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Nicaraguan Maquila Workers Victorious in Union Struggle

Campaign for Labor Rights, Action Alerts, 8 August 1998

NOTE: The following alert is based on an article from the Witness for Peace Spring 1997 Newsletter. It is important to publicize victories as well as violations. In recent weeks, we have seen important victories in both Guatemala and Nicaragua. In Guatemala, workers belonging to the STECAMOSA union succeeded in getting the Phillips-Van Heusen clothing company to the bargaining table. Their contract will be the first union contract in the entire 70,000-worker maquiladora sector in Guatemala. The Fortex victory also signals the possibility of change for the entire maquiladora sector of Nicaragua - - a sector which is relatively small with only 10,000 workers but growing rapidly. In both of these victories, North American solidarity played a crucial role in supporting the courageous and determined struggle of Central American workers. To find out how you can participate in other campaigns to win justice for workers, see the contact information at the end of this alert.

Maquila workers in Nicaragua's Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone have scored a major victory. For the first time since the Nicaraguan government re-opened the Free Trade Zone in 1991, maquila workers have formed a union and successfully negotiated a collective bargaining agreement. Free Trade Zone factories had been nationalized by the revolutionary Sandinista government shortly after taking power in 1979 but they were re-privatized and the zone was expanded by the Chamorro government which was elected in 1990.

The victorious workers assemble clothing in the Taiwanese-owned Fortex maquila for sale in US stores. They overcame enormous obstacles in their struggle to organize themselves and stand up for their rights. What once seemed nearly impossible is now a reality. "After so much struggle, we finally got what we were after. It's a great success, a victory," said Xiomara Valerio, General Secretary of the union.

Workers in Fortex began their efforts to form a union three years ago, as a response to the injustices and exploitation they saw on a daily basis in their workplace. In a factory with frequent verbal abuse from supervisors, forced overtime, and wages sometimes as low as 95 cents a day, workers realized their only hope was to organize a union and stand up to management.

However, there were great risks involved in deciding to form a union. In the Free Trade Zone. Workers who are discovered trying to organize are often fired. And in a country with a combined unemployment and underemployment rate of 55%, people with jobs are reluctant to jeopardize them. Because of these challenges, some workers began to organize themselves in secret, looking forward to the day they would have enough support to file the official papers and request government recognition as a union.

That day finally came on August 16, 1996, as 55 workers held an assembly and elected the leadership of the union. The ten chosen leaders, all of them women, courageously came forward and agreed to sign their names to the papers that would be presented to the Ministry of Labor. One of the workers, Aristea Salmeron recalls her decision to step forward and accept a position as a union leader. "I started going around asking people 'Do you want a union here?' They asked me, 'Do you have the courage for that?' I said to them, 'If you support me, I have the courage.'"

With their papers complete, the union was ready to request official recognition from the Ministry of Labor. Pedro Ortega, a labor organizer with the Federation of Garment, Shoe and Textile Workers, filed the papers in August of 1996. The Ministry, however, engaged in delaying tactics to avoid recognizing the union. In October, Ortega and four workers from the Free Trade Zone traveled to the US on a Witness for Peace Speakers Tour to raise awareness about maquila issues. According to Ortega, when officials in the Nicaraguan government learned that he had made this trip, they realized how much international support the union could count on. Soon after Ortega's return, an inspector from the Ministry arranged a meeting with him and told him the rights of workers to organize in Fortex would be guaranteed.

Though this concession helped the organizers by protecting their jobs, the Ministry still refused to grant the union the official recognition they were seeking. In December, frustrated with the Ministry's refusal to cooperate, the workers called on international solidarity to organize a fax campaign to support them in their efforts. Hundreds of faxes from concerned international supporters mobilized by Witness for Peace and the Latin America Emergency Response Network arrived at the Ministry of Labor office. Soon after that, recognition was granted.

While this was an important step, an even bigger challenge remained. The union had to persuade the management of Fortex to engage in the collective bargaining process and sign a contract. Up to this point, the management had been unaware of the existence of the union. On January 9th, the Ministry of Labor notified Fortex management that collective bargaining would begin, and the workers presented management with a list of negotiating points. By doing so, the workers exposed themselves to an even bigger risk than those they had faced before. Three of the ten union leaders felt so intimidated that they could not go on, and resigned from their positions for fear of being fired. Seven of the workers remained. Meanwhile, the leaders had collected the signatures of 200 more workers who said they supported the contract.

The workers' requests were modest: that Fortex management comply with local labor laws and occupational health and safety standards; that a grievance procedure be established; that the workers have a dining area where they can sit down with a roof over their heads during their lunch break; that employees who work overtime receive a 60 cent dinner allowance; and that management recognize the union as the representative organization of the workers. Management agreed to all of the negotiating points with one major exception. They refused to recognize the union as the representative organization of the workers. They requested that the union change its name to a "workers' commission."

By refusing to agree to this one point, the management in effect refused all of them. As a workers' commission, the employees would have no legal recourse in the event that management were to renege on the contract. The union leaders did not fall for management's ploy. They knew from past experience that a commission lacked the legal backing a union would have. Xiomara Valerio says, "The constitution gives us the right to form a union. We had a commission before but we weren't listened to by the Ministry of Labor, because officials said that a commission was internal to the company."

The union leaders resolved to continue to struggle until management gave in. Then the Ministry of Labor, despite its official role as neutral facilitator of the negotiations, took management's side and tried to convince the union to change its name. The union leaders realized at this point that they had to take the struggle one step further. Pedro Ortega requested that a judge be appointed to rule on the legality of a strike, and the union asked international solidarity for a second fax campaign.

On March 17, the union went public with its threat to strike, and union leaders Xiomara Valerio and Mercedes Sovalbarro, accompanied by Pedro Ortega, testified before the National Assembly. They described Fortex's poor working conditions in an effort to gain support for their cause, and announced that they would have to resort to a strike unless management gave in. Their protests made front page news the next day. Meanwhile, faxes mobilized by Witness for Peace and the Latin America Emergency Response Network again poured in to the office of the Ministry of Labor and also to the office of the Executive Secretary of Free Trade Zones. The faxes requested that the Ministry help resolve the dispute in order to prevent a strike.

By March 20th the combined pressure of the organized workers and of international solidarity compelled management to sign the contract. The workers finally achieved their goal. According to Pedro Ortega "International solidarity played a determining role, especially the people who sent faxes from the US. I'd like to thank all of those people, because without their valuable support, we wouldn't have accomplished anything."

With one union in the Free Trade Zone, workers hope that more will come. "The most important achievement," said Pedro Ortega, "is that this opens the doors for the rest of the workers from other factories to organize and to overcome their fears. People used to say that if you formed a union [in the Free Trade Zone] the factory would abandon the country within 72 hours, and now we see that's not true. This is a victory for the workers of Nicaragua and all of Central America."

President Arnoldo Alemn has announced that the Nicaraguan government plans to create 3,000 new maquila jobs in 1997 alone. To attract investment, Nicaragua will have to compete with other poor countries of Central America and the Caribbean by providing the low wage environment and tax breaks that international investors demand. The country that wins the contest loses the ability to provide its citizens with job opportunities where their rights are respected.

The next challenge is about to begin. In the Taiwanese-owned Nien Hsing maquila, ten workers were fired recently after filing the forms that designated them as the leaders of a union. In order to get them reinstated and allow them the freedom to organize, international supporters need to be ready to assist them in their struggle. The importance of international solidarity in helping workers organize and stand up for their rights cannot be overestimated. According to Sovalbarro, "The help of all the people and organizations that support us, both in Nicaragua and abroad, gives us strength to continue to push forward and overcome any obstacle that we encounter."

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