On July 20th, the Ecuadorian government of President Rafael Correa accused the National Union of Educators (UNE) of failing to comply with new regulations it had issued for non-governmental organizations. Although it did not specify how UNE had violated the regulations, it has given the organization 15 days to comply or face dissolution. This is the latest in a serious of increasingly punitive measures that the Correa government has taken against the 72-year-old public school teachers’ federation. In the article below IDEA’s Ecuador specialist Edgar Isch provides some context to the conflict.
By Edgar Isch L. – August 2, 2016 (translated by Carmen Miranda Barrios and Ruth Leckie).
Ecuadorian teachers’ organizations were first created during the liberal revolution of Eloy Alfaro (1906-11). In 1937, during General Enriquez Gallo’s progressive administration, the first attempt was made to create a national organization under the name of “National Union of Ecuadorian Teachers”. Two years later, this incipient organization had to organize the first national strike in order to defend the teacher training schools – institutions targeted for closure under the government of Aurelio Mosquera. These institutions remained open as the “free teacher training schools”, thanks to the support of parents and teachers. During the popular uprising known as “La Gloriosa” (The glorious one), a National Congress for Teachers Unification took place August 1st to 4th, 1944, and this is when the current National Union of Educators -UNE – was born.
This ongoing link with social processes, popular struggles and revolutionary actions has defined not just the creation of UNE, but all of its history. Since revolutionary forces are inevitably met with reaction, various right-wing governments, particularly the neoliberal ones, have aimed to divide teachers and outlaw their organization. This was the case on May 30, 1977, when the military dictatorship stormed the offices of the organization, handing out two-year prison sentences to its leaders, firing 230 teachers, prohibiting the payment of wages for the 14 days of the strike, and imposing martial law.
However, the goal of dismantling the organization was not achieved. In 1978, UNE organized and carried out its fourteenth Congress clandestinely and managed to regain its legal status once a constitutional regimen was reinstated.
During the neoliberal governments, there were various attempts to divide teachers by Osvaldo Hurtado’s administration and others. Later, during Rodrigo Borja’s presidency, compulsory membership was eliminated in an effort to kill the organization. However, teachers responded swiftly, signing up over 90,000 teachers as voluntary members in just a few weeks.
This brief summary shows some of the reasons why UNE has been such an important national organization. In addition, the union has established a number of democratic operational measures which, while not perfect, have meant that grassroots members actively participate in decision-making and are the real strength of the organization. The union leadership is elected by universal suffrage of all members; the most important decisions are made at provincial assemblies and then ratified by the National Council; provincial executives report to delegates’ councils (which have had great difficulty functioning under the current government) where representatives named at teachers’ assemblies in each school participate in decision-making; the most important executive positions can not be re-elected consecutively, meaning there is ongoing training of new leaders; and efforts are made to increase the number of women and representatives of different peoples and nationalities on the executive. These are some aspects of the internal structure of the organization which explain why various governments have been unable to destroy the UNE.
UNE and the Correa government
As is well known, Correa came to power by adopting the platforms and programs of popular organizations and the Ecuadorean left. This included the platforms of the National Union of Educators and its proposals for holistic education reform, pedagogical alternatives, and the implementation of an emancipatory education system. Once elected president, Correa even participated in the 27th UNE National Congress June 2nd to 6th, 2008 in the city of Loja, under the leadership of teacher Mery Zamora. This was a brief period when a series of steps toward democratizing education happened, albeit incomplete and tied to measures which contradicted this development.
Later on however, the government shifted to a right-wing approach in all areas of the public sector, an approach that might best be called the “conservative restoration.” They proposed a system of education administration that divides students and teachers, erodes teachers and students’ rights, closes rural and indigenous community schools under the old World Bank excuse that it is not possible to “provide every student with a laboratory,” promotes a “meritocracy” to justify social inequalities and promote competition, and carries out a punitive form of evaluation similar to the one currently in place in Mexico. Meanwhile, the absence of a pedagogical model is clear.
UNE fought back against these regressions. In response the government reverted to the old neoliberal attacks against the teachers’ social organization, and used any means available to blame teachers for the crisis in education that had been generated by the neoliberal measures. In reality, the fact that not all neoliberal measures were applied to the education sector was due to the resistance and struggle of teachers, parents, students and other popular organizations.
This attack resulted in a series of measures that can only be seen as a reactionary retaliation against a popular organization that has not lost its way. When the government began its measures aimed at weakening social organizations, it was necessary to begin a process of voluntary re-affiliation that mobilized most of the teachers in the country to defend their organization. Then, the government suspended union dues check-offs that members voluntarily contributed to maintain the organization. Through a difficult process it has been possible to set up direct dues payments through the bank accounts of members. At the same time, union activities at public schools were banned, considered political acts that destabilize the democratic regime. Similarly, the government eliminated leaves to attend to union duties, forcing leaders to work eight hours a day before they can attend to their union activities. The government also appropriated the Ecuadorian Teachers Retirement Fund, an autonomous entity that was one of the structures created and run by teachers.
It is important to underscore that UNE leaders are among the many popular movement leaders who currently face criminal proceedings as part of the criminalization of social protest. Mery Zamora was charged with sabotage and terrorism when she was only doing her duty as UNE’s national president during a police uprising September 30, 2009. Although the case has been dismissed, there is still a threat of the legal process being reopened. Other examples are the three teachers from Cotopaxi, sentenced to a year in prison for carrying out popular protests, and the trial against teacher Rosaura Bastidas Esmeraldas, accused of terrorism for participating in a municipal protest.
Teachers are prohibited from exercising the right to strike and school principals are not allowed to make public pronouncements on issues of public schools (the UNE president for the province of Guayas was fired for doing this).
As can be seen, this is all a clear attack on the right to free organization, when the existence of the UNE can only be defined by its own members.
A new attempt at dissolution
On July 20, the Ministry of Education demanded that UNE present, within an undeferable period of 15 days (ending on August 10, 2016) exculpatory evidence for having failed to comply with Executive Decrees 016 and 739. In a text filled with errors of substance and form, the ministerial document provides as a reason for the dissolution that UNE allegedly failed to comply with requirements outlined in paragraph 7 of Article 22 of Executive Decree No. 739 of August 3, 2015:
“7. Failure to comply with obligations outlined in the Constitution, the law, and this regulation, or for committing prohibited activities as established herein.”
What is the concrete accusation? It is not clarified, which makes it impossible for the organization to defend itself. Since if it doesn’t know of what it is being accused specifically, it cannot offer a defense. This is a serious legal error, as is the fact that the notification was never sent to any UNE leader or legal representative.
Nevertheless, it has been implied that the measure is for not having registered its executive committee, an alleged failure, for which the government has taken other actions against the teachers’ organization. UNE has shown that in December, 2013, after an internal election in which 60,000 teachers participated, the union registered the new executive. But in May, 2014, the Ministry asked them to provide the personal information of all those who voted. UNE rejected this act of interference through a formal notification to the Ministry insisting that it recognize the new executive. There was never a response from the Ministry. UNE’s position that its executive be registered and its electoral process and internal regulations be respected, is supported (among others) by the Commission for the Application of Norms of the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO), which, in December, 2015, asked the Ecuadorean State to recognise the union’s democratically elected executive.
In response to the government pressure, the teachers decided to organize a special congress, which took place in Quito on May 14 this year with more than 1000 delegates from 23 provinces. There, a provisional executive was named, and the new regulation was approved. But to date, it has not been registered by the ministry.
Why then, have the authorities launched this new threat of dissolution? Surely, there are various reasons. The first is to further intimidate the grassroots opposition and the left. To strike a blow against one of the most representative organizations in the grassroots movement appears to be part of a strategy to initiate processes against multiple organizations, demonstrating that the reform to Decree 16 can threaten all. “If we can do this against the UNE, no other union can resist,” might be the thinking on the government side, with the gratitude of the neoliberal right.
It is important to take into account that of the nine organizations threatened (along with UNE), seven are no longer in operation, but the eighth is the Parents Committee of the Montufar High School in Quito, which defended the students from the repression they suffered for launching demands for education. Defending your children is now motive for punishment, and a warning for the other education institutions.
A second reason is retaliation against those who unmasked the ongoing human rights violations carried out by the government. In June, UNE, along with other organizations, attended a session of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. The committee made 33 recommendations to the Ecuadorian government. The government didn’t wait long before attacking the UNE, which had presented conclusive evidence of violations of the right to free association.
A third element – the Minister of Education has been summoned to testify before the National Assembly for failing to comply with existing regulations in the schools. The move against the UNE aims to not just attack it for these and other denunciations and for recent victories around the rights of retirees, and the recognition by the Ecuadorian Institute for Social Security that the Ministry has failed to adequately comply with payments to the reserve fund, but also to distract public attention from the reasons for the questioning of the minister.
The move also presents left and grassroots forces with a conflict in the midst of the pre-electoral period (national elections take place in Ecuador in February, 2017), and just before the August 5 convention of the Unitary Collective of Worker, Indigenous and Social Organizations, were new national campaigns of struggle are to be established. That also explains why the government would want to create fear in the organizations – although the rejection of this administration is more and more overcoming fear.
UNE has received important support at the national and international level, and in coming days will announce diverse activities to defend its existence. It is for the members to decide the future of the union. All those who value human rights and the right to free association must support it.