Managua, Nicaragua — Workers in the Pellaif Morales automotive parts store stand in a small knot in the hallway. ''There are only 30 or 40 members of the government-run union out of 500 workers,'' a laborer says. ''But each day they intrude on our lives a little more. We have to buy their magazines, go to their rallies, and watch who is listening when we speak.''
''There is no pressure to join the Sandinista union here,'' interrupts a bearded man, ''and journalists have no right to be in this plant without first checking in at the union office.''
The workers scatter, leaving me alone with the intruder, who turns out to be a member of the Sandinista Workers Committee (CST), the government union that the workers were disparaging. The union representative and three men escort me to an office in the plant.
The office has red and black Sandinista party flags and posters of such personages as Marx, Lenin, Angela Davis, Augusto Sandino, and a host of guerrillas who died in the revolution here. My press identification number is written down and I am interrogated about the intent of my visit.
Although it seems that pro-Sandinista unionists control this plant, Pellaif Morales is officially a private company - one of the businesses the government uses to support its claims that private enterprise is free to function in Nicaragua. The Sandinista government likes to point to such enterprises - which it claims make up 60 percent of the business community here - as proof of its support of economic and political pluralism.
In his small office, the administrator of Pellaif Morales, Guillermo Poty, says:
''Each day I have to ask myself who is running this company. The Sandinista union members here have a carte blanche to work as they please, speak back to their superiors, and attack the administration of the plant. They are laying the groundwork to wipe out all private enterprise and independent labor unions and turn everything over to the state party.''
Members of the pro-Sandinista union, who represent only 10 percent of the work force, according to plant employees, do not contradict the administrator's claims.
''We are in a process of transition,'' says Roger Hernandez, financial secretary of the union. ''We need to change the system where the profits go to the owner and give the money to the people. This company will not stay in private hands very long.''
The Sandinista party is rapidly becoming a monolithic organization. It appears to moving into almost every sector of life here. A series of newly formed organizations with loyalty to the state party are attempting to draw in everyone from preschool children to Roman Catholic priests. These organizations encourage constant vigilance and ask members to harass Nicaraguans who appear to criticize the Sandinista government.
The independent labor unions, along with all independent power groups here, are engaged in a bitter power struggle with the Sandinistas, according to opposition labor leaders. Those unions that have managed to retain their independence from the Sandinista CST labor confederation are under heavy pressure to affiliate with the party unions. This pressure includes threats against labor leaders, occasional arrest and detention of leaders and workers, constant surveillance, and the withholding of food rationing cards from recalcitrant workers.
Some independent unions that joined the Sandinista labor organization early on have attempted to withdraw, charging the government union serves party interests rather than interests of union members.
The longshoremen's union recently saw its effort to break away from the CST end with the arrest of its leaders.
Carlos Huembes, secretary general of the Confederation of Nicaraguan Workers (CNT), the largest independent labor confederation in the country, sees an accelerated effort by the Sandinistas to destroy his union's organization.
Huembes has been beaten by groups of pro-Sandinista crowds, is followed by state security agents, and has been publicly attacked as a traitor by government officials. In case he were ever to forget what the Sandinistas think of him, the words ''Always watched. Death to the traitors of the Sandinista National Liberation Front'' have been painted in bold letters on the walls of his house.
More than 200 CNT members have been detained or imprisoned by the Nicaraguan government in the past two years, according to Huembes.
For union leaders, businessmen, and opposition political leaders, such harassment has soured their hopes for a better society.
The Sandinistas enjoyed wide popular support when they toppled the corrupt government of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Huembes was one of many who fought against Somoza and saw the Sandinista victory as an opportunity to create a better social system.
''We began by working with the Sandinistas,'' he says, ''but it rapidly became clear that we were not wanted. The Sandinistas want total control of every facet of this society. They want to create a one-party state with unquestioned loyalty to their ideology.''