Politics & Policy

Union of the Snake, en Español

And you thought the AFT and NEA were bad.

Unfortunately, corruption is a way of life in Mexico. And labor unions, as much as any institution, demonstrate that fact. The National Union of Education Workers or SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion), is a case in point: for decades, the 1.4 million-member labor organization has represented a huge obstacle to school reform in Mexico — and less directly, to immigration reform in the U.S.

Running this behemoth with an iron fist and a greased palm is one Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, a woman whose ability to strike fear into opponents has even current Mexican President Felipe Calderon walking softly. A new report published by the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Immigration Studies — called “‘Jimmy Hoffa in a Dress’: Union Boss’s Stranglehold on Mexican Education Creates Immigration Fallout” — reveals just how tight her union’s grip has been on that nation’s public schools. Actually, the main title seems somewhat unfair — to Jimmy Hoffa. Not even at his most ruthless did the late Teamster leader steal funds or wield political influence on the scale enjoyed by Ms. Gordillo and her cronies.

“Mexican education” is something of an oxymoron. Mexican students placed dead in reading, math, and science test scores in a 2006 triennial survey of ninth-graders sponsored by the 30-nation Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (Finland, South Korea, and Canada ranked highest). This despite a 47-percent increase in education spending by the Mexican government during 1995–2004 and educational spending as a share of national income standing at 6.4 percent, a level exceeding that of most OECD nations.

Poor education is a contributing factor to the migration of so many Mexicans to the United States, legal or not. And American taxpayers are paying a steep price: in 2004, we spent about $12 billion on federal, state, and local government aid for pupils residing unlawfully in the five states with the most illegal immigrants, a figure that surely has risen since. Remember, Mexico is the country of origin of roughly 55 percent of all U.S. illegal immigrants, according to survey data from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Why does Mexico lag so far behind? To some extent, the answer lies in the fact that Mexican culture does not place nearly the premium on education found in such countries as the U.S., South Korea, or Germany. But a major portion of the blame must be placed on home-grown Mexican institutions, especially the SNTE and its leader, Ms. Gordillo.

Nicknamed by friend and foe alike as la Maestra, Elba Esther Gordillo Morales was born in 1945 in Chiapas — Mexico’s southernmost state, and one of its poorest. Her maternal grandfather struck it rich running a distillery, somehow finding the time to father 46 children, 41 of them out of wedlock. A classic domestic tyrant, he disowned Gordillo’s mother upon her marrying a policeman. Widowed at a young age, the mother lived hand-to-mouth as a school teacher.

Her daughter, the future union leader, herself married young and was widowed at age 18. She became a teacher in one of Mexico City’s poorest neighborhoods, and soon enough became politically active, joining a dissident faction within the SNTE, the Revolutionary Vanguard. The group routinely denounced its incumbent leader Carlos Jonguitud Barrios for corruption and ineptitude. Jonguitud responded by hiring and (allegedly) bedding her. Over the years she rose through the ranks of the union — conniving along the way to oust her benefactor — and the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), serving in various government posts.

In the 20 years since she’s headed the union, first as secretary-general and then since 1994 as “lifetime president,” Elba Gordillo and her handpicked lieutenants have made sure that SNTE continues to do what it does best: generating revenues, rewarding friends, and punishing enemies. Mexican sociologist-turned-journalist Jorge Zepeda Patterson has called her the “Darth Vader of Mexico.” Cruella DeVil might be a more apt analogy. She controls a $60-million-a-year organization and its more than 50 locals with little or no dissent. She’s won some lucrative concessions. More than 9,000 teachers took full leave last year to engage in political and/or union activism, teaching no classes. Another 14,000 teachers enjoyed “leaves of absence” while retaining their jobs.

Government officials rarely stand up to Mrs. Gordillo — many of them owe their jobs to her. Literally thousands of SNTE members hold positions in Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education, including Gordillo’s son-in-law, Fernando Gonzalez Sanchez, who also serves as undersecretary of primary education. Another loyalist, Miguel Angel Linares, runs the State Workers’ Social Security System.

The SNTE itself operates in the manner of a private shakedown operation. Whatever la Maestra wants, la Maestra gets. Rather than develop collective-bargaining agreements with federal and state educational authorities, the union’s executive committee and local leaders simply submit a list of demands to public authorities covering salaries, benefits, holidays and other issues, a process inevitably culminating in an elaborately worded memorandum. A closed shop is in place to protect the less competent, thus explaining why 46 percent of all Mexican teachers lack the credentials necessary for their respective assignments.

The union may protect its members in negotiations, but it rides herd over them at all other times. Teachers in SNTE Local 36 recently complained about 38 million pesos being deducted from their salaries for housing that never materialized, while local members in Chipancingo, Guerrero, also have claimed the union stole from them. Though job-selling is formally illegal, it’s an open secret that tenured teachers’ jobs can be bought for $5,000 or more in cash. The SNTE also siphons off government funds meant for supplies, at one point reportedly diverting $186 million in Education Ministry subsidies for computer purchases into a secret bank account. Good luck trying to track down all this loot. Union officials typically make “small deposits” in amounts of about $300,000 to $400,000 each into as many as 70 separate bank accounts.

Teachers who complain about any of this have a way of getting transferred to schools in rural areas or slums. And state governors not bowing to Gordillo’s demands often find themselves on the receiving end of aggressive pressure to change course.

All this has made Elba Esther Gordillo Morales a very rich woman. She owns at least four apartments and six houses (no doubt placing several in the names of family members and relatives) in the exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec and Polanco neighborhoods of Mexico City valued at a combined $6.8 million. When not there, she can be found spending time at her vacation home in Coronado Cays in San Diego, California, where her yacht is moored. She also owns properties in France, England, and Argentina — plus any number of private jets to get to these places. A longtime key operative within the union estimates that her personal fortune in cash alone is worth more than $300 million.

Current Education Secretariat Josefina Vasquez Mota has called for extensive reform of Mexico’s education system. That’s an encouraging sign, but in Mexico, reform works mostly on paper. President Calderon, leader of the center-right National Action Party (the same party as his predecessor, Vicente Fox), won election in 2006 by the slimmest of margins over firebrand leftist Andres Manuel Obrador, to this day Mexico’s self-described “legitimate president.” The Mexican Congress is loaded with Gordillo loyalists who oppose Calderon. That’s a major reason why this February lawmakers approved a hefty pay increase for teachers, but without including corresponding performance benchmarks.

Still, hope springs eternal. La Maestra has made her share of enemies, both among politicians and a dissident SNTE leftist faction, the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), which claims the allegiance of about one-fifth of the nation’s teachers. CNTE, among other things, alleges that Gordillo orchestrated the assassination of one of her opponents, Misael Nunez Acosta, a charge that Gordillo denies. In the remote event she’s forced out of office, she’s got a ready-made pool of loyal successors. That includes her daughter and ex-federal deputy, Maricruz Montelongo y de Jacinto Gomez Pasilla; her daughter’s husband, Public Education Undersecretary Fernando Gonzalez; SNTE Secretary-General Rafael Ochoa Guzman; and SNTE financial chief Hector “the Cashier” Hernandez.

At some point, the power of this union has to be broken. The alternative is more corruption, more substandard education, and more Mexicans voting with their feet northward. That last prospect should be of special concern to us.

– Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project at the National Legal and Policy Center in Falls Church, Virginia.

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