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The revolutionary past, present and future of trade unions in Cuba

Far from being 'banned', the Cuban trade union movement has fought the class struggle in an unbroken line before, during and after the revolution, explains BERNARD REGAN

JANUARY 2019 was the month that the Cuban people celebrated not only the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution but also the 80th anniversary of the CTC (Central de Trabajadores de Cuba/Cuban Workers Central) – Cuba’s equivalent to the TUC.

The Cuban trade union movement has a long and proud history stretching back into the 19th century.  The first union, the Association of Tobacco Workers in Havana, was established in 1866 when the island was under the control of Spanish imperialism. In the 20th century the trade unions played a critical role not only in defending workers’ rights but in struggling against dictatorships and repression.

One of the most dramatic actions by the Cuban working class was the general strike of 1933 against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, described as the “tropical Mussolini” by the Communist student leader Juan Antonio Mella. Machado, with the backing of the United States, had stayed in office after bending the rules to extend his term.  

Bus drivers, transport workers, teachers, tobacco and sugar plantation workers were all drawn into the action. The strike was attacked by the military but expanded with shop and garage workers, journalists, dock workers, railway workers and many more joining the general strike of August 5. The police fired on some of the demonstrators, killing 20 workers. 

Mass arrests took place in a move to break the action but more workers joined the strike including hotel and restaurant workers, physicians, bakers and cigar makers.

Following the strike and widespread protests the dictator Machado fled Cuba on August 12 1933, ultimately seeking refuge in the Bahamas and then Miami. Despite this victory further repression took place this time under the direction of military leader Fulgencio Batista who imposed martial law in March 1935.

There were more actions including widespread strikes in the sugar industry in the mid 1950s in Havana, Camaguey, Matanzas and Oriente provinces. Batista used the police and the army to break the action whilst the workers gained strength from the involvement of women and students in supporting them. Dock and tobacco workers were again involved. The railway workers of Guantanamo played an important role in developing actions known as “movimiento obrero beligerante” (militant trade unionism), using traditional union action and acts of sabotage.

Over a period of years the trade union movement expanded. By 1958, on the eve of the revolution, the CTC had one million members, equivalent to one in five workers. In many areas especially in Santiago, most notably in the docks, railways and factories, including the  Bacardi rum factories, the workers were well organised.  

The Cuban working class and its trade union organisations have a long history of independent political action and were closely involved in the struggle to overthrow Batista which culminated in the revolution of 1959. This was reflected in the co-operation which Fidel Castro developed with political militants like Frank Pais in preparation for the landing of the Granma from Mexico.  Circumstances, including the murder of Frank Pais by the regime, thwarted the plan for mass strike action in Santiago to coincide with the landing but the co-operation was not weakened.

Strong links were forged between the guerilla fighters of the Sierra (mountains) and the working class of the Llanos (plains) which were to continue beyond the revolution. In the battle of Santa Clara, a key moment in the revolution, workers co-operated with Che Guevara’s rebel army column in ambushing Batista’s reserves and winning the city to the side of revolution.

The CTC, established 20 years before the revolution, is today a vibrant independent mass organisation of around four million members, representing 98 per cent of the workforce.

Membership is voluntary and it is sustained solely by their subscriptions of about 1 per cent of monthly earnings. There are 19 individual member unions within the CTC, each organised around economic sectors such as transport, education, health and tourism. The education union for example encompasses teachers, school staff, cooks, cleaners, sports specialists, drivers and many more, all working within education. It is the largest union in Cuba with around 500,000 members.

At a local level the union represents the workers in dealings with management over collective bargaining, disciplinaries and other matters of concern. In each workplace representatives are elected by secret ballots every two-and-a-half years. At the workplace level meetings are often held daily between union representatives and management in order to discuss issues that require attention. Mass meetings of workers are held on a monthly basis at which the plans of the company are discussed. These meetings also decide collective bargaining agreements.

Grievance procedures are heard by a panel consisting of employer, worker and elected trade union representative, chaired by a worker who is also elected from the enterprise. In 2006 the CTC won the right of workers to a direct say in the running of their workplaces. The education union told a recent delegation of teachers from Britain that it would not be possible, or desired, for the Cuban government to enact any changes in policy without their agreement. Any such changes would only be made after discussion and agreement.

What a difference between that approach and the divisive anti-trade unionism of the present government here.

One of the challenges which Cuban unions have taken on in recent years has been the organisation of workers in the private sector of the economy. Almost 500,000 workers are now either self employed or working in the private sector. The CTC has pushed for all workers in the public and the private sector to have the same rights including those in enterprises run jointly with foreign companies.

The unions are not only consulted on workplace issues. They are directly represented in the local and national parliaments and all members are invited to take part in the consultations that have been taking place over the new constitution. The new draft of the constitution has been discussed in around 130,000 meetings across the island in workplaces, schools, community centres and indeed by Cubans abroad.  

For those who are anti-Cuban the unity of the CTC is portrayed as a “national monopoly.” Nowhere in the constitution or the Labour Code governing workers’ rights does it say that the CTC has any kind of a monopoly or that workers are compelled to be members.

Cuba has ratified 89 agreements of the International Labour Organisation, compared to 14 ratified by the United States. Who do you think is the more pro-trade union? The truth is that the biggest burden placed on Cuban workers is that of the economic blockade by the United States of America.

In Britain 23 national trade unions are affiliated to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and most of these have direct relations with the Cuban sister unions. In recent years there have been delegations between our two countries including from Unite, Unison, the NEU, RMT, GMB, Aslef, TSSA, CWU, FBU and the TUC itself. This year in particular the 80th anniversary of the CTC will be highlighted across Britain as part of the Cuba60 activities celebrating the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

In March two young Cuban trade unionists will tour Britain. It is hoped that the CTC will be invited to the TUC Congress in September, and in November a huge Trade Unions for Cuba solidarity conference will take place with up to 20 Cuban trade unionists invited over by their sister unions here.

2019 is a special year for Cuban trade unionists. But it is also an important year for us to further develop our links and solidarity at this time.

Bernard Regan is National Secretary of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and a Trustee of the NEU.

The Institute of Employment Rights has published an information booklet about the role of the Cuban trade union movement.

 

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