Resistance to the global corporate education reform movement gained momentum last month as nearly 200 educators, students, and community allies from Mexico, Canada, and the US gathered in Chicago for the 11th Trinational Conference in Defense of Public Education. The conference was primarily attended by delegates from some of the most militant teacher unions from each of the three countries -- all of whom have been fighting similar battles to defend against attacks on public education -- but conference organizers also invited student leaders from each country to participate in the conference, as well as teacher union leaders from Puerto Rico and Japan and local education supporters in Chicago.
Taking place over 3 days from May 9th - 11th, the purpose of the gathering was to bring together education activists from the three countries to share experiences, build solidarity, and develop strategies for resisting the neoliberal education policies that have been advancing the privatization of schools, standardized testing, and budget cuts to education across North America. And upon arriving in Chicago, the attendees quickly sprung into action.
After a conference-opening visit to meet with teachers and students at Social Justice High School -- a Chicago public school in one of the largest Mexican immigrant neighborhoods in the US that was only built after the community finally won the struggle to force the school board to make good on years of broken promises to build a new school through a 19-day hunger strike -- the education activists launched a mobile demonstration through downtown Chicago, moving by bus from the Canadian consulate to the US Department of Education to the Mexican consulate.
At each location, they rallied with pro-public education chants and speeches as delegations delivered a letter to officials at each institution demanding that the governments of the three nations cease their attacks on teachers, students, unions, and their communities and that that all three governments adopt a joint plan that would tax the rich and use the revenues to fully fund North American education systems with, among other things, universal early childhood programs, free college access, and wrap-around social services in schools.
Officials at the Canadian consulate locked the doors and refused to meet with the delegation -- despite the request to meet coming from Canadian citizens -- while officials at the Mexican consulate allowed a small group of Mexican teachers into the building, but declined to offer a response to the letter's demands. Officials at the US Department of Education responded to the group's presence by calling the police and demanding that they leave the premises. Having made its point, the group left peacefully, defiantly chanting, "We'll be back!"
The urgency of the current moment
The lively demonstrations paled in comparison to last fall's city-wide strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), but the spirit and energy of the strike remained. Chicago was chosen as the host city for the 11th Trinational Conference in an effort to continue to build on momentum gained and the space that the CTU's strike created to push for alternatives.
The opening day's visits to the consulates and Dept. of Education did a great deal to unify the voices and the sentiment of conferences attendees early on, and after a communal dinner in one of the oldest labor union halls in Chicago, the official proceedings of the 11th Trinational Conference began with a public forum on the University of Illinois -- Chicago campus.
The forum featured addresses from leaders of Canadian, Mexican, and Puerto Rican teacher union -- including remarks from a Mexican student activist -- on the state of the education fights and policies in their respective countries. Moderated by Nancy Serrano, a rank and file middle school teacher who helped found CTU's Latino Caucus, the forum was keynoted by Karen Lewis, president of the CTU, who highlighted the urgency of the current moment, both in Chicago and across the continent.
"We are all being terrorized by neoliberal politics," Lewis said. And in the wake of the CTU strike, she said, "we have a very small window of opportunity" before corporate-backed education reformers "legislate some new horror on our schools, our teachers, and our communities."
The speakers who followed Lewis shared stories of their victories and of challenges common to all three countries. All of the speakers remarked on the ways in which standardized testing, attacks on pensions, cloning of Teach for America programs, and lack of investment in public schools are profoundly harming children, teachers, and their communities. But especially urgent was the common theme that the global corporate education reform movement's austerity budgets and neoliberal policies have been accompanied across the continent by increasingly vicious forms of repression and intimidation against teacher unions and education activists.
"The public and our parents expect us to speak out in defense of our children's education," Jim Iker, president of the British Columbia Teachers Federation, told the assembled teachers. But across the continent, and especially in Latin America, those who speak out are increasingly being targeted for retaliation.
Maria Elena Fontañez, president of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation, spoke of teachers who had their teaching licenses -- and thus, their livelihoods -- revoked for life by the government in retaliation for organizing against education reform. And in Mexico, death threats, targeted killings of union leaders, and violent police repression are a chilling reality of the country's political history and its current climate.
But despite the constant threat of violent retaliation, teachers have continued to organize. Just last Fall, tens of thousands have engaged in massive, militant strikes and demonstrations across Mexico to resist and teachers, all organized by the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers (CNTE, in Spanish), the dissident rank and file caucus of the larger, status-quo supporting National Union of Mexican Teachers (SNTE). And this winter, in response to a deceptively-timed Christmas Eve vote that decimated teacher pensions, Puerto Rican teachers occupied their Senate and shut down proceedings for two days.
It is this kind of coordinated resistance that the Trinational Coalition hopes its conferences and the relationships formed therein will help to spread across the continent. But as political director of the CNTE Juan Melchor put it, he sees the Coalition's struggle not only as part of what he called the "anti-imperialist" struggle against global corporate education reform, but it is also part of the global movement for democracy, and seeks to advance positive solutions for transforming education into an institution that truly serves all of society, not just the economy.