Book Manuscript

The Political Mobilization of Teachers in Latin America

The “teacher question,” or the appropriate policies for regulating teaching in public schools, has become a major issue in many world regions. This question is particularly urgent in Latin America, where improving school performance and equity is a high priority. Teachers are routinely criticized for demanding self-serving policies related to salaries and working conditions, but a closer look shows rich contrasts among countries in teachers’ roles in shaping policy. To explore these contrasts, I present a comparative-historical analysis of Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. The aim of this book is to advance middle-range theory while adding nuance to current policy debates.

In the 1990s and 2000s, teachers across Latin America developed new forms of political mobilization, with profound implications for education policy. In some countries, teacher protests ramped up, culminating in programmatic forms of influence: landmark education laws that corrected irregularities in the education bureaucracy, often related to the late payment of salaries. In others, teachers developed more active roles in elections, which led to particularistic forms of influence: patronage and irregularities in the education bureaucracy. These contrasts are striking since teachers have similar core interests centered on better compensation and professional autonomy. Why, then, did teachers’ unions mobilize and articulate interests in different ways?

While existing studies have focused narrowly on some specific outcomes of policy change, namely teacher opposition to education decentralization in the early 1990s, I examine how teachers articulate interests and propose new policies. My argument centers on the leadership structures of teachers’ unions. Leadership structures had diverse origins, ranging from historical legacies to more recent institutional changes. These structures, once in place, shaped patterns of mobilization. Mobilization, in turn, had different implications for policy. In sum, I analyze why union leaders mobilize in different ways, and how those differences affect policy.