Managua The first day of the Organizers’ Forum dialogue in Nicaragua started inauspiciously, but somehow typically, with confusion. We happened to have arrived in Managua during the celebration of independence from Spain, which is a multi-day affair here with several days of holidays when business has pretty much ground to a halt. We were scheduled to meet the leadership of the Nicaraguan informal workers union and the time for the meeting kept bouncing around from the afternoon at their offices to early morning at our motel, to a call as we sat in the lobby waiting for them that they were waiting for us at their office. In other words a typical Organizers’ Forum adventure, but luckily there is no more adaptable group of fellow travelers in the world than a bunch of organizers, even if it’s herding cats all of the time!
What wasn’t typical was the dozen years of experience and success that Adrian Martinez, the Secretary General of the Confederacion de Trabajadores por Cuenta Propia, and several of his executive board and staff, shared with us. This was a union of informal workers or in a more literal translation, a union of the self-employed.
The vital statistics of the union were impressive. Founded a dozen years ago, the union now boasted 55,000 members throughout cities in the country, organized in 152 local chapters or branches that had been “recognized” by the government. 65% of their membership were younger workers between 16 and 40 years of age. The majority of their general secretaries of the locals are women. We were unable to determine the exact process of “recognition,” though it seem to be a registration system similar to India, though only one system nationally, rather than different thresholds and procedures in each state as we have found in India.
Secretary Martinez was also candid about the internal life of the union. Dues payments averaged about 20 to 30 cordobas per month, which is roughly $1 USD per month. They were lucky to have about two-thirds of their members actually pay dues in any month, so this continued to be a challenge, just as it is for us in India and elsewhere where dues collection is hand to hand. Each of their chapters collects dues themselves. The aristocracy of their union are the money changers, who they have gotten recognized to do money conversion almost competitive with banks, with official name tags they indicate their union affiliation. They pay dues of between $20 and $30 per month! The paid staff of the union, including the officers, like Martinez, number six for the country with four men and two women, and lot of volunteers driving the union.
Our delegation asked a number of very pointed questions of Martinez to try to understand the exact nature of the union’s relationship to the government. They insisted it was completely autonomous. They had several of their officers that had been elected as deputies in the parliament, and they had won appointment of one of their members on a governmental commission that sets the minimum wages in different occupations, but these were things that they had won as they grew stronger. They were supporters of the governing party and President Daniel Ortega, but represented their position as part of the coalition of his support rather than directly connected to the government or the party.
Their victories were along the lines of what I have described elsewhere as the Mumbai Model where they have managed over time to get various groups of informal workers included in the social security system though they are self-employed and set minimum wages for their workers, that they proudly insisted, as true unionists everywhere, were higher than the national minimum wage. A central victory of the union has been increased security for their members who, like informal workers everywhere, were routinely arrested and relocated by the police since they are often working in the street, sidewalks, and other public areas.
In this vein the union was founded in 2002 when a street vendor was accused of shooting the Managua police chief and 360 vendors were arrested and accused of the crime. Martinez had been trying to organize the union for some time before that without getting much traction, but upon the arrests went into action for weeks until he was able to get all of the vendors out of jail, converting them to members, proving the union could deliver, and launching what is now a fascinating union of more than 50,000 members of the 1.2 million informal workers employed throughout the country.
Martinez described the mission of their union as trying to change the world given the growth of the numbers of informal workers. Success in organizing and stabilizing such informal and precarious work, just might do that!