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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Protest or Politics? Varieties of Teacher Representation in Latin America

  • Author(s): Chambers-Ju, Christopher
  • Advisor(s): Levy, Jonah
  • Berins Collier, Ruth
  • et al.

Scholars of Latin American politics have made contrasting predictions about the prospects for contemporary group-based interest representation. Some argue that democratization creates an opportunity for societal groups to intensify their participation in politics. The expansion of political rights, alongside free and fair elections, creates space for all major groups to take part in politics, crucially those excluded under authoritarian rule. Other scholars, by contrast, maintain that neoliberal economic reforms fragment and demobilize major groups. Changes in the economic model, they suggest, have severe consequences for labor organizations, which now have a limited political repertoire.

My research challenges both of these claims, showing how the consequences of democracy and neoliberalism, rather than being uniform, have been uneven. I focus on the diverse forms of political participation by an influential societal group: public school teachers. Over the past thirty years, teachers’ unions have become the largest and most dynamic sector of labor in many countries throughout the region, taking leadership positions in national union centrals. Teachers have developed contrasting types of mobilization: (1) Movementism (movimientismo in Spanish), based on contentious actions and protests; (2) Leftism, based on organic ties to left parties and ongoing electoral mobilization; and (3) Instrumentalism, based on flexible alliances with various parties, which negotiate for the electoral support of teachers. These three types of mobilization map, respectively, onto the cases of Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico.

These contrasting mobilizational strategies of teachers can be traced to two differences: each union’s ties with its members—centralized versus fragmented; and relations among its leaders—cohesive versus divided. Centralization positions unions to participate in electoral politics, because with dense ties to rank and file workers the leadership can build a powerful voting bloc. By contrast, with fragmented relations to members, unions are unable to discipline grassroots activists or mobilize voters, and they fall back on strikes and protests. Second, leadership cohesion positions unions to take strategic actions, such as moving away from long-standing allegiance to a single party and developing instrumental alliances with multiple parties. Unions with divided leaderships, by contrast, are more deeply rooted in longstanding partisan alliances. For them, efforts to develop instrumental alliances exacerbate factional rivalries, and tend to fail.

While the analysis focuses primarily on the evolving patterns of organization and leadership over the past 30 years, the study also steps back to consider the origins of these patterns, which were produced jointly by the initial legacy of union founding and the political opportunities that were created by democratic openings. Finally, the politics of teachers’ unions is obviously of enormous importance for education policy and for national strategies to increase human capital and enhance social welfare. The study addresses these concerns by showing that alternative mobilizational strategies have important implications for education policy and policymaking. This study draws on extensive fieldwork and original data collection in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. It also utilizes secondary literature and archival documents to analyze how teachers’ unions were founded and how they evolved in the years leading up to democratic openings.

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