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Oaxaca Teachers’ Strike Three Years Later

New America Media, News Analysis, Slideshow, Louis E.V. Nevaer, Photos by Elaine Sendyk Posted: Jun 16, 2009

Editor’s Note: Today marks the third anniversary of the teachers’ strike in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca that captured the world’s attention. Students in support of the teachers created remarkable graffiti art, and an outbreak in violence resulted in the death of three people. Three years later, the world is no longer riveted to the action, but the reasons for the strike have not changed. NAM contributor Louis Nevaer, author of Protest Graffiti: Oaxaca (New York: Mark Batty, 2009), reports.

At the core, the strike was about the oppression of teachers, which has its origins in the remnants of the peculiar social contract between the government and the governed that emerged at the end of the Mexican Revolution. In 1917, seven years of turmoil following the fall of Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship concluded with the Mexican Constitution. In the next decade, Mexico’s political system coalesced around the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, which was a nationalist-socialist party, one that followed a mixed-economic development model.

This was the state of affairs in Oaxaca, a southern state as distant from cosmopolitan Mexico City as one could get before running into the dismal reality of Chiapas. The PRI’s familiar modus operandi was still the order of the day in Oaxaca. Every May, just as school ended and the summer recess began, the teachers’ union would stage a “strike,” demanding higher wages. The political theatrics required the PRI governor to “complain” to the “independent” union that budget constraints made it “impossible” for another wage increase to be granted. The teachers would give speeches, reminding the public of the nobility of teaching, of how hard they worked to educate the next generation, and of the just nature of their demands. The governor would make other speeches, one in which he reminded the public of his commitment both to a balanced budget and to social justice. This back-and-forth would continue until a compromise would be “reached” – money for a raise would be found, although it was not as high as originally demanded.

In rounds of self-congratulatory remarks and pats on the back, all parties would claim victory throughout the summer. The teachers would be paid a little bit more, the state’s budget had not been wrecked, the governor had shown his benevolence, and the PRI’s careful management of the balancing act of competing interests inherent in the social contract had been reaffirmed. The “crisis” precipitated by the annual May “strike” would be thus “resolved” each August, just when state government would shut down for summer vacation, and before the teachers returned to their classrooms for the new school year in September.

Now, three years later, there's an unhappy stalemate. In Oaxaca, Governor Ulises Ruiz, a PRI member, is defying his own party, the leaders of which have called for him to resign. The consequence has been one of public relations: the PRI is making it clear that they want Ruiz to go, but they cannot make him go. And President Felipe Calderon, from the PAN party, is adamant that he cannot force the governor to go without violating states' rights. The situation is similar to the situation in the United States for much of 2008: People were fed up with George W. Bush but they had to suck it up until the November 2008 election and then the January 2009 inauguration. The people of Oaxaca, in turn, are now being told to suck it up: New gubernatorial elections are scheduled for 2010, and Ruiz cannot run.

For Oaxaca's teachers, 2010 promises to be the year when change -- and social justice -- arrives.

Related Articles:

In Oaxaca Crisis, Mexico City Explosions are a Dangerous Escalation

Oaxaca’s Unrest Echoes America’s Civil Rights South

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