While a small team of Pressenza editors is in Santiago to cover the Chilean elections, we had the chance to meet Mario Aguilar, the President of the Chilean Teachers’ Association, the largest trade union in Chile. Mario, whose background is as a teacher of Physical Education, was first an activist in the Chilean Humanist Party almost since its formation, and for a short time held a post in the Ministry of Education in the first post-dictatorship government, resigning his position, along with all other humanists with roles in national government, after it became apparent that the project to bring democracy to Chile had turned into a project to deepen the neoliberal ideology installed by Pinochet.

Today the union has over 70,000 members.

Over the course of two hours we could talk with Mario about how he got where he is today, the use of communication media to communicate directly with teachers, how for him the policies that the membership have voted for act as a straightjacket that must necessarily limit one’s freedom of response, the conflicts currently facing teachers, and how he strives not to be a leader of anyone, but a spokesperson for the union’s members.

Mario was first elected to the Teacher’s Association governing body as a lone voice of humanism when a pact was made with the Communist Party to fight together for influence in the union. For the most part there was no problem, everyone worked well together until Mario started communicating directly with teachers back in the 90s. E-mail was very much a new toy, and everywhere he went to meet teachers he would collect e-mail addresses and keep people informed. This was all very good until an issue arose in one meeting where Mario disagreed with the 14 other members of the national directive. As usual in his regular newsletter to colleagues he informed them of the difference of opinion and the action he had disagreed with and as soon as he had sent it he realised something important had happened because within minutes his in-box was filled with messages of support. He also got into trouble with the directive for sending “unauthorised” information to members. It was the first time when Mario’s use of technology would bring the union’s betrayal to the attention of its members.

As time went by Mario’s influence grew. He started to connect with more and more teachers who shared a humanist view of teachers’ situations and in the next election they were able to put together a list of candidates which resulted in two of them being elected. Mario never presented his list as the list of the Humanist Party however, but it has been labelled as such by the media. Instead the list had the much grander name of “Refoundation”.

In 2014, another moment came when Mario’s use of social media would incite teachers to action. A national teacher’s dispute was underway connected to a new Education Law which was totally against the interests of teachers and pupils, according to Refoundation. A set of protests had been planned, after consultation with union members, with first a one day strike on the first week, a two day strike on the second week and an indefinite strike thereafter. The first two weeks went by as planned but with the government of Michelle Bachelet (who was governing with a coalition of socialists and communists) was coming under increasing pressure to act.

A meeting of the teacher’s union assembly was called and it was announced that after a “phone call” from an official at the Ministry to the then President of the teachers’ union, Jaime Gajardo, the indefinite strike would be called off because the government was willing to talk about changes to the law.

For Mario this was outrageous and while he took his turn on the microphone, a colleague started broadcasting on Facebook live. He tore apart the Gajardo’s arguments, denouncing the undemocratic nature of calling off a strike that had been voted for by the members after a phone call from a junior official in the Ministry of Education. He called the process a farce and refused to accept it. Nevertheless, Gajardo won the vote of the directive, as a majority were from the governing coalition.

Mario denounced the “telefonazo” (big phone call) which rapidly turned into an internet meme. There was no way though that he could change the directive’s decision. What happened next changed the union’s direction however as, feeling completely defrauded by their elected representatives, the teachers ignored the directive and went on an indefinite strike anyway which lasted for over 50 days, the 2nd longest strike ever recorded. Aguilar rapidly became the new movement’s spokesperson, willingly embracing the “dissident” label designated by the press. Mario was overwhelmed by the support of teachers in protests saying “I’m a dissident too”, and touched by the protection he was given by his colleagues, always being surrounded by a huge crowd on marches, just in case of any aggression by the police.

To a certain extent the strike succeeded in getting more concessions from the government than would otherwise have been achieved, and finally the teachers voted to go back to work.

Mario, in a TV interview the day before the results of the vote were to be announced was asked what his opinion was about calling off the strike. Mario refused to answer, saying that the decision was for the teachers to take. The interviewer insisted but Mario put an end to the exchange by saying that he was merely an elected representative of the people, that he was a spokesperson for those who had elected him, and as such he wasn’t going to influence their view one way or another by giving his opinion. It was another example of how Aguilar’s leadership has a completely different style to those of his predecessors.

His final rise to the Presidency of the union came in the next election, in 2016, when Refoundation won 67% of the votes cast and was able to take 8 of the 11 seats on the directive.

Mario pays tribute to one of his first mentors, the Humanist Party deputy, Laura Rodriguez, who advised him to always listen to the people and represent their views. In one conversation with a teacher, he complained of the work burden heaped on teachers. The words resonated with Aguilar and hearing them repeated in subsequent conversations, he used them in a speech. The level of applause at the recognition of the situation facing teachers was such that it turned into another meme and now a government committee has been set up to study the problem.
Refoundation was elected on a manifesto containing several points that Mario was determined to immediately implement. The first was to do with Refoundation’s disgust at the level of corruption found to exist in the country’s federation of trade unions – the CUT. Refoundation campaigned to suspend all funding to CUT, much to the horror of the CUT President Barbara Figueroa, who herself was a teacher. In the Union’s first decision-making assembly following the election, Figueroa asked to address the assembly and was allowed to do so despite such an intervention being outside the usual protocols and she put forward the reasons for not suspending the funding. Her plea was ignored though and the Assembly voted in favour of the motion, delivering Refoundation’s first election promise.
Mario tells us how shocking such a simple act was for the whole of the trade union movement, “it’s not that we put it in our manifesto that was so shocking, it was more that we actually saw it through.” Politics everywhere, not only in Chile, is full of promises, very few of which are actually implemented.

For some, the manifesto shouldn’t be seen as a straight-jacket, but rather the directive should always have freedom to manoeuvre. For Mario on the contrary, the manifesto is the promise to the people and must be implemented whatever the consequences may be.

Apart from his interest in representing his colleagues, he also takes a humanist approach to education, co-authoring a book called the Pedagogy of Intentionality, in which school children are considered as human beings who learn through the emotion and the body, not just through the brain. Such is his disdain for the way children are treated in the Chilean education system, with the constant system of testing children and marking their performance, that he said something in an interview that became another internet meme, “But you don’t classify children, you classify apples!”

Mario kept us entertained all evening with his easy charm, friendliness and his enthusiastic gestures which turn his anecdotes into theatre. The style of the man is so human, so humble, so warm and so uncontaminated by arrogance and superiority that we were left in awe.

The style is summed up by his anecdote about the election that saw Refoundation take control by a landslide victory.
“When I turned up at the polling station to vote, I got in line like everyone else, declining all invitations to go straight to the front of the queue. I just started chatting to the others and sharing a laugh and a joke. When I’d voted and was preparing to leave, the official supervising the table told me, ‘Your rival was here earlier in the day. He went straight to the front of the line, put his vote in the box, smiled for the cameraman who accompanied him, and left, without a word of greeting for anyone! Mario, you’re very different.’”