OAXACA, Mexico (CN) — Tens of thousands of teachers marched Monday in Oaxaca City to kick off a 48-hour strike and sit-in in the state capital’s main square.
“We must defend our rights, no matter who is in the government!” they chanted as they marched just under four miles to the square from a monument honoring Oaxaca’s native son, the legendary 19th-century president and reform leader Benito Juárez.
More than 35,000 members of the Oaxaca chapter of the national teachers union CNTE attended the demonstration, a union spokesperson estimated. The CNTE is a faction of the SNTE, another national union from which the CNTE split off in 1979.
While they marched, union leaders met with Oaxaca’s governor Salomón Jara Cruz and other officials in the state Palace of Government on the city’s main square.
“Our main priority is to promote agreements with the teaching profession to make education better for all Oaxacans,” said Jara in a statement following the meeting. He said his government “will always be willing to accompany them in their struggle and advance of their legitimate demands.”
The union made no public statement after the meeting, but its spokesperson Luis Alberto López said in a text conversation afterward that they spoke of “hiring and vertical and horizontal promotion for colleagues.”
Plans were made for a meeting Tuesday on “issues of justice.”
They also signed a draft pertaining to the union’s demand that the state education law be changed to recognize and implement its Plan for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca, which includes the union’s own system of teacher certification.
This has been one of the union’s most contentious long-term grievances ever since a 2013 federal education reform imposed an individualized teacher evaluation system, something the union opposes.
The reform also put an end to the practice by retiring educators of passing down their position to a daughter, son or “someone close who could cover the space,” as Secretary General Yenny Araceli Pérez put it in an interview ahead of the march.
She and other union officials and members were quick to dismiss inquiries about certification as baseless allegations that were “sold” by the media, but after some coaxing described their proposed certification process as “communal” and “qualitative.”
Pérez and López argued that a teacher’s university education is sufficient to certify them to teach in Oaxaca and described the practice of bequeathing teaching positions as a hard-fought right.
Governor Jara also agreed to move forward on their demand to revoke of a 2015 state executive order that transferred more control of the state’s education system from teachers unions and local committees to the government.
The union held a closed assembly Monday evening and did not elaborate further on the meeting, but the news appeared to favor their plans at the state level.
“There are other central demands, of course, but several of those laid out in our petition are at the national level,” said Pérez.
Since May 1, she and other unionized teachers from across the country had attempted to hand their petition over to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the National Palace, where López Obrador resides and hosts his daily morning press conference that has entered the country’s political lexicon as “la mañanera.”
Last Tuesday, some of the protesters pushed through the linked metal fences police had set up as a barrier between them and the the National Palace. They also drove a pickup truck with loudspeakers strapped to its roof to within feet of the main entrance before scuffling with riot police.
Despite the unrest, a meeting of union leaders and representatives of the federal government held that same day also resulted in tentative good news for the teachers. They received a promise to cancel the transfer of an indigenous education department to the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, spokesperson López said after that meeting.
Part of López Obrador’s so-called “organic simplification,” which aims to to restructure 18 federal administrative departments, the union alleges the move would harm indigenous, intercultural and bilingual education in Oaxaca. As many as 16 indigenous languages are spoken in the state, more than any other in Mexico, and the transfer would fail to take this multiculturalism into account, López said.
But he and other union members, who complained of “dilatory meetings” with the government at Monday’s march, didn’t take the promise at face value.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said after the meeting in Mexico City. “We can’t put our trust in it until we see something concrete.”
While Monday’s actions were peaceful, the decades-long conflict has seen its share of violence. A police crackdown on a weeks-long sit-in in Oaxaca’s main square left over 140 people wounded.
In 2016 in the Oaxacan town of Nochixtlán, a confrontation between teachers protesting the educational reform resulted in six dead, over 50 wounded, 21 arrests and several burned-out vehicles, some of which remain on the roadside to this day.
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