By Jack Staunton
La lucha continua – the struggle continues! That’s the message from teachers, activists and other workers in Oaxaca, despite the wave of repression against them from Mexican police over the past two weeks.
After the invasion of the city of Oaxaca by over 4,500 Mexican state police, it looked as if the five-month workers’ revolt had been crushed. The teachers’ strike, which had set off the massive social struggle and the occupation of the city by a mass organising assembly (APPO), was declared over by the leadership of their union (the SNTE) on 27 October.
But the people of Oaxaca have kept up their struggle for the resignation of right-wing state governor Ulises Ruiz, whose police killed three strikers in June, in an earlier attempt to defeat the teachers. On 5 November as many as 1.3 million people demonstrated against the previous week’s violent state repression of the “Oaxaca Commune”, which killed 15 people.
Then came a strike in Michoacán on 9 November; over a week after the “return to work”, it included 50,000 teachers at 11,000 schools — it was called by Local 18 of SNTE, led by the grassroots CNTE (National Co-ordinating Committee) faction.
A three-day stoppage has also been called there in response to the inauguration of the conservative President Calderón on 1 December.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to which Ruiz belongs is backed by SNTE, as well as most other unions, but throughout the last century has carried out vicious anti-working class attacks in government. Ruiz is also being backed up by PAN, the conservative party led by President Vicente Fox.
SNTE leader Enrique Rueda Pacheco met with Interior minister Carlos Abascal to agree a deal which did include a wage increase and a thin promise to uphold “teachers’ rights”, but not the resignation of Ruiz, a central demand of the workers in struggle.
At the height of the police invasion of Oaxaca, Rueda Pacheco’s call for the “return to work” was denounced by the CNTE, showing as it did his separation from the real class struggle.
Having negotiated this deal, the SNTE leadership did carry out a ballot of union delegates, and the deal was accepted by almost 60% to 40%. But the APPO, which since June has occupied most administrative and communications buildings and the university, and administered law and order, said that the SNTE should have made no negotiations without consulting the rank-and-file first. SNTE may well have bought off most of its members, but was unwilling to unseat a representative of the party it supports.
The CNTE-controlled Local 22 of the union echoed APPO’s call, and has been active in keeping the struggle going. For two weeks since the state’s invasion of Oaxaca, teachers, students and APPO activists have fought to keep the police out of the university, including battles in the streets, demonstrations and an APPO constituent assembly which affirmed the determination to keep the struggle going and refusal to give in until Ruiz is gone.
Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, who is touring the country for his ‘Other Campaign’, refusing to support either bourgeois candidate in the recent presidential election, attacked the weakness of the liberal PRD — which was narrowly defeated in the elections — over Oaxaca: “The politicians, the functionaries, governors are simply serving as administrators of this process of destruction. In none of the political parties is there the least decency, to look to the grassroots”.
The people of Oaxaca are tired of the repression meted out by a corrupt and right-wing government. But the huge struggles did not just come out of nowhere, or spontaneous collective anger. The lesson of Oaxaca is the value of rank-and-file trade union organisation, cohering worker activists around a radical agenda and pushing real politics within the big unions, like the SNTE.
The CNTE was formed in 1979 by teachers in the southern states of Mexico, particularly Chiapas and Oaxaca. Central to its creation were bilingual teachers who teach in both Spanish and indigenous languages to poor farmers and their families in small towns with poor facilities and supplies — salaries are poor. They found that the union was unwilling to support their demands for better conditions — one of the first campaigns on the agenda was demanding the right to elect their own union representatives. This movement led to the creation of the CNTE, a democratically run caucus.
Rather than organising separately from the SNTE, they took the fight within the union, in order to reach out to other teachers. This non-sectarian attitude has been central to their ability to organise layers far beyond their initial forces, often around militant demands. The union locals where the CNTE has most influence have for many years been central to all the strikes and demonstrations which the union has dared to call.
It has been unable to topple the PRI-supporter bureaucrats who lead the SNTE — but has consistently proven itself able to mobilise tens of thousands of strikers through its own initiative.
For example, a wave of struggles in early 1999, initiated by the CNTE around a set of demands including a 100% wage increase (common from the CNTE) culminated in a strike of over 200,000 teachers across the country. It had 100,000 out on strike in June 1997. And today it is central to the ongoing effort to fightback against the state onslaught on Oaxaca
Accused by the government of links to Maoist guerrillas, the CNTE is in fact a movement of grassroots union activists, whose demands are directly relevant to teachers. The wage demand is central to their propaganda — teachers in Mexico are, after all, often forced to work two or more jobs because of bad pay. The struggle in Oaxaca seems far from over, despite the huge defeat that the bloody police invasion of 29 October represented.
The massive demonstration on the 5th and calls for further strikes show that there is still real militancy in the Mexican working-class, in the face of a neo-liberal government’s attacks on workers in Oaxaca and this autumn’s electoral fraud. Rather than giving up in the face of the state’s power, activists are taking the fight within the union organisations to hold the leadership to task and win a fighting workers’ movement.