Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Unions in Latin America Take Militant Tack

By John Gehring — September 30, 2004 6 min read
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Teachers’ strikes throughout Latin America have left millions of students out of school this year, and in some cases, even sparked violent clashes between militant protesters and police forces.

The demands made by the teachers—better salaries, more resources, a rejection of school privatization—in many ways mirror the seminal issues raised by teachers’ unions in the United States. But the aggressive, confrontational public acts embraced by many labor organizations in Central and South America as a way to sway government policies reveals a type of militancy rarely seen in teachers’ unions in the States.

Some experts, in fact, believe that teachers in Latin America are becoming more radical.

“Public-sector unions have become very militant,” said Victoria Murillo, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Columbia University. “There’s a lot of variation in union organizing in Latin America, but by the 1990s, the public-sector unions in most of these countries were characterized by militancy because most of them really suffered a reduction in wages.”

What’s more, said Ms. Murillo, who has written about teachers’ unions in Argentina, “in both Peru and Honduras, there’s a centralized teachers’ movement with a single union representing all teachers, which makes them relatively strong compared to other countries.”

Looting and Burning

In Honduras, teachers shut down major highways and called for the resignation of President Ricardo Maduro during a strike that began in June, when about 60,000 teachers walked off the job, demanding better pay and more government funding for education.

During one march to the national Congress in the capital of Tegucigalpa, teachers carried wooden sticks and rocks as they joined several thousand striking workers. Banks and other businesses shut down during the march, and the military was called in to set up barricades. About 2 million students missed classes during the 35-day strike that ended in July, after the government agreed to wage concessions.

Peruvian teachers went on a nationwide strike for three weeks that same month, calling on embattled President Alejandro Toledo to live up to his campaign promise of raising teachers’ salaries and improving education in a country where most teachers struggle on the $200 they make a month.

Striking teachers were mobilized by Peru’s influential teachers’ union, known in Spanish as the Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores Educación del Peru, or SUTEP, which represents about 145,000 teachers countrywide. A more radical faction of SUTEP unionists was joined by other workers July 1 in the city of Ayacucho, where more than 300 teachers occupied a municipal building, set fire to a hotel belonging to the mayor, looted automatic teller machines, and clashed with military forces and the police.

The strike ended in July after the government agreed to small wage hikes.

Last year in Guatemala, about 60,000 public school teachers went on strike for more than a month, calling for salary increases, as well as more textbooks and repairs to crumbling school buildings. At the height of the walkout, students, families, and indigenous groups joined teachers in shutting down the main airport and border crossings for several days.

The frequent teachers’ strikes and level of populist anger against some governments in Latin America is being driven in part, some observers say, by a broader convergence of social movements resisting “neoliberal” economic policies.

Those policies are adopted by governments that follow the blueprints of international lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Critics say the economic models encouraged by those organizations favor the privatization of public services and the paying down of a nation’s debt at the expense of funding for social programs like education.

“Teachers do not have enough money to live on, and government support for education is eroding,” said Bob Arnove, an Indiana University professor who specializes in comparative education and has written about education in Latin America. “In the context of this neoliberal agenda, education is being privatized and decentralized, and teachers in many of these countries are some of the most unionized professionals so they can speak out collectively against these economic policies.”

David Dorn, the director of international affairs for the American Federation of Teachers, says the perspective of teachers’ unions in South America are shaped by the legacy of politics and history in the region. Although some unions have evolved to the point where they can work pragmatically with governments, said Mr. Dorn, who has worked with South American labor groups, many others still view any relationships with their governments from a “class warfare” perspective.

“While historical ties between teachers’ unions, political parties, and leftist ideologies waned after the fall of Soviet communism, many traditions and instincts linger on,” he said.

Targets for Persecution

Unions in some Latin American countries have faced decades of harassment for their political activity.

Teachers in Colombia, in particular, often have been targeted and killed by paramilitary groups, as well as terrorists involved with drug trafficking during the country’s 4-decades-old civil war.

Last year alone, 41 teachers were murdered in Colombia, many in retaliation for their union activism, according to the Federación Colombiana de Educadores, or FECODE, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. Many of those killings go unpunished.

“In Colombia, there is great intolerance of unions,” said Max Correa, a union leader for FECODE in Bogotá, during an interview in Washington. “Our unions are immersed in this history of violence in Colombia. Many of us have been threatened and have suffered physical attacks. I have received death threats. The majority of union leaders have been threatened. Because of this, the unions have been debilitated. People are scared,” he said.

Mr. Correa recently visited the United States, along with other FECODE members, at the invitation of the AFT, the AFL-CIO, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

The AFL-CIO runs a Washington-based Solidarity Center that helps workers around the world build independent unions, and officials asked the Colombians to meet with members of local and state unions in several U.S. cities.

Laura Henao, the secretary of women and family affairs for FECODE, said schools located in rural areas of Colombia are often in territory where paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas are fighting. “The violence in Colombia has an enormous effect on the quality of education, and on Colombian families and teachers,” she said.

Links to Terrorism?

In some South American countries, such as Peru, government officials have accused factions of teachers’ unions of having links with terrorist groups bent on destabilizing or overthrowing the government.

When a faction of striking Peruvian teachers joined other workers to occupy a municipal building in Ayacucho this summer, Peru’s prime minister, Carlos Ferrero Costa, claimed the union was influenced by a Maoist-inspired terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso. The terrorist group, which had its birth in Ayacucho, was infamous in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s for brutal murders, torture, and kidnappings of government officials.

But Mauricio Quiroz Torres, a Lima-based coordinator for SUTEP, Peru’s main teachers’ union, calls that allegation a lie perpetuated by the government to divert attention from the real issues: declining teachers’ wages, diminishing levels of government support for public education, and the increased contracting of temporary teachers who can be fired without cause.

“The accusation is unfounded, a tale conceived of by the government to discredit our national union, and to take away the support we have from the people,” Mr. Torres said in an e-mail interview. “Teachers peacefully occupied various public localities. The national police of Peru used unusual violence even though the teachers had already signed agreements with the authorities to dialogue about the issues.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies..

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A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Unions in Latin America Take Militant Tack

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