In Mexico, corruption is endemic to everyday life. That country’s affiliate of the worldwide nonprofit monitoring group, Transparency International, estimates that Mexicans in 2005 paid nearly $2 billion to public servants in more than 115 million acts of bribery. Organized labor fits very much into this scheme of things, and perhaps no more so than that country’s teachers union, National Union of Education Workers. Typically referred to by its Spanish-language acronym, SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion), the 1.4 million-member labor organization for decades has represented a huge obstacle to school reform in Mexico – and, less directly, to immigration reform in the U.S.
Running this behemoth with an iron fist and a greased palm is one Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, a woman whose ability to strike fear into opponents has even current Mexican President Felipe Calderon walking softly. A new report written by College of William & Mary political scientist George Grayson and published by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies (www.cis.org), “‘Jimmy Hoffa in a Dress’: Union Boss’s Stranglehold on Mexican Education Creates Immigration Fallout,” reveals just how extensive her union’s grip has been on that nation’s public schools. Actually, the main title seems somewhat unfair – to Jimmy Hoffa. Not even at his most ruthless did Hoffa steal funds or wield political influence on the scale practiced by Ms. Gordillo and her cronies. By comparison, the people who run our own country’s main teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, come off as beacons of integrity. The CIS study underscores why Mexico perpetually seems a nation on the verge of implosion.
“Mexican education” is something of an oxymoron. Roughly 10 percent of students who finish elementary school never complete middle school either due to financial pressures at home or a lack of room at a school. Perhaps the most telling evidence of failure comes from a 2006 survey of ninth-graders conducted triennially by the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which Grayson cites extensively. Mexican students placed dead last among those from all other OECD nations in reading, math and science test scores (Finland, South Korea and Canada ranked highest). This was in spite of a 47 percent increase in education spending by the Mexican government during 1995-2004. Poor education is a major reason why so many Mexicans migrate to the United States, legally or not. And we’re paying a steep price. More than 60 percent of all Mexican-born students in our country drop out of (or don’t enter) high school. American taxpayers spent about $12 billion in 2004 on federal, state and local government support for elementary and secondary education for pupils residing unlawfully in the five states with the most illegal immigrants, a figure that surely has risen since. And given that Mexico is the sending nation for more than half of our illegal immigrants, we are gamely trying to do a job that should be done there.
Why does Mexico lag so far behind? To some extent, the answer lies in the fact that Mexican culture does not place nearly the premium on education found in, say, the U.S., South Korea or Germany. Put simply, it’s more backward. But a major portion of the blame must be placed on home-grown Mexican institutions, especially the SNTE and its leader, Ms. Gordillo. Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, if nothing else, makes for fascinating reading. Nicknamed by friend and foe alike as la Maestra, she was born in 1945 in Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states. Her maternal grandfather struck it rich running a distillery, somehow finding the time to sire 46 children, 41 of them out of wedlock. He disowned Gordillo’s mother when she married a policeman. Widowed at a young age, the mother lived hand-to-mouth as a public school teacher. In turn, her daughter, the future union leader, herself was widowed at age 18 and became a teacher in one of Mexico City’s poorest neighborhoods. She became politically active, joining a dissident faction within SNTE called Revolutionary Vanguard, denouncing the incumbent leader, Carlos Jonguitud, for corruption and ineptitude. Jonguitud responded by hiring and (allegedly) bedding her. Over the years she rose through the ranks of the union and the then-ruling PRI party, serving in a wide range of government posts.
In the 20 years she’s headed the teachers union, first as secretary-general and then since 1994 as “lifetime president,” Elba Gordillo and her handpicked lieutenants have made sure that SNTE continues to do what it does best: generating revenues, rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Mexican sociologist-turned-journalist Jorge Zepeda Patterson has called her the “Darth Vader of Mexico.” Cruella DeVil might be a more apt analogy. She controls a $60 million-a-year organization and its more than 50 locals with nearly unchallenged sway. And she’s won some highly lucrative concessions, such as enabling at least 9,000 teachers to collect paychecks without teaching any classes and another 14,000 teachers to take fully-paid extended leaves of absence. It’s easier said than done for government officials to stand up to her, given that so many of them owe their jobs to her. Literally thousands of SNTE members hold positions in Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education, including Gordillo’s son-in-law, Fernando Gonzalez Sanchez, who also serves as undersecretary of primary education. Another loyalist, Miguel Angel Linares, runs the State Workers’ Social Security System.
The SNTE itself operates in the manner of a private shakedown operation. La Maestra makes sure that whatever the union wants, the union gets. Rather than sign collective-bargaining agreements with federal and state educational authorities, the union’s executive committee and local leaders simply submit a list of demands to public authorities covering salaries, benefits, holidays and other issues, a process inevitably culminating in an elaborately-worded memorandum. A closed shop is in place to protect the less competent, thus explaining why 46 percent of all teachers lack the credentials necessary for their respective educational assignments. If the union protects its members during negotiations, it appears to ride herd over them at all other times. Teachers in SNTE Local 36 complain of 38 million pesos being deducted from their salaries for housing that never materialized, while local members in Chipancingo, Guerrero also have claimed the union stole from them. Though job-selling is formally illegal, it’s an open secret that tenured teachers’ jobs can be bought for $5,000 or more in cash. The SNTE also siphons government funds meant for supplies for members’ personal use, reportedly diverting $186 million in Education Ministry computer purchase subsidies into a secret bank account. Individual teachers who complain have a way of getting transferred to schools in rural areas or slums. Governors not bowing to Gordillo’s demands often find themselves on the receiving end of aggressive political pressure to change course. The union election process is suspect, too. In 2004, Gordillo received 98 percent of the vote to win the tailor-made post of “executive president.” Don’t ask about the other two percent.
All this has made Elba Esther Gordillo Morales a very rich woman. She owns at least four apartments and six houses (no doubt many of them in the names of family members and relatives) in the exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec and Polanco neighborhoods of Mexico City valued at a combined $6.8 million. Whenever she tires of these digs, she often spends time at her vacation home in Coronado Cays in San Diego, California, where her yacht is moored. She also owns properties in France, England and Argentina – plus a private jet to get to these places. A longtime key operative within the union estimates her personal fortune in cash alone now exceeds $300 million. No question about it: Union membership has its benefits.
Current Education Secretariat Josefina Vasquez Mota has called for extensive reforms throughout Mexico’s education system. That’s an encouraging sign, but in Mexico reform works far better on paper than in real time. President Calderon, leader of the National Action Party (the same party as his predecessor, Vicente Fox), won election in 2006 by the slimmest of margins over firebrand leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to this day Mexico’s self-described “legitimate president.” Mexican Congress is loaded with opponents of Calderon who are loyal to Gordillo. That may explain why this February lawmakers approved a hefty pay increase for teachers, but without attaching corresponding benchmarks for job performance.
Still, hope springs eternal. The lady has made her share of enemies, both among politicians and a dissident SNTE faction, the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE). In the remote event she’s forced out of office, she’s got a ready-made pool of loyal successors. That includes her daughter and ex-federal deputy, Maricurz Montelongo y de Jacinto Gomez Pasilla; her daughter’s husband, Public Education Undersecretary Fernando Gonzalez; SNTE Secretary-General Rafael Ochoa Guzman; and SNTE financial chief Hector “the Cashier” Hernandez. At some point, the power of this union has to be broken if genuine reform is to take place. The alternative is more corruption, more substandard education, and more Mexicans voting with their feet northward. That last prospect should be of special concern to us. (Center for Immigration Studies, 4/08; other sources).