Cuba’s Trade Unions: What Are They Good For?
February 27, 2014
HAVANA TIMES — “Unions aren’t here to hand out hotel coupons as work
incentives. We’re here to ensure we are paid decorous salaries and that
our workers can go on vacation using their salaries, without having
anyone give them these vacations as a gift,” a trade union delegate said
the first day of the Congress of the Cuban Workers Association
To say that protecting the rights and wages of workers is the central
role a trade union should play may strike some as stating the obvious.
According to Cuban journalist Yohan Gonzalez, however, people in Cuba
actually run the risk of forgetting “why and for what purpose the CTC
He adds that the workers federation fails “to represent and is cut off
from the base.” At the locals, in fact, union leaders come to
understandings with “company management in favor of personal interests
and against the demands and needs of union members.” (1).
The strategy reminds me of the good-cop-bad-cop routine. While the
management demands discipline and productivity, the union leadership
decides which of its members will earn the right to buy an electrical
appliance at subsidized prices or an inexpensive vacation at the beach.
The theoretical foundations of this trade union philosophy must be
sought in the tenets of “real socialism.” After bringing all the means
of production under State control and declaring them “the people’s
property”, it would be a contradiction for the worker-owners to pressure
management for wage improvements.
In that ideal world also built in Cuba, trade union activity was
practically nullified. The Cuban Communist Party, which has a
representative in every State company and members at all managerial
positions around the country, is the one who defends the “strategic
interests” of the humble.
What’s curious is that Karl Marx himself says that there are social
classes with particular interests under socialism. Thus, the
adulteration of unions left workers at a disadvantage, devoid of the
crucial instrument needed to defend their rights.
The social damage was even more serious than that, as this undermined
the counterweight that could have put a stop to bureaucratization. As
early as 1884, Jose Marti had warned about the difficulties the people
would encounter when it “confronted government officials united by
common interests.” (2).
Despite the long history of Cuba’s trade union movement, many workers
today do not feel represented by some of their leaders, which lack real
power or settle under the wings of managers in search of the crumbs the
bureaucracy is willing to give them.
The Challenge of Trade Unionism in Cuba
During the CTC congress, Cuban President Raul Castro announced that the
only wages that would go up are those of health professionals, and that
all other workers would have to wait for the country’s productivity to rise.
He explained that a raise in salaries without an increase in
productivity leads to inflation. This may be true, but it is also true
that Cuba’s economic inefficiency is not chiefly the fault of workers
but of those who manage companies and head ministries.
Working conditions could improve dramatically if the fuel, food,
vacation and trip expenses of management were rationalized, and if
superiors were dismissed and forced to pay for the damages they caused,
out of their own pockets, whenever they did anything stupid.
We are talking about a country where high transportation officials have
the fuel and spare parts they need to keep their own, private and
official cars rolling, while hundreds of buses idle in workshops for
lack of spare parts.
The State spends truckloads of money to buy cutting-edge medical
equipment to then let them collect dust at customs, because the
hospitals that need them simply don’t send anyone to pick them up,
denying cancer patients the treatment they need.
The election of Ulises Guilarte as the new chair of the CTC may herald
changes. A young, pragmatic official, Guilarte enjoys the trust of the
Cuban president. He was the official tasked with setting in motion the
country’s political and administrative decentralization, a sensible and
complex reform process.
The task ahead of him now is no less delicate – it goes beyond trade
union matters and points towards the need to re-establish a system of
counterweights that can balance society, empowering the productive
sectors before the budding managerial class.
Trade unions aren’t only needed to check foreign investors and the
self-employed alone; they are also indispensable to contain the
appetites of government officials who, as Jose Marti warned (3), tend to
constitute an autocratic and abusive class.
2), 3). The Complete Works of Jose Marti, Volume XV, pg. 391, Ciencias
Sociales, Havana, 1991.
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by
Source: Cuba’s Trade Unions: What Are They Good For? – Havana Times.org