The Teachers’ Conflict: Long but Inconclusive
The entirely fair demands of Honduran teachers,
ignored for years and now swept away “as if by magic,”
still wait, unresolved, beneath the magician’s hat.
It’s a good bet that they’ll soon pop out again.
There are many lessons to be learned
in this truce and apparent resolution.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
What do a former Honduran President, an obscure leader of one of the country’s tiny parties and one of the ruling party’s pre-candidates for mayor of Tegucigalpa have in common? All come from dark-dealing traditionalist politics and all were on the commission that in just three days resolved the most acute and ongoing conflict Honduras has seen in over a decade.
The teachers’ statute started it allThe conflict that shook the country, peaking between June 10 and July 9, was only the latest expression of a long string of confrontations between the teaching profession and the government that began in 1997, close to the end of Carlos Roberto Reina’s administration. It all started with the passage of a very favorable Honduran Teachers’ Statute. The president of the National Congress at the time was Carlos Flores Facussé, a candidate in the presidential elections coming up at the end of that same year. By pushing through the law, Flores won the support of some sixty thousand teachers and went on to win the elections.
As the union leaders interpreted the law, it went further than ratifying gains already won to incorporating others, thanks to the intense proselytizing of Flores and his trusted adviser Rafael Pineda Ponce, himself a former teacher and a veteran politician pegged to follow Flores as National Congress president. Among the gains written into the law was a new, more dynamic and annually ascending way to establish a teacher’s base salary. Even more important were the “collaterals”—additional amounts added according to seniority, academic level, positions of responsibility held in the system and the higher cost of living in specific areas such as the Honduran Mosquitia, the Bay Islands and the border areas due to the distances involved.
The statute’s passage obviously delighted the teachers, but within a year President Flores Facussé was already beginning to hobble it. While the failure to comply with its stipulations created strong conflicts, the teachers ended up agreeing that the various payments would be incorporated gradually, in exchange for a government commitment to apply them all to the letter by 2002.
Hurricane Mitch:But then, at the end of October 1998, Hurricane Mitch slammed Honduras even harder than surrounding countries, giving the government the best possible justification for overriding not only the Teachers’ Statute, but also all other old, new, passing and structural problems. The teachers couldn’t push their own demands when the entire country was devastated and all sectors had to make sacrifices. In that nationalist mood, the government reached an agreement with the teachers’ unions: the statute’s economic aspects would be suspended entirely until early 2002.
The government’s first Excuse
Before finishing his term in office, President Flores was supposed to draw up the 2002 budget, including a line for complying with the Teachers’ Statute, but he didn’t do it. When he handed the presidential sash over to Ricardo Maduro on January 27, 2002, he also handed him an imminent conflict with the teachers along with many other postponed problems.
Maduro felt the first pressure from the teachers just two months into his term, and it was then that he and his team made their first mistake. Instead of seeking a response, they sidestepped the demands and simply tried to ignore the teachers’ unions. With that, to use the President’s own term, the conflict began to “snowball” until it became the largest of all the conflicts menacing him.
The sparks that set off the fireWithin four months, the government was forced to negotiate an agreement in which the teachers would receive their deferred payment over a period that would run not to 2002 but to 2004. While this didn’t assuage the teachers’ struggle, it did move it to the back burner for a while. The first sign that it was still there simmering came on August 26, 2003, when some of the six teachers’ unions joined the March for Dignity called by the National Coordinator of Popular Resistance in response to a common threat: reforms to the Civil Service law that would freeze all state employee salaries and roll back various other hard-won rights.
But the National Congress itself gets the credit for uniting the entire teaching profession and sparking its fury against a common adversary. On December 19, it passed two conflictive pieces of legislation: the Central Government Retribution System bill and the following year’s budget. The first specified that the “collaterals” would no longer be calculated dynamically, according to the annual salary hikes that the teachers would finally be acquiring, but rather would be based on the 2003 value of each teacher’s base salary and would remain frozen there until June 2006.
Even worse, the budget eliminated the vast majority of teachers eligible for the payments by combining seniority with academic qualifications rather than treating them separately. This left only 1,200 of the teachers who previously had a right to an increase based on seniority still eligible, since the other 14,800, many of them the oldest teachers, lacked the academic credentials now required. And for the same reason, the estimated 3,000 who should have enjoyed the right to additional payment for academic qualifications shrank to 300 because they didn’t meet the seniority requirements. The sparks began to fly.
From weak and dividedIn December 2003, just before these two laws were promulgated, the various teachers’ organizations had celebrated their congresses, elected new boards and resolved to establish unity—broken a year and a half earlier—for a joint fight to recover everything that had been gutted from the Teachers’ Statute. By approving the two laws, the government inadvertently gave new momentum and additional arguments to that search for unity.
to strong and united
Union leaders met during the Christmas recess to begin concretizing protest plans. There was resistance from some leaders and others didn’t trust each other, but by February 2004 a commission was formed of representatives from all six organizations, rapprochement was underway and joint documents were finally hammered out.
The government had never believed the teachers would actually unite. The education minister and his team—the one closest to President Maduro—trusted in their own force, arguments and reasons, confident that the teachers were weak and divided. But the struggle for their lost rights, a particular cause around which they could always be counted to mobilize, was such a strong motor that it propelled them beyond their limitations.
35,000 teachers hit the streetsThe teachers’ central demand was always economic; unity and the capacity to fight would have been unthinkable otherwise. But beneath that, the quality and orientation of public education was at stake. For the first time ever, the joint position presented by the teachers’ organizations in May 2004 put rejection of the government’s proposed general curriculum reform right up alongside the economic demands. According to the teachers’ representatives, this curriculum does not respond to children’s interests and the country’s needs but to speeding up the privatization of education services. The teachers’ position also included a denunciation of any government agreements that violate international conventions or the Teachers’ Statute itself.
Based on this document, the government, represented by the labor minister, sat down to talk to the six union representatives, but the dialogue came to nothing. With that, although their demands were not yet fully elaborated, the teachers declared a general strike and took to the streets on June 10, motivated essentially by their economic claims. Never before in Honduran history had thirty-five thousand teachers been seen in the streets of Tegucigalpa. The government’s thick-headed measures and disparaging attitude contributed greatly to this sharpening of the conflict, while the explosion of many other accumulated grievances further aggravated the crisis as it spread to additional sectors.
Maduro’s inexplicable fumbleWith the failure of the May dialogue and the strike called on June 10, President Maduro made an even huger and more inexplicable error. He called the teachers’ leadership to a dialogue on June 14 that he planned to chair personally, accompanied by his closest team. He then invited sectors of civil society and private enterprise as witnesses and asked the Catholic Church to moderate the talks. If that wasn’t enough to raise expectations, they soared with the President’s decision to broadcast the talks live over the country’s main radio stations and TV channels.
The trouble with all this hoopla was that he and his team came to this high-profile meeting with no proposals, while the teachers came laden with arguments and strengthened by the paralysis of their labor at a national level. They came with enough force and conviction to refute a government team locked into arguments based on dry technical logic, but with no political underpinning.
This dialogue, riddled with public threats and insults from the government, dragged on through the second half of June. In the final week of the month, the President decided to change the faces on his side of the table. With the resumption of his initial refusal to respond to the teachers’ demands, all that remained was the official proposal, which the teachers found highly insulting. Instead of being paid for academic qualifications and seniority pegged to their salary, as the law established, they would be paid with bonds valued at far below the salary percentages established in the original law and not incorporated into the salary. The teachers rejected the proposal, the negotiations collapsed and the strike continued.
With that, rumors began to circulate that the government would declare a state of exception. But on a national media hook-up in which the President was expected to announce it, he instead proposed arbitration with two government representatives, two from what he called civil society and two from the teaching sector. June closed with the teachers unequivocally rejecting such an idea.
Anything could have happenedThe country’s capital was aboil. The teachers planned a march for July 1, the National Resistance Coordinator had announced its own new mobilization for July 1-2 and the March for Life was arriving from Olancho with its demands. Maduro seemed to be losing grip, as all kinds of rumors flew around. Some said the different movements planned to converge in Tegucigalpa and generate such destabilization that Maduro would have to resign. Others said the US Embassy was trying to broker a pact among various political forces to which Maduro would end up having to subordinate himself. Still others were saying that the Coordinator had stockpiled weapons to set fire to public buildings. The security minister even announced that he had intelligence information about the presence of an Al Qaeda terrorist in the country, while a radio journalist advised business owners to close their shops given the “unprecedented chaos” that was looming.
Yet the March for Life entered the capital, paraded through the streets and presented its demands, and nothing happened. The teachers walked for miles through the capital with impeccable discipline, shouting “Urgent, urgent, looking for a President. We want a Honduran who doesn’t screw the people,” and nothing happened. The organizations in the National Resistance Coordination had ended up mobilizing two days earlier, calling on the government to respond to the various national demands they had presented on May 1. They, too, marched through a number of streets, and nothing happened.
Nothing happened, but anything could have because the capital was crawling with police as never before, even in the worst days of the national security doctrine. President Maduro and his team believed—or had been convinced—that some colossal political destabilization plan was in the works. Indeed, highly credible sources reported a campaign within Maduro’s National Party to make him believe that this was all part of a leftist conspiracy, and he fell into the trap. The figures behind it, linked to the National Party’s darkest side, reportedly wanted to force Maduro to turn to them for support then later subject him to their decisions and interests.
When all exits are closed off...After their march, however, the teachers and the Coordinator—which had supported them throughout the process—were left with no clear idea of what their next step should or could be. Their leaders were noticeably worn out, as were President Maduro and his team, yet no possible exits were in sight. Maduro felt he had given his all, and the only thing left was repression and extraordinary measures, while the leaders of the teachers’ organizations knew that they couldn’t keep their rank and file in the capital indefinitely, not least because parents and diverse sectors of Honduran society were pressuring them to reopen classes. They couldn’t continue without a solid and viable proposal, and no such proposal existed.
The government immediately launched an all-out publicity campaign to discredit the teachers’ leaders before parents and public opinion in general. With increasingly drastic measures the only thing left to expect from the government, the union leaders met the night of July 1 and decided to advise the teachers to go back to class and from there do awareness-building and organizing work with their natural allies—the parents and students. This idea was transmitted the next day to ten thousand teachers waiting in a Tegucigalpa school gym. But they would have nothing to do with any retreat, yelling, “You’ve just sold out to the government!”
The leaders then proposed taking the decision to teachers’ assemblies in the country’s 18 departments for consultation. July 2 was a Friday and it was agreed that the assemblies would meet that same weekend. There the proposal to return to class was accepted, but only as a sit-down strike; the teachers would not teach.
On Monday, July 5, the teachers debuted their newly agreed-upon protest method. The same day, three men—former President Callejas; the Christian Democratic Party head, intimately allied with the dark side of Callejas’ National Party; and President Maduro’s private secretary and odds-on pre-candidate for mayor of Tegucigalpa—formed a special commission and invited the leaders of the six teachers’ unions to open a new round of talks. As if by magic, a definitive agreement was reached by July 9.
...traditionalist politicians take overIt was a particular bitter revelation to discover that the important political decisions made within the country still appear to be linked to politicians of the most traditionalist class. Diverse sectors of Honduran society participated in the conflict, and achieved nothing. Yet, just when oppression seemed the only way out, three obscure conjurers appeared almost out of thin air, waving their magic wands, and out of the hat popped a solution that seemed to leave everyone happy.
What’s the lesson here? Quite simply that the country’s most incorrigible politicians always seem to control the “solution” and their political caste is apparently the only one able to guarantee it.
With a weak, incoherent government, the country is run from outsideThis prolonged teachers’ conflict revealed the government’s weakness and internal contractions. Its staunch refusal to admit that it can’t honor the Teachers’ Statute because the state simply doesn’t have the funds, while in the end caving in to virtually all the teachers’ economic demands, expressed enormous political weakness and incoherence. It became even clearer that President Maduro and his closest team are all alone. Even his own party disagrees with his decisions and is abandoning him to his weakness.
The conflict also revealed the government’s extreme dependence on decisions made by the international financial institutions. The government is a prisoner of external authorities, arguing from the start of the conflict to its finish that it simply couldn’t break its signed commitments with the IMF, although ironically, the Fund’s manager-president actually accompanied the final agreements. All this confirmed that Honduras’ present and future are being defined outside the country, without the country’s participation... and not infrequently against its interests and wishes.
An instructive and tricky victoryThe teachers took to the streets again to celebrate their victory. They had beaten the government. Or had they? Their leaders reached an agreement, but the fact that they negotiated behind closed doors with these kinds of politicians raises certain ethical questions about their negotiating methods and styles. Ends don’t always justify the means, and this time the means involved negotiating with the very devil.
They did indeed win a battle, leaving the weakness of President Maduro and his team stripped bare for all to see. But in so doing they raised the profile of Callejas, the Christian Democratic leader and the ruling party’s mayoral candidate for the capital, not to mention giving the congressional president and probable presidential candidate the chance to capitalize on an important part of the agreements signed, just as Flores Facussé had seven years earlier.
Thousands of teachers ended up with some material gains, but it will surely prove to be a minimal and fleeting victory as the teaching profession’s underlying problems have not been resolved and the most conflictive components of the Teachers’ Statute were not reworked. The latent conflict will surely crop up again at the end of 2006, when the truce signed with the special commission expires.
When all is said and done, however, the teachers did manage to place their conflict within the context of national opposition to the Letter of Intent that the government signed with the IMF. And although their final achievements were pyrrhic, they did voice a political warning: any government agreements with the international financial institutions that are not hammered out together with the diverse sectors of society portend strong conflict. The government can’t make decisions that affect salaries and roll back the social and economic gains of workers and their organizations without both the government and society as a whole paying a high price for it.
The conflict has now entered a rest phase, with the teachers recovering strength for a probable resurgence at the end of 2006. Meanwhile, the agreements established that both sides would seek national answers to one essential aspect that had been sidelined: the kind of education the country wants and needs to generate democracy and shared development.
Civil society is still fragile, tooDuring the conflict, President Maduro invited what he called civil society to act as a witness to the dialogue with the teachers. But not all of civil society is progressive and not all defends class or other popular struggles. In this case, the invited representatives only seemed to echo the government’s voice. There was no self-oriented, independent and civil presence capable of influencing one side or the other or of seeking a fair solution.
The organized social sectors have a long way to go before they establish effective advocacy and participation in the running of government in Honduras. This conflict revealed the urgent need to build entities that provide the majority of Honduran society with representation in the public bodies.
The teachers took to the streets by the thousands and stopped the avalanche against them. As usual, they only fought for themselves, but this time they were supported by parents and other organized social sectors. Having experienced this support, will the teachers now support other social sectors in their struggles? And having seen the government renege on its promises so many times, will they now live up to their own commitment to draw up a quality educational proposal in which they can be the center and motor of the transformations? The teachers’ credibility in Honduran society will depend on the responses. And that in turn will determine the identity and the future of the teachers’ movement in Honduras.
Ismael Moreno, SJ, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.