Workers in the sister cities of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso staged demonstrations this past week on both sides of the Rio Grande. While the specific issues drawing protestors into the streets differed from country to country, the actions had one thing in common: both were directed against controversial national policies pursued by elected leaders and approved by the respective federal legislatures.
In Ciudad Juarez hundreds of public school teachers walked off the job March 20, embarking on a protest caravan to local federal court offices in opposition to the national education reform law passed by Congress and already ratified by a majority of Mexican state legislatures. Led by the Resssite movement, the teachers contended that the new law will erode their job rights and encourage privatization.
“Education is a right, not a commodity” and “No to the privatization of public education” were two of the messages on banners carried by the striking teachers.
Rosa Dora Venegas, director of the Melchor Ocampo School and Resssiste spokesperson, said the one-day work stoppage, the first in the region, impacted 100 schools. According to Venegas, Resssite members are filing individual legal challenges to the law as well as contemplating future work stoppages.
“We are demanding the protection of federal (legal) power from a law that proposes to wipe out the rights of teachers and puts free education at risk,” Venegas said. “The teacher struggling is also teaching,” she added, repeating a popular protest slogan. “Teachers want education to be for everyone.”
Chihuahua State Education Secretary Jorge Mario Quintana Silveyra confirmed that the teachers who participated in the work stoppage would be docked a day’s pay. “We respect their right to demonstrate a lot, but let them do it during hours that don’t affect the students,” Quintana said.
The Ciudad Juarez protest was part of a groundswell of opposition to the education law, regarded as a pillar of new President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Pact for Mexico, which is taking shape across Mexico. Supporters of the reform insist that it will curb corruption in teacher job placement and upgrade the quality of educators.
While the March 22 dismissal of classes for the two week Holy Week-Easter vacation break put the protest movement somewhat on hold, the education law conflict is likely to heat up again in April when school resumes.
More work stoppages and/or prolonged strikes, which have already occurred in the state of Guerrero, could follow. Vacationers hoping to get a jump start at the beaches in Acapulco were delayed for hours on March 22 because of a highway blockade mounted by 3,000 striking teachers in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo. Prior to the holiday recess, teacher activists filed 63,000 individual injunctions against the law in the federal courts of Mexico City.
In El Paso, meanwhile, some 100 federal workers held a March 20 protest against the sequestration agreement between the Congress and White House that slices $85 billion from the federal budget.
With heavy participation from civilian employees of the William Beaumont Army Medical Center (WBAMC), the protest took aim at the 22 days of mandatory, non-paid furloughs that are supposed to be taken by workers before September. “Sequestration, no good for the nation” and “Furlough Congress” read t-shirts and signs displayed by workers at the Alabama Street protest.
In addition to less take home pay this year, the workers affected by the furloughs will earn less leave time and watch less money trickle into their retirement accounts.
“It doesn’t just impact my paycheck, but local businesses,” said Barbara Wilson, WBAMC administrator. “Also, what about our patients who may have to wait in longer lines or wait to be seen?”
Separately, Fort Bliss spokes-man Major Joe Buccino said budget cuts expected at El Paso’s big military base will result in longer medical waits and a reduction in service hours at suicide prevention and family advocacy clinics.
With 21,000 federal workers in El Paso, the Sun City could be among the most impacted localities in the nation by the sequester agreement. And with budget cuts also hovering over the heads of nearly 3300 civilian workers at White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base in neighboring southern New Mexico, the impact of the political deal could be even bigger on the overall Paso del Norte region economy.
El Paso’s Democratic Representatives in the House, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Gallego, have expressed opposition to the sequestration cuts, while Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn and other members of his party have maintained that the negative results predicted by some are exaggerated since the trimmed expenditures only account for about two percent of the federal budget.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico