Struggling for Survival: Workers in Revolutionary Nicaragua

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Gary Ruchwarger

TEN YEARS AFTER the revolution, the revolutionary workers’ movement in Nicaragua faces deep economic difficulties. All the government attempts to manage an economy burdened by the ravaging effects of the contra war, workers’ social wage, as well as their real incomes, are under siege by inflationary forces.

Beginning in February 1988, the Sandinista government undertook a series of economic reforms designed to control inflation and protect workers. In June of that year, Daniel Ortega announced new free-market policies including a 30% increase and a more flexible national salary system that allowed companies to base their wage policies on their financial situation.

What have these measures meant for Nicaragua’s working class? The experience of workers on one state tobacco farm provides some of the answers.

The Working Class on the State Farm

Located outside Esteli, the Oscar Turcios Chavarira farm is Nicaragua’s largest tobacco enterprise. Previously owned by Anastasio Somoza and managed by anti-Castro Cuban exiles in the 1960s and ’70s, the farm was nationalized by the Sandinista government just after the fall of the dictatorship.

The farm employs an average of 1,150 year-round workers, 600 of whom are women. During the peak of the harvest, some 2,800 workers, including 900 women and 1,150 children are employed. Labor shortages require that children harvest most of the tobacco. At harvest peak, the majority of manual workers load tobacco onto trailers, thread tobacco leaves onto curing poles and classify cured tobacco.

The bulk of the farm’s employees are field workers engaged in the planting, cultivating and harvesting of vegetables and tobacco. In addition, some 300 work in one or another tobacco processing job, although many workers do both field work and processing. Most of the women in the tobacco-processing facility spend a month or more cultivating com and beans and three months passing or threading tobacco in the curing sheds. Once the tobacco has been prepared for curing, the women return to their processing jobs.

The rest of the labor force includes the tractor and truck drivers and the mechanics who maintain vehicles, who receive higher wages than field workers and tobacco processors, and more than 200 workers performing administrative and service tasks-norm checkers, clerks, security guards, cooks, janitors, secretaries, cashiers, purchasing agents.

The most frequent complaint made by enterprise workers concerns the purchasing power of their wages. “No ajusto con lo que guno” (“I can’t cover my needs with what I earn”) is uttered by scores of workers every pay day. Originally, workers purchased most of their basic goods from enterprise commissaries. The cost was then subtracted from their biweekly wage payments. In most cases, these deductions absorbed the workers’ entire monthly earnings.

Since June 1988, workers have had to pay cash for all commissary goods. Since they make their purchases at the beginning of the month, most workers borrow money from relatives and friends, promising to pay back the money on payday.

Four commissaries at Oscar Turcios sell workers a fixed amount of products according to the number of dependents they claim on their purchasing card. The February 1988 per capita was five pounds of com, five pounds of beans, two pounds of rice, four pounds of sugar, one-quarter liter of cooking oil, one-half bar of laundry soap, two bags of laundry detergent, and a half­ bar of dish soap.

Because of the scarcity and expense of the other items available at the commissary, both workers and management tend to speak of these eight items as lo basico” (“the basic”) products. But as of various points during the deepening economic crisis, the Rural Workers Assocation (ATC) has struggled to include other items such as toilet paper, deodorant and sanitary napkins, as essential items that the enterprise should provide in modest amounts at subsidized prices.

Most of the workers at Oscar Turcios are paid according to a national wage scale that sets basic pay rates tied to output norms. Workers can earn incentive bonuses for exceeding the norms. In February 1988, the entire cost of the commissary products-for a worker and five independents-stood at 675 cordobas, 481 cordobas for the basic eight and 194 cordobas for just two units of each of the six complementary products. At that time workers on the norm system were earning between 690 and 900 cordobas a month in base wages, enough to buy the basic eight but not such essential items as eggs, tortillas, coffee, firewood or pasteurized milk.

By July 1988 the entire cost of the fourteen commissary products had risen to 1,637 cordobas for the basics and two units each of the six complementary products. Meanwhile 30% wage increases in June 1988 had raised basic wages only to between 1,316 and 1,794 cordobas a month. Thus, many workers could no longer buy all the commissary products.

What about manual workers who surpassed their job norms? For instance, a woman who removes the main stems from cured tobacco leaves surpassed her norm by 26% in August 1988, earning 377 cordobas in incentives. In July 1988, this amount could buy only three extra toothpaste tubes, or two extra boxes of sanitary napkins, or five rolls of toilet paper. Although in July workers on the norm system received 50%-60% subsidies on goods purchased at the commissary, the norm-based incentive system still failed to add much to workers’ wages.

Reclassifications and Incentives

The ATC has negotiated a number of wage increases by reclassifying workers’ job categories. In May 1988, with the prices of basic goods again rising steeply, the union negotiated a reclassification for all enterprise employees. The reclassifications allowed manual workers to keep pace with the commissary price hikes in complementary goods.

All manual workers in normed tasks, for instance, shifted from level five in the wage scale to level eight. Some skilled workers, such as tobacco curers, fumigators and mechanics, enjoyed a four-level jump in the wage scale, while tractor drivers skipped five levels. These reclassifications, along with an extremely modest government-decreed 30% wage increase, allowed workers to purchase the basic eight items in the commissary.

During the month that followed the reclassification, prices of most goods sold at the commissaries surged significantly higher. General service employees were the first group of workers to demand more dramatic reclassifications. After holding an assembly chaired by the service department’s union local, the workers drafted an elaborate proposal calling for reclassification of thirteen job categories. The proposal, directed to the enterprise director, argued that the June reclassification “was not very objective in the service area because none of its employees, not even the department director, participated in its elaboration.”

The service workers went on to request reclassification of four to five levels for cooks, gardeners, security guards, messengers, janitors, carpenters, commissary clerks, construction and security guard supervisors.

The service workers’ request for a further reclassification included the following appeal:

“At the present time we are seriously affected by the price rise in the basic goods package and in other daily requirements, such as firewood and salt, that are not supplied in the commissary. We therefore appeal to you that the commissary continue to guarantee the sale of deodorant, toothpaste, toilet paper, spoons, sanitary napkins, bath soap, detergent, milk, clothes and shoes. Without the availability of these goods in the commissary we will continue to fall into the hands of the black market, thereby promoting inflation and speculation.”

Unfortunately, fewer complementary goods are now sold at the commissaries. The commissaries purchase goods at wholesale prices from the Ministry of Domestic Commerce, and sell them at prices one-half to four-fifths below retail outlets. Steep price increases in many products forced the commissaries to stop carrying them. While in August 1987 twenty-one different goods were available in the commissaries, by August 1988 the commissary offered only fifteen different products.

Since com and beans are grown on the state farm, their prices remain considerably lower than on the free market, and the other basic and complementary items are still purchased at wholesale and resold at cost Still, the gap between commissary and retail prices has diminished sharply since the February 1988 reforms, mainly due to the ending of government subsidies on complementary items.

To make up for its members’ steady loss in monetary income, the Rural Workers Association has vigorously pressed for increased social benefits. In addition to the commissaries, which represent the heart of the social-benefit system at Oscar Turcios, the union has bargained for free food at worksite canteens, workers’ production collectives, occupational health and safety measures, medical attention and medicines, free transportation to and from work and housing projects.

A Free Lunch

During the first eight years of the revolutionary process, workers who had no canteens at their work centers were paid a per diem to help them cover their lunch costs. This per diem was a benefit that workers won through the ATC’s efforts shortly after the revolutionary triumph. Nevertheless, the per diem never matched the actual costs of a lunch, and workers pressed management to build more canteens and provide free food to all workers. This demand received the backing of the women’s secretariat at the ATC’s regional office. In February 1987, the secretariat announced that Oscar Turcios’ management had agreed to build eight new canteens on those production units that lacked cafeterias. Moreover, management pledged to provide lunch-at no-cost-at all the canteens on the state farm. By the end of the year management had fulfilled its commitment: eight new canteens had been built, giving Oscar Turcios a total of fourteen canteens serving both permanent and temporary employees.

Although the provision of free food at least once a day is an obvious benefit to all workers, women workers have gained the most from this measure. Many single mothers have told me that the availability of lunch means they no longer have to rise at 4:30 to prepare bag lunches for themselves and their children who also work at the farm. And women who live far from their workplaces and have no time to prepare breakfast in the morning receive the further benefit of free breakfasts at the canteens during the height of the harvest season. Many women workers hail free food at their workplace as the most significant workers’ gain of the last two years.

Workers’ Production Collectives

Every year the ATC negotiates an agreement with the state farm guaranteeing workers the right to receive part of the bean and corn crops grown on enterprise land. Magda Espinosa, a long-time Oscar Turcios worker, explains how this helped her:

“This past year my work group planted two manzanas of beans. We sold 30% of the harvest to the enterprise. Half of the rest of my share I sold on the free market earning the equivalent of two months’ wages. I kept the remainder of the beans for my family. The enterprise provides us with irrigation equipment and fertilizers and we do the planting, weeding and harvesting. It’s a good deal for us during the dead season – we keep working on the farm but also have time to cultivate our own crops.”

In 1988 the ATC negotiated a different form of sharing the crop. On most production units workers agreed to deliver to the state farm the first sixteen quintals of beans yielded per manzana and the first twenty-five quintals of com per manzana. All yields above these were kept by the workers. By the end of the harvest-in late August-workers had surpassed the quotas, sharing among themselves a total of twenty-three manzanas’ worth of com and twenty-one worth of beans.

The state farm sold about half its share of the harvest, keeping the other half for distribution to workers’ canteens and for sale at workers’ commissaries. Thus this social benefit provides tangible goods to participating workers while encouraging adequate basic grain supplies at canteens and commissaries for the entire work force. The production collectives also play a role in increasing the basic grain production in the country.

Health and Safety

The leading hazards in tobacco production at Oscar Turcios stem from pesticides and tobacco dust. Both fumigators and tobacco curers administer pesticides and are subject to the risks involved in handling these chemicals. Carelessness can also harm other workers.

In June 1988, for example, seven workers suffered pesticide poisoning after drinking water that had been used to clean fumigation equipment. Fortunately, their symptoms–dizziness, sweats, trembling and nausea – were only temporary. However, fumigators and tobacco curers, whose jobs require long-term exposure to pesticides, risk more serious health problems, including diseases affecting the nervous system and cancer.

Men and women who handle cured tobacco in the pre-industrial facilities constantly inhale tobacco dust. Many suffer frequent headaches and respiratory problems. Prolonged inhalation of tobacco dust can lead to brown lung. During the 1985-88 period three women at the Jose Ortiz processing facility retired on disability as a result of contracting this disease.

Since 1985 the ATC, working with the enterprise’s health and safety department, has implemented a series of measures to address the health hazards inherent in tobacco production. Before each planting season, the health and safety technician conducts seminars for fumigators, tobacco curers and warehouse workers, explaining the correct handling of both pesticide containers and fumigation equipment.

Furthermore, all workers who handle pesticides are given blood tests every two months to determine the level of pesticides in their bodies. Workers whose blood tests show a high level of pesticides are immediately offered jobs that involve no further chemical exposure. At the same time, the health and safety department has acquired masks for all workers who classify tobacco in the pre-industrial facilities. Unfortunately, very few workers have chosen to wear these masks, complaining that it aggravates their headaches.

The health and safety department has also fought for measures limiting the amount of time that certain workers spend in curing rooms where the air is the most difficult to breathe. During1986 and 1987 the enterprise submitted a number of formal requests to the Ministry of Labor asking for permission to allow these workers to work only four hours a day in curing rooms and four hours a day in another location. But the ministry consistently denied this request. Consequently, in October 1987, the enterprise informed the ministry that they were reducing these workers’ workday to six hours due to their adverse working conditions.

Since 1986 the health and safety department has arranged regular medical check-ups for enterprise employees. These check-ups are available at a medical post located behind the state farm’s main pre-industrial facility. The enterprise also maintains a supply of medicines and first-aid kits at each production unit.

In addition to consultations provided by a general practitioner, eight to ten medical specialists visit the enterprise once a month to examine 100-150 workers. Each month a different group receives these consultations. When necessary, the specialists refer workers suffering from chronic problems to doctors in health centers and hospitals in the area. In such cases the state farm covers the worker’s medical expenses.


The ATC is also fighting for low-cost housing to help attract new workers to the state farm and reward veteran workers and single mothers with many children. In 1986 the ATC signed an agreement with the National Construction Union of Finland to build a fifty-unit housing project at Isidrillo, a village located near four of Oscar Turcios’ production units.

Upon their arrival in November of that year, the Finns insisted on working with Nicaraguan workers because, as brigade leader Jukka Numminen explained, “We wanted to exchange experiences and teach them new work methods.” Together they completed the houses in record time and went on to build ten more.

Encouraged by its success, the union began a second stage of the project in May 1987. A year later, they had completed the outbuildings and were busy installing the showers, toilets, laundry tubs, plumbing and drainage ditches. In addition to the houses, the Isidrillo project will include an elementary school and childcare center.

The ATC is promoting another community housing project at the Arenal production unit In 1984 Arenal’s workers began to press management to fund new housing in order to stabilize and augment their unit’s labor force. In1986 workers borrowed money from management to build four houses and in 1987 solidarity groups in the United States began a fundraising campaign to support the construction of eight more houses.

On January 3, 1988, some eighty contras attacked both Arenal and the German Pomares agricultural cooperative, located just above the Arenal housing project. In the aftermath of the attack the cooperative members asked to be relocated at the Arenal housing site. The ATC accepted their request and the farmers began building four houses in February. The project thus became a joint farm­ worker-campesino community, and a new governing council made up of workers and farmers renamed the project after a Sandinista martyr Jose Benito Jiminez.

The Jiminez community project also includes’ the construction of a three-unit elementary school that will serve 150 students. The first unit was inaugurated in March 1988, and the next two units will open in 1989.

The ATC has also solicited funds for two more aspects of the project-a bridge and a childcare center. A river that separates the community from the Pan American highway is too deep for vehicles to cross during much of the rainy season. The ATC would like to construct a durable concrete bridge across the river. The childcare center would relieve the domestic burden of many of the mothers who work at Arenal and the three adjacent state farm units.

Both the Isidrillo and Jiminez community projects have faced a myriad of problems. The most crucial difficulty centers on financing the construction costs. Since the money is donated in dollars, the sharp fluctuations in exchange rates during 1987-1988 have sometimes adversely affected the purchasing power of the donations.

For example, from February until June1988, the dollar was drastically undervalued. During this period the government converted a large sum of the dollars donated by the Finns into cordobas. A sudden currency change devalued the cordobas and the donation could no longer cover the cost of building a water tank for the project. Consequently, in June, the state farm assumed 80% of the construction costs for the water tank.

At the same time, a 50% loss in the value of dollars designated to buy equipment and furniture for the project’s childcare center has postponed the inauguration date of that facility. And at the Jiminez community, the ATC’s reliance on foreign donations has caused intermittent delays in implementing the project.

Workers at the state farm, like all Nicaraguan workers, regard these social benefits as an integral part of the gains they have won since the triumph of the revolution. Nevertheless, workers’ “social wage” as well as their real incomes is under siege by inflationary forces. The war is by far the principal cause of the stampeding inflation. Every year its ravaging effects consume the equivalent of 20% of the gross domestic product. Military spending has absorbed 62% of the fiscal budget, leaving 24% for health and education and only14% to run the economy.

Given these statistics it is quite remarkable that the Sandinista government has been able to maintain the gross domestic budget at historic levels of $2.5 billion. The Nicaraguan working class must be given most of the credit for this accomplishment.

According to the lnstituto Historico Centroamericano, four other elements in addition to the war, have fueled the inflationary process:

(1) The fiscal deficit produced not only by the war but by enormous foreign exchange losses and multiple exchange rates; (2) the imbalance in wages and prices that contributed to the growth of a larger informal speculative sector; (3) The long-term investment program, which monopolizes enormous quantities of resources without adding immediately to the supply of goods, in a fragile economy where the scarcity of every kind of input increases prices in all sectors; (4) The public expectation that inflation will continue – what economists call “inertial inflation.” (“Economic Reform: Taking It to the Streets,” Envio 82, April 1988, 16-17)

Although many of the economic reforms adopted during1988 were designed to reduce the effects of these inflationary forces, the new economic package will not resolve the inflation problem. Meanwhile, workers will continue to struggle for an improvement in the relationship of wages to prices, recognizing that under a survival economy only a small part of their legitimate demands can be met.

Shortly after the announcement of the February 1988 reforms, 500 representatives from the Sandinista mass organizations signed a document entitled “Pronouncement of the Fundamental Forces of the Revolution: Defense and the Economy Are a Single Concept for Survival.” That document reflects the essential reality of the current situation: the most fundamental revolutionary social forces are focusing their efforts not only on the military-political battlefront, but also on a new mobilization that integrates defense and the economy. The document optimistically asserts:

“The concentration of large economic problems does not frighten us; we are certain that we can resolve them no matter how tense the situation becomes …. In today’s situation, without renouncing what is possible, the economic demands of workers are deferred, and the economy becomes survival lo fulfill the tasks of military defense, because military and economic defense are one single concept.”

Thus after almost ten years of carrying forward the revolutionary process, the revolutionary workers’ movement in Nicaragua continues to face the twin bur­ dens of defense and production. Although the defense burden has eased somewhat with the decline in contra activity, the demands of raising production require Herculean efforts on the part of tens of thousands of urban and rural workers. While drawing on these workers’ immense capacity for struggle and sacrifice, the revolutionary government must strive to meet their basic demands while fostering more worker participation in all aspects of economic decision-making.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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