UNAM teachers’ strike: The need to relearn the lessons of the past

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No one doubts that the number of unemployed people in the world is increasing due to the slowdown in economic activity and the deepening of the crisis, further accelerated by Covid-19. In Mexico, according to official data, the number of unemployed increased by 117% after the pandemic, representing 2.43 million workers, of whom almost 57,000 have been out of work for more than a year. Workers have found themselves in a more fragile situation with the pandemic because of the daily danger of being exposed to the infection in transport and in the workplace, the uncertainty of losing their jobs due to the risk of bankruptcies and company closures, or the extra effort they now have to make with working from home, as it involves extra expenses to do their work.

However, in these circumstances, the current situation makes it more difficult for workers to protest for better living and working conditions. We have seen, for example, how in Mexico protests by health workers have taken place in many hospitals, but these have been very much in the minority and isolated due to the demands of the pandemic itself, which has not given nurses, doctors, auxiliaries , etc. enough rest to meet their basic requirements (they have suffered many deaths).[1] Thus, it is important to emphasise that the strike at the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) clearly shows that the proletariat is not defeated, that it shows combativity, and that it has kept intact its capacity to fight for the defence of its living and working conditions, despite the many difficulties and obstacles in the current situation. The UNAM is the most important university in Mexico, with around 40,000 teachers at secondary, higher and postgraduate levels.

Most of them do not have a basic contract, so their contracts are renewed every year or even every semester. Since the pandemic, research activities have been reduced, but courses have not been stopped; they have been resumed online using the teachers themselves as resources, working from home, and of course with a considerable increase in workload to prepare course material and online assessment.

In addition to the increased workload due to working from home, hundreds of teachers suffered delays in receiving their salaries, being owed up to a year in arrears, so that in February 2021, teachers held meetings to discuss their situation, which led to a three-day work stoppage from 16 March onwards called by teachers from the Faculty of Science. The strike spread from 16 March to different faculties, schools and colleges at different levels of the UNAM, and during the course of the strike it took the form of an indefinite strike. By 3 May, some faculties and schools had partially resumed classes, but by 5 May at least 22 faculties were still on strike, but they were already tired, weary and despondent.

First workers’ strike using the internet

The particularity of this mobilisation is that most of the work stoppages and protests were organised through assemblies that were carried out by Zoom and gathered both students and teachers. However, the face-to-face rallies and demonstrations that took place in person had a very low turnout, such as the one on 25 March, which had around 500 demonstrators, and the one on 11 May, which had even fewer participants. This strike was initially organised outside of union control, so that teachers’ organisations began to be created, in which they defined a list of demands that expressed their needs and recognized that they were exploited:

 “We demand fair wages for teachers, a full salary, the payment of the salary that has not been paid for years, against job insecurity, the setting of a minimum wage for the teaching of various subjects, for the dignity of educational work.”

Despite the progress made in their recognition of themselves as exploited workers, it should be pointed out that these groups of teachers that have emerged have remained isolated from the start, each one confined to his or her own faculty, without establishing a relationship and connection with other faculties and schools of the UNAM itself, and even less so with other universities that have similar problems. This was the case in the “General Assembly of UNAM teachers and assistants”, held on 24 March 2021: when a teacher from another public university (UACM) reported similar problems suffered by education workers on their campus, his intervention was interrupted by the person acting as chairperson, with the argument:

“We have to limit ourselves to the problems in the UNAM, I understand that this problem seems to be quite important elsewhere, in the IPN, the UACM, the UAM, but now we have to stick to the issues related to the UNAM.”

When an assistant teacher protested against this sort of argument, the answer was once again categorically confirmed:

“Since last Saturday's assembly, we have agreed on this point [...] we cannot join the struggle at the IPN [...] Anyone who does not want to participate in the assembly under these conditions can leave now.”

The members of the various left-wing groups present, (Trotskyists, feminists...) and other supposed 'radicals', did not say a single word and calmly continued their participation in the assembly.

This is why these protests did not succeed in frightening the educational authorities, which began to pay the arrears in dribs and drabs, calculating them incorrectly and maintaining the arrears, but also ignoring other demands such as wage increases and the establishment of a basic wage, claiming that for these demands they only recognised the AAPAUNAM union (UNAM'S Autonomous Association of Academic Personnel), since it was the signatory of the collective agreement. This shows that if the three unions that were taking over the UNAM workers’ strike kept a low profile, it was because they were waiting for the most opportune moment to show themselves and justify their place in the sabotage of the strike: either as direct spokespersons for the authorities (with AAPAUNAM resuming its traditional conciliatory role), or as supposedly “critical” and “alternative” forces.

Taking advantage of the isolation in which discussions took place, the ideology of leftism[2]  also takes advantage of it to divert the discussions from the terrain of wage demands in defence of their living and working conditions by introducing the slogan of the “democratisation of the university” or to demand the dismissal of particular people at the top of the university hierarchy. Even the ideological campaign unleashed around the supposed change represented by the “4T” (4th transformation) government[3]  fulfils its objective of extending and deepening the confusion. For example, a group of teachers appealed to the state by repeatedly trying to present their demands at one of the daily "morning" press conferences of the President until, on 30 March, they succeeded in doing so, receiving the answer that it was an issue that could only be dealt with by the UNAM authorities.

Of course, this was an action that arose on the terrain of the working class. The action was triggered by direct attacks on teachers’ salaries that affected them immediately, and it is important because of the difficult situation caused by the pandemic. It is also important because it is one of the first virtual work stoppages, or perhaps one of the first in the world. The movement remained combative for a few weeks, focusing on economic demands, but gradually declined due to its isolation. This allowed the authorities to respond with a direct assault at the end of the semester, dismissing dozens of faculty and school teachers.

The weaknesses of the movement

The teachers’ strike did not overcome many of the obstacles faced by proletarian mobilisations and therefore showed many weaknesses, some arising from the particular long-standing difficulties of the proletariat in Mexico, and others caused by the situation resulting from the pandemic. The strike was very corporatist, there was no unity of the teachers, there was not enough solidarity to break down the administrative barriers that the bourgeoisie imposes on workers, to ensure the unity of the teachers regardless of their “category”. Nor was there any real unity among teachers at different levels of colleges, schools and faculties; each entity had its own assemblies and, as a result, demands and actions were dispersed and divided in countless ways.

Nor did the movement actively seek support from teachers in other schools, let alone other categories of workers. If there is no momentum towards the unity and extension of the movement, it will inevitably collapse in defeat. In addition, there was a lack of mass general assemblies and joint general assemblies to ensure control over the development of the movement. This division is also evident in the decisions about ending the strike. Every unit decided when it would do so, accelerating the dissipation of the emerging solidarity and proletarian unity that had achieved, while creating further division and resentment of some workers against others. The state and the bourgeoisie as a whole are very careful to ensure that strikes are carried out in a sectoral manner in order to avoid workers uniting, which is one of their main strengths and essential in achieving significant victories.

The prolonging of the strike, which in some schools has now lasted for three months (in these circumstances where there is a lack of unity and extension) has led to impotence and fatigue, forcing them to consider the resumption of work also in a dispersed manner, in a climate that favours the entry of the trade union structure (whether it is stamped pro-government, “critical” or “independent”) to consolidate control and confusion, opening the door to repression (with dismissals, as is already the case, as we have seen above) and to the actions of desperate minorities, consummating the defeat of the movement. Two fundamental lessons can be drawn from the great struggles of 1905 in Russia and in other countries, as well as from the whole historical experience of the workers' movement.[4]

These are: 1) The struggle must be led, organised and extended by the workers themselves, outside union control, through general assemblies and committees elected and revocable at any time. 2) The struggle is lost if it remains confined to the enterprise, the sector or the nation; on the contrary, it must be extended by breaking all the barriers that capital imposes and that bind it to capital. The path of proletarian struggle, which begins with economic demands for the ever-expanding unity of the working class, is the only one that can lead to a radical political and social transformation, to the world human community. We must continue to advance along this long and difficult path; it is the only one that can prevent the destruction of humanity, of which the Covid-19 pandemic is a warning sign.


Revolucion Mundial, publication of the ICC in Mexico (5 June 2021)

[1] For a balance sheet of workers' struggles around the world at the height of the pandemic, see: Covid-19: despite all the obstacles, the class struggle forges its future, available on the ICC website.

[2] We are referring to the various Stalinist, anarchist, feminist, etc. groups, that exist throughout the UNAM, which advocate bourgeois policies while presenting themselves as defenders of the workers. To understand the anti-worker methods of this type of organisation, see the series: “The hidden legacy of the left of capital”, available on the ICC website.

[3] State reform programme promised by President Lopez-Obrador



Class struggle in Mexico