Mexico City teacher protests; photo from the Huffington Post
Teachers have brought Mexico City to a halt by strategically blockading key transportation hubs throughout the metropolis. According to the Huffington Post,
Some 10,000 educators protesting a government reform program have in the span of a week disrupted international air travel, forced the cancellation of two major soccer matches, rerouted the planned route of the marathon and jammed up already traffic-choked freeways.
Teachers are taking this action in opposition to an education “deform” law that would base their evaluations on student test scores, and would end the union’s control of hiring. Ironically, as I mention below, Seattle teachers just voted tonight to accept similar conditions here. Given the related issues we are facing, we should learn as much as we can from the Mexico City protests.
The blockade tactics the teachers are using there seem to be increasingly popular and effective, part of a global trend in protest methods. Counterinsurgency theorist John Robb warns the ruling class that they will face increasingly powerful “systems disruption” from global insurrectionary forces on both the left and the right; because the contemporary capitalist system is so highly networked, when actors target key nodes in the system, they can cause cascading ripples of destruction. Instead of having to spread their labor action into a general strike, the Mexican teachers have used their concentrated power as a militant minority to disrupt the reproduction of daily life across the metropolis; if people can’t commute, they can’t get to work. All the teachers have to do is go after the system’s weak points: in this case the transportation nodes that were already overwhelmed by heavy traffic before the protests.
Here, the Occupy movement groped toward similar tactics, perhaps a bit too late to overcome its internal contradictions and the effects of state repression. The clearest example of this kind of move was when the West Coast Occupy general assemblies called for a blockade of the ports in retaliation for the state’s crushing of the occupy camps.
This raised a set of crucial questions: if a militant minority can disrupt the contemporary metropolis, should they? Or, more precisely, when should they? Should they only do it if they have the support of a majority of working class, oppressed, and unemployed folks who will be affected by the action? If so, would they need active or passive support? Or is it appropriate to act on behalf of a larger class/ group/ community if one’s goals are in the interests of everyone? It is increasingly easy to disrupt the capitalist system, but what kind of actions simultaneously build our collective capacity to destroy, replace, and supersede it with total freedom / everything for everyone?
Some traditional U.S. labor activists might argue against these tactics of minority disruption; they might say they are desperate moves by teachers outnumbered and isolated from the rest of the working class; that the teachers should try to patiently organize to win over the majority of workers, like classic U.S labor activists did when they built the unions in the 1930s. These activists would be forgetting how the Oaxaca uprising began – teachers blockaded and occupied the central plaza, and when they faced repression and fought back, more and more people began to join them, expanding the blockade into barricades across the city.
In their rush to try to replicate comfortably digested U.S. labor history, these patient folks would also be forgetting a lesson that Beverley Silver documents in her brilliant book Forces of Labor: the 1930s US auto strikes that gave birth to the CIO unions here were themselves militant minority actions that would probably have seemed recklessly insurrectionary the moment before they happened. For example, the Flint sit down strike was initiated by a small number of workers who knew the production process well enough to target crucial parts of the factory; when they shut these down, cascading disruptions ended up shutting down the auto companies’ entire production chains, causing massive amounts of economic damage. And this kind of focused, tactical disruption was not unique to the U.S.; Silver documents how this process of disruptive militant minority action happened over and over again in auto factories located in multiple countries with very different cultural and political situations – from Italy in the 70s to Brazil and South Korea in the 80s. When it was crushed in one place, it reemerged when a new militant minority of workers took action in the heart of a new, growing area of capitalist development.
This illustrates another one of John Robb’s tactical concepts: the idea of the “plausible promise”. Once the rest of the auto workers saw in practice that a militant minority could actually deliver on their promise of shutting down the company, they changed their minds about what was possible and what was impossible; the militant minority became a majority after they took action, not before. A majority of workers gained confidence, and chose to replicate the initial action in new ways across a variety of industries.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for an anti-social insurrectionist logic here (“we’re tired of waiting for The Masses to come around and we’re tried of making demands on the state , so we’re going to take direction action to free ourselves right now, even if it means fighting the masses”). The Flint strikers did have demands and they did appeal to a broader sense of class belonging – it was precisely through their ability to win these demands with bold, unexpected direct action, that they were able to generalize the struggle from a minority one to a majority one. Eventually the autoworkers became a catalyzing force throughout the working class – people said “if they can do it, so can we”. Of course, later on, this process of making demands through direct action became co-opted into a process of “responsible unionism”. Under a new “liberal” labor management regime, union representatives make demands on behalf of the workers, refuse to break laws set by the bosses, confine the struggle to narrow issues of wages and benefits, marginalize workers who fight the bosses’ ability to control our creative powers on the job, and confine the struggle within national borders (supporting U.S imperialism instead of allying with the Mexican teachers and other folks who are fighting it around the world.)
The Mexican teachers are also posing demands. Do their actions have the same potential to generalize from a militant minority into a majority? Or will that kind of co-opting trade union logic prevent them from generalizing the struggle? The mainstream media is highlighting the inconveniences the blockades are causing for the rest of the Mexico City working class and the anger against the union that this is causing among some folks. However, it appears the teachers are uniting with other forces to oppose a range of austerity and privatization measures being pushed by the government (and ultimately by the empire). They are not simply fighting for themselves.
This is a good step, but I imagine that the teachers will have trouble generalizing the struggle unless their demands also include a transformation of education itself, not simply a defensive battle against testing and privatization. Auto workers work on metal, but as caring laborers, teachers work with human beings. We can’t simply sabotage our jobs without hurting other oppressed people. And our demands are inherently linked with the conditions that our students and their communities are facing. Given that, we need to take direct action to collectively transform the learning process, but this can only happen if our students and their communities also rise up against the oppressive and alienating aspects of capitalist education, with all of its control and its suppression of creativity.
From my narrow vantage point here in the belly of the beast, I have no idea whether or not this is happening in the current Mexico City actions. But I’ve heard that this sort of thing has been a significant part of social struggles across Mexico in general, especially in indigenous liberation struggles. At the end of the film Granito de Arena, some of the Mexican teacher militants discuss how their radical labor tactics are empty unless they also transform the learning process itself. They talk about the need to collaborate as equals with the indigenous communities where they are teaching, to become part of the community sharing and creating knowledge, instead of imposing state-certified learning standards in a colonial fashion upon the community.
Meanwhile in Seattle…
Teachers picket in Seattle against testing-based evaluations
Over the past few weeks, Seattle teachers have held a series of pickets regarding the current contract negotiations between the Seattle Education Association and the Seattle Public Schools. The union threatened to strike if necessary, and tonight many students have been wondering whether school is going to start tomorrow. The union successfully defeated the district’s proposal to expand class sizes, and pushed the district to set caseload limits for school psychologists and occupational and physical therapists.
However, the district successfully pushed to continue using student test scores to evaluate teachers. The union had been asking for a moratorium on this, pending changes at the state level in how teachers will be evaluated, including new state tests associated with the adoption of the Common Core standards. The district didn’t budge, and tonight 1,500 of the union’s 3,000 members met to vote on the district’s final offer. A majority of those 1,500 voted to accept the district’s offer, so there will be no strike. Tomorrow, while Mexican teachers continue to fight, we’ll be going to work.
This is a somewhat underwhelming sequel to the vibrant boycott of the MAP test last spring.
What will it take to get to the point where we can fight back like the Mexican teachers are doing? How can we start building, shoulder to shoulder with our students and their families and communities , starting right now, so that if we do need to disrupt the metropolis here, we can do it together, creating new forms of learning and growth in the process?