Thursday, June 30, 2016

Teachers and the Colombian Peace Accord - Books versus Bullets

Throwing Books at Bullets
Despite violence and intimidation, Colombia’s teachers have been a bulwark for workers’ rights.
By Bob Peterson
Tuesday, August 25, 1987 began like any other day for Luis Felipe Vélez, president of the teachers union of Antioquia, Colombia’s most populous state. Shortly after 7 AM, Velez said goodbye to his wife and three young children and headed to the union’s office in downtown Medellín.
But as the thirty-three-year-old was about to enter the modest adobe-brick building, two assassins leapt out of a green Mazda 626 and opened fire, riddling his body with bullets. Velez died two hours later.
Word spread quickly among human rights activists, teachers, and Vélez’s colleagues in the Association of School Teachers of Antioquia, and by 5 PM a large crowd had gathered at the union office for a vigil.
Among the throng were Hector Abad Gomez and Leonardo Betancur, two well-known human rights leaders. As Gomez and Betancur entered the union office, two men jumped off a motorcycle and walked toward the crowd. One shot Gomez six times; the other chased Betancur into the office and killed him.
It was a bloody day in a bloody period. During the 1980s and ’90s, assassinations were an everyday reality for union and human rights activists in Colombia. And violence, while on the wane, continues to this day.
According to Colombia’s National Union School (ENS), more than 1,000 teacher union leaders were killed between 1977 and 2014 — the equivalent of 7,000 teacher union leaders being murdered in the US. The ENS has also documented over 14,000 incidents of violence against labor activists, ranging from assassinations to beatings, kidnappings, and torture. The perpetrators have only been brought to justice in 1 percent of the cases.

This campaign of intimidation and murder (in combination with neoliberal restructuring) has taken a toll on Colombia’s labor movement. Union membership is 4.4 percent of the national workforce today, down from 17 percent three decades ago.
As the movement has shrunk, public educators have become increasingly important. Teachers in Colombia now make up about half of the membership of the Central Union of Workers, Colombia’s main federation of unions.
And they have one more thing in common with teacher unionists in the US: they’re fighting neoliberal reforms tooth and nail.
Global Front Lines
This past December, during a long visit to Colombia to study Spanish and learn about the situation in the country, I walked into the same teachers union office where Vélez was assassinated. On the wall hung portraits of Vélez and the sixty-six other teacher union leaders in Antioquia murdered since 1977. Above the pictures, a wooden sign read (in Spanish): “Here we are and here we will be forever in the heat of the struggle in defense of human rights.”
Seeing the dozens of portraits of slain teachers was chilling, a stark contrast to the congratulatory plaques lining the office walls at my own union, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.
I had been aware of the danger facing private-sector union activists in Colombia — especially those organizing against multinational sugar cane, banana, and mining companies — but the pictures drove home the importance of public-sector workers to the struggle for justice and human rights in Colombia. Elites in the country literally had them gunned down to try to weaken popular resistance.
While the situation outside Columbia is less dangerous, public-sector unionists across the world have emerged as a bulwark against efforts to eviscerate public services. From Chicago to Colombia, teachers have leveraged their position in society to fight the privatization and disinvestment national governments and international institutions are pushing.
Teachers and schools are in nearly every town and city in the world. Urban and rural teachers are in daily contact with impoverished and disenfranchised communities. And despite anti-union attacks and growing privatization, teacher unions remain among the largest in the world. (In the United States, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have some 4.5 million members, making K-12 public education one of the country’s most unionized sectors.)
Educational International, the global federation of teacher unions, has launched an international campaign against the commodification of education. But much more is needed.
To be successful, teacher unions must take our struggle beyond the schoolhouse door and fight for more than just the rights of our members. We must struggle for a more genuine democracy, a more expansive social justice.
Colombian teachers, many of whom have given their lives, are on the front lines of this struggle.
Culture of Fear
Though separated by thousands of miles, my conversations with teachers and union activists in Colombia underlined the commonality of our struggles.
Teachers from Colombia and the US alike decry the growing emphasis on standardized testing, the tendency to blame teachers for not solving problems created by pervasive poverty, the top-down commands that devalue teaching as a profession, and the narrowing of the curriculum, which edges out all-important issues such as social justice and critical thinking. They object to corporate reforms that privilege private schools and defund public education — reforms that, at their heart, represent an attack on democratic rights.
“We are fighting privatization of our public schools,” said John Avila, a former social studies teacher and current head of research for Colombia’s Federation of Educators (FECODE) in Bogotá. “The neoliberal agenda . . . is strong in Colombia.”
Last spring, the federation led a fifteen-day national strike that focused on two issues — meager pay and a new teacher evaluation system that consisted of a single, written test. The union made gains on both, winning a 12 percent pay increase over three years and a more sophisticated evaluation system that does not include a written test.
Indeed, despite right-wing violence and a culture of fear, despite limits on organizing, despite the prohibition of agency fees, Colombian educators have persevered — roughly 70 percent of the country’s teachers are union members.
Longest Civil War in Modern History
To fully understand the challenges and potentials facing Colombia’s teacher unions, a bit of history is necessary.
Colombia’s civil/guerrilla war dates back to the 1960s and is considered the longest contemporary struggle in the world. A central issue was land tenure – wealthy landowners and multinational corporations seizing land for mining and banana and palm oil plantations. Another issue was the country’s closed political system – the ruling oligarchy and their two political parties had formed a national front in the 1950s that effectively prevented legal means of politically challenging their rule.
In the 1980s, Colombia’s narco-trafficking escalated, further complicating the country’s politics and unleashing an increased level of violence. This situation became more problematic when both paramilitaries and left guerrillas began to use the drug trade to help fund their operations.
The U.S., meanwhile, linked its War on Drugs with its crusade against left movements in Latin America.  The high point was in 1999, when President Bill Clinton and Colombian President Andrés Pastrana signed “Plan Colombia” to fight drugs and terrorism in Colombia. From 2000 to 2008, the U.S. Congress provided more than $6 billion to Colombia, making it the largest non-Middle Eastern recipient of U.S. military assistance. How much went to fighting drugs and how much to fighting left guerrillas has never been clear. As the MIT Center for International Relations noted in 2008, Plan Colombia is “a counternarcotics strategy that has turned into a counter insurgency one.” [i]
But both the war on drugs and the counter-insurgency have failed. Colombia remains the world’s leading producer of cocaine, and the government has been unable to defeat the leftist guerrillas. After decades of violence, there is a yearning for peace in Colombia.
The pending peace accord between Colombia’s government and leftist guerrillas is raising hopes that teacher unions will be able to bring even more people into their ranks. As Carlos Lotero — longtime labor leader and now the director general of the National Union School — put it: “It’s a lot easier to organize for worker rights if leaders are not routinely murdered.”
Two decades ago, peace talks between the government and the guerillas led to the formation of the Patriotic Union, a left political party. But both the Patriotic Union and the peace process collapsed when the ruling oligarchy and paramilitaries launched a campaign against the nascent party. According to the House of Memory in Medellín, nearly five thousand members of the new party were “assassinated, disappeared, or massacred” between 1984 and 1997.
Today, the peace process enjoys much broader support and is attracting more international scrutiny. The negotiations began in 2012 in Havana, Cuba and a tentative pact was announced in September 2015. The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continue to make progress on the details of a final peace agreement, although they did not complete the accord by the hoped-for deadline of March 23. In June the two sides reached an agreement on a cease fire, the last major obstacle to a final peace agreement. It is likely that there will be a referendum on the agreement in October.
Every educator and teacher union leader I spoke with supported the peace process, in the hopes that it it will rein in paramilitary death squads and provide space for organizing and social transformation.
Perseverance
As the peace process in Colombia moves forward, the unions have developed a broad agenda to fight for worker rights. And because of Washington’s continued involvement in the country, Colombian union activists say the solidarity of US progressives and unions is essential.
Lotero spoke in particular about provisions in the US-Colombia free-trade agreement, which was signed in 2011. Because of pressure from the US and Colombian labor movements, the pact included a Labor Action Plan intended to safeguard worker rights. Now Colombian unions are fighting to make sure that language is put into practice.
Provisions of the Labor Action Plan include: establishing a ministry of labor, ending subcontracting designed to prevent unionization, opening an office of the International Labor Organization in Colombia, and changing legal codes to expand and enforce basic labor laws.
The plan also calls for measures to prosecute perpetrators of anti-labor violence and increase protection for activists, including government funding for bodyguards and armored cars. Intimidation is an ongoing concern. According to the US Department of Labor, “threats against labor leaders and activists have increased significantly, in the form of text messages, phone calls, letters, emails and other forms.”
But as I spoke with teachers and union leaders in Colombia, I was struck by their matter-of-fact perseverance — a persistence examined in a book that all union activists in Medellín seem to have read: Tirándole libros a las balas, or Throwing Books at Bullets. The book chronicles the history of violence against teachers in Antioquia from 1978 to 2008.
Fernando Ospina, president of the Antioquia teachers union, explained the title’s significance.
“Teacher unions have been targeted by violence and bullets,” Ospina said. “Our response has been with education, social research, and social justice. They shoot bullets. We throw books.”
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Bob Peterson taught fifth grade for thirty years in the Milwaukee Public Schools. He was president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and is an editor of Rethinking Schools and President of the Rethinking Schools Board of Directors.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the online Jacobin magazine on April 6, 2016
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/04/colombia-farc-teachers-assassination-public-sector/
For a pdf of a Spanish translation of this article click here
For a pdf of the English version of the article click here

[i] US military involvement and aid has spanned decades. Dr. Martin Luther King noted this in his April 4, 1967 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech when he criticized the use of US helicopters against the Colombian guerrillas. Since then over 10,000 Colombian military personnel were trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of Americas). In 2009 the US and Colombia reached an agreement to allow the US military to control seven military bases inside Colombia. See Jenny Manrique Cortés, U.S. and Colombia: A Growing Military Intervention, in Audit of the conventional Wisdom, MIT Center for International Studies, December 2008. http://web.mit.edu/cis/pdf/Audit_12_08_Manrique.pdf  and

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tirándole libros a las balas

A pesar de la violencia y la intimidación, los maestros de Colombia han sido un baluarte de los derechos de los trabajadores.

Por Bob Peterson

El martes, 25 de agosto de 1987 comenzó como cualquier otro día para Luis Felipe Vélez, presidente del sindicato de docentes del departamento de Antioquia, Colombia, el estado más poblado. Poco después de las 7 AM Vélez se despidió de su esposa y sus tres hijos menores y se dirigió a la oficina del sindicato en el centro de la ciudad de Medellín.

Cuando Vélez, de treinta y tres años, estaba a punto de entrar en el modesto edificio de ladrillos de adobe, dos asesinos saltaron de un Mazda 626 verde y abrieron fuego, acribillando su cuerpo a balazos. Vélez murió dos horas después.

La voz se extendió rápidamente entre los activistas de los derechos humanos, profesores y compañeros del Vélez en la Asociación de Institutores de Antioquia, y alrededor de las 5 PM ya se había reunido una gran multitud en la oficina del sindicato para una vigilia.

Entre la multitud estaban Héctor Abad Gómez y Leonardo Betancur, dos conocidos líderes de los derechos humanos. Cuando Gómez y Betancur enteraron en la oficina del sindicato, dos hombres saltaron de una motocicleta y caminaron hacia la multitud. Uno le disparó a Gómez seis veces; el otro persiguió a Betancur hasta la oficina y lo mató.

Fue un día sangriento en un período sangriento. Durante los años ochenta y noventa, los asesinatos eran una realidad cotidiana para los activistas de los derechos humanos y sindicales en Colombia pero la violencia, aunque en decadencia, continúa hasta el día de hoy.

Según la Escuela Nacional Sindicato de Colombia (ENS), más de 1.000 dirigentes del sindicato de docentes fueron asesinados entre 1977 y 2014 – el equivalente de 7.000 dirigentes del sindicato de docentes fueron asesinados en los Estados Unidos. La ENS también ha documentado más de 14.000 incidentes de violencia contra activistas laborales, que van desde asesinatos a palizas, secuestros y torturas. Los autores sólo han sido llevados ante la justicia en un porcentaje de los casos.
Esta campaña de intimidación y asesinato (en combinación con la reestructuración neoliberal) ha hecho un estrago en el movimiento laboral de Colombia. La densidad sindical es del 4,4 por ciento de la fuerza de trabajo nacional hoy, por debajo del 17% de hace tres décadas.


Photo credit: Barbara J. Miner


A medida que el movimiento se ha encogido, los educadores públicos se han vuelto cada vez más importante. Los maestros en Colombia actualmente representan alrededor de la mitad de los miembros de la Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia, la federación principal de sindicatos.

Ellos tienen algo más en común con los sindicalistas magisteriales de los EE.UU.: están luchando contra las reformas neoliberales con uñas y dientes.

Líneas del frente mundial

Este diciembre pasado, durante una larga visita a Colombia para estudiar español y aprender acerca de la situación en el país, yo entré en la misma oficina del sindicato de maestros donde Vélez fue asesinado. En las paredes cuelgan retratos de Vélez y de sesenta y seis otros dirigentes del sindicato de docentes en Antioquia que fueron asesinados desde 1977. Encima de las fotos, un cartel de madera dice: ¡Aquí estamos y aquí estaremos siempre, en el fragor de la lucha! Por la defensa de los derechos humanos.”

Ver las decenas de retratos de maestros asesinados fue escalofriante, un contraste marcado con las placas de felicitación que adornan las paredes de la entrada de la oficina en mi propio sindicato, la Asociación de Maestros y Educadores de Milwaukee.

Yo estaba consciente del peligro que enfrentan los activistas de los sindicatos en el sector privado en Colombia – especialmente aquellos que se organizan en contra de empresas multinacionales de caña de azúcar, banano y las empresas mineras – pero las imágenes resaltaron la importancia de los trabajadores del sector público en la lucha por la justicia y los derechos humanos en Colombia. Las elites en el país les habían mandado a acribillar para intentar debilitar la resistencia popular.

Aunque la situación fuera de Colombia es menos peligrosa, los sindicalistas del sector público de todo el mundo han surgido como un baluarte contra los esfuerzos para diezmar los servicios públicos. Desde Chicago a Colombia, los maestros han aprovechado su posición en la sociedad para luchar en contra de la privatización y la falta de inversión que los gobiernos nacionales y las instituciones internacionales están impulsando.

Los maestros y las escuelas están en casi cada pueblo y ciudad en el mundo. Los maestros urbanos y rurales están en contacto diario con las comunidades oprimidas y marginadas y a pesar de los ataques antisindicales y la creciente privatización, los sindicatos de docentes siguen siendo los más grandes del mundo. (En los Estados Unidos, la Asociación Nacional de Educación y la Federación Americana de Maestros tienen cerca de 4,5 millones de miembros, haciendo que la educación pública K-12 sea uno de los sectores más sindicalizados).

La Internacional de la Educación, la federación mundial de sindicatos de docentes, ha lanzado una campaña internacional contra la mercantilización y la privatización de la educación, pero se necesita mucho más.

Para tener éxito, los sindicatos de docentes deben llevar nuestra lucha más allá de la puerta de la escuela y luchar por algo más que los derechos de nuestros miembros. Debemos luchar por una democracia más verdadera, una justicia social más amplia.

Los docentes colombianos, muchos de los cuales han dado sus vidas, están en la primera línea de esta lucha.

La cultura del miedo

Aunque separados por miles de kilómetros, mis conversaciones con los maestros y activistas sindicales en Colombia resaltaron la similitud de nuestras luchas.

Los profesores de Colombia y EE.UU. por igual lamentan el creciente énfasis en las pruebas estandarizadas, la tendencia a culpar a los profesores por no resolver los problemas creados por la pobreza generalizada, los comandos jerárquicos que devalúan la docencia como una profesión y el estrechamiento de los planes de estudios, que prácticamente elimina los asuntos importantes, tales como la justicia social y el pensamiento crítico. Se oponen a las reformas institucionales que favorecen las escuelas privadas y recortan los fondos para escuelas públicas, reformas que, en el fondo, representan un ataque a los derechos democráticos.
“Estamos luchando contra la privatización de nuestras escuelas públicas,” dijo John Avila, un ex-profesor de estudios sociales y actual director de investigación de la Federación Colombiana de Educadores (FECODE), en Bogotá. “La agenda neoliberal . . . es fuerte en Colombia.”

La primavera pasada, la Federación encabezó una huelga nacional de 15 días que se centró en dos asuntos, la escasa remuneración y un nuevo sistema de evaluación docente que constaba de una única prueba escrita.

El sindicato hizo progresos en ambas, obteniendo un 12 por ciento de aumento de sueldo durante tres años y un sistema de evaluación más sofisticado que no incluye una prueba escrita.

De hecho, a pesar de la violencia y una cultura del miedo, a pesar de los límites de la organización, a pesar de la prohibición de las “agency shop” (acuerdos mediante los cuales los empleados de las unidades de negociación pagaban cuotas de sindicato), los educadores colombianos han persistido – aproximadamente el 70 por ciento de los profesores del país son miembros del sindicato.

La guerra civil más larga de la historia moderna

A fin de comprender plenamente los desafíos y posibilidades que enfrentan los sindicatos de docentes en Colombia, un poco de historia es necesaria. La guerra civil se remonta a la década de 1960 y es considerada la más larga lucha en el mundo contemporáneo. Un problema central era la tenencia de la tierra, los terratenientes y las multinacionales confiscaban las tierras para la minería y las plantaciones de banano y aceite de palma. Otro asunto era la de un sistema político cerrado – la oligarquía gobernante y sus dos partidos políticos habían formado un frente nacional en la década de 1950 que previno eficazmente a los medios jurídicos de desafiar sus políticas.

En la década de 1980, el narcotráfico escaló en Colombia, complicando aún más la política del país y desencadenando un nivel de violencia sin precedente. Esta situación se vuelve más problemática cuando ambos grupos  paramilitares y guerrilleros de izquierda empezaron a utilizar el tráfico de drogas para financiar sus operaciones.

Los Estados Unidos, entretanto, combinó su guerra contra las drogas con su cruzada contra los movimientos de izquierda en América Latina. El punto culminante fue en 1999, cuando el Presidente Bill Clinton y el presidente colombiano Andrés Pastrana firmaron el “Plan Colombia” para combatir el tráfico de drogas y el terrorismo en Colombia. Del 2000 al 2008, el Congreso de EE.UU. proporcionó más de $6 mil millones de dólares a Colombia, lo que la convierte en la mayor receptora de asistencia militar estadounidense fuera del Medio Oriente. Nunca ha sido claro lo que se destinó a la lucha contra las drogas y cuánto a la lucha contra las guerrillas de izquierda. Como el MIT Centro para las Relaciones Internacionales señaló en 2008, “Una estrategia antidrogas que se ha convertido en una lucha contra la insurrección.”

 La guerra contra las drogas y la contrainsurgencia ha fracasado. Colombia sigue siendo el principal productor mundial de cocaína y el gobierno ha sido incapaz de derrotar a la guerrilla izquierdista. Después de décadas de violencia, hay un anhelo de paz en Colombia.

El acuerdo de paz pendiente entre el gobierno colombiano y las guerrillas izquierdistas está aumentando las esperanzas de que los sindicatos de docentes serán capaces de traer aún más gente a sus filas. Como Carlos Lotero – veterano líder laborista y ahora el director general de la Escuela Nacional Sindical – dijo: “Es mucho más fácil organizarse para los derechos de los trabajadores si los líderes no son asesinados rutinariamente.”

Hace dos décadas, las conversaciones de paz entre el gobierno y la guerrilla resultaron en la formación de la Unión Patriótica, un partido político de izquierda. Pero tanto la Unión Patriótica y el proceso de paz fracasaron cuando la oligarquía gobernante y los paramilitares iniciaron una campaña en contra de la naciente partido. Según la Casa de la Memoria en Medellín, cerca de cinco mil miembros del nuevo partido “fueron asesinados, desaparecidos o masacrados” entre 1984 y 1997.

Hoy, el proceso de paz goza de un apoyo más amplio y está atrayendo más atención internacional. Las negociaciones comenzaron en 2012 en La Habana, Cuba, y un pacto provisional fue anunciado en septiembre de 2015. El gobierno colombiano y las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) continúan avanzando sobre los detalles de un acuerdo de paz definitivo, aunque no completaron el acuerdo para la fecha esperada del 23 de marzo. Su intención es tener pronto un acuerdo, seguido de un referéndum en octubre.

La perseverancia

Como el proceso de paz en Colombia avanza, los sindicatos han elaborado un programa amplio para luchar por los derechos de los trabajadores y debido a la continua participación de Washington en el país, dicen activistas sindicales colombianos, la solidaridad de nosotros, los progresistas y los sindicatos, es esencial.

Lotero habló, en concreto, sobre las estipulaciones del acuerdo de libre comercio entre los EE.UU.-Colombia, que fue firmado en 2011. Debido a la presión de los movimientos laborales de Colombia y los EE.UU., el pacto incluye un plan de acción laboral destinado a salvaguardar los derechos de los trabajadores. Ahora los sindicatos colombianos están luchando para asegurarse de que las palabras sean puestas en práctica.

Las estipulaciones del Plan de Acción de trabajo incluyen: el establecimiento de un ministerio de trabajo, acabando la subcontratación diseñada para impedir la sindicalización, la apertura de una oficina de la Organización Internacional del Trabajo en Colombia, y el cambio de los códigos legales para expandir y hacer cumplir las leyes laborales básicas.

El plan también prevé medidas para enjuiciar a los autores de violencia contra trabajadores y aumentar la protección de los activistas, incluidos los fondos del gobierno para guardaespaldas y carros blindados. La intimidación es una preocupación constante. Según el Departamento de Trabajo de Estados Unidos, “las amenazas contra dirigentes sindicales y activistas han aumentado significativamente, en forma de mensajes de texto, llamadas telefónicas, cartas, correos electrónicos y otras formas.”

Hablar con los maestros y dirigentes sindicales en Colombia, me sorprendió por su perseverancia, la persistencia analizadas en un libro que todos los activistas sindicales en Medellín parecen haber leído: Tirándole libros a las balas. El libro relata la historia de violencia contra los docentes en Antioquia desde 1978 hasta 2008.

Fernando Ospina, presidente del sindicato de profesores de Antioquia, explicó el significado del título. “Los sindicatos de docentes han sido el blanco de la violencia y las balas,” dijo Ospina. “Nuestra respuesta ha sido con la educación, la investigación social y la justicia social. Disparan balas. Tiramos libros.”
 - - - -
Una versión de este ensayo fue publicada en la revista “Jacobin” April 6, 2016. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/04/colombia-farc-teachers-assassination-public-sector/

Bob Peterson enseñó quinto grado por treinta años en las escuelas públicas de Milwaukee. Fue presidente de la Asociación de Educación de Maestros de Milwaukee y es un editor de Repensando las Escuelas. Algunos de los escritos en español de Bob se pueden encontrar en http://www.bob-peterson.blogspot.com.es/2015/11/escritos-por-bob-peterson-en-espanol.html


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Throwing Books at Bullets: The Heroic Struggles of Colombian Teachers

Despite violence and intimidation, Colombia’s teachers have been a bulwark for workers’ rights.
Tuesday, August 25, 1987 began like any other day for Luis Felipe Vélez, president of the teachers union of Antioquia, Colombia’s most populous state. Shortly after 7 AM, Vélez aid goodbye to his wife and three young children and headed to the union’s office in downtown Medellín.
But as the thirty-three-year-old was about to enter the modest adobe-brick building, two assassins leapt out of a green Mazda 626 and opened fire, riddling his body with bullets. Vélez died two hours later.
Word spread quickly among human rights activists, teachers, and Vélez’s colleagues in the Association of School Teachers of Antioquia, and by 5 PM a large crowd had gathered at the union office for a vigil.
Among the throng were Hector Abad Gomez and Leonardo Betancur, two well-known human rights leaders. As Gomez and Betancur entered the union office, two men jumped off a motorcycle and walked toward the crowd. One shot Gomez six times; the other chased Betancur into the office and killed him.
It was a bloody day in a bloody period. During the 1980s and ’90s, assassinations were an everyday reality for union and human rights activists in Colombia. And violence, while on the wane, continues to this day.
According to Colombia’s National Union School (ENS), more than 1,000 teacher union leaders were killed between 1977 and 2014 — the equivalent of 7,000 teacher union leaders being murdered in the US. The ENS has also documented over 14,000 incidents of violence against labor activists, ranging from assassinations to beatings, kidnappings, and torture. The perpetrators have only been brought to justice in 1 percent of the cases.
This campaign of intimidation and murder (in combination with neoliberal restructuring) has taken a toll on Colombia’s labor movement. Union membership is 4.4 percent of the national workforce today, down from 17 percent three decades ago.
As the movement has shrunk, public educators have become increasingly important. Teachers in Colombia now make up about half of the membership of the Central Union of Workers, Colombia’s main federation of unions.
And they have one more thing in common with teacher unionists in the US: they’re fighting neoliberal reforms tooth and nail.
Global Front Lines
This past December, during a long visit to Colombia to study Spanish and learn about the situation in the country, I walked into the same teachers union office where Vélez was assassinated. On the wall hung portraits of Vélez and the sixty-six other teacher union leaders in Antioquia murdered since 1977. Above the pictures, a wooden sign read (in Spanish): “Here we are and here we will be forever in the heat of the struggle in defense of human rights.”
Seeing the dozens of portraits of slain teachers was chilling, a stark contrast to the congratulatory plaques lining the office walls at my own union, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.
I had been aware of the danger facing private-sector union activists in Colombia — especially those organizing against multinational sugar cane, banana, and mining companies — but the pictures drove home the importance of public-sector workers to the struggle for justice and human rights in Colombia. Elites in the country literally had them gunned down to try to weaken popular resistance.
While the situation outside Columbia is less dangerous, public-sector unionists across the world have emerged as a bulwark against efforts to eviscerate public services. From Chicago to Colombia, teachers have leveraged their position in society to fight the privatization and disinvestment national governments and international institutions are pushing.
Teachers and schools are in nearly every town and city in the world. Urban and rural teachers are in daily contact with impoverished and disenfranchised communities. And despite anti-union attacks and growing privatization, teacher unions remain among the largest in the world. (In the United States, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have some 4.5 million members, making K-12 public education one of the country’s most unionized sectors.)
Educational International, the global federation of teacher unions, has launched an international campaign against the commodification of education. But much more is needed.
To be successful, teacher unions must take our struggle beyond the schoolhouse door and fight for more than just the rights of our members. We must struggle for a more genuine democracy, a more expansive social justice.
Colombian teachers, many of whom have given their lives, are on the front lines of this struggle.
Culture of Fear
Though separated by thousands of miles, my conversations with teachers and union activists in Colombia underlined the commonality of our struggles.
Teachers from Colombia and the US alike decry the growing emphasis on standardized testing, the tendency to blame teachers for not solving problems created by pervasive poverty, the top-down commands that devalue teaching as a profession, and the narrowing of the curriculum, which edges out all-important issues such as social justice and critical thinking. They object to corporate reforms that privilege private schools and defund public education — reforms that, at their heart, represent an attack on democratic rights.
“We are fighting privatization of our public schools,” said John Avila, a former social studies teacher and current head of research for Colombia’s Federation of Educators (FECODE) in Bogotá. “The neoliberal agenda . . . is strong in Colombia.”
Last spring, the federation led a fifteen-day national strike that focused on two issues — meager pay and a new teacher evaluation system that consisted of a single, written test. The union made gains on both, winning a 12 percent pay increase over three years and a more sophisticated evaluation system that does not include a written test.
Indeed, despite right-wing violence and a culture of fear, despite limits on organizing, despite the prohibition of agency fees, Colombian educators have persevered — roughly 70 percent of the country’s teachers are union members.
The pending peace accord between Colombia’s government and leftist guerrillas is raising hopes that teacher unions will be able to bring even more people into their ranks. As Carlos Lotero — longtime labor leader and now the director general of the National Union School — put it: “It’s a lot easier to organize for worker rights if leaders are not routinely murdered.”
Two decades ago, peace talks between the government and the guerillas led to the formation of the Patriotic Union, a left political party. But both the Patriotic Union and the peace process collapsed when the ruling oligarchy and paramilitaries launched a campaign against the nascent party. According to the House of Memory in Medellín, nearly five thousand members of the new party were “assassinated, disappeared, or massacred” between 1984 and 1997.
Today, the peace process enjoys much broader support and is attracting more international scrutiny. The negotiations began in 2012 in Havana, Cuba and a tentative pact was announced in September 2015. The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continue to make progress on the details of a final peace agreement, although they did not complete the accord by the hoped-for deadline of March 23. Their intention is to have an agreement soon, followed by a referendum in October.
Every educator and teacher union leader I spoke with supported the peace process, in the hopes that it it will rein in paramilitary death squads and provide space for organizing and social transformation.
Perseverance
As the peace process in Colombia moves forward, the unions have developed a broad agenda to fight for worker rights. And because of Washington’s continued involvement in the country, Colombian union activists say the solidarity of US progressives and unions is essential.
Lotero spoke in particular about provisions in the US-Colombia free-trade agreement, which was signed in 2011. Because of pressure from the US and Colombian labor movements, the pact included a Labor Action Plan intended to safeguard worker rights. Now Colombian unions are fighting to make sure that language is put into practice.
Provisions of the Labor Action Plan include: establishing a ministry of labor, ending subcontracting designed to prevent unionization, opening an office of the International Labor Organization in Colombia, and changing legal codes to expand and enforce basic labor laws.
The plan also calls for measures to prosecute perpetrators of anti-labor violence and increase protection for activists, including government funding for bodyguards and armored cars. Intimidation is an ongoing concern. According to the US Department of Labor, “threats against labor leaders and activists have increased significantly, in the form of text messages, phone calls, letters, emails and other forms.”
But as I spoke with teachers and union leaders in Colombia, I was struck by their matter-of-fact perseverance — a persistence examined in a book that all union activists in Medellín seem to have read: Tirándole libros a las balas, or Throwing Books at Bullets. The book chronicles the history of violence against teachers in Antioquia from 1978 to 2008.
Fernando Ospina, president of the Antioquia teachers union, explained the title’s significance.
“Teacher unions have been targeted by violence and bullets,” Ospina said. “Our response has been with education, social research, and social justice. They shoot bullets. We throw books.”
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Originally published by Jacobin, on April 7, 2016.
Bob Peterson taught fifth grade for thirty years in the Milwaukee Public Schools. He was president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and is an editor of Rethinking Schools.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Escritos por Bob Peterson en español

Si tiene interés en mis escritos en español, puede encontrarlos a continuación:

Enseñaza para la justicia social
Contando números para la justicia social, por Bob Peterson. Docencia Nº 47, Agosto 2012, Santiago, Chile. P. 53-67.

Presidentes y Esclavos: Ayudando a los estudiantes a encontrar la verdad, por Bob Peterson. Rethinking Multicultural Education edited by Wayne Au, Rethinking Schools, 2009.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

La Escuela Fratney
La Escuela Fratney: un viaje hacia la democracia, por Bob Peterson, en Escuelas democráticas, comps. por Michael W. Apple y James A. Beane. Ediciones Morata, S.L., Madrid, 1997.p. 95-130.

La lucha por la democracia y la calidad de la educación: la escuela Fratney, (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, EEUU), por Libia Stella Niño. Educación y Cultura No. 100, Bogota, Colombia.

El sindicalismo magisterial de justicia social
Un movimiento para revitalizar el sindicato de maestros, reflexiones de campo, por Bob Peterson. Rethinking Schools, Winter 2014-1015, Vol. 29 #2, Milwaukee, WI , p. 13-21.

Principios de enseñanza de justicia social y los tres componentes del sindicalismo magisterial de justicia social, por Bob Peterson, 18.10.2015

Repensar la estrategia del sindicalismo magisterial, por Bob Peterson. Opciones Pedagógicas, Número 24, Año 2001, Bogota, Colombia p. 66-80.

Artículo por estudiantes sobre las intervenciones militares de los EEUU
Los marinos han aterrizados: Las intervenciones militares de Estados Unidos y la globalización, por Bob Peterson, en Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. Rethinking Schools, 2001, Milwaukee Wisconsin pp. 118-121.

Contra la privatización de las escuelas publicas
El apoderamiento de MPS: Una idea fracasada que le fallará a los niños de la ciudad de Milwaukee, por Bob Peterson. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 17 de mayo de 2015.

Libro infantil – El Dr. Martín Luther King
El doctor Martín Luther King: El hombre, la lucha y la esperanza, por Bob Peterson. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1985, 29 páginas.

Artículos sobre el trabajo de Bob Peterson y otro activistas
El Activismo por la justicia social está formando un sindicato más perfecto (y duradero), por Cindy Long. NEA Today, 28 de septiembre de 2015.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Abele misses key facts as he helps Republicans takeover MPS

Chris Abele is mistaken.

Milwaukee County Executive Abele's recent claim that he is "committed to making sure MPS is not harmed" during the process of the state-ordered takeover of MPS, shows he doesn't understand what's really going on in Milwaukee.  

Abele's recent op ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel followed a forceful statement by several community leaders against the MPS takeover. The No Takeover movement is clearly growing and being felt by the powers that be.

Here are four things Abele apparently doesn't  understand about schools in Milwaukee:

1) The schools that Abele's commissioner will force MPS to charter will be non-instrumentality schools. They will be run by private operators. Therefore the employees will NOT be PUBLIC employees, not be eligible to participate in the state's retirement system. Most will not have the right to just cause in discipline matters. These are NOT public schools -- at least not in terms of the people who work there.


2) The schools are not directly controlled by the democratically elected school board. The school board isn't required to approve such charters. Even more important, however, once these schools are chartered by the commissioner they can essentially do what they want. Past practice bears this out: The leadership of the non-instrumentality Carmen HighSchool has tried to take over Bradley Tech High School despite explicit opposition from the school board and the superintendent. In other words, some of these so-called "public" schools are trying to replicate themselves against the will of the democratically elected school board. These are NOT public schools -- at least not in terms of the democratic decision-making progress.

3) Data show that the 15 MPS non-instrumentality schools, with only one exception, serve significantly fewer students with special needs. Similarly these schools, with only one exception, serve fewer students who are classified as "MRP" -- most restrictive placement. The two charts below have the data from MPS for the 2013-2014 school year..






4) Abele writes in his oped that "Milwaukee County is in a unique position to provide to provide services... such as mental health, transit, and housing [to schools]." That's great. No need to do it through a commissioner or wait until the threat of an MPS Takeover, however. Community advocates and the MTEA have been promoting the notion of community schools for some years. Abele should have his staff call the community schools coordinators at James Madison High School, Bradley Tech HS, Auer Avenue and Hopkins Lloyd Community School and use those schools as a start.

The Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in this city that has the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve ALL students in Milwaukee. 

Chris Abele needs to understand that his participation in this Republican Takeover effort inherently damages the Milwaukee Public Schools. 

We should keep the pressure on  Able to say NO to the Takeover. If he does move forward, he should appoint a commissioner who is absolutely in support of public schools and then instruct the person to do the absolute minimum: Put a tiny school in an empty building to satisfy the state law for the first year and then create no more non-instrumentality schools in subsequent years but instead put County resources into supporting the students who attend MPS.

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A final note. A huge thanks to the thousands of staff, parents, students and community members who participated in the Walk Ins last Friday. And a thanks to staff, parents and students of Highland Community School (which is a non-instrumentality charter school) for consistently standing with with MPS advocates opposing the MPS takeover.  Finally, a thanks to Jack Norman for the graphics used in this blog.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Why we oppose the takeover of Milwaukee's public schools

On Friday morning, thousands of parents, educators, students and community members gathered outside more than 100 public schools in Milwaukee. Our purpose: to stand up as a community to celebrate each individual public school in our community, and to voice our opposition to a proposed public school takeover in our city.
A public school takeover plan, passed as part of the state budget last July, looms over our schools, our children, and our city. State legislators have charged Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele with choosing a school takeover czar or "commissioner" this fall. The commissioner would then choose one to three schools to convert into privately run charter or voucher schools for the 2016-'17 school year. In each subsequent year, up to five schools could be handed over to private operators.
Milwaukee parents and community members are concerned about this plan for several reasons:
■The plan threatens the entire Milwaukee school district — not just the schools identified for takeover. More than 40% of children in Milwaukee already attend privately run charter or voucher schools. When taxpayer money is taken away from public schools to fund privately run charter and voucher schools, public school students lose funding and opportunities. Eventually, the financial burden will become too great for our public school system to bear. Similar challenges have brought school systems to their financial brink in districts from Detroit to Chester Uplands, Pa.
■The takeover plan offers no new ideas or resources to help children succeed. Milwaukee already has 25 years of experience with a failed voucher school program and privately run charter schools with a checkered history. Simply changing who runs a school does not lead to student success.
■The takeover schools will leave students without critical services. Voucher schools and privately run charter schools are not required to meet the needs of special education students or English language learners. It is an outrage that a privately run charter or voucher school could take over a public school and then refuse to educate the students who used to be enrolled there, due to their learning needs.
■School takeovers will eliminate good jobs in our city — particularly for African-Americans and Latinos. Takeovers have hurt the local economy in New Orleans, Memphis, and Detroit. They have eroded, in particular, middle class communities of color. And they have led to a less diverse teaching force.
■Most significantly, the school takeover plan eliminates democratic local control, disenfranchises black and Latino communities, and punishes mostly students of color. A recent report by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools shows that across the nation, school takeovers happen almost exclusively in African-American and Latino communities: Of nearly 50,000 students whose schools were taken over, 97% were black or Latino.
Milwaukee parents have a different plan to improve schools by turning them into Community Schools — a nationally recognized model that increased graduation rates in Cincinnati by more than 30%. State legislators who want to help should support this proven model.
Public school students in our state are under attack. From billions in budget cuts to the constant threat that your school may not be there next year, uncertainty reigns. Parents, educators, community leaders, and students are right to demand better.
Our spirits were buoyed Friday morning when we stood shoulder to shoulder with public school supporters who are ready not only to support and protect our schools, but to lift them up and strengthen them as we build the schools and communities our children deserve.
This commentary was submitted by Ingrid Walker Henry, co-chair, Schools and Communities United; Dr. Tony Baez, former director Centro Hispano; the Rev. Willie Briscoe, president, MICAH; Angela McManaman, president, Parents for Public Schools; Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director, Voces de la Frontera; Gina Palazzari, interim executive director, Wisconsin Jobs Now; Fred Royal, president, NAACP Milwaukee branch; and Kim Schroeder, president, MTEA.
Printed originally in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 18, 2015   http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/why-we-oppose-the-takeover-of-milwaukees-public-schools-b99579300z1-328199071.html