Workers of the world, unite…with the government and big business, so we can all live pretty and clean!
That message might sound more like Groucho Marx than Karl Marx, but it’s the basic logic behind the new rallying cry of Sandinista labor unions, which increasingly put the interests of party before all else. Once frothing watchdogs that howled at the abuses of government and the private sector, Sandinista-affiliated labor unions now behave more like lapdogs that pant at the feet of the president and his wife.
Even on International Workers’ Day, a calendar event dedicated to addressing labor concerns and demanding better treatment for workers, the National Workers’ Front (FNT)—the Sandinistas’ largest union—refuses to be relevant. Placated by political power, the FNT did not march on May Day. Indeed, as FNT president and perpetual Sandinista lawmaker Gustavo Porras showed on Tuesday night, the once fierce union has been relegated to the sad role of echo chamber for administration rhetoric.
“There was a time when we talked about the methods of struggle for the labor union movement and the struggle in the streets, (but) the method of revolutionary struggle for working class today is to increase employment, efficiency and productivity,” Porras wheedled during a May Day-eve political rally with the president and first lady.
“The business sector needs to be clear about this—we, the workers, with our strategy for these new times, are going to guarantee stability; we are going to guarantee tranquility and security,” Porras said.
Needless to say, the union leader’s tepid speech didn’t exactly whip the crowd into a revolutionary tizzy.
Labor union laryngitis
In the dark days of Nicaragua’s neoliberal past, International Workers’ Day was an opportunity for union bosses to bark loudly about the country’s horrid labor conditions, miserly salaries, frayed social safety net, and corrupt government officials who snuggled up to corporate fat cats. In Nicaragua, there has always been plenty to gripe about, and May 1 was a good opportunity to march on Managua with fists in air and mortars belching fiery protest in the skies.
But now it’s a new day in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas are in power and their party’s unions couldn’t be more pleased with the way things are going. Sandinista union leaders now defend the administration’s efforts to create jobs and court investment from transnational companies. As the former wildcats turn to pussycats, May 1 has become an official celebration of all the advances the Ortega government has achieved.
And according to the government, there’s plenty to purr about. The tripartite agreement between labor, government and big business has helped improve the business climate, resulted in a record number of new factory jobs and led to impressive gains in foreign direct investment and exports. The government reports that Nicaragua’s unemployment level has fallen to 5.1% —about half of Costa Rica’s unemployment level and well below that of the United States, which might lead one to believe that ticos and gringos will probably start migrating to Nicaragua soon to look for work.
Independent economists scoff at those numbers; they claim the real unemployment rate is closer to 12%, and that underemployment rate (those who work less than 8 hours a day and earn less than the minimum wage) tips the scales around 52%. Economist Néstor Avendaño says the government needs to check the methodology it uses for coming up with its employment statistics, which he says are based more on wishful thinking than reality.
Polls also suggest voters aren’t entirely satisfied with the job situation in Nicaragua. A recent M&R Consultants poll suggests that more than 67% of the population would be willing to protest for more jobs and better quality employment. Of all the causes that Nicaraguans would be willing to take to the streets, employment is No. 1 on the list, according to the M&R survey released last week. Meanwhile, economic watchdog group FUNIDES (the Nicaraguan Foundation of Economic and Social Development) says Nicaraguan salaries have remained stagnant for years, even as the cost of living continues to climb.
Yet even on May Day, Sandinista unions see no reason to protest like they did in the past. Instead,Porras says Nicaraguan workers need to focus their efforts on cooperating with the government and big business to help fight poverty.
“No worker has power when they are living in poverty,” the Sandinista union boss said.
Porras also gave an obligatory nod to first lady Rosario Murillo by mentioning the importance of her latest national campaign, “Live Clean, Live Pretty, Live Healthy, Live Well, Live Safe.” The campaign isn’t just about picking up trash on the street, Porras said.
“This is a strategy for our struggle for self-esteem, for pride in being Nicaragua, for pride in coexisting well with one another, getting along with each other…and it’s also about fighting garbage,” Porras said.
Independent unions say that’s all part of the party’s indoctrination. The independent labor groups marched separately on Wednesday, arguing that there is nothing to celebrate in Nicaragua on International Workers’ Day.
According to Alvaro Leiva, of the Democratic Federation of Public Sector Workers (Fedetrasep), more than 23,400 state workers—ore 20% of all public employees in Nicaragua— have “been fired without just cause” since the Sandinistas returned to power in 2007. In addition, 156 non-Sandinista labor unions have been “decapitated” for “not sharing the same ideology as the ruling party,” Leiva says.