Rural Workers Confront the Economic Crisis
Nicaragua’s agrarian structure, traditionally geared to export crops—coffee, cotton, sugar—that require seasonal labor, created a great number of agricultural workers, most of them seasonal, who followed the cycle of annual harvests. Now, even though the number of agricultural workers, especially seasonal workers, has decreased, it is estimated that this element of the country's economically active population includes about 100,000 people on a permanent basis.
The Association of Rural Workers (ATC) is the main union for Nicaragua's agricultural wage workers. With a Sandinista orientation and an independent stance in the international union movement, it has 52,000 full members (23% of whom are women) and represents about 100,000 of the 140,000 agricultural workers employed during export crop harvests. The ATC has 720 locals throughout Nicaragua.
During the May Day workers' celebrations, envío interviewed Edgardo García, general secretary of the ATC. Edgardo, 31 years old, has been at the head of the ATC since its founding in March 1978, before the revolution. In fact, the ATC was functioning even earlier, since 1975, when it was known as the Rural Workers' Committees. Elected at that time to direct the organization and twice reelected since 1979, Edgardo García has a thorough knowledge of the history of rural workers in Nicaragua—for it is his own history as well—the history of their achievements, their organizing efforts and their ongoing response to the various challenges that the revolutionary change has thrown up.
In this interview he reviews this history of challenge and response, analyzing in particular the origins and characteristics of the profound economic crisis.
The struggle against Somozaenvío: At the time of the revolutionary triumph, the ATC was just about the only organization of workers in the countryside. What were the reasons for this?
García: I think the main reason was the tremendous flexibility of our organization. Nicaraguan agriculture centered for the most part around the coffee, sugar and cotton plantations. Because of their special characteristics, these crops required a very small permanent workforce. During the greater part of the year, they could be maintained with just a few workers, and it was only during a period of about three months that significantly more workers were needed. That was our work season, the season when we'd fill the plantations. The rest of the time we'd be semi-unemployed, living in poor settlements, growing a little something on small plots of land, which were usually rented. We'd grow basic grains for our family subsistence, nothing more. That whole situation, of course, caused problems when we wanted to organize. The peak harvest times were too short to build a strong organization, and the rest of the time we were too spread out. The permanent workers, for their part, depended heavily on the plantation and therefore were not in a good position to challenge the system. So we had lots of obstacles. And added to that, any kind of rural organization was prohibited by the laws of the Somoza dictatorship, and any kind of organizing activity was harshly repressed.
But in the ranks of agricultural workers, people had a lot of demands. Both the permanent and seasonal agricultural workers made typical workers' demands, for better wages, for example. Some of us were also seeking access to land in hopes of improving our standard of living.
envío: How, then, were you able to organize yourselves as rural workers?
García: We did it by opening the struggle on three fronts. The first front was the community. We sought to organize the rural population right there where the seasonal workers had their houses and their little plots of land. We’d organize them to get improvements for the community—construction of a school, a well, access to electrical power... The second front was land, a particularly important demand. The way we fought for land depended on the specific situation in each place: sometimes we fought for lower rent on the plots we had; sometimes we seized land directly. At the same time, and this is the third front, we would fight for better working conditions and wages at harvest time, when the most workers were concentrated on the plantations. This way, working from a common front, with a significant portion of the population organized around common demands, we were able to put our weight behind both labor demands on the plantations and demands for land.
That was the process. The situation itself forced us to adopt diverse forms of organization. And that made us flexible. We had to be flexible to be there on three fronts: in the village, on the plantation, in the struggle for land. It was like playing an accordion, trying to get a single melody with these three different rhythms. And the increased repression in response to our growing struggle only helped us. Nicaragua’s general situation at the time was characterized by a great advance in the struggle of the masses against the dictatorship. And that, even more than our own struggles in the countryside, helped us see more clearly that in order for our demands to be met, the Somoza dictatorship had to be overthrown.
envío: Did this evolution of the struggle mean that the ATC took on military tasks as well?
García: Yes. In the last years of the Somoza dictatorship, during the insurrectionary period, one group within the ATC combined armed activity with the organization’s more strictly political work. Some supported the guerrillas in other ways. Children, for example, organized their games around places where we were having secret meetings and helped us watch out for the National Guard. Women carried weapons, medicine, messages in their baskets of fruit... At this stage we weren't just fighting for our own interests as rural workers, we were also participating in the armed struggle that the people as a whole were engaged in. So when the triumph came, many of us celebrated it from within the fighting ranks of the FSLN.
envío: What role did the FSLN play in organizing the ATC?
García: The Sandinista Front actually guided both the creation and the development of the ATC. But it was us, the rural workers, who understood the concrete circumstances and could evaluate the real possibilities of carrying out specific types of actions to achieve particular goals. Everything was flexible; it had to be. Those of us who had leadership positions in the ATC, for example, could tell a union committee to hold a strike in a strategic worksite. But it was the workers at that site who had to decide how and when to do it. It was due to this flexibility that we could move from the country to the city and fight together with the urban masses in the final offensive.
The first victories and the first changesenvío: What happened to the various groups of rural workers in the ATC once the revolution had triumphed?
García: After July 19, 1979, our organization began to sort out the various sectors that had joined the ATC, and some began to join other organizations that attended directly to their specific needs. All the villages’ community demands went to the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS) to be taken care of, or to other similar organizations, according to each local situation. A little later, a group of peasant farmers within the ATC began to organize separately, apart from the agricultural wage workers. In 1981 that group joined the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), which organizes small- and medium-sized producers. The ATC was now defined clearly as the organization of agricultural wage workers, with the specific characteristics that this group has, given Nicaragua's socioeconomic structure—for example, a large number are not classically proletarian, because they may own a small plot of land they work with their family.
envío: Once the ATC’s organizational identity was clearly defined, what role did it play in the first phase of the revolution?
García: We immediately began to present a series of pressing demands. Literacy was one, because the majority of our membership didn't know how to read. We also made demands regarding health care, improved living conditions and more stable employment. We made demands for land, for example, to guarantee certain plots of land around the plantations that we could work in conjunction with our salaried jobs. We also had a special goal of actively supporting the reactivation of the national economy, starting with our own workplaces. In this first phase we combined work to support the national economy with work for our own traditional claims. It should also be pointed out that as an organization we defended the strategic project of the revolution from the very stat, the real revolution that was going on here. The February 17, 1980 march of agricultural workers on Managua with the slogan "Not another inch of land will be returned," was decisive in this regard.
envío: What was going on at the time that made the march and that slogan necessary?
García: Basically, some business interests within the revolutionary government were supporting Somocistas who had had their land confiscated after the triumph of the revolution. We were protesting to warn the government and to keep those business interests from using their influence this way.
envío: Were you seeking to prevent the course of the revolution from being taken over by business interests that participated in the government in the beginning?
García: In this case they weren't taking over the course of the revolution, but rather sabotaging it. The revolution was fought to redistribute the means and the goods of production, and these people didn't want that. Sixty thousand workers marching on the capital were able to consolidate the position of rural workers, and to bring about social ownership and use of the land and the creation of what we called the Area of People's Property [state-owned property], which was in our interests as workers. So we combined our immediate demands for land with our long-range interests, which influenced the whole direction the revolutionary process was taking. And we were successful. In those early days we were growing rapidly and achieving our demands: a weekly paycheck, which had never been guaranteed before; equal pay for men and women; the right to vacations... things we never had under Somoza.
envío: What was productivity like in those early days, what productive capacity was there?
García: In those days, the private enterprises as well as the state-owned ones had serious problems efficiently managing their businesses. Many administrators had left the country because of their ties to the Somoza dictatorship. The same thing happened with many of the people with technical skills. Social conditions at the beginning of a new revolutionary process after a popular insurrection tend to foster disorder. Those social factors made our situation more difficult and in some cases, the workers themselves temporarily had to take over the administration of some businesses. Of course, since they had no previous experience in this, the result was very inefficient, but this was simply how the political struggle went on in some workplaces, against certain owners who were trying to decapitalize. They received financing from the banks and didn't invest it in their businesses. So we workers had to look out for the interests of the business ourselves; we had to see that there was adequate investment. But of course this kind of political work paralyzed productive work to a great extent.
The truth is that in those days owners who really wanted to maintain an adequate production level also had lots of problems, because the system of services to production just wasn't working. It had fallen apart after the triumph and it wasn't easy to create a new one in such a short time. To all that you have to add the fact that some people thought that being in a revolution brought about to help the workers meant that they should work less. There was a conception of liberty that didn't contribute at all to productivity. The foreman’s authority was constantly questioned. Even the role of highly skilled workers was being called into question. A very strong tendency toward egalitarianism prevailed.
The war intensifies the problemsenvío: When and why did this first phase end and a new one begin?
García: The main factor that changed the situation—this was in 1981—was the need for a military defense of the revolution. Reagan was in power and already beginning his campaign against Nicaragua. In 1982, this aggression increased and we saw clearly that if we didn't stop it militarily, the progress we were making would be put at risk. For this reason the rural union membership and all other union members supported joining the BIR, the Reserve Infantry Battalions, which were our first form of military defense against Reagan's war. In addition to joining the battalions, we also defended the salaries of the workers who were fighting—a very important issue, because in those days the army didn't have a centralized budget yet, so service in the BIR was on a volunteer basis. We accepted that we could be sent to any part of the country where we were needed. At first it was supposed to be for a term of three months. But in many cases this would be extended to six months or more because of the way the fighting was going. That created all kinds of problems—for example, protests from relatives or employers refusing to pay the worker's salary. As a union we took on the cause of the workers who were fighting in the reserve battalions, to defend their salary. On this point we achieved a real victory when we got the Council of State to pass a law obliging employers to pay the salary of workers fighting in the reserves. We had six direct representatives in the Council of State, which was the first legislative body we had, between the triumph and the 1984 elections.
envío: What were the underlying reasons why the ATC supported the workers in joining the military defense?
García: Two things happened here that really moved everyone: the murder of some of the young teachers during the literacy campaign and the destruction of several villages by the counterrevolutionaries. Things like that really shook us because the wounds of Somocismo were still fresh. In the north, many rural workers were directly affected by the contrabands. All these things made workers and peasants organize to fight, moved by patriotism and a desire to defend the power we had achieved. We organized ourselves out of a mixture of workers' pride and nationalism. But at the same time all this mobilization to militarily defend the revolution hurt the economy even more. As workers went off to fight, companies were left with an ever smaller workforce, and often with the less qualified workers. Everything was being poured into defense. The workers with the most technical knowledge were the ones the army needed most. Even the trucks used to transport coffee were needed for defense. Everything was needed for defense. In the cities, the soldiers who were going off to fight left on soft drink delivery trucks. All of this had a negative impact on what was already a bad situation for production. That's why the issue of fixed age limits for enlistment came up. A worker with ten or twenty years of experience or with technical education shouldn't enlist first because that would damage the company's productive capacity even more. In the end, these kinds of concerns as well as more general political and military issues demonstrated the need to regulate military service. This led to the law of patriotic military service, the draft, which began in late 1983. It's clear that during this period military activity and productive activity were out of sync with each other.
envío: What positions did the ATC take regarding owners who were still waging a political battle against the revolutionary process?
García: Many of the best workers, the ones with the greatest revolutionary consciousness, the most politicized, most dedicated ones were the ones who went into the army. Certain owners took advantage of this situation to weaken the union, to divide the membership. There was a great struggle then against those owners. But it was a struggle within the context of the "national unity" that the revolution was proclaiming. Therefore, we were able to win our demands even though on many points, on others we weren't able to go any further and the business sector obtained some important concessions. So in summary, as unions we dedicated ourselves, above all, to defense of the revolution, and in doing so production and productivity were weakened even more—but this problem was with us from the beginning. Problems with production were just more acute where there were also political confrontations between the union and the owners.
envío: What about the state-run enterprises at that time?
García: The state enterprises, especially when they were managed by administrators and technicians who belonged to the old system, also tended to take stands that made it difficult to get the job done. In those cases we also had to struggle with them. We didn't confuse our role with that of state administrators. We defend the workers’ interests, but take into consideration what the realistic possibilities in this country are. The truth is that as the war increased, these possibilities decreased. But despite all their faults, the state enterprises responded to many union demands and in that they far surpassed any private business.
A dangerous crisis we must confrontenvío: And now in the current situation, with such an acute economic crisis, we're already in a third phase. What are the characteristics of this one?
García: All sectors of society are calling for more production. All of them. We have serious shortages of food and consumer goods and a serious lack of foreign exchange. Now that the problem of military service is resolved, production and productivity are the unions' top priority. This problem started becoming increasingly important in 1985, although some mechanisms for dealing with it were already beginning to be implemented in the previous phases. For example, a new salary scale was worked out and refined. Now we're not just getting wage increases so the workers can deal with the high cost of living, but we're also starting to define salaries in terms of workers' technical skills. These distinctions are necessary to encourage productivity, but they’re nothing like the differences that existed under Somocismo, because the gap between the highest and the lowest salaries is much less now than it was then. These mechanisms were refined to prioritize the different kinds of salaried labor and offer incentives to workers who because of their training can and in fact do contribute more to production.
Another advance was looking at the problem of production according to areas of activity. In the countryside we have cotton, coffee, tobacco, cattle. Each of these kinds of work requires different specialized services. Organizing our own work by crop area allows us to distribute the supplies and services each one needs better. The situation in Nicaragua today, with its tremendous limitations, demands more flexible mechanisms to provide better services to production.
envío: What changes have there been at this stage concerning the length of the workday?
García: This is a problem we have to face in earnest. Let's take as an example the older worker. What's his complaint? He sees that he spent his life working and that our generation, the generation of young workers, isn't even giving him the opportunity to buy enough to eat. He asks himself why and the answer is that it's because of the war, but he also knows that it's because people aren't working hard enough. Older workers have brought up this complaint within our ranks and have pushed us to address the topic of productivity, the issue of the workday. So, in 1985 we started working to bring the workday up to the point that we call "traditional," that is, similar to what it was before the triumph. There was a big debate over what would be an adequate and realistic workday in each branch of productive work. Workdays that were only three hours, for example, were doubled.
envío: Is there some visible proof of this kind of progress—of more work, a more productive workday?
García: Yes, there is. It's clear that in the first years of the revolution a significant portion of the entire workforce was employed in the peak harvest times. Even students and state employees went to help with the coffee and cotton harvests. In 1984 and 1985 there were about 20,000 people who voluntarily went to pick coffee. For cotton there were 12,000 volunteers. There were 45,000 regular coffee pickers and 28,000 in cotton. What with certain changes and progress, we were able to reduce the number of volunteer coffee pickers needed by almost 90% in 1986. We needed fewer because the traditional coffee pickers were working longer hours. That is a clear indicator of how we’ve begun to respond to the urgency of improving production. And production went up in 1986, with more coffee and a greater area harvested. This was also possible because the counterrevolution has been greatly weakened, but we have to take into account the complexity of the economic crisis that weighs us down and makes it harder for us to continue advancing along this road.
envío: How would you describe that difficulty?
García: This revolution has had a policy of resolutely protecting peasant farmers. It has given them land, credit, machinery and has forgiven their debts. They’ve received a lot of benefits. This has made it very attractive for rural wage workers to get land of their own, especially because rural workers in this country have, for the most part, been semi-proletarian—they have both worked for wages and farmed their own small plots of land.
At the same time, because of the problems of distributing food and basic household goods, the informal sector has grown larger and larger, and part of that sector’s activity is commercial speculation. Someone who sells on the black market can make many times more than a minister's salary. So the informal commercial sector becomes a great temptation. And since these people for the most part buy their products from the peasant farmers, and the agricultural workers are right there next to the peasants' farms, it's very tempting for the workers to become small-scale speculators—because the speculators are making the most in the current crisis. You can devote yourself, for example, to transporting basic grains from the countryside to the city. It's easier to carry around a bushel of beans than it is to grow beans and harvest them. The informal sector has a wide profit margin. And the peasant in his turn can sell his products at higher prices than the prices set by the state. So, the wage earner in the city as well as in the countryside is the one who comes in last. If he has a political conscience he goes on producing, but with the knowledge that he has to work longer hours to earn the same amount as a peasant farmer or market vendor. This situation has produced a working class that is more productive but increasingly smaller in number. And as long as this situation lasts, rural workers will always be tempted to move into the informal or peasant sector.
envío: All in all, it's a dangerous situation for the economy, a disturbing dynamic... What's the ATC’s position on all this?
García: This situation, as a direct effect of the war, is so critical that it threatens to destroy established enterprises, both private and state. Our route to put the brakes on this trend at this time is to ally with major state and private production. The economy itself is in danger and those of us who work in it need to seek a "pact" of sorts, in which we commit ourselves to increase productivity. And, as compensation, we’re discussing and negotiating over the surplus that the formal sector has been able to achieve in these last two years in which work has been more efficient. Part of this surplus must be put at the service of the working class. With this surplus, housing could be improved, on-the-job safety could be improved, child-care centers could be created, technical training could be provided for workers and so on. But, most importantly, workers' stores, in which workers could be guaranteed access to basic goods, could be improved. These would be under the strict control of the union's board of directors, who would oversee the prices and products. There would also have to be careful control so that what was produced on the farms would be distributed to other places through regular channels rather than going to the black market, all to guarantee that workers receive these products. This is the tactic that we're taking to support the better organized businesses that the economy has now. Our economic position is to support production. Our political position is to accept sacrifices and limitations, but to defend ourselves as a class and do what we can to limit certain activities of speculators and even of peasant farmers that are harming the economy.
So, in addition to what the Ministry of Domestic Commerce can do to regulate the distribution of basic products, it's necessary for [both state and private] enterprises to establish a relationship with the peasant farmers in their area. They could extend certain services to individual farmers and cooperatives and also buy their produce at favorable prices, recognizing that their production costs are higher because they use outdated methods. This relationship between businesses and farmers could allow us rural workers to buy products without the middleman. Even though businesses would be buying from the farmers at a higher price, it would be cheaper for us because there would be no middleman. It would benefit all of us mutually and strengthen the alliance between workers and farmers. Of course this is all still only a proposal. Another solution, which might be complementary, would be to grow certain products for workers' consumption right on company land.
envío: In the face of this crisis, this survival economy, which includes, among other things, a scarcity of goods, who should come first in getting access to goods, according to the ATC?
García: We think that the whole population has a right to be guaranteed certain basic goods. But we also believe that it should be the working class, the class that produces, the productive workers who have the greatest right. There has to be a distinction made to the advantage of the working class over other sectors that aren't productive. The best way to do this remains to be seen. But we have to get some comparative advantages for the working class. This is necessary, not only for us to get ahead, but for the whole country to get ahead. And if anyone thinks this is unfair, we invite him to come work on a coffee plantation, in the dairies or cotton fields. Because we're going to produce to get more foreign exchange and to guarantee that there’s food to eat. And if they want more foreign exchange and more food, let them come to our aid. We’re confident that, in spite of the crisis, the workers will keep on forging ahead.
envío: What position has the ATC taken in relation to other international union movements?
García: We’re an independent organization. We're not affiliated with any international union federation. After the triumph of the revolution, in keeping with the way we had been developing, we took steps towards creating a unified labor front both within and outside of Nicaragua. We've sought to maintain relations with all union organizations and to support any progressive proposals and projects. But we've always maintained our own independence as a union movement.