When Farmworkers Walk Out

Against the Current No 7, January-February 1987

David Finkel interviews John Joslin

JOHN JOSLIN, a 36-year-old electrician from Detroit and a Central America solidarity activist, was in Nicaragua from February 26 to March 10, 1986. He participated in a harvest brigade organized by Nicaragua Exchange, which has been organizing construction and harvest brigades since 1983. David Finkel interviewed Joslin for Against the Current.

Against the Current: Why did you go to Nicaragua?

John Joslin: For two reasons. First, to let Nicaraguans know there are North Americans who don’t want to harm them or disrupt their lives. Second, so that I could personally witness and then tell people what I saw and what I heard.

A third reason, now that I think of it, is that I wanted to make some contribution besides bearing witness. There are various ways to go to Nicaragua, so why pick cot&ton for two weeks? I knew this wasn’t a tour that I would have to work hard. I found out that my contribution to cotton production was fairly minimal, but the feeling of getting my shoulder behind the wheel was valuable.

In 1984-85, a third of the cotton harvest was brought in by international brigades, from every country in Latin America and most of Europe. (See What Difference Could A Revolution Make? by Joseph Collins.) I discovered when I was there that from the point of view of the farmworkers and people on the UEPs [production unit on a state farm], one reason they want North American brigadistas is that it is extremely important for them to see that there are North Americans who stand by them.

They saw that act of solidarity as a profound morale-booster, the fact that people would go to some expense to be there and do that kind of hard, monotonous, hot, dusty work that they have to do for a lifetime.

In 1985-86 only 350 (U.S. brigadistas) went down. Nicaraguans felt you couldn’t put a price tag on that contact-morale is one of the few resources they have in this war.

ATC: Where were you working?

JJ: About 15-20 miles &north of Chinandega, which is about ninety miles north of Managua. It wasn’t the war zone, but about 20-30 miles south of the Honduran border. We were working on UPE Carolos Antonio Robles, named after someone from the area who fell during the anti-Somoza struggle.

This was one of 18 UPEs organized into an empresa [enterprise] called Empresa Ricardo Morales Avilas, which is where production would go at the end of the day.

The UPE employed about 200-400 workers a day, most of whom commuted there. There were fifty families who lived on the UPE and benefitted from what few “perks” are there-a kitchen, kindergarten on the premises, day care, medical care, etc. These fifty families also had rudimentary shacks so they weren’t commuting every day.

They also had two showers — horizontal pipes with no nozzles — and one outside water tap. No hot water, of course.

We’d get up about 4:30 in the morning, try to get dressed and to the water tap before any of the other 250 people, get our coffee and beans, and start walking toward the fields by 5:30. We lived at a crossroads with a few banana trees and outbuildings, surrounded by 20,000 acres of cotton. Wherever you looked to the horizon, you saw cotton. It could take half an hour to walk to the work site.

The former owner was in Miami, which was why this was now a state farm. We were assigned to a foreman who was a local ATC [farmworkers’ union] steward, named Salinas, about five-foot-two and sporting a four-foot-long machete. He worked with us the whole day, filling his own bag and ours too, so we would look a little less pathetic when we went to the weigh-in station at the end of the day.

We would work till noon, have a two-hour lunch break (because of the heat) and then work till 4:30 or 5:00. During lunch a wagon with drums full of soup would come up to our location. This served both as lunch site and weighing station. So when your bag was full you would drag it yourself to this location, which might be as much as twenty minutes away.

The few Nicaraguans who might be there would smile politely as your bag was hoisted. The bag’s capacity was fifty pounds. We would come in with bags of 18, 16, 14 pounds — the Nicaraguan picker would have to bring in 150 pounds per day to make $3.00 (U.S.) for a six-day work week.

A woman named Linda, who had lived on a farm in Pennsylvania, was our [the brigadistas] “vanguardia” for the first four or five days-90 pounds a day. The rest of us were lucky to make 60-70 pounds a day, working very hard, drinking 8-9 quarts of water apiece during the working day.

We carried our water in jugs, treated with iodine. The Nicaraguans just drank from a tank truck, while we were under strict orders not to drink untreated water. In the morning before work, we got in the habit of drinking about a quart of Nicaraguan coffee. After work when we got back, we created such a spectacle that there would be forty or fifty small kids gawking at us, as the thirty of us brigadistas slowly proceeded to the two showers, with a colorful array of plastic slippers, bathrobes, plastic shower caps, fresh clothes, cosmetics — paying no attention to the fact that 45 minutes later we would be covered again with the dust that was everywhere, because it was the dry season. All our primping was really for psychological purposes.

ATC: Now we know something about the site and the working conditions. Tell us about the strike.

JJ: On the fifth day we were gleaning cotton, not picking it. That means we were picking up after one of the few functioning cotton reapers. So many plants that would normally be sagging under the weight just had a few tufts on them. It was quite frustrating-you made even less weight.

Salinas came by at about 10:00 and waved at us to put down our sacks and walk out of the field. When we got within earshot he told us there was a strike and there would be no work that day. Sure enough, we saw people all over corning out of the field.

As we walked back home, Salinas described what was going on. Because the campesinos were being paid by weight picked, they felt they would be unable to support their families if they had to glean cotton. With thousands of acres ready to be harvested, they felt they would be better employed working where they could make their normal 150 pounds a day.

That’s as much as we knew that day as we relaxed in our bunks.

That evening at 8:00, we were advised that three administrators from the Empresa were coming to address and hear the arguments from the fieldworkers. We were invited to look on.

Mass Debate

In this rude dining room, open on three sides, up at the front sat these three administrators. The hall soon filled not only with as many fieldworkers as could get away that evening, but lots of other people — kitchen workers, mechanics and children.

It soon turned out that the fortuitous situation of having the administrators from the Empresa had stimulated everybody to bring up their own issues. Beside the gleaning issue there was the straight wage question, that the $3.00 a week was inadequate; that despite daycare and primary education, and the attention of a circuit-riding nurse, after clothing was purchased the weekly wage hardly allowed even for cigarettes.

Standing next to the administrators at the front was Salinas, embellishing the arguments of the campesinos and recognizing people waving their hands to speak.

Then the head of the kitchen workers came out, dragging behind her a 75-pound bag of rice. With great commotion she dragged it to the front, dumped a handful on the table and announced that the state­ supplied rice was coming in with too many stones and required too much cleaning before being cooked. Pebbles were getting into the meals, and since this was state-supplied rice the Empresa had the obligation to make sure it was properly cleaned before delivery to the kitchen.

Other issues included workers complaining that their wages had been miscalculated, that the daily tally of weights didn’t correspond to the weekly wage. Several individual complaints were brought up in that regard, although those issues couldn’t be resolved right there because the administrators did not have their pay disbursement records.

People didn’t trust the weighing machine. Sometimes their 5O-pound bags would weigh in at 50 pounds, other times only 45. The administrators promised that inspectors would come and calibrate the scales. They also answered the wage question, by saying that due to the state of war, although prices of cotton were favorable and production was good from the UPE and the Empresa, there weren’t the normal returns because it was necessary for resources to go into defense.

They asked if the companeros [comrades] would understand that the only reason they were working for $3.00 a week was that the defense situation was soaking up all the foreign exchange from the sale of the cotton.

This became significant for us, sitting there as North Americans. We were rather uncomfortable in the midst of such a discussion about how our country forced people to suffer and sacrifice.

At this point Salinas, who was an aggressive advocate of the people’s demands, began to explain to them that until the year was over there wasn’t anything that could be done. There was no money being held back, no slack.

I might mention here that of the fifty families living on this UPE, one young man drafted into the militia for a six­ month tour of duty had been killed in a contra ambush that week.

After a lot of heated comment from the onlookers, the administrators agreed, after passing a handful of the rice between them, that it was indeed too stony to expect the cooks to clean it. It should have been done in the processing plant. They agreed to try to make sure this was done. They also agreed that the process of gleaning the cotton after the mechanical reaper would be abandoned, since there were thousands of acres of cotton that would rot unless it was picked. This all took about three hours. It was about 11:30 when the meeting was adjourned and it was agreed that work would resume in the morning.

ATC: There are some points of special interest. First, was there any atmosphere of intimidation or threats against the strikers?

JI: None at all-although the three administrators seemed a little put out that there was a walkout. It was a wildcat. It hadn’t gone through the ATC region #2 headquarters, and it had caught the administration off guard. They were a little agitated when they arrived at the meeting hall, not quite knowing what would hap­ pen. But there was no kind of threat.

ATC: Can you tell us more about the grievances and what happened afterward? JJ: Well, this wasn’t the first time people had been asked to glean. It was the first time they had walked out over it.

As for the wages and the quality of the rice, whether there would be any improvements remained to be seen. People knew there was scarcity and seemed resigned that there would be no wage in­ crease for now.

Something else happened during the meeting: the administrators asked what would the companeros think of a production quota increase from 150 to 175 pounds. That was shouted down so vigorously that it was never brought up again.

ATC: Salinas, the foreman, steward and rank-and-file leader-was he a member of the FSLN?

JI: I don’t know. I don’t think he was.

He was not only a local steward for the UPE, but an ATC union organizer. In this task he cooperated with the woman who was the responsible for the UPE, a 65-year-old Indian woman named Cristina Rodriguez. She had lost a daughter who was a Sandinista fighter killed by Somoza’s National Guard. Cristina was also the AMNLAE [women’s federation] organizer. She and Salinas were the ATC organizers.

Salinas was elected by the workers to be their steward. He didn’t call the strike. It was spontaneous, and he sided with the workers, not the administration. Obviously the tension had been building up.

ATC: As far as you could tell, what was the sentiment toward the FSLN, the war and the general situation
JJ: Sentiment supporting the FSLN seemed to be strong, judging from the slogans on the barn buildings. But this was a very isolated rural location; formal FSLN organizing was not in evidence on this farm.

Three days before we arrived, some five kilometers down the road toward Chinandega, a truck was rocketed and five Nicaraguan women, and a Swiss worker who was driving the truck, were killed. They were mothers going to the front to visit their sons. It wasn’t the war zone, but that didn’t mean it was immune.

One reason wages were so low and material items so scarce at the UPE canteen was that it wasn’t a high priority for consumer goods. Those were prioritized for the war zone.

A lot of kids were wearing oversized army fatigue jackets, and I asked why. The older guy who stood guard at night told me that for a six-month tour of duty in the mountains, a soldier was issued a new set of fatigues every two months. The campesinos would wear one set the whole time and save the two spares for their families, even thought it was well-known that after a week in the mountains your fatigues would be ruined.

That’s a glimpse of life in rural Nicaragua.

January-February 1987, ATC 7

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