On Tuesday Feb. 26 Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo announced the arrest of the head of the country’s most powerful teachers’ union and two colleagues, on charges of embezzlement of union funds to the tune of $160 million. But the real target of the government’s action may be the working teachers.

Elba Esther Gordillo, known as “La Maestra” or “The Teacher” was until this incident the national president and former secretary general of the 1.5 million-member National Education Workers Union (SNTE), one of the largest labor unions in Latin America. She has also played a very visible role as a political power broker and kingmaker.

That there have been irregularities and corrupt practices in la Maestra’s tenure as teacher’s union head surprises nobody. However, it is also no coincidence that her fall comes after the passage, in November of last year, of an anti-worker labor reform, and the signing last month of another reform crafted by President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) and aimed at the educational system.

This may be a case of history repeating. In January 1989, then President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (also of the PRI) announced a right turn in labor relations policy by ordering the sudden arrest of the head of the then-powerful petroleum workers’ union (STPRM), Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, known as “La Quina”, and several associates under the pretext of illegal possession of firearms.

“La Quina” got a long jail sentence but the oil workers were not by any means freed from the clutches of a corrupt union boss. The Salinas government simply installed its own puppet, Carlos Romero Deschamps, as head of the union. He “served” in this post for 23 years and remains so even though he was made a PRI senator in last year’s elections.

He has been a compliant yes-man for both the PRI and National Action Party presidents, going so far as to voice support for schemes aimed at privatizing PEMEX, the Mexican national petroleum company.

“La Quina”, on the other hand, had spoken out strongly against privatization, and had supported leftist candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas against Salinas in the 1988 presidential elections.

In a nutshell, this expresses how the former PRI governments handled labor dissent, at it seems things have not changed. With the exception of a valiant few, loyalty is expected to the PRI and not to either the workers or the nation. If that loyalty is forthcoming, it is rewarded by, among other things, the government turning a blind eye to all kinds of abuses and corrupt practices. But if the thread of loyalty is broken, the roof caves in on the offending party.

In the case of “La Quina”, the fact that he channeled votes of his members to the opposition was the cause of his downfall, the illegal weapons only a pretext. In the case of “La Maestra”, the fact is that the PRI simply could not trust her. In 2006, when she was not chosen as the PRI’s presidential candidate, she threw her support and that of her union to the PAN’s Felipe Calderon. Last year again, she did not support the PRI candidate and now President Peña Nieto but started her own National Alliance Party, whose candidate (Gabriel Quadri) did poorly, getting only 2.34 percent of the vote.

It was probably these actions, and not the fact that she had a lifestyle far and away more luxurious than her official salary could support, which doomed her. Her own union has now abandoned her, immediately naming a new national president, Juan Diaz de la Torre, and making it clear that it will not help her out with her criminal trial.

There is dissent against PRI-style corporate unionism within the Mexican teaching profession. Opposition to oppressive rule in the southern state of Oaxaca, for example, has been led by left-wing unionized teachers in section 22 of Gordillo’s own former union.

It remains to be seen if, with “La Maestra” behind bars, any more progressive trend can make itself heard in the union’s councils, or if De La Torre will play, in the Teachers’ Union, the same supine role that Romero Deschamps has played in the oil workers’ union.

Anybody who wants to fight for the rights of teachers and the improvement of education (which is in bad shape) in Mexico will have their work cut out for them. The educational reform which president Peña Nieto signed almost simultaneously with the crackdown on Gordillo is presented as a necessary measure to put an end to the kind of corrupt practices and clientelistic control of which she is accused. It reduces the power of the union and moves control of the educational system into the hands of the Ministry of Education in Mexico City. But this is under a PRI government, and such governments have been famous for their own corrupt clientalist practices.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.