This article by Laura Poy Solano first appeared in the Monday, February 26th, 2024 issue of La Jornada newspaper and was translated by the Mexico Solidarity Project.

Eighty years after its creation, the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) remains a cynical corporatist union, with a union leadership entrenched in political power and deeply corrupt, affirmed teachers, dissident teachers’ leaders and researchers.

They recalled that the emergence of the largest union in Latin America is due to a state decision to unify all the teachers’ unions and, with this, establish corporatist control of the education workers, a control that has not been broken in eight decades.

However, they emphasize that since the 50’s of the last century, the Movimiento Revolucionario Magisterial (MRM), headed by the teacher and social leader Othón Salazar, a period of resistance began that has not ended.

In 1979 the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) was created as the most important dissident formation within the SNTE, and a decade later, managed to lead the so-called teachers’ spring, which accelerated the fall of the then chieftain of the union, Carlos Jongitud Barrios, who was replaced by Elba Esther Gordillo, imposed by former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Founded on December 26, 1943, during the presidency of Manuel Avila Camacho, the SNTE groups more than 1.8 million education workers from all over the country and from all educational levels.

Today, on the 11th anniversary of the arrest of Elba Esther Gordillo, who had appointed herself ‘president for life’ of the union, its current leader, Alfonso Cepeda Salas, who was former Finance Coordinator during the reign of another man close to Gordillo, former Secretary General of the union, Juan Díaz de la Torre, announced a grand celebration at the National Auditorium to celebrate the self-proclaimed ‘intellectual army of the Fourth Transformation.’

Last Friday in Jalisco, Cepeda Salas affirmed that since the origin of the SNTE there have been two foundational causes that have given it momentum, meaning and direction. One, the defense of public schools in Mexico, and the other, the defense of the rights of education workers.

This is a claim with which thousands of teachers who suffer from the lack of union democracy and forced membership, because there is no job if you are not in SNTE, will not agree, according to dissident leaders.

Enrique Ávila Carrillo, dean of the Escuela Normal Superior de México and expert in the history of the teachers’ movement, points out that among the reasons that gave rise to the SNTE was the need to guarantee support to the Avila Camacho government during the Second World War, but also to establish an iron control over the teachers in service, who at that time were strongly influenced by the Communist Party of Mexico.

It was during the six-year term of Miguel Alemán, when the nascent SNTE was definitively tied to the PRI, generating political control of the teachers’ union and an accelerated decomposition of its leadership, with growing enrichment and the handing over of public and elected positions, including governorships. This was the beginning of big business deals and corruption; and sexual harassment of female teachers became common in the union, emphasizes Avila Carrillo.

Union leaders Pedro Hernández and Francisco Bravo affirm that the history of the SNTE has been marked by its bosses. First with Jesús Robles Martínez, who held the general secretary’s office from 1948 to 1972; followed by Carlos Jongitud Barrios, from 1972 to 1989, when he was ousted by the government, and Gordillo Morales who, after her arrest in February 2013, was forced to give up the lifetime presidency of the union.

Juan Manuel Rendón, former director and professor-researcher of the Benemérita Escuela Nacional de Maestro, emphasizes that the SNTE “has maintained its corporatist character and the official unionism of charrismo. It is a defender of the status quo, it always appears as a negotiator, but only to advance the particular interests of the top echelons. There is still a simulation that allows it to paint itself as tricolor (PRI), and then become blue, emerald green, or cherry. Everything changes so that everything remains the same”.

Hernández Morales, general secretary of the dissident teachers’ union of Section 9 of the SNTE, emphasizes that for 44 of the 80 years of the SNTE, the teachers’ resistance has been there to defend the principles of public education and a true democratization of the union and the country. It has not been an easy struggle. Two hundred teachers have been murdered, hundreds more have been imprisoned and thousands have lost their jobs.

The reality of these eight decades, he says, is that we still have a rich union with poor teachers, and that says a lot about what still needs to be done to have union democracy and so that education workers can elect their representatives, and fight for their rights and public education, beyond political and electoral interests.