Are There Unions in Cuba? / Dimas Castellanos
“Without a strong union there will be no economy,” said Salvador Valdes Mesa, vice president of the Council of State and member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) in the recently concluded plenary session of the National Union of Sugar Workers. An approach which clearly expresses the vision of unions as instruments of the State and not as an association to defend the interests of workers.
Valdes Mesa, replaced the previous week as general secretary of the Workers Central Union (CTC), in the last two decades was first secretary of the PCC of the municipality and of the province of Camagüey, secretary-general of the Agriculture and Forestry Labor Union, Minister of Labor and Social Security.
Upon his departure from office of the head of the labor organization, Machado Ventura, second secretary of the PCC, explained that Salvador Valdes’s responsibility as vice president of the country did not allow him to also head the CTC, “but given the importance and significance of having a strong and consolidated labor movement,” he would continue performing this work from his new role. In his place, Carmen Rosa López Rodríguez, second secretary, will head the CTC until the XX Congress to be held in November.
The departure of Valdes Mesa from the CTC seems to be a part of the change in leadership of political and mass organizations. A few months ago, Carlos Rafael Miranda Martínez, Félix González Vigo, Yuniasky Crespo Vaquero and Teresa María Amarelle Boué, all replaced those who held those responsibilities in the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), the Young Communist Union (UJC) and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). The four joined the Council of State on the 24th of February, when Valdes Mesa was appointed vice president of that body. This shows the lack of autonomy of the labor movement in Cuba, without which it might not economy is strong, but it is certain that there will be no strong unions.
Rise and Fall of Cuban Unions
A brief look at the history of this movement reveals the process leading to its demise. Emerging in the second half of the nineteenth century during the process of replacing the slave labor with wage labor, the Cuban labor union movement first showed itself with strikes in the tobacco industry and the founding of the first workers’ newspapers; it was extended in during the colonial period with the Law of Associations in 1888; and it was supported in the rights and freedoms recognized in the Constitution of 1901, receiving its first fruits in the first decade of the twentieth century with the approval of holidays and time off for bereavement, the eight-hour day for government workers, the prohibition of payment in tokens and vouchers, and the closure of shops and workshops at six in the afternoon, among other steps.
Its growing strength was manifested in the formation of the National Confederation of Workers of Cuba in 1925, in the strike that toppled the regime of Gerardo Machado in 1933, in the labor legislation of 1938, which guaranteed workers’ rights such as minimum wage and death pensions which were guaranteed in the constitution; and in the birth of the CTC in 1939. All these prior events made the labor union movement an important factor of Cuban civil society.
However, the subordination of trade unions to political parties that began in 1925, worsened in the 40’s with the struggle between Authentic Party and the Communists for control of the labor movement; and again in 1952, when Eusebio Mujal, then general secretary of labor movement after ordering a general strike against the coup that year, ended up accepting an offer from Fulgencio Batista in exchange for preserving the rights acquired by the CTC.
Finally, in 1959 it received the biggest blow: the CTC was dissolved and replaced by the CTC-R, the Revolutionary Cuban Workers Union. In November of that year, at the Tenth Congress general secretary David Salvador Manso said that the workers had not gone to Congress to raise economic demands but to support the revolution. The XI Congress in November 1961 confirmed the loss of autonomy when delegates gave up almost all historical achievements of the labor movement: the nine days of sick leave, the additional Christmas bonus, the work week of 44 x 48 hours, the right to strike and the 9.09% wage increase, among others. From that moment, the CTC became an auxiliary to the government.
The State Interests
The independence of labor unions with respect to any non-union institution is a prerequisite vital to the defense of their own interests. With their functions under state control, they ceased to emanate from the needs and interests of workers, leading to their demise. This dependence was endorsed in the 1976 Constitution, which did not recognize the results achieved by the union movement since its inception.
A vivid expression of the loss of autonomy was the pronouncement of the CTC with regards to the measures taken by the Government to reduce the State workforce and substitute self-employment. In the document entitled “Pronouncement of the Cuban Workers Union” issued in September 2010, it is stated that “Our state could not and should not continue maintaining companies, productive entities, and services with inflated payrolls, and losses that weigh on the economy, are counterproductive, generate bad habits and distort workers’ conduct. It is necessary to increase the production and quality of services, reduce social spending and eliminate undeserved bonuses, excessive subsidies, study as a source of employment and early retirement. The success of the process that starts now will depend on the political assurance from the union movement and under the leadership of the Party we union leaders give our support for the actions to be undertaken … ”
The above text confirms the loss of independence of the CTC, without which the existence of real unionism is impossible. State interests are embedded in the document quoted, while nothing is said of the enormous problems of workers, firstly, of the inadequacy of current wages to provide a living.
23 April 2013