Teachers’ Strike: US Fans Flames of Discontent
On May 25 the Nicaraguan government expelled two US diplomats, accusing them of collaborating with the opposition to promote destabilizing actions. The two were specifically charged with having attended an opposition-sponsored teachers' meeting in the city of Chinandega, called to discuss strike action for salary demands. The government says the US functionaries incited civil disobedience and offered economic aid if teachers confronted the government.
The teachers' strike, which began the third week of May, presented a delicate situation for the Sandinista government. After less than a week of unrest, government leaders reported that some 2,000 teachers were involved in walkouts in 5 or 6 towns and cities throughout the country. Their basic demands were economic. In an effort to combat inflation rates which topped 30,000% last year, the Sandinista government imposed austerity measures which hit hardest in the state sector. Nicaraguan primary school teachers make as little as $17 per month; a college-educated high school teacher with 25 years of experience earns $26 a month. "They pay us less than a night watchman, less than a domestic worker," said Managua strike leader Hortensia Rivas.
Teachers also complained that bureaucratic centralization in the Ministry of Education delayed payment of salaries and hiring of new teachers and substitutes. Seven teachers in the town of Santo Tomás, Chontales, had not been paid for three months. These and other difficulties have led 25% of the teaching force to abandon education, according to union leaders. Of the 36,000 teachers currently employed, 50% are new to the system.
Opposition political parties were quick to capitalize on the volatile economic situation among teachers, organizing strike meetings, building support door to door and calling on students to boycott classes. Many strike leaders are anti-government activists with a political discourse that goes far beyond improving teacher salaries. "We have to unite to overthrow this regime," said Rivas at a militant anti-government march on May 28. Sandinista newspaper Barricada reported that opposition party leaders met with teachers in Chinandega to discuss how to spread the strike to health and construction workers. In this volatile context, the public presence of US diplomats at an opposition-sponsored strike meeting was particularly provocative, whatever their behind-the-scenes role.
Demonstrations of US government concern for the plight of teachers are especially ironic given that its policy of economic strangulation is largely responsible for the crisis from which educators and others are suffering. Beyond that, among the more than 30,000 Nicaraguans killed in US-sponsored attacks, 300 were teachers.
Sandinista DilemmasThe pro-Sandinista teachers' union, ANDEN, recognized teachers' demands as legitimate, but opposed the strike as a tactic, arguing for less confrontational means to solve the problem. Some teachers accused the organization of being unresponsive to their needs and, in Chinandega, teachers at one private school resigned from ANDEN en masse. "The problem is that rank-and-file teachers are genuinely confused," said a member of ANDEN. "It looks like the opposition cares about their economic situation and we don't." An independent union with affiliates in several cities is being sponsored by opposition groups. So far, the leaders of this organization claim 500 members scattered in nine or ten cities.
While acknowledging the validity of teachers' demands, government leaders say it is impossible to grant a large salary increase at this time because to do so would fuel inflation and lead to economic collapse. Severe cuts in government spending lowered inflation from 126% in December to 12.6% in April. To grant a significant pay raise to teachers now would inject billions of córdobas into the economy, open a Pandora's box of demands from other sectors and set off another dramatic inflationary spiral. The Nicaraguan government recently acquired $50 million in foreign aid from European countries that had high praise for the austerity program. If this program is not maintained, it is unlikely that more desperately-needed aid would be forthcoming.
Opposition figures, ignoring the ongoing military threat from Washington, are calling for cuts in defense to finance increasing teacher salaries. In January the Nicaraguan government announced cuts of 40% in the Ministry of the Interior (MINT) and 29% in the army. While the MINT budget was slashed, the passage in Congress of the bipartisan accord to keep the contras alive made it impossible to fully implement the cuts in the army. By the end of May, over 880 contra attacks which claimed 225 civilian victims had already been reported. While the war continues and with the threat of US intervention in Panama, the Sandinistas do not see further defense cuts as an immediate possibility.
The government's position created painful personal dilemmas for Sandinista supporters. It's not easy after being a striker under Somoza," said one Chinandega teacher who stayed on the job. "I trust the government when they say it's not possible to raise
salaries, but having to oppose the strike is a bitter pill."
Partial SolutionsAs an alternative to higher pay, the government urged all sectors of society to offer solidarity to teachers in finding ways to respond to their needs. The result was an outpouring of support from all sides. Construction and municipal workers in some towns offered a day's pay. Campesinos donated rice and beans to local teachers. The agricultural workers' union planned to include rural educators in contract benefits including plots of land to raise subsistence crops next to schools. In Chinandega, a local factory offered to sell cooking oil to teachers at cost and the state banana company gave 40,000 bananas at a nominal price. In Managua, high school students made contributions and workers from the state tourist agency offered to share their lunch with personnel at a nearby elementary school. Everywhere, teachers organized fairs, raffles and benefits to raise lunch and bus money.
On May 31, President Ortega held an eight-hour meeting with 1,400 representatives of the teaching profession. More than 30 teachers testified about their grievances and ANDEN presented a list of demands: administrative decentralization, transport subsidies, discounts on water and electricity bills, and an increase in the basic food package given to state workers as a salary supplement. They also urged the government to continue pressing for the release of the thousands of contra kidnap victims, a number of whom are teachers.
In his response, Ortega stressed that Nicaragua is still in a period when defense of the revolutionary process is the main priority. The US-funded contra war, which brought social programs close to a halt, also caused more than $15 billion in direct and indirect damages to the economy. The President said that recovery from this economic disaster calls for sacrifice, ironically by the same workers whose interests are being defended.
"We would like to raise salaries by 100%," said Ortega, "but that would be irresponsible." Instead, he announced a 14% increase for all state workers, slightly above the previous month's inflation rate, along with a series of other measures to increase teachers' real wages and supplement local efforts already underway. These included: free transportation for both urban and rural teachers, an increase from 25% to 40% in the supplemental pay received by those who work in remote areas, school supplies and scholarships for educators' children, free eyeglasses and new houses for those teachers whose homes were destroyed by last year's Hurricane Joan. A national "Social Fund" supported by contributions from state enterprises (and private industries who are willing) will subsidize some of these benefits. Finally, Ortega announced that, over the next year, the Ministry of Education will be decentralized and teachers will
be reclassified on the salary scale.
Maintaining SupportReaction to the government announcements was generally positive. "At least we got something," said one Managua primary teacher. "We can't really ask much more of the government right now." By the first week of June, most teachers had gone back to work. But the salary issue still simmers and some isolated work stoppages continue. Meetings are being held in each school to explain the government measures and the limits that the overall economic situation places on meeting salary demands. ANDEN leaders say they will press for greater wage increases when the country's economic situation improves.
How to deal with labor unrest is a particularly sensitive issue for the government in this period leading up to the Nicaraguan elections in February 1990. The Bush Administration and some sectors of the Nicaraguan opposition clearly seek to undermine economic recovery and create a climate of social chaos which will convince voters to defeat the Sandinistas at the polls next year. Elsewhere in Latin America, most recently in Argentina and Venezuela, government austerity measures to control inflation have sparked food riots, looting and outbreaks of violence. In the case of Argentina, President Alfonsín was forced to step down early. But, though Nicaragua's inflation rate at the end of last year was higher than that of either Argentina or Venezuela, public response has been very different, an indication of Sandinista success in maintaining popular support against considerable odds.