Managua In our final day of meetings we got a sense of the growing power of organized labor in Nicaragua and the continued, and perhaps increasing, isolation of the population along the Atlantic Coast, as we met Jose Angel Bermudez, the general secretary of the FNT, the Federation Nacional Trabajadores and Jennipher Ellis, a young organizer for an interesting coalition of groups based around Bluefields in the far east of the country.
Bermudez is the kind of labor leader that it is almost impossible not to respect. He founded the union of informal workers and then later was a key founder of the FNT, the AFL-CIO of Nicaragua, and has presided over its growth to over 200,000 members and a 15% density and what he claimed is the largest federation in Central America. He isn’t finished and wants to see 500,000 members in the federation. The constitution of Nicaragua gives him a good shot at these goals since now the right to organize and the right to strike are both enshrined there and the union is given what he calls “a seat at the table” at almost all levels of commerce and government. He enjoyed telling us that the IMF in a report said that the business climate was bad in Nicaragua because labor unions were too strong. When he saw their report, he had it copied and circulated throughout their member unions.
A union can be formed and engage in bargaining with a company once it has 20 members, so this is a multi-union rather than exclusive representation system. Every union in a workplace is around the table during bargaining with the company, and the government is there in a tripartite system, he says as a mediator. Strikes have dropped from almost 500 during the 16 years when the Sandinistas were out of power to only 3 in the last 7 years under Ortega. Unions are allowed to observe ministerial meetings of the government and are consulted on business development. As expected, the FNT is a huge supporter of the proposed grand canal joining the oceans because of the massive employment promised by both the construction and the attendant development. At the same time consistent with his experience as an organizer, he sees the largest growth in the FNT’s future ability to organize agricultural workers and other workers where they are still weaker. Unions affiliated with the FNT hold 80% of the union membership in Nicaragua.
In the way that FNT is at the table everywhere, Jennipher Ellis after a 24 hour bus ride from her Bluff community around Bluefields, a 40,000 population municipality on the Atlantic Coast, told us her very multi-cultural, diverse, and environmentally rich area is isolated and ignored. When asked about the impact of many of the hiring quotas and new laws, her response was largely that they hadn’t “reached” Bluefields. Jobs were scare. Many of the 50 members of her 5-year old organization were young, educated professionals, virtually all of whom were unemployed. Bluefields is a port city and has been since it was a favored haven of pirates centuries ago. Its beauty attracts cruise ships and tourism from around the world and its port is a magnet for oil tankers and exploration rigs and the workers looking for shore leave and the issues associated with any port of call. Just to be heard would be a revolution of sorts on the Atlantic Coast, and the notion of a seat at the table seemed laughable to her.
The canal plans were unsettling to them, partly because they were skeptical of the benefits and fearful of the impacts both in terms of the environment and land acquisition. She was confident even with the southern exit of the canal considerably below Bluefields that the beauty of their area would sustain it as it had in the past, but she was doubtful the benefits would expand throughout the autonomous Atlantic.
When I asked what might happen if they demanded jobs and tried to protect the land? Sister Ellis responded that they would finally see “what autonomy really means” for their department. ACORN promised to follow up with her and support development of their organization to their 500 members’ goal through an affiliation and assistance on their campaigns as well.
In the final meeting of this year’s Organizing Forum international dialogue we were all intrigued whether there was a way to help see the promises of the government on paper brought in reality to all of the population. Bluefields seemed like a good test of that question.