The most recent attack against Ecuador’s National Teachers Union (UNE) came at 5 a.m. on Monday August 29, when representatives of the Orwellian-named MINEDUC (Ministry of Education), accompanied by national police in riot gear, stormed the Union’s national headquarters in Quito. Breaking locks and pushing through lines of union activists, police removed (“stole” if you ask UNE supporters) computers and other Union archives as part of a “liquidation process” initiated by the government a month earlier.
Just four days before the raid, UNE members marched through the streets of cities and towns throughout Ecuador as part of a national day of action against the government of Rafael Correa. Indigenous organizations and national trade union affiliates gathered together, in part, to protest the latest attempts of a self-declared “21st Century Socialist” government to destroy one of the oldest and largest worker organizations in the country.
On July 20, 2016 the Vice Minister of Education had issued a Kafkaesque “dissolution order,” declaring that the 72-year-old education sector union (which counts teachers, custodial and administrative staff, as well as other job categories among its almost 100,000 members) was in violation of “Decree 16,” and that they would have 15 days to demonstrate their compliance. The letter charged that the Union had failed to fulfill its institutional mandate, without naming a single specific example of the union’s failure to abide by the laws regulating social sector organizations.
In subsequent press conferences, Minister of Education Augusto Espinosa suggested that the union had violated regulatory provisions which require social organizations to formally register their executive officers with the government. UNE had, in fact, repeatedly attempted to register the executive with the Ministry since 2014. But despite the urging of the UN’s International Labour Organization that the Correa government recognize the executive, which had been freely elected in accordance with the union’s internal policies, the Ecuadorean government refused to do so unless the Union provided the personal information of every single person who had voted in the election. The UNE refused to provide this information and three weeks later the Ministry began its “liquidation” process.
In many ways the storming of the union headquarters is the culmination of eight years of a protracted campaign against UNE by a government bent on achieving complete, unilateral control over the education sector.
During his first campaign for the Presidency in 2006 Correa actively sought and received the endorsement of UNE, and over the next two years consulted with the union in building his education policies. Indeed, at UNE’s annual convention in 2008, Correa was a keynote speaker and sat on the dais with the union’s then president, Mary Zamora. The transition from political allies to antagonists began in 2009 when Correa, recently re-elected with a strong mandate, set teacher evaluations and a system of merit-based pay at the centre of his attempt to reform the education sector. (This “Ecuadorean Model” was adopted by the far right Mauricio Macri—in consultation with the Ecuadorean Ministry of Education—while he was mayor of Barcelona).
Thus began a series of teacher actions (including a 23 day strike) objecting to the evaluation system and demanding an across-the-board increase in teacher salaries. But thanks to his parliamentary majority, Correa was able to pass his reform package in the National Assembly and triumphantly declared that “UNE was overwhelmingly defeated.” (“La UNE fue derrotada en forma aplastante”).
And yet that victory was apparently not enough for the government. UNE, with its organized and active members throughout the country and strong links to independent Indigenous, student and other worker organizations, continued to offer a strong Left critique of many of the Correa’s policies. Among the most controversial of these was his attack on the independent educational districts in rural Indigenous communities. As part of the Indigenous uprisings in the early 2000’s, many communities managed to establish autonomous bilingual education authorities which guaranteed a culturally and linguistically relevant curriculum for thousands of Indigenous communities. Correa closed these authorities, and indeed many of these schools, forcing students to travel long distances to centrally controlled institutions. UNE had also become a key ally in support of Ecuador’s national umbrella Indigenous organization (CONAIE), and their protests against Correa’s Mines and Water Law.
Correa embarked on a series of increasingly vindictive actions against UNE. He abolished automatic dues check-off for UNE members. He put an end to secondments for union work and to any form of leave that would allow teachers to attend UNE meetings. He banned UNE meetings at schools and criminally charged several prominent UNE members (including its former president Mary Zamora) with “terrorism” for being involved in anti-government protests. He seized control of the $400 million unemployment fund that UNE had independently created and managed. And last but not least, Correa created a “management union” for the nation’s teachers. La Red de Maestros por La Revolucion Educativa (Network of Teachers for the Educational Revolution) is now portrayed in state-run media as the main voice of teachers. (While the Red De Maestros does not have its own webpage, government press-releases claim its membership is around 40,000).
In the face of this relentless onslaught, it is indeed remarkable that UNE remains as vibrant and active as it is. It has been able to maintain operations while relying on voluntary dues check-off, and this, along with the fact that UNE has once before overcome being outlawed by the Ecuadorean government (during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, when they held underground national conventions), suggests that there is still hope for UNE’s survival.
Indeed, given that Correa will not run again in the upcoming elections, there is already a ring of truth to the rally cry of “UNE vive, Correa se va” (UNE lives, Correa leaves). The candidate generally favoured to replace Correa is his popular and well-respected former Vice-President Lenin Moreno, who was a key player in negotiating a brief rapprochement between UNE and the government in 2009. In the short term, UNE has filed an appeal to the dissolution order and continues to support and organize members. In some ways, though the situation could not be worse for UNE, it’s really not significantly different from their circumstances over the past few years.
Perhaps the greatest challenge UNE faces will be winning over the public, and indeed many teachers. While Correa’s personal popularity has fallen dramatically (unsurprising given his 10 years in power and an historic recession due to low oil prices in an oil-dependent economy), the public continues to strongly support his education policies (62% approval rating in the most recent national polls). Correa’s government continues to build schools with state of the art facilities. Teachers themselves have never been better paid (Correa has doubled teacher salaries over the past 10 years, though never once giving credit to UNE militancy in advocating for these raises) and his emphasis on professional development and “raising standards” has appealed to many newer teachers.
UNE continues to have the support of both national and international worker and social movement organizations (OSSTF/FEESO is among the hundreds of such organizations which have petitioned the Correa government to reinstate UNE’s legal status). But comments sections on most Ecuadorean news sites are largely hostile to UNE and vocally supportive of the government’s moves to centralize control over the education system and standardize the curriculum. Turnout to marches in support UNE, while vocal and energized, have been noticeably modest compared to previous years when parents and students joined in the thousands.
It’s difficult to predict what form the next stage of UNE’s fight will take, but there is no doubt that UNE members will continue to fight not only for their right to freely associate, but for a critically conscious and vibrant public education system for their students. While still very fluid, UNE’s situation is a grim reminder that even the most progressive governments are all too easily tempted by undemocratic tactics when it comes to the education sector.