Labor Organizations

Nicaragua Table of Contents

The Sandinista unions played a major role in the politics of the Chamorro government's first years. The change of government sparked a competition in union organizing and activities that posed serious challenges to the new government. One challenge for the new Chamorro government was to create and maintain political bases by organizing workers; the other was to maintain political and economic stability when confronted by strikes led by Sandinista unions.

The first challenge resulted from a new freedom for unions to organize, created by a law the National Assembly has passed in the interregnum. This law changed the labor code to allow workplaces to have more than one union. The law was adopted because the lame-duck Sandinista majority feared that the government would replace the Sandinista unions with UNO unions while maintaining a closed shop. After the new law took effect, the unions that had supported the UNO moved to break the Sandinista monopoly on organizing in the public sector by organizing groups of the required twenty-five members to form a new bargaining unit. In some places, such as the San Antonio sugar mill, which with 5,000 workers was the largest union in the country, workers decided to retain the old union but voted out the board of directors who had been Sandinista supporters.

A greater challenge was posed by strikes initiated by the strongest unions--those affiliated with the FSLN. These unions were no longer bound by ties to a leadership in power to support austerity policies that had had adversely affected the workers. Within a month after the Chamorro government took office, the Sandinista unions become a political and economic force with which to reckon.

Despite the election of a government supported by the UNO- affiliated unions, the Sandinista unions are widely believed to remain the largest and most powerful organized labor sector, despite diminishing power and membership. Although there is a law requiring the registration of new unions, the exact number of unions is not known because there is no legal provision to account for those unions that had merged or ceased to exist. At the top of the labor-organizing hierarchy are four confederations: one affiliated with the Sandinistas, two with the UNO, and one with a Trotskyite orientation. The Sandinista- affiliated confederation, FNT, organized in mid-1990, claimed to have 400,000 members among its seven-member organizations during the early Chamorro years, although most observers believe that it has lost considerable strength. The members of the FNT include the Sandinista Workers' Federation (Central Sandinista de Trabajadores--CST), a confederation of labor unions; the Association of Agricultural Workers (Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo--ATC); the National Employees Union (Unión Nacional de Empleados--UNE), composed of white-collar workers; the Federation of Health Workers (Federación de Trabajadores de Salud-- Fetsalud); the National Association of Nicaraguan Teachers (Asociación Nacional de Educadores de Nicaragua--ANDEN); the Union of Nicaraguan Journalists (Unión de Periodistas de Nicaragua--UPN); and the Heroes and Martyrs National Confederation of Professional Associations (Confederación Nacional de Asociaciones Profesionales-Héroes y Mártires-- Conapro-Héroes y Mártires).

The UNO-affiliated unions are grouped in two confederations. One is the CTN, headed by Carlos Huembes Trejos. Formed during the 1960s, it is affiliated with the Christian Democratic regional labor group, the Confederation of Latin American Workers (Central Latinoamericana de Trabajadores--CLAT), and the Christian Democratic international labor organization, the World Confederation of Labor. The CTN has an estimated 40,000 members. The other UNO union is the Permanent Congress of Workers (Congreso Permanente de Trabajadores--CPT) umbrella group, organized in the late 1980s, which includes five organizations. Most prominent of these is the Confederation for Trade Union Unity (Confederación de Unificación Sindical--CUS), formed in 1968 with the support of the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers and the Confederation of Nicaraguan Workers (autonomous) (Confederación de Trabajadores Nicaragüenses [autónoma]--CTN[a]) of Agustín Jarquín Anaya, a break-away faction from the CTN. The CPT also includes the Federation for Trade Union Action and Unity (Central de Acción de Unificación Sindical--CAUS) of the Communist Party, the General Confederation of Workers-Independent (Confederación General de Trabajadores- Independiente--CGT-I) of the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Nicaragüense--PSN), and the National Teachers' Confederation of Nicaragua (Confederación Nacional de Maestros Nicaragüenses--CNMN).

If the numbers of members given by labor organizations are accurate, some 650,000 of an estimated total active labor force of 1.1 to 1.2 million persons are affiliated with a union. Some analysts believe that number, which is more than 50 percent of the labor force, is very high. Whatever the size of their membership, at least the Sandinista unions have had a major influence in shaping the direction and pace of the Chamorro government's economic policy.

The potential of the Sandinista unions to disrupt the government was first demonstrated within two weeks of the Chamorro government's inauguration. Estimates are that 30,000 to 60,000 out of some 150,000 government workers impeded work in government offices, schools, banks, public transportation, and telephone and airport operations in mid-May 1990. The strike began as a result of the Chamorro government's decisions to reexamine the lame-duck legislation passed by the outgoing Sandinista Assembly as well as other government actions during the transition period. In labor matters, the Chamorro government annulled the lame-duck collective bargaining arrangements and suspended the civil service law giving job security and increased benefits to public employees. President Chamorro also announced that tenants would be allowed to cultivate unused expropriated farmlands while property claims were being settled, and she established a commission to review claims to confiscated lands. Other measures taken early in the Chamorro government included the National Assembly's passage of an amnesty law pardoning all political crimes as of the effective date of the legislation and annulment of a March law giving amnesty to Sandinista government officials for crimes committed in the course of performing official duties.

The Sandinista-affiliated UNE called first for a work stoppage of selected workers and then for a general strike. Formally, workers demanded a 200 percent pay increase and restitution of the civil service law, but calls in the streets encompassed a variety of political demands, including President Chamorro's resignation. At first the government declared the strike illegal, threatened to fire striking workers, and refused to meet with Sandinista union leaders. When the strike persisted, the government decided not to test the loyalty of police and military forces by ordering the use of force to dislodge strikers from occupied buildings and instead negotiated with leaders of the public workers' union.

The strike resulted in the Sandinistas gaining some but not all that they had asked for: a 25 percent wage increase on top of the 16 percent that the government had already promised, the right for unions to take part in drafting regulations to implement the civil service law that had been revised by the UNO National Assembly, and the rehiring of workers fired after March 19, 1990. Some analysts viewed the strike as actually hurting the Sandinista unions. Politically, however, the Sandinista unions had demonstrated their power to force the government to reconsider its actions. The strike also strengthened Sandinista demands for national dialogue on the property issue. Many viewed the strike as a fulfillment of Daniel Ortega's promise during the election aftermath that the Sandinistas would rule from below. The FSLN's leadership denied, however, that the FSLN had orchestrated the strike.

The next large-scale strike of 85,000 to 100,000 workers was called on June 27, 1990 by the newly formed FNT. It began in earnest on July 2 and ended on July 11 only after several people had died and hundreds more had been injured. The FNT's initial seven demands, subsequently expanded, encompassed a grab bag of issues, including a higher minimum wage, reenactment of the Sandinista civil service law, suspension of two decrees on property restitution, and measures for public support of construction, basic services, health, and education. The unions were widely viewed as the winners when an agreement was finally reached to end the strike. This agreement provided for increased wages; benefits for dismissed workers; guarantees for continued transportation subsidies; suspension of the program renting unused and disputed land to previous owners; FNT participation in plans for reactivation programs and programs to maintain jobs; including subsidies to failing textile and construction companies; and talks on a minimum wage law. The government's economic concessions were broad and backtracked on its economic reform and adjustment program.

Economically, the May and July strikes cost the government an estimated US$270 million, according to one source. Politically, the July 1990 strikes and settlement pact also dealt several blows to the Chamorro government. First, the tensions between Chamorro's UNO backers and her small executive team over reconciliation gestures toward the Sandinistas widened into an open rupture as the Chamorro government bent to the Sandinista unions. Vice President Godoy announced that he was forming a Committee of National Salvation to deal with the strike and received the backing of Cosep, UNO leaders in the National Assembly, and UNO-affiliated union leaders. Thus, the Chamorro government's short-lived truce with its UNO backers was over. Second, the Sandinista unions demonstrated the destabilizing possibilities of their "rule from below" study. Although the Sandinista military and police had dismantled street barricades put up by the strikers and had not been openly disloyal to the government during the strike, the government still appeared unwilling to test their loyalty and did not order the military and police to use force against or arrest the strikers. These events foreshadowed a situation in which the price of social peace would be either substantial concessions from the government or actions by the Sandinista leadership to back up statements of support for the government's economic plan by exercising control over their affiliated unions. The relationship between the Sandinista directorate and the unions became a source of controversy, with members of the directorate denying that they had encouraged the union protests. Critics doubted, however, that Sandinista party discipline had declined to the point that the unions could act autonomously. The Chamorro government signed agreements ending the strike directly with the unions, not with the Sandinista leaders, however, indicating that the Sandinista leadership's control over the unions was limited.

The political situation in July 1990 further encouraged the government to cultivate good relations with Sandinista leaders and unions because, as the July disturbances suggested, the government had no alternative. Yet the Sandinistas' ability to incite followers to the streets waned quickly after the summer strikes. A call from the Sandinista leaders and the FNT for a nationwide strike in October 1990 prompted little response. An FNT rally against the government's economic policies turned out 3,000 rather than the expected 60,000 demonstrators. Probably as a result, the FNT agreed to join President Chamorro's discussions among unions, producers, and the government to reach a national understanding, the concertación, on economic and social policies. The concertación agreement, signed in October 1990, brought several months of peace before the property issue ignited. Another damper on Sandinista union activity may have been Humberto Ortega's cautionary remarks to the July 1991 Sandinista National Congress; he noted that irresponsible union demands and actions would condemn the country to crisis and imperil revolutionary goals.

The concertación agreement also appeared to temporarily defuse economic unrest. Strikes soon after the accord were of the uncontrolled variety, more likely to alienate than attract followers. However, a crisis developed in October 1991 when Daniel Ortega criticized the government as harking back to Somozaism with its policy of returning land to former owners and with the announcement that the mayor of Managua was contemplating the creation of a municipal police force. Ortega indicated that the people might have to exercise their right to civic rebellion, even with arms. President Chamorro accused the FSLN of calling for armed insurrection.

Protesting the new policy of privatization, Sandinista union members occupied a meat-packing plant and slaughterhouse in September 1991; five sugar refineries, a soap plant, and many large farms were taken over by early November. Workers demanded that they be granted a 25 percent share in ownership when properties were returned to the private sector, something the Chamorro government had promised in August 1991 agreements. In Managua, police battled with students and health workers who marched to the Ministry of Labor armed with clubs and homemade bombs. The violence escalated after the FNT's rejection of a November 7 agreement between the FSLN directorate and the government to end the strikes. There reportedly were also violent incidents in Matagalpa and Estelí, and riots in Managua, where Sandinista followers destroyed Radio Corporación, attacked Contra offices with rocket-launched grenades, and looted and set fire to city hall. Earlier, armed men had fired on the home of Vice President Godoy. The rioting ended when President Chamorro said she would call in the army and Daniel Ortega appealed to Sandinistas for order.

The 1991 incidents displayed the distance between the Chamorro government and the UNO-affiliated unions. The CPT complained when Vice President Godoy stated that the army and police chiefs should be dismissed for not stopping the rampage that caused an estimated US$3 million in damage. On November 13, the CPT went further, deploring the executive branch's tolerance of and complicity in Sandinista terrorism and crimes, a complaint that continued in 1992 and 1993.

The labor problem continued to present a serious challenge to the Chamorro government through at least the midpoint of her term. Former President Ortega emerged openly as the champion of labor union mobilization against the Chamorro economic policies. In the midst of a strike of transport workers in September 1993, Ortega urged Sandinistas to support marches protesting a vehicle ownership tax and a gasoline price increase. He tied these new taxes to the need for a change in the government's economic policies and the need to resolve property issues.

Data as of December 1993

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress