth Century and see how education policy developed and how the teacher’s union became so powerful.

PRI-venting Education Reform

The party that eventually became the PRI derived from revolutionary military leaders that set out to restore an antiquated and war-torn economy and society in the 1920s and 1930s. Following a 7 year civil war from 1911-1917 and rampant lawlessness and violence into the 1920s, Plutarco Elias Calles created the PRI’s precursor, the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) in 1929. The PNR was a loose mix of labor groups, military strongmen, and local political leaders that worked to limit the political opposition in other revolutionary camps. It worked. Calles was able to coalesce a large following and then systematically limit power within the party such as peasant and labor unions. This method made the PNR more of an elitist party.

Calles’ successor, General Lazaro Cardenas, tended to support more “radical policy” than Calles and used labor organizations as major bases of power instead of undermining them. Cardenas renamed the party the Partido de la Revolucion Mexicana (PRM) that included all the major interest group organizations: Military, Labor, agrarian, and popular (with existing political bosses). Thus the PRM evolved into a party of the masses, with some 4.3 million members by 1946. – when it was renamed the PRI.

Cardenas: the corrupt politician of the people

Cardenas: the corrupt politician of the people

The PRI forged an incredible peace with other political leaders – a surprising revelation considering the violence of the previous decade. With their power entrenched in so many powerful circles, the PRI pursued a nationalist agenda to centralize control over most industries including oil and agriculture, and public services like education. Given their extension of power, officials routinely paid off opposition or sold off their government positions to friends and supporters. This type of corruption became an emblem of the PRI that even today has been difficult to shake off. The same corruption in political circles also took place in education.

Centralization – Sí o No?

Under President Cardenas in the 1930s, the government (controlled by the PRI party) developed a centralized national education program which meant the government determined curriculum, teacher pay, hiring, firing, salaries, and education budgets.

In tandem with centralization of education, the rise and creation of a national teachers union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion or SNTE) became necessary to protect and advocate for teacher’s benefits. Members included public and private school teachers, retired educators, members of the department of education, and local and federal government administrators. This simultaneous rise of centralization and union membership for both educators and government workers could only lead to the entrenchment of educators in politics. PRI politicians could buy powerful votes by catering to the teachers union and their desired salaries and benefits.

Those benefits grew to include:

  • more paid holidays
  • bonuses from both federal and state governments
  • orthopedic insurance
  • dental insurance
  • a housing program
  • short school days: 7:45AM -12:30 PM

    the machine is fixed

    the machine is fixed

Under the last PRI President Carlos Salinas, Mexico instituted a decentralization policy for most of Mexico’s services and industries to try and modernize them and bring more of a role for the private sector into the country. Decentralization for education, under the Modernization of Basic Education meant putting more of the administration and budget in the hands of local authorities – a measure opposed heavily by the SNTE and their leader Jongitud Barrios. Salinas cleared this hurdle by having Barrios replaced by the most recent union leader, Ms. Elba Esther Gordillo. Decentralization passed but on the condition that a teacher incentive program was established – a win for the union.

A fragmented structure of education administration between federal and state level authorities meant that the SNTE became the mediator between the agencies and therefore became an intricate player in the delegation of funds for the education budget, and putting together policy.

Though local education authorities now had the power to hire new staff, publish books and revise structural organization, the budget came heavily through the federal government at an 80% clip. The power of the teacher’s union also is entrenched in public opinion through the Mexican culture. Teachers have been historically revered for their work as role models for young people and providing opportunities through education. Public opinion of teachers has been one of “can do no harm” and are quick to blame government first when education results are less than exemplary. Public pressure is therefore quick to fall on the side of the teachers union. Further, parents tend to trust fully in the teachers about educating their children – a very hands off approach to education. This means that if education is to be high quality in Mexico, the teachers have got to be good ones.

The 1.4 million current members in 59 sections each pay a membership fee of 1% of salary which comes out to a overall annual budget for the union of $60 million. Between their economic and political prowess, it becomes easier to see why the union is powerful. And with the benefits mentioned above, its easy to see why the union is fighting any changes to their control.

the youngins are in school

the money is there…

Conclusion: Entonces, Que va a pasar?

The state of education in Mexico is steadily improving. Between 2000 and 2011, high school graduation rates grew by 3.6% per year – the highest growth rate among OECD countries. Further, more Mexican children are being educated earlier: nearly all 4 year olds are enrolled in preschool today compared with 70% in 2007.

not in school

not in school

But the report card’s positive showing ends there. Mexico still ranks last among OECD countries in graduation rates and the percentage of adults enrolled in secondary education is the lowest. The following stat is quite telling of education in Mexico: “In 2011, some 66.1% of 15-29 year olds in Mexico were not in education and 24.7% of that age group were neither employed nor in education or training.” This is with one of the highest education budgets in the OECD (the per student spending is much lower, however).

While the improvements to education are noteworthy, structural change in education for the better will be lacking unless the SNTE relents on their corrupt behavior and use of political muscle for generous benefits. The bottom line is that the Mexican Teacher’s Union is extremely powerful and is the key roadblock to improving education in Mexico.

The rise of the SNTE mirrored the political history of Mexico and the PRI party:

  • As the central government took control of most services including education, the Union used the PRI’s political machine to their advantage.
  • Using the promise of political support, teachers in the union bought themselves favorable policies including generous benefits, light work loads, and tight job security.
  • The Union holds power in deciding education policy by acting as the mediator between federal and state level authorities – a position that means they hold sway over budgets, curriculum, teacher training, and hiring and firing of workers.

So, we know why and how the Union gained their power. The real question, therefore, is will education reform occur?

Many people are skeptics of the bill passed in Congress that is supposed to impose teacher evaluations to hold teachers accountable for poor performance and unprofessional behavior. Teachers who are fired over evaluations would be able to file a court appeal – a prolonged process that may file down the teeth of the evaluations. It is also not clear whether the evaluations will be made public – something that reformists want so that education is made more transparent.

The overall aim of the bill, however, is to begin to breakdown a system that retains bad teachers, gives extremely generous benefits, makes it very difficult to get rid of those bad teachers, and produces poor results in education.

The union exists to protect teachers jobs, wages, and rights, just like any union. But the union should also take into consideration the outcome for the products that teachers put out (students). They vigorously opposed the governments reforms because they worry they will lose their benefits. The strength and ferocity of the protests showed how angry the teachers and the union are about change to their jobs and benefits. The real showing of if structural change and reform has occurred will be in the next election: if politicians are shown the door for supporting education reform, then the union’s power has yet to ebb.

Ebbing that power and dismantling the corrupt educational leadership in Mexico is the first step to improving education results. Other countries, such as the United States, have many of their own issues in educational attainment, but no single factor as big as the union in Mexico. It will take time, frustration, and sometimes clearing public opinion hurdles, but education in Mexico will make great leaps forward with reform.

Until the next flight delayed by an angry science teacher,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:


http://www.economist.com/node/11412309 (2008 story)











About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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