A Mexican Teachers' Strike Turns Deadly

Jul 9, 2016
Originally published on July 10, 2016 6:05 am
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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. In Mexico, the government has been locked in a battle with striking teachers for two months now. It's a fight that's caused angry protests and clashes with police, claiming at least eight lives and disrupting commerce around the country. NPR's Carrie Kahn has the latest from the front lines of this fight, Oaxaca state.

JOSE DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Outside Oaxaca City, hundreds of striking teachers surround this busy intersection.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Teacher Jose Angel Diaz orders trailer trucks off to the side.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He lets through cars, but not trucks hauling goods for major corporations like Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola. Diaz, a rural middle school teacher, says, we're sending the government a message.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: It's not just about our bad pay or lack of resources for our schools, but, he says, this is about the sad situations our students are in, trying to get a decent education. The dismal state of Mexico's education system isn't new. Among the world's big democracies, Mexico consistently ranks near the bottom in per-student spending and achievement. The government recently embarked on an ambitious plan to improve the schools. It wants to wrestle power from the teachers union, long accused of cronyism, corruption and padding payrolls. Key to the new reforms is mandatory teacher testing.

ITALITI FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Italiti Vasquez Flores, a middle school teacher in one of the poorest regions of the country, walked off the job two months ago. She says she has to teach nine subjects and makes less than $700 a month. And now, she says, the government is going to test her performance.

FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: They haven't told us what's in this test, she says. Obviously, anyone going in blind is going to fail. Vasquez and the other teachers here in Oaxaca are part of a faction that broke away from Mexico's larger pro-government union. They've refused to take the exam. Hundreds now camp out in the capital's colonial town square. They regularly bust into Mexico City, where they clog traffic, and they have a strong presence in other poor southern states.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD TALKING)

KAHN: Parent Abelardo Istmus watches his son line up for the end-of-the-year class picture. His school is one of the few still open in Oaxaca. Istmus sympathizes with the teachers cause, just not their tactics.

ABELARDO ISTMUS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Their methods are a bit radical, says Istmus. But he adds, unfortunately, in this country, if you don't disrupt business as usual, the government won't listen. The protests have hurt Oaxaca. The tourist industry reports many cancelations. Supplies in the state ran so low recently the government airlifted in basic foodstuffs. Tensions peaked late last month when federal forces moved in on teachers blocking a highway. A confrontation ensued, and police fatally shot eight people. Hundreds were injured.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN MUSIC)

KAHN: This past week, a large group of union members gathered at a wake for a teacher who they say died of injuries sustained during an earlier skirmish with federal police.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Surrounding the simple wooden coffin, activists raised their fists and sang defiant revolutionary songs. Speakers talked of not only stopping the government's education reforms, but also defending a host of other social causes. The killings of protestors seem to have hardened their stance and moved public opinion a bit in their favor. The teachers and the government have agreed to sit down and talk Monday. Union leaders say they'll take this weekend to map out their strategy. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Oaxaca. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.