16 December 2007

Christmas Cheer, Teachers Demonstrate

UPDATE:My friend Adam tells me that, as of Friday, the government scrambled up some money, borrowed from next year's budgets, to pay the teachers and get them off the streets. So crisis averted, for now.

I've been pretty swamped this week between grad school applications, teaching and tutoring, and running around to all the holiday parties that have sprung up in Oaxaca this Christmas season. So when I read today that there's a teachers' demonstration in Oaxaca this week, I'm not exactly surprised that I didn't hear about it.

Demonstrations are not taking place in the zocalo, as did the strike of 2006. This article from Saturday's Noticias only says:

Las manifestaciones originaron un enorme caos vial en la ciudad capital, al establecer bloqueos en seis accesos carreteros y calles de la capital, algunos de los cuales se mantenĂ­an hasta anoche.

In a nutshell (and my translation is always questionable): "Demonstrations brought enormous chaos to the capital city, establishing blockades along six access roads and streets in the capital. Some protesters have been out since last night."

I didn't observe this "enorme caos" during my workday Friday, which took me from the south end of the Periferico at 20 de Noviembre, through the center, back out to Cinco Senores, passing by the road to the airport, and down Universidad to Plaza del Valle and Simbolos Patrios. As of 4:00 pm Friday I didn't have a sense that anything unusual was happening at any of these points, but that easily could have changed in the evening or during the day Saturday. If anybody knows where the demonstrations are happening, comments would be welcomed and appreciated.

I received this English language summary of events from Ronald Waterbury, of the Oaxaca Study Forum:

Conditions have indeed returned to “normal” (at least in the statistical sense) in Oaxaca. The government does not fulfill its obligations, and in response the teachers’ union blocks the streets and produces vehicular chaos. In this particular example of the ritual, the federal government (which provides the vast bulk of the money to pay teachers) didn’t release funds for the regular December paychecks nor for the first installment of the traditional Christmas bonus (due December 8). At least the state government appears to have learned a lesson from the 2006 conflict because rather than crack heads, as it did on June 14, 2006, it simply returned to the years-long practice of ignoring the protests. They didn’t even send out traffic cops to help the besieged motorists maneuver through the mess. This way the government hopes that the public will blame the teachers for the inconveniences, and from my own very unscientific survey of vendors in one of the public markets, the government was successful. Even people who sympathized with the APPO movement of last year, in frustrated anger used phrases like: “the teachers are at it again!”

Emphasis mine. Nancy Davies offers this, via the Oaxaca Study Action Group:

. . . we have another situation here with the teachers, who have been blockading the roads for two days to demand their pay AND their usual annual "aguinaldo", the Christmas bonus. The bonus for most workers is part of the
pay package, not a nice gesture at the will of the employer. In this case, the governor-employer URO says he's so sorry but there's no money to pay it.

Emphasis mine. Jill Freidberg, of Corrugated Films, adds:

In addition to concerns people have about traffic and losing money, there may be some hard feelings left over from 2006. Folks might feel like the teachers are willing to mobilize on a large scale when it comes to them getting paid, but not when it came to sticking with the "fuera URO" mobilizations in the last couple months of 2006, after the teachers had lifted their strike. This is a long-standing complaint - that the teachers are usually only acting in their own interest when they take to the streets, not in the interest of civil society in general. I think it's important to remind people that, during 2006, thousands of
teachers who DO place civil society's demands and needs above the teachers' union demands, saw the formation of the APPO and the subsequent mobilizations as an opportunity for teachers to finally rebuild that tie with civil society. But not all 70,000 teachers feel that way, and there are quite a few of them who really are much more likely to hit the streets over their salary than over any other demand.

Emphasis mine. Okay, that's a lot of information to digest. And here I am oblivious to all of it until I wake up Sunday morning and check two days of mail in my inbox.

Let me throw my two cents in, both of which might be highly uninformed at any given moment. It seems to me that Ronald Waterbury has it right, that Governor Ruiz would rather wait for public opinion to turn against the teachers than to send in troops to clear the streets. Especially now, when tourism is on a gentle but sustained uptick, and the festival season creates commercial opportunities for so many businesses. Even for a guy with his record, Ulises Ruiz can't want images of police in riot gear and protesters with bloodied heads on the news pages of the Mexican papers during the holiday season. I've heard (wildly) unsubstantiated speculation that Calderon may consider removing Ruiz from office before the end of his term, and another round of violence in the streets won't bode well for the governor's political future, assuming he even has one.

Nancy Davies points out that the Governor says he's "sorry but there's no money" to pay for teachers' bonuses this year, which are part of a negotiated pay package and not a true bonus in the first place. The issue of bonuses aside, the way I read Ronald Waterbury is that December 8 salary checks haven't even been issued, so we're not merely talking about a bonus problem but an actual failure to pay teachers what they are owed for work completed. Imagine a similar problem in, say, Michigan, two weeks before Christmas. I think we'd hear an uproar, and nobody would suggest that the teachers were in the wrong. As far as the "no money" thing goes, I point you to this article in today's Noticias, wherein the state reveals it has invested "tres mil 11 millones de pesos" in roadway improvements in 2007. (Can this possibly be right? 3,011,000,000 pesos? Over 300 million dollars toward roads in the second poorest state in Mexico!?) Some of that money has been used to tear up the existing streets in the center of town and replace them with historic looking, pedestrian friendly streets that don't appear to make anybody very happy, least of all shopkeepers who have lost all their drive-by traffic and deal with the daily construction process.

Finally, Jill Freidberg's observation that public opinion may see teachers as more likely to mobilize on their own behalf--and on their own bottom line--than that of the greater human rights sweep in Oaxaca, seems like a no-brainer to me. Teachers didn't come to the capital in 2006 to demand the removal of the governor. They came, 70,000 strong, to ask for wage increases, better health insurance, and more government support for impoverished students. While addressing human rights violations in Oaxaca has become the order of the day for many, it is preposterous to assert that this should be the teachers' main objective. That perception, however, plays nicely into what Ronald Waterbury points to as the government waiting for public opinion to turn against the teachers.

There is much to consider today in Oaxaca. Stay tuned.