Perus teachers spark nationwide struggle

Despite having reached a tentative agreement, Nilvar Lopez, general secretary of the Peruvian teachers union (SUTEP), said a nationwide strike will continue until the union ratifies the new collective bargaining agreement. Minister of Education Gerardo Ayzanoa fired 500 teachers in Lima, the Peruvian capital, last Monday, and is said to be looking to do the same in other cities and in the provinces. Lopez told the education minister the firings would only complicate the end of the strike.

At press time, the union leadership was still meeting.

The strike started a month ago when the government of President Alejandro Toledo offered a salary increase of only $30 a month. Toledo, who said he would “go down in history as the education president,” had promised that his administration would double the salaries of the teachers.

Peru’s 280,000 teachers are among the worst paid in Latin America. They receive about $180 a month. Meanwhile, it takes $575 a month for a family to cover its basic necessities according to government estimates.

Only 2.9 percent of Peru’s national budget is allocated for education while 28 percent is used to pay interest on its foreign debt. This budget priority, along with selling off state-owned enterprises, cutting social programs and cracking down on workers, are all hallmarks of the Toledo government’s neoliberal policies.

The teachers’ struggle struck a chord in Peruvian society. Thousands came out in support, while others used the occasion to press their own demands. Farm workers, bus drivers, hospital and healthcare workers, judiciary employees and others joined the teachers in striking.

The strikes started taking on the character of a general protest against the policies of the Toledo government. This motivated the government to impose a state of emergency, declaring the teachers’ strike illegal on May 27.

The declaration of a state of emergency did not deter the teachers and other unions. On June 3, tens of thousands of Peruvians march through Lima in protest against Toledo’s policies and in solidarity with the teachers. Similar demonstrations took part in many cities and towns throughout this South American country.

The demonstration, organized by the General Confederation of Workers of Peru (CGTP), stopped all traffic for five hours in defiance of the government. (The CGTP was founded by José Carlos Mariategui, who also founded the Communist Party of Peru.)

The CGTP filed charges against the Toledo government with the International Labor Organization for “violation of labor rights” after the imposition of the state of emergency and the police attacks, which resulted in the arrest of hundreds and the death of two university students. This is not the first time the government has resorted to force to stop a strike. In January, striking construction workers union leaders were attacked and arrested.

The Peruvian workers received other support internationally. The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) said it “condemns the state of emergency and the repressive measures of the government of Peru, as its response to the just demands of the different sectors of workers and society” that are the results of the Toledo government’s “failed neoliberal policies.” The CGTP is an affiliate of the WFTU.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) also jumped into the fray condemning the repression against the workers. In a letter sent to the Peruvian president, the ICFTU noted that the “confrontations started after your government declared the state of emergency” and warned that the government’s action could lead to “more discontent and more violence.”

Toledo won the presidency in 2001 with promises of reconstructing and improving the economy after years of dictatorship and corruption by the administration of Alberto Fujimori, which left the country in economic ruins. The Toledo government has not only continued but also extended the neoliberal policies of its predecessor.

Last year the Toledo government sold off two electrical plants to a Belgian company that had been accused of bribing Fujimori. This prompted widespread demonstrations by workers, which were met with violence and a state of emergency in the southern part of the country.

The continued poverty and attacks on workers demanding better wages have led to a drop in Toledo’s popularity from a high of 60 percent during his campaign, to 15 percent today, according to local polls.

The author can be reached at jacruz@attbi.com