By GERRY FOLEY
Militant teacher trade-unionists in Mexico have just won a major victory against the government’s attempts to break the labor movement’s resistance to its austerity and privatization drive.
Teachers have been a prime target of this assault, since the budget sent to the Mexican congress by President Ernesto Zedillo calls for cutting the education budget by a third.
Five teacher trade-unionists originally sentenced to more than 40 years in prison on Jan. 3 were cleared of the last remaining charge against them, riotous behavior, on Feb. 19. They were cleared of the most serious charges, robbery and wrongful imprisonment, on Feb. 3 and released on bail.
The dramatic climb-down by the courts from sentences more than twice the length of those given to first-degree murderers in some countries is a testimony to the power of the protests organized by the imprisoned leaders’ fellow trade-unionists.
On Jan. 1, the day of the court’s original sentencing, 100 teachers immediately protested. Five days later, 5000 marched. On Jan. 13, 70,000 teachers and their supporters filled the broad Avenida de la Reforma between the Monument to the Revolution and the presidential palace.
On Jan. 29, 40,000 persons attended a protest rally in the Zocalo, Mexico City’s central square.
There were also strikes by teachers in many states of the Mexican Union, especially in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, and Michoacan, as well as in the Federal District.
Characteristically for Mexico, the struggle of the teachers has been a combined one against the government and against the ruling PRI party’s manipulation of the unions from within.
The state-party’s control of the trade-union movement has been essential to keeping all categories of workers from fighting back against an average drop of 48 percent in their incomes over the last 15 years.
The five teacher unionists jailed were members of the leadership of Section 9 of the National Educational Workers’ Union (SNTE), which includes 56,000 teachers in the Federal District.
A decade ago, the slate supported by the Democratic Current, a caucus opposing the government stooges in the union, won the election. But the national SNTE leadership and the government refused to recognize the election, preventing the Section 9 officers from exercising many of the functions of a union leadership.
Finally, the Section 9 leaders decided to stage a protest in the Mexican Senate, since it was a PRI senator, Elba Esther Gordillo, who controlled the national leadership of the SNTE, and its general secretary, Tomas Vasquez Vigil, was only a stooge of hers.
On Nov. 11, Section 9 protesters overcame attempts to bar them from the Senate chambers. They stayed inside for 10 hours discussing with senators and demanding that they set up a negotiating body.
Subsequently, the protesters were charged with destroying and stealing Senate property and forcibly detaining senators, as well as “riotous behavior.”
All but the last charge were thrown out on Feb. 3 because they were incontrovertibly refuted by the evidence. The apparent last act in this drama was the dropping of the final charge on Feb. 19.
The jailing of the five teachers’ leaders in the Federal District and repressive moves against teachers in other areas was met with a broad response because it was clearly aimed at preventing the democratic opposition in the SNTE, the National Coordinating Committee of Educational Workers, from joining in the struggle against Zedillo’s austerity program and in support for the civic referendum on indigenous rights called for March 21 by the Zapatista National Liberation Army leaders.
A new coordinating body of militant trade-unionists, the National Assembly of Workers (ANT), after meeting with the Zapatistas, called for national days of protest against Zedillo’s budget.
The ANT was originally formed to fight against the government’s proposals to change the labor code included in the Mexican constitution, which includes concessions made to the working class under the pressure of the Mexican Revolution.
The unionists feared changes in the labor code similar to the changes that eliminated important gains for the peasants, notably the gutting of Article 27, one of the spurs to the Zapatista uprising of January 1994.
The new coordinating body includes forces from both the Coordinadora 1 de Mayo, a radical body that includes social protest movements, and the National Union of Workers (UNT), a more conservative union body that nonetheless represents a certain break from state trade-unionism.
On Feb. 1, Zedillo took a further step in his assault on the historic gains of Mexican workers. He announced a plan to privatize the National Electric Board, which will also require changing the constitution, since Article 28 makes the generation and distribution of electric power a state monopoly. It is estimated that privatization would bring rate increases of of up to 300 percent.
The principal union in the electric power industry, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME), is one of the most democratic and militant of the country’s unions. A trade-union front has been formed to organize the struggle against this scheme.
On Feb. 11, the SME held a tumultuous meeting to discuss fighting the privatization plan, which was attended by representatives of many other unions and social organizations, including the Coordinadora 1 de Mayo and UNT unions.
The meeting called for a campaign of work-place assemblies over February to educate the electrical workers about the implications of privatization. The meeting also appointed a committee to begin preparations for a nationwide strike on April 28.
Information for this article was provided by Emilio Amaya, leader of the trade-union work of the Liga de Unidad Socialista, with which Socialist Action has fraternal relations.