Teachers' strike enters its third month

19 August 2017

Two months after the teachers’ strike began, there are few signs of any settlement; rather increasing distance between the teachers’ union, SUTEP, and an embattled government. President Kuczynski made a televised speech to the nation on 16 August in which he berated the union and its leaders, accusing them of ties with Sendero Luminoso. Perhaps his remarks were a response to the surprisingly strong public support for the teachers’ cause. An Ipsos poll, published the previous weekend, showed that more than half of those who responded sympathised with the teachers’ demands for better pay and working conditions.

But the striking teachers now congregated from all over the country in Lima have been upping the pressure on the government and, in particular, the education minister Marilú Martens. With flurries of violence on the streets of the capital, her position seems ever more precarious. Predictably, the Fujimorista opposition is also calling for her scalp.

The mobilisation of the teachers represents a challenge to the traditional leadership of SUTEP; an increasingly radical grass-roots movement within the union rejects what it sees as excessive complicity with the government’s educational policies. Since it was first established in the early 1970s, SUTEP has been effectively run by Patria Roja. But in recent times new forces have come to the fore within the union with a rather more radical agenda.

SUTEP’s detractors seek to portray the union as being in the thrall of Movadef (Movimiento por la Amnestía y los Derechos Fundamentales), a successor organisation to Sendero Luminoso; hence the reference to ‘terrorists’ in the president’s speech last week. But those who associate with Movadef represent only a small minority within SUTEP; the majority (represented by the Comité Nacional de Lucha) have a rather different agenda.

They argue that Peru spends only 3.2% of its GDP on education, substantially less than Chile, Colombia or Bolivia. The low quality of public education, they say, is a direct reflection of the failure of successive governments to devote a larger proportion of public spending towards education, while the private sector in education has flourished. This is an argument that is difficult to gainsay. As Sinesio López, a prominent sociologist, put it in an editorial in La República this week, you can hardly expect to have Finnish educational standards when you pay teachers African wages.

As education minister under the previous Humala government, Jaime Saavedra, grasped this point, taking steps to increase teachers’ pay. But Martens, his successor as minister, lacks his political weight, and meeting the union’s demands would have major fiscal consequences.

An attempt to settle with some of the regional federations has failed to force the majority to return to their classrooms; as the minister herself admitted in a seven-hour grilling before Congress on 16 August 65% of the total number of teachers remain on strike. Negotiations were still under way as we went to press.

As well as a substantial salary rise, the teachers are demanding that educational spending should rise to 10% of GDP, that the privatisation of education should be reversed, and that the practice of evaluation of teachers should be scrapped. The latter, SUTEP argues, is nothing more than a pretext for getting rid of teachers who do not toe the official line. Analysts consulted by the conservative El Comercio newspaper consider such demands “unviable”

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