Defending the right to education! Latin American teachers’ unions fighting against making education a business, by Gabriela Sancho

What is becoming increasingly significant in the rest of the world has long since been reality in Latin America; education as a business. To get parents to send their children to fee-paying private schools and students to attend expensive private universities, the public education system has had to be maligned and denigrated.

Only when large numbers of people gain the impression that private educational institutions offer better career and general prospects for the future will they be prepared to spend their money on them – if they can afford it. In Latin America, huge spending cuts imposed on the public education system in the 1980’s and 90’s resulted in only those parents who could not afford private tuition sending their children to state schools.

The centre-left governments of recent years have invested more money in education again which, although it could not eliminate the splitting of the school system into a well-equipped private and an underfunded state sector, has been able to somewhat mitigate the situation. With right-wing governments taking office, the public education system and its teachers have come under pressure once again.

Colleagues in many places are fighting against this with strikes and campaigns. In the following section we in the Latin America Regional Office of Education International, the umbrella organisation of teachers’ trade unions in 173 countries, give an overview of the current situation on the subcontinent.

Following a decade of progressive governments, Latin America is currently experiencing a wave of right-wing administrations. These are setting a dynamic in motion because of which the market is again encroaching strongly into the area of education in order to privatise it and make it a source of profit. This trend is not new. It has been evident in the region for a number of decades but was not encouraged by the region’s centre-left governments in the previous 15 years. It was initiated by international financial institutions, the World Bank and, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which have, since the 1980’s, recommended technocratic measures to the governments of Latin America as educational guidelines and spending cuts in the public education sector, as well as in other fundamental areas, or have made policy demands along those lines as conditions for the granting of loans.

This process, which has now been resumed by the conservative governments, represents an attack on the democratic achievements of the education sector and its teachers. The aim is to make education a source of profit. This requires new strategies by the governments, all of which amount to a “streamlining” of the state  to promote the privatisation processes in education.

Social dialogue, inclusion in education and the view that education is a fundamental right are being eroded.

An anti-trade union policy, backed by entrepreneurs and media, is spreading and reinforcing the market-led measures pushed through by the international institutions.

The trade unions in the education sector are an obstacle to the subordination of education to commercial interests. This explains both the smear campaigns against the work of the teachers, the state school system and collective bargaining as well as the persecution of trade union leaders and social movements and the criminalisation of social protests.

As part of their neoliberal education reforms, the governments in many Latin American countries are introducing control measures, for example. standardised assessment procedures with new examinations and threats of sanctions for teachers and students. This often serves the aim of discrediting the state school system and making private schools appear as being the best choice for families that want their sons and daughters to survive as “qualified personnel” in a world of high demands, but for whom there are no jobs.

The trade unions in the education sector, which are made up mainly of women, play a decisive role in the debates surrounding educational reforms.

In all  countries affected, the reform processes are a story of resistance and conflicts with the aim of having well-trained teachers who can perform their work under dignified and appropriate conditions. This concerns both the working conditions of the teachers as well as the right of children and young people to a good education.

Accordingly, education workers are opposed to reforms that worsen the social situation of teachers and lower the quality of public education. Their calls for protest are becoming increasingly effective in the current climate. The trade unions affiliated to Education International of Latin America (IEAL) have created space for reflection and discussion as well as specific opportunities for the further training, networking and empowerment of education workers. This is where pedagogical concepts are discussed for an education system and education policy that embody equality and cooperation instead of competition, as well as open diversity, active participation, dialogue and respect for indigenous knowledge.

In the prevailing political and social situation in the region, where neoliberal politics and, therefore, inequality and exclusion are being intensified under a capitalist, conservative, patriarchal and colonialist model, the trade union movement in the education sector is relying on its power of mobilisation to counter the constant attacks of the governments that want to push through a retrograde policy in the areas of human rights, education and health. It continues to fight for a state education policy that defends the teaching profession and a demanding public education system, as well as for holistic pedagogical concepts that improve and promote education processes.

Education International is a worldwide umbrella organisation of teachers’ trade unions with more than 32 million members in 173 countries. The Latin American section, Internacional de la Educación América Latina (IEAL), has members in 18 countries of the American continent. Its core is formed by the trade unions united in the Movimiento Pedagógico Latinoamericano (MPL). What unifies them is the goal, as education workers together with parents, pupils and students or, in short, from within a broad range of society, to develop an alternative proposal for public education.

This should consolidate and expand the opportunities associated with the right to education as well as tackle the deficiencies that exist.

The Pedagogical Movement is striving for an emancipatory, liberating, critical and secular public education system, with free school education guaranteed by the state that recognises and implements high-quality public education as a social right.

Seen against this background, Education International has launched a campaign against privatisation and commercialisation of education which has initiated a variety of actions through studies, public criticism and political interventions vis-à-vis multinational companies coming into countries to make business out of education. Extensive studies have been commissioned in countries like Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to find out more about the effects of privatisation measures on the right to education and the quality of schools to enable the strategies formulated by the trade unions and social movements to be adapted accordingly. Furthermore, the defamatory statements made in the mass media are being countered by communications efforts on the importance of the work performed by teachers and the right to a good state school system.

Even though the battles being conducted by the trade unions and Education International are currently focused on defending the quality of the public education system and the social and economic interests of teachers due to the attacks launched by the right-wing governments, we are also seeking to develop other issues that have so far not been adequately considered in the work of trade unions. In 2011, the 6th Congress of Education International adopted a resolution on gender equality, with a recommendation to develop an action plan in this regard. Networks of women now exist in Latin America and other regions which serve as instruments for the greater participation of women in the trade unions and have, at the same time, strengthened the international movement. Education International’s Third World Conference on Women, held in Marrakesh in February 2018, came to the conclusion that the progress made in education benefits the empowerment of women and girls and the strengthening of their rights and therefore contributes towards greater social justice. Today, nobody doubts any longer that women are becoming stronger and their families healthier through education, that they should be able to participate in their communities, both economically and politically, as well as take on leadership roles at various levels.

Nevertheless, the deeply rooted cultural prejudices against women in management positions continue to persist and must be tackled repeatedly by women and men in the trade unions and the education system.

As trade unions, we not only draft declarations of solidarity, but also get actively involved in mass demonstrations in order to take action against violence against women and continue fighting for the equal rights of men and women.

The teachers in several countries have managed to get the situation of women trade unionists on the agenda in the education sector trade unions. The IEAL has the RED network of female education workers, which has been able to achieve important progress within trade union structures, such as the setting up of secretariats for gender issues as well as women’s secretariats. Through its work over more than ten years, RED has been able to advance gender policy at the internal level, with several organisations also managing to exert influence at the state level. Such achievements continue to be challenging in patriarchal societies.

Although more women can be found in positions of power and decision-making roles both in the trade unions and public authorities in overall terms in Latin America, most of these positions are still occupied by men, also in the education trade unions where women make up the majority of members. For real equality, power would need to be distributed and the reality of women made visible together with their respective conditions. The development and implementation of a gender equality policy in the trade unions is therefore of fundamental importance.

The social rights acquired during the terms of the progressive governments in various countries are now being reversed by questionable neoliberal administrations. This is also happening in Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff, the first elected woman president, was deposed following a parliamentary coup and replaced by the Vice-President at the time, Michel Temer, who leads an illegitimate regime that is flouting the government programme and dismantling social policy in the areas of education, health and employment that was benefiting the most vulnerable in Brazil.

In Argentina, the teachers’ trade union movement has put up a great deal of resistance since the election of Mauricio Macri in 2015. The rights and programmes regarding job creation, access to health care and reproductive health services, as well as justice for poorer social classes introduced during the terms of office of Nestor (2003-2007) and Cristina Kirchner (2007-2015) are now being curtailed. Collective bargaining is under threat from a neoliberal government engaged with unrestrained force against trade unions and social protests, including through the “disappearance” and murder of Santiago Maldonado as well as indigenous leaders, both men and women.

Another example of the increasing repression against trade unions and social movements is Honduras, where people have taken to the streets to demand transparency and democracy.

There is still no end in sight to the persecution of trade unionists and students or the murders of social and indigenous activists and leaders like Berta Cáceres and LGBTI activists.

Latin America continues to be a region in which social, environmental and trade unions activists are persecuted, threatened, murdered or thrown into prison.

The social movements are now mobilising resistance and fighting for decision-making powers on policy issues. The joint development of knowledge and policy proposals is one instrument in the struggle that strengthens us and enables us to intervene effectively. Our education sector trade unions have grown thanks to inclusion of the views concerning gender equality and indigenous peoples’ rights. We have set ourselves the task of broadening these perspectives and standing up for the rule of law, the protection of democracy, equality between men and women, as well as defending human rights, social justice and peace.

Note: this article was orginally published in German ("Das Recht auf Bildung verteidigen!") in the magazine ILA, issue 415. 


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Gabriela Sancho

Gabriela Sancho is coordinator at the Latin American regional Office of Education International in Costa Rica.

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