A Union in the Arms of the Boss / Yoani Sánchez

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

If anything distinguishes May Day from other days in the year, it’s not the parade, nor the crowd waving its paper flags. The most striking is the silence that falls over Havana after the mass rally in the Plaza of the Revolution. A stillness interrupted only by the few cars that roam the streets and by some cop who blows his whistle at the corner. All the schools, workplaces, government agencies and bus stops are empty.

This scenario has been repeated for decades, but this year, in 2012, something broke the habitual tedium of the Day of the Workers. Many private businesses, known here as “the self-employeds,” opened their doors despite the holiday, skipping the commemoration to throw themselves into selling pizzas, ice cream, fruit smoothies. While others launched slogans of Revolutionary reaffirmation, they launched products, fishing in the peaceful river left by closed State shops.

It’s expected that at the end of this year around 600,000 Cubans will have take out a license to work in the private sector. Among them will be many who lost their jobs because of the downsizing happening throughout the country. In the coming months, more than 170,000 jobs will be eliminated in the different spheres belonging to the State and the personnel will be relocated to other work or dismissed.

The euphemisms that characterize the official language have reached their highest expression in referring to this unpopular process. The cuts are called “labor reorganization” and people who are left unemployed are classified as “availables.” As if such peculiarities in vocabulary weren’t enough, the only union authorized in the country has supported the decision to “deflate the payrolls to achieve efficiency.”

The Cuban Workers Union has made it clear that its role is to be at the side of the employer, not the employees. A posture that surprises not a one of its almost three million members, accustomed to the disciplined paying of their dues, but aware that this organization represents the powers-that-be against the base, and not the inverse.

To this same obedient union more than 80% of the more than 370,000 self-employed have subscribed, and one representation of them paraded on May Day. They haven’t signed up to represented or defended, but to avoid problems. They intuit — with good reason — that not joining could suggest they are “apathetic,” “bourgeois,” and in the worst case, “counterrevolutionaries.”

They all, undoubtedly, would prefer an association to defend them from the high taxes, to convene protests over the lack of wholesale markets, and to demand bank loans to support their businesses. Able to choose, they wouldn’t have voted for Salvador Valdes Mesa, the current secretary general of the Cuban Workers Union, whose previous job was in the antagonistic Ministry of Labor.

Instead of the Church in the hands of Luther, our version seems to be the Union caught in the arms of the Boss. A federation that has supported the elimination of half a million jobs by 2015, and that has called for a greater commitment to the government of Raul Castro. A negative legacy of this passive and complicit attitude, will be the refusal of many workers to join its ranks and those of other proletarian organizations. The word “union” in Cuba will have to shake off its current connotations of inaction, to return to that irreverent and autonomous role it once held.

For now, on the platform on May Day, instead of a message of protest slogans, there are calls for discipline, demands for control. Labor disagreement has no place at the Plaza of triumphal slogans and praise for the current system. Not a single block represents the unemployed, not one fist is raised in protest, not one sign calls the authorities to account.

Many of those present have attended for the same reason they’ve registered with the Cuban Workers Union, so as not to be marked as opposed to a political process in which they can no longer believe. They smile for the cameras, some with their children on their shoulders, but nothing in them of the rebellious essence of a Labor Day.

When the parade ends then return home, or venture into the surrounding streets looking for something to eat or drink. They end up buying it at the counter of some self-employed, non-union member who stayed open to conduct business on the holiday.

The next morning the official newspaper, Granma, proudly published the red-letter headline, “This was the more organized and fastest parade” in our history. And for once, Granma is right.

From El Pais, 11 May 2012