Cuban Labor’s Lack of Autonomy / Dimas Castellanos

The newspaper Granma, on Monday, September 13, issued a statement from the Cuban Workers Union (CTC) which is a good reason to discuss the autonomy of trade unions, looking at the scenario that is emerging in Cuba.

According to the document: “The leadership of the Government has been working on a set of measures to ensure and implement the changes necessary and urgent to introduce into the economy and society…: In correspondence with the process of updating the economic model and the economic projections for the period 2011-2015, the Guidelines provide for a reduction in the coming year of more than 500,000 state workers…; Our State can not and should not continue to keep businesses, productive entities, with inflated payrolls and budgets, and losses that weigh down the economy…; The union is responsible to act in its sector at a high level of exigency and to maintain systematic control of the progress of this process from start to completion, taking the appropriate measures and agencies to inform their superior organizations and the CTC…”

The selected fragments, like the rest of the document, show the total lack of independence of the CTC. There is no mention of the interests of the workers this organization allegedly represents, such a mismatch between wages and the cost of living. The investigation of why the unions have become the appendage of the state, requires a look back at the history of the Cuban labor movement.

In Cuba, the unions arose during the substitution of slave labor for wage labor, starting from the year 1865 with the creation of the Association of Tobacco Workers of Havana, the debut of strikes and the establishment of workers newspapers. The growth and strengthening of this movement led to the creation of the great twentieth-century labor unions, which, supported by the freedoms and rights recognized by the Constitution of 1901, staged a major strike movement aimed mainly at wage increases and decreasing the length of the workday, while playing an important role in political events such as the overthrow of the Machado regime by the general strike on August 5, 1933, an unprecedented event in the history of Cuba.

Thanks to the strength of the labor movement, labor legislation was passed which recognized the legal existence of trade unions, the right to strike, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage for sugar workers, job security, holidays and sick leave and maternity pay, among other measures, which were complemented by the enactment of Decree 798 of April 1938, the most important labor law in the Republican period. Likewise, many workers’ demands became law. Another manifestation of power and autonomy was the construction of modern building of Carlos III for the Retiro Power Plant and its leasing to the Power Company, the construction of the Havana Hilton hotel by the Culinary Union and the Grafico development by the Graphic Arts Union.

Since 1925, however, there began a process of subordination of trade unions to political parties. In that year, almost simultaneously, the National Workers’ Union of Cuba (CNOC) and the Communist Party of Cuba were both founded. Since 1934, with the founding of the Cuban Revolutionary Party (commonly known as the “Authentics”), a struggle began with the Communist Party for the control of organized labor, which worsened with the victory of the Authentics in the 1944 elections. During the 5th Congress of the CTC –, which was actually two congresses, one controlled by the Authentics and the other by the Communists — a Ministerial Resolution declared the Authentic congress to be legitimate at the expense of the Communists.

The subordination of unionism increased sharply before the coup d’etat of March 10, 1952. Eusebio Mujal, who had ordered a general strike against the coup, accepted an offer from the Batista government in exchange for retaining the rights acquired by the CTC, another blow to Cuban labor. In 1953, with the resurgence of strikes, the union leadership was trapped: support labor and be in conflict with the government, or support the government and lose labor; Mujal chose the alliance with the dictatorship.

The government that took power in 1959 the needed the trade union movement to succeed, and a general strike from January 1 to 5 consolidated the revolutionary power; thus the labor movement was said to be a decisive factor in the revolutionary triumph. However, on January 22, 1959, came the first coup against the unions. The CTC was dissolved and replaced by the “Revolutionary-CTC” (CTC-R). The resistance to was immediate. The Humanist Workers Front was created, combining 25 o the 33 industry federations under the slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” This opened a period of conflict which was resolved at the X Congress of 1959, where David Salvador, designated Secretary General, when asked if he was for the workers, replied firmly and laconically, “Whatever the Comandante says.”

Before the vote, Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of the Government, proposed a vote of confidence on the candidacy of David Salvador, leaving the communists and anti-communists out. However, after the Congress, Augusto Martinez Sanchez, then Minister of Labor, achieved the impossible during the sessions: he dismissed directors, and took the side of unions and federations, a process that concluded when the majority of the elected leaders in the X Congress were excluded.

Already in the XI Congress of the CTC-R, held in 1961, there were no vestiges of the former labor movement. For the first time a candidate ran for each position and delegates, representing the Government renounced almost all the historical achievements of the Cuban labor: the nine days of sick leave, the additional Christmas bonus, the working week of 44 hours and a constitutional raise of 9.09%, among others. The association was under state control and CTC became the auxiliary arm of the Communist Party. The results were reflected in the 1976 Constitution, in which only six articles of Chapter VI are dedicated to the rights of workers and they ignore almost everything achieved by the union movement since the creation of the CNOC in 1925.

In short, this is a consequence of considering that people are reducible, a form of organization where people act as mere executors. What happened in Cuba with the union movement corroborates this indisputable thesis: without autonomy the existence of genuine trade unionism is impossible. Now, faced with the acceptance of failure, the Government is undertaking some reforms under the name of updating the model, a decision that will have a strong impact on workers due to the absence of genuine trade unionism, since the absence of independent civil society, including unionism, makes Cuba an unarmed society that allows the state to decide by itself and asking for the support of the workers, as evidenced by the current Statement of the CTC-R.

The update of the model, if it is conceived to be for the good of Cubans, must begin by giving workers effective participation and ceasing to consider them as a mass. The restoration of independent trade unionism, therefore, is a requirement.

September 14, 2010