Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 14 | Agosto 1982



The Trade Union Movement In Nicaragua: Part Two

Diverse political and ideological conceptions define the practice of the trade unions and their membership, whether of confidence or distrust with regard to the revolutionary process and the new Nicaraguan state.

Envío team


For various reasons which we shall not analyze here, Nicaragua is suffering a serious economic crisis, which is having, and will continue to have, a notable effect upon the manufacturing sector, especially since the present economic strategy of the Government of Reconstruction places top priority upon the development of the agricultural sector.

Minister of Industry Emilio Baltodano, in an interview published May 10 by the Managua newspaper Barricada, stated that “given the serious shortage of foreign exchange, we have had to prioritize the needs of the manufacturing sector, and the harsh reality is that many companies will have to rely on their own resources”. Baltodano explained that the industries which are considered priorities are “medicine, food, clothing, non-leather shoes, soap and detergent, and industrial metal which is essential for agro-industrial production and for construction,” adding that “we had originally thought we would see one or two percent growth in the manufacturing sector, but we now see that this is not possible”.

In his July 19th speech, Coordinator of the Government Junta Daniel Ortega pointed out that “we must invest more dollars in the productive sectors so as to develop our agricultural and livestock production, including our agro-industrial production, because these sectors represent the basis for our national development. This economic strategy will obviously have an impact upon the manufacturing sector. In the short run, some factories in non-priority industries which are losing money at the present time will have to close.

As the economic situation affects workers and trade union organizations, this economic context must be borne in mind as we examine the labor movement in Nicaragua. In Envío N° 12 (June 1982), we began a study of the trade union movement, largely through a presentation of certain basic statistics. This month we will complement our earlier study by presenting some concrete examples of the structure and day-to-day functioning of Nicaraguan trade unions.

Despite the fundamental problems mentioned above, the labor movement has acquired a new dynamic in the last three years. A study of this dynamic can help answer many questions that are often asked outside Nicaragua: Is there trade union freedom in Nicaragua? What is the level of worker participation in the trade union movement and in the revolutionary process? Does one find substantial differences between present-day trade union activity and that which existed under the Somoza regime?

In the present article we will answer some of these questions through a description of the situation and of the activity of the labor movement, a description formulated after interviews with persons working at the grass-roots level of the organized labor movement.

The article will include:
1- Background Explanations.
2- Aspects of the life of three different trade unions.
2.1- SOLKA Laboratories.
2.2- The Nicaragua Machinery Company.
2.3- The Managua gas Station Workers’ Union
3- Points for comparison, and Conclusions.

1- Background Explanations

A) Types of Unions

The Ministry of Labor groups unions under four different headings. The first is “One-Company Unions”, which bring together different types of workers employed by the same company. Four-fifths of all unions and union members fall within this category. The second type is the “Guild Union”, made up of workers of one profession or specialty.

“Multi-Profession Unions” comprise workers participating in unrelated activities, when in a given location or a given company there are not enough workers of one type to meet the legal minimum. The last category, the “Multi-Company Union”, brings together different types of workers employed by two or more companies which engage in one type of economic activity.
(Source: Ministry of Labor, Socio-Labor Statistics Bulletin, N° 4, March 1982.)

B) Size of Unions

The Ministry of labor also classifies unions by size. Only three unions belong to the largest category, that of unions having more than 1,000 members. (For a complete classification by size, see Envío N° 12, June 1982, P. 15)

C) Collective Agreements

Collective agreements between management and unions must be ratified by the Ministry of Labor. Most agreements are reached with the cooperation of the labor federation to which the individual union belongs. Thus, the number of agreements with which it is involved is an important measure of the activity of any given federation.

During the 45 years of the Somoza regime, only 160 collective agreements were signed. This compares with 546 agreements signed between August 1979 and December 1981, agreements which benefit 137,267 workers, most of whom are in the manufacturing sector.

2- Aspects of the life of three different trade unions
2.1- SOLKA Laboratories

On July 16 we attended a production meeting at SOLKA Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company located 16 km. south of Managua. A billboard placed at the factory entrance lists the workers’ four commitments: a) to continue to increase production and productivity; b) to increase the level of worker organization; c) to eliminate lack of work discipline; d) to participate more actively in the militias and in the voluntary night-watch.

More than 300 workers were joined in the meting by delegations from other companies. Presiding at the meeting were some members of the union’s directorate, representatives of the Sandinista Workers’ Federation (C.S.T.), to which the SOLKA Union belongs, a blind worker honored for being one of the best workers in the factory, and the mother of a former SOLKA worker who died in September 1981 during militia training. The union has named itself after this last worker, Basilio Cálix.

After a brief introduction by the union’s General Secretary, representatives of the different divisions of the company (e.g. serums, pills, maintenance, cafeteria) presented divisional reports. Each of these reports, which, workers told us, were the fruit of much worker effort, contained two main sections:

a) Main problems which have an adverse effect upon production;
b) Suggested worker solutions.

After two hours of presentation of these reports, the General Administrator of the company gave his report, which dealt with many of the workers’ criticisms, explained other points, and presented for the consideration of the workers the future projects and plans of the company (plans for growth, changes, corrections, etc.).

An honest and critical, though orderly, discussion followed, open to all workers and administrators. The latter stated that 65% of the production goals had been met, and that the company had shown a 12% profit in the first half of 1982. Listening to the discussion, we appreciated the great significance of the goals listed on the billboard at the factory entrance.

Thus the production meeting was a collective evaluation, by workers, technicians and administrators, of all aspects of the company. The evaluation included self-criticism, as well as recognition of the most disciplined workers, who were honored for their sense of responsibility.


After the meeting we interviewed Julio González, a worker in the maintenance division and General Secretary of the union.

Q.: Did this sort of union participation occur before July 19, 1979?

A.: Not at all. Under the Somoza dynasty workers were manipulated by the “tranquilizer policies” of management. Little favors and gifts were occasionally distributed, which served as a diversion for the workers and prevented their organizing. This paternalism created a spirit of conformity, which made our work very difficult, almost clandestine.

At that time SOLKA belonged to the Solórzano family, which had close ties with Somoza, with whose help the company was set up. Salvadora Somoza, the sister of the dictator, was also a share-holder. At the time of the victory the Somoza share of the company was confiscated, and six months later, when the Solórzanos left the country, their part was also confiscated and the company became part of the People’s Property Area with 100% state ownership.

Q.: Were there many problems immediately after the confiscation?

A.: At first there were some workers who had had special privileges under the former management, who resented the Government. It was a difficult period because the workers had no experience in collective organization and generally had a very traditional notion of the functions of a trade union, a notion which was not appropriate in the new situation.

Q.: And what is the present situation of the SOLKA Union?

A.: The union structure has been greatly consolidated. The workers have developed a high level of awareness and participation: they deal with the global questions of production, and they understand the economic situation of the country. Our meetings now are different from those held right after July 19, 1979. Worker participation is very positive and has led to the improvement of some elements of production in the company. The innovations of workers, creating spare parts by using their imagination and scarce resources, have been significant.

Q.: Could you give some concrete examples of progress during the last three years in terms of workers’ demands and participation?

A.: Though not everything is perfect, we can say that there have been significant advances above all at the level of organization and worker participation. There are now a series of important structures through which workers participate in the management of the company:

-- The Technical Production Committee includes the Secretary of Production of the Union Directorate, two workers elected by the grass-roots on a rotating basis, the company’s Director of Production, and one technician from each division. This committee of about ten people supervises all aspects of the company’s production and productivity.

-- The Company Committee is made up of the General Secretary of the union, two members elected by the grass roots (also on a rotating basis), and five directors of the company, including the General Director. We discuss the more serious and global company problems, and the opinions and suggestions of the workers are presented. We evaluate our goals, programs, sales, and the effects of the Government’s economic policy upon our situation. We are basically responsible for guaranteeing the production of the medicines so essential for Nicaraguans.

There are also other important committees. The Production Committee, which prepared the Production Meeting which we just finished, is made up exclusively of workers who represent their respective divisions. The workers discuss basic needs, problems and suggested solutions, which are then sent to the Technical Production Committee. No company decision can be made without the approval of the Union Directorate, which is thus an authentic authority.

Another organizational advance is the defense of the physical plant, which is protected day and night by the Sandinista Popular Militia. Fifty-three workers participate in the militia, and another six belong to reserve battalions. We have also benefited from the Government’s policy of increasing real wages even though it can’t give salary increases. The company subsidizes the workers’ medical care, transportation, food, etc. A worker need pay only 1.5 córdobas for a meal which actually costs 18.6 córdobas.

Q.: Even in this new situation, there could still be contradictions between the workers and management, which, after all, is still an employer. What is your opinion?

A.: This is very interesting. There have been many problems. After the triumph, many technicians who had been closely allied with the management left the country. Others took advantage of the situation, wrapping themselves in the mantle of Sandinismo while in fact refusing to cooperate. Technicians had been in a privileged position, but with the implementation of worker participation in decision-making, they saw that they would now be on a more equal basis with the other workers. So there were confrontations, and some of the technicians who had stayed had to leave because of worker pressure. When I first became General Secretary of the union, the technicians didn’t even show up at the Production Meetings. We made an effort to explain the new reality to them. The situation now is much better. Later other technicians who were also revolutionaries came to SOLKA, and this increased the participation of all sectors of the company in the common process.

Editorial Note: The structure of the Directorate of the SOLKA Union is typical of those unions affiliated with the Sandinista Workers’ Federation (C.S.T.). The Directorate has ten members, a General Secretary, and Secretaries of Organization, Production, Political Education and Publicity, Culture and Sports, Labor Questions, Finance, Special Recognition and Volunteer Labor, National and International Relations, and a Secretary responsible for the popular Militia.

2.2- The Nicaragua Machinery Company (NIMAC)

Because many private companies operate in Nicaragua within the structure of the mixed economy, we decided to visit the Nicaraguan Machinery Company, located just north of Managua. NIMAC repairs and sells John Deere farm equipment, and its present owners are Nicaraguans. The company employs 184 workers, of whom 140 belong to the Ricardo Membreño Union, named after a NIMAC worker who died in the insurrection. At the time of its creation a few months before the triumph, the union was pretty much underground. After July 19, it gained legal recognition and affiliated itself with the Sandinista Workers’ Federation.


During our visit to NIMAC we interviewed Pablo Sánchez, in charge of the union militia; Bismark Colomér, Secretary of Culture and Publicity; Sergio Pérez, member of the “Grass-roots Committee” (an FSLN party structure within the company); and Miguel Jarquín, a company worker.

Q.: Can you describe the union’s activity before the 19th of July, 1979?

P. Sánchez: We began discussing the creation of a union around the end of 1978. In line with Somoza’s policy, the management at that time systematically blocked any efforts aimed at organizing the workers. So we had to meet at the university or in houses of different workers. But things were very hard, because many workers shared the management’s point of view, and others came only to spy on us, and then reported to management.

S. Pérez: The Directorate of the union was formed at the beginning of 1979, with the support of 50% of the workers, but management repressed the union by firing the leadership. But the work continued, and after the triumph 80% of the workers joined the union.

P. Sánchez: Before July 1979, the general manager, José Cardenal, repressed and humiliated the workers. Paul Giordano, an American in charge of the spare parts department, was another example of pure and simple repression. By 1979, ten to fifteen workers were being fired every fortnight. When they fired the directorate we went on strike for a week. After the triumph, there was a massive mobilization of the workers, and the resulting political pressure forced Cardenal and Giordano to leave the company.

Q.: Where have you seen then most progress in the past three years?

M. Jarquín: There have been great advances. The first is the reactivation of union activity. Repressive and corrupt structures which hurt the working class have been eliminated. Most of the workers now belong to the union and are taking part in the revolutionary process. We have regular meetings in which everything is discussed, and within the union the workers participate and share their opinions. There workers have rid themselves of the complex which kept them repressed.

B. Colomer: We have also won the subsidization of transportation (the company pays 100% of the transit fares of those living in Managua, and 50% of the cost of those living outside the city). Workers receive new uniforms every six months. Meals are subsidized by 60%. The workers won company financing for a library which contains a wide variety of books. The union won the right to an office and to a medical dispensary which is open for two hours a day, with a private doctor paid by the company. We receive the medicine from the Nicaraguan Social Security and Social Welfare Institute. The workers participate in the Literacy Crusade. Overall we can say that the greatest advance has been the signing of a contract which contains 48 clauses, all of which are 100% to the benefit of the workers. At the moment we are studying the contract to modify it and bring it up to date.

Q.: What is the present relationship between management, the union and the workers?

B. Colomer: Generally speaking, the Union Directorate meets every week with company management. We discuss everything. We also have access to the company books. In our in-service workshops we decided to cooperate with the company to increase production. At the same time as we were strengthening our union organization, we were searching for better methods that would reduce costs. We make suggestions to management concerning tensions which exist between them and the workers. The Directorate is always looking to resolve disagreements.

P. Sánchez: In the last few days we have had to deal with a controversial question. The company ordered three vehicles from the U.S., with a total cost of $24,000, despite the State of Economic and Social Emergency in the country. Earlier, the administration halted the construction of a workers’ cafeteria which would have cost 500,000 córdobas, giving the economic and social emergency as its reason. We are going to discuss the decision to buy the vehicles since no one consulted the union.

Editorial note: We do not outline the structure of the NIMAC union here, as it is quite similar to that of the SOLKA union.

2.3- The Managua Gas Station Workers’ Union (SITEGMA)

SITEGMA, a “Guild Union” affiliated with the Nicaraguan Workers’ Federation (C.T.N.), brings together workers from 50 Managua gas stations, 48 of them privately owned. C.T.N. officials claim that the union has 364 members, but the Ministry of Labor states that SITEGMA has only 51 members. This latter figure, officials in the Ministry’s Department of Statistics told us, represents the number of signatures in the record of the meeting which elected the union’s Directorate. In April 1981 the union gave the Ministry an official List of Claims, as part of the collective bargaining process, with 270 signatures. To be valid, this list must have the signatures of all union members, though non-members may also sign. Thus, the true number of SITEGMA members would appear to be between 51 and 270.

We met with representatives of SITEGMA in the office of the C.T.N. Present at the meeting were Alberto Alemán, union president; Julio Veliz, Secretary of Organization and Publicity; Earl Downs, Secretary of Culture and Education; José Zamora, Secretary of Finance; José López, Recording Secretary; and Antonio Jarquín, the C.T.N.’s union advisor, who is not a member of SITEGMA.


Q.: What is the organizational structure of SITEGMA?

A. Jarquín: The union has a directorate made up of 12 members, organized into different Secretariats. Besides the five members here, there are Secretaries of Disagreements and of Social Welfare, and a Secretary without portfolio. The Directorate meets once a week, and there is a monthly assembly (the highest body of discussion). There is a delegate for each gas station, who represents the union in finding solutions to the day-to-day problems of each station. These representatives meet with the Directorate and the C.T.N. advisors once a week.

Q.: What have been the main advances of the past three years?

A. Jarquín: The first was the reorganization of the union (SITEGMA had operated before 1979 and was reactivated in July of that year). Another was the signing of a collective agreement by which certain rights were achieved which previously had been totally disregarded by the owners. We have also won partial subsidization of food and education, time off for education, and some improvement in health care.

Q.: What do you feel are the differences in union activity between the Somoza period and the present?

A. Jarquín: We believe that there has been a marked difference. Before there was not the slightest expression of trade union freedom. Anyone connected to a union ran the risk of being killed. We think that the present situation in Nicaragua is critical, difficult, and that some uncontrollable events have had negative repercussions upon trade union freedom and pluralism.

Q.: Can you give some examples?

A. Jarquín: Our union has suffered assaults from the Marxist-Leninist sector of the C.G.T.-(i) (Independent General Federation of Labor) and from the Sandinista Workers’ Federation. With respect to the state, under Somoza collective bargaining was held up, the granting of legal status was delayed, as were certifications of changes in the union Directorate. At this time we feel that it is irresponsible on the part of the government to allow these types of things to continue.

A: Then would you say that SITEGMA has problems or disagreements with the Ministry of Labor?

A. Jarquín: At the moment we don’t have any disagreements, but we think they are coming, as the gas rationing could lead to unemployment in our sector, (Editorial note: a reference to the gas rationing begun August 1. See News and Analysis Update in this Envío).

Q.: What organizational methods are you encouraging in SITEGMA? Are you promoting Evaluation Meetings, Production Committees or Company Committees?

A. Jarquín: We consider our Evaluation Meetings to be the weekly meetings of the gas station representatives with the Directorate and the C.T.N. advisors. Until now we have not been able to form a Production Committee, which would promote activities outside the normal ambit of the union. So the union has entered into a routine, and because of this we are working to reorganize it. With the exception of one gas station, we have not won worker participation in the administration of the companies, but we are more concerned with achieving this than with winning a greater share of company profits.

Q.: In other unions the workers give great importance to the task of protecting the productive centers. What is your union’s policy in this respect?

A. Jarquín: We have not implemented a policy on the militias at the union level. With respect to voluntary night watch, we think that this is important, but we also think that it distorts the role which the workers should play. It seems to us to be a well-camouflaged tool for distorting the workers’ struggle. We think that protection is not simply looking after the company’s property, but has a wider sense which includes the participation of the workers in administrative decisions.

Q.: What do the workers at the grass-roots level of SITEGMA think about the participation of the C.T.N. in the Democratic Coordinating Committee, whose positions coincide with those of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP)?

A. Jarquín: The alliances of the C.T.N. with certain political, guild, and private enterprise sectors were defined in the Fourth Congress of the C.T.N., in which it was decided that, owing to the particular circumstances of the present moment, we should form non-organic alliances. The union’s grass-roots understand perfectly that this is only a product of the present situation.

3- Points for Comparison, and Conclusions

We have presented three distinct trade union realities. We included the SOLKA Union as an example of a union within the People’s Property Area. It is a relatively large union, with over 300 members, affiliated with the C.S.T. We included the NIMAC Union, as it operates in the private sector, is a somewhat smaller union, with 140 members, and is also affiliated with the C.S.T. The inclusion of SITEGMA reflects the fact that it is a “Guild union”, affiliated with the C.T.N., and operates within companies 96% of which are privately owned.

Besides these three unions, we have studied several other types of unions. We can offer certain comparative reflections which emerge from our study of these distinct trade union realities:

A) There is a high level of trade union activity, which corresponds to the statistics presented in Envío N° 12, and which indicates an important quantitative advance in the labor movement during the last three years.

B) This union activity also represents progress in experience and organization, and an overcoming of the passivity imposed upon the movement during the Somoza years.

C) In the trade unions which we visited, the concept of “union freedom” has a unique dimension which perhaps does not correspond to the more traditional criteria used in some countries. None of the persons interviewed even mentioned the suspension of the right to strike (one of the economic and social emergency measures decreed in September 1981), though outside Nicaragua this measure might be seen as a flagrant violation of union freedom. The concept of union freedom that we discovered in our interviews has three basic elements: the freedom to participate actively in the life of the union; the freedom and the right to participate actively in the running of the company and in its policy decisions; the negation of the climate of terror and anti-union persecution in the Somoza period.

D) There is an evident increase in worker participation in the control and the running of both private and public companies. We were struck by the many structures and mechanisms established within the unions affiliated with the C.S.T. to implement this control and participation. We note that in the unions affiliated with the C.S.T. the union has a “watch-dog” role in the running of companies in the private sector, while workers enjoy a more integral participation in the management of public sector companies. Without a doubt this integral participation in companies of the People’s Property Area reduces the impact of errors committed by technicians and administrators appointed by the People’s Industry Corporation (COIP), errors which reflect either inexperience or incomprehension.

These limitations of COIP (e.g., lack of understanding of the lines of credit, or of the running of the state’s administrative apparatus) have led in some cases to a reduction in production or even to a closing of some companies. The active control of the workers compensates for the improvisation which administrators must often confront in the public sector.

We saw less activity and less tendency in this direction in SITEGMA, though it is not easy to compare a company union in which the members all work in one location and a service union in which the members are geographically separated. We also found a clear difference between C.S.T.- and C.T.N.-affiliated unions with respect to the tasks of defense of the productive centers. C.T.N. advisor A. Jarquín was quite ambiguous on this point, a clear attitude of non-participation.

E) Within the C.S.T unions there is significant encouragement of worker creativity, reflected in the stimulation of innovation: workers are creating spare parts and even machinery with very few resources and much determination, which saves foreign exchange and strengthens production. The first exhibit of innovators took place in Managua between July 9 and 14.

F) The Directorate structures of C.S.T. and C.T.N. unions differ considerably. SITEGMA has a traditional structure, with a Financial Secretary and a Recording Secretary, while the C.S.T. unions have new elements in their structures: Secretaries of Production, of Volunteer Work, of the Militia. These new elements express a new conception of the roles of the trade union.

The different political-ideological conceptions of unions define to a large degree their concrete activity at the grass-roots level. The C.T.N. unions express their Federation’s mistrust of the Nicaraguan Government and of the present socio-political process, a mistrust which leads to a certain non-participation in the tasks of the reconstruction and to a policy of high-level alliances with elements of the Nicaraguan opposition (traditional political parties and owners of large private enterprises).

The unions affiliated with the C.S.T., on the other hand, feel strengthened, not only by increased worker participation and control, but also by their participation in the revolutionary process and by their relation to a government which they feel favors workers.

Translated from the original in Spanish

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


News And Analysis Update On Nicaragua

The Silent Invasion

The Trade Union Movement In Nicaragua: Part Two
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development