Peruvian Teachers' Union Strikes Becoming More Disruptive

Teacher Strikes
By Diego Moya-Ocampos and Gabriela Cibils

Relations between Pedro Pablo Kuczynski´s government and the opposition Fuerza Popular (FP) controlled Congress have been tense over the last year. This has slowed down various important government projects, including the USD525-million Chinchero´s Airport construction and a key reform for the Education sector. In particular, president Kuczynski’s cabinet has been undermined over continued threats of being censored.

Marilu Martens, the Education Minister is the next in line for a vote of no confidence but the main driver for this comes for theNational Union of Education Workers (Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de la Educación del Perú: SUTEP) which has been staging two months of on-going protests and strikes since 15 June.

The FP is taking advantage from this to bring down another key member of president Kuczynski’s Cabinet. In the past, the FP has censored Economy and Finance Minister Alfredo Thorne and Education Minister Jaime Saavedra, in December 2016 and June 2017 respectively. In May, the FP also used the threat of censure to force Transport Minister Martín Vizcarra to resign over his role in an addendum for the Chinchero airport. Amid increasing tensions, president Kuczynski has only met twice with FP’s leader Keiko Fujimori after having beaten her in the 28 July 2016 election by a small margin of 40,000 votes.

SUTEP is demanding wage increases and a suspension of planned evaluations of state school teachers. Education Minister Martens, in turn, insists that the evaluation system, being rejected by SUTEP, is in fact, to qualify them, and to establish a system of meritocracy that will benefit them. Indeed, the system of evaluation proposed by the Education Ministry, gives teachers three opportunities to present the examination before any decision on removal or termination is reached.

Despite several reunions between members of the Education Ministry and representatives of SUTEP, including a meeting held with members of Congress trying to mediate, all efforts to reach an agreement have failed. As a result of this and due to the continued escalation of the labour conflict, on 25th August, the congress approved to consider a vote of no confidence against Education Minister Marilu Martens to be considered in the next weeks. The motion was supported by 79 lawmakers 12 voted against and 6 abstained, among them, Keiko Fujimori's brother, Kenji, who has increasingly been taking distance from some of his sister’s hard line anti-government stances. Education Minister Martens must answer over 40 questions related to the measures adopted by the government for solving the strike. Martens will be the seventh minister to be questioned in 14 months, and specifically, the second education minister to be impeached after Saavedra was censored in November 2016.

As things stand at the moment, parents of the children affected by the strikes are demanding the dismissal of the teachers who won´t agree to return to class. The Education Ministry, in turn, has been offering the professors free plane tickets and transportation facilities in order for them to go back to their cities and begin imparting classes as soon as possible. Nevertheless, at this time, still most schools remain closed, creating not only a negative impact on Peru´s children (3.5 million students may be forced to repeat the same school year in 2018), but also fostering an enormous feeling of insecurity and discomfort in the population

On 16 August, the SUTEP union held large protest involving several hundred participants in Plaza San Martin, central Lima. Labour strikes in Peru are generally peacefully. Nevertheless, amid the ongoing SUTEP union strike, roadblocks. This is not only likely to affect southern regions but also Peru’s capital Lima and mainly the Abancay Avenue located next to Congress since SUTEP in the last weeks staged continued protests in the San Martin square. Other areas where SUTEP unions decides to march in Lima (including the San Borja district where the Education Ministry is located) without authorities permission, are also likely to lead to severe traffic disruption. There is also a moderate risk of confrontations between teachers and police officers, causing some disruption to business at tourist retail shops and restaurants in the city centre. Some vandalism, such as attacks against ATMs and graffiti on government buildings, is also likely.

SUTEP is likely to continue staging violent protests in the six month outlook. On 30 August, SUTEP blocked central highway connecting Lima with the Highlands, the Panamerica highway South and North and disrupted the Central Railway On 25 July, SUTEP workers tried to take over the Jauja Airport in the southern Junín department, disrupting flights. On several occasions in July, SUTEP workers set up roadblocks in the southern Cusco department, affecting highways connecting the department to Lima, the city of Abancay in the Apurimac department, and the tourist destination of Ollantaytambo, which leads to the Machu Picchu city citadel.

Despite her good work, Minister Martens can now potentially be censored or forced to resign and without a doubt relations between Kuczynski and the FP controlled Congress to remain problematic for the remainder of his term. But beyond this, the conflict with SUTEP seems to be becoming the government main headache for time being. Protests from the education union sector are likely to become increasingly more violent. Indeed, violent protests staged by the SUTEP teachers' union are likely to continue until at least December unless the government grants their demands. The government has already conceded a 30% salary increase for SUTEP in advance, which has already been agreed to become effective from December, but this is still not enough. SUTEP demands the cancelation of the evaluation system. The government has already stated that the evaluations for teachers are non-negotiable as these are crucial for its efforts to secure a better education. Unlike protests over access to natural resources, labour strikes are normally peaceful in Peru, especially in Lima's city centre (between San Martin Square and Congress) where important seats of government are located and there is a strong security presence.

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Education Minister Martens have claimed that the violence has in part been driven by internal differences between three factions of the SUTEP, two of which they allege have connections with a movement called MOVADEF which in turn has links with former Sendero Luminoso insurgents. The SUTEP faction linked with MOVADEF favour a more confrontational approach against the government (but do not advocate terrorist acts); SUTEP leaders, however, have denied having links with violent groups. A key concern is that SUTEP protests increasingly are likely to continue being aimed at disrupting business, travel, and tourist activities in Lima and southern regions, including Junin, Cusco and Puno.

 

Diego Moya-Ocampos is a Principal Political Risk Analyst for Peru for IHS Markit Country Risk. He previously worked as a lawyer for a private firm in Venezuela advising government agencies and private businesses on constitutional, regulatory and environmental issues, and as Chief Secretary at the Venezuelan Attorney-General’s Office.

 

Gabriela Cibils is a Venezuelan-Peruvian media analyst and a former Secretary General of Venezuela’s Monteavila University´s student council.

 

31 August 2017