—As a professor of Philosophy at a branch of the University of Havana which offers careers in Physics, Chemistry, Nuclear Engineering and Meteorology, one evening I was participating in a union meeting. On another occasion I will try to explain what a worker’s union is in Cuba, but for now, since it’s important in understanding the story, I’ll only say that in our country workers are only permitted to associate with one union, the one that is officially recognized. In addition, any worker who fails to belong carries a constant weight upon his/her shoulders, which will make it difficult to advance.
In that meeting they were analyzing the dues payments. Some of the workers, like me, were a month behind in paying their quota and we were informed that this failure would affect our three-month evaluation, and as such would affect my salary as well. In addition, it would affect the department’s evaluation and because of that the salary of all those who were part of it. It could also influence the evaluation of the University and later of the Ministry it forms part of, and the minister could be called upon to explain why the Ministry that they oversee has not fulfilled its quota of union dues.
I have never stopped to figure exactly how much I pay in union dues. It must be around a hundredth of my salary, because it’s usually about five pesos and I make some 500 pesos a month.
Many people may feel that one hundredth of their salary is very little money, but it’s not only about percents. There are other factors that hindered my payment and I’ll mention a few. In the first place, these almost 500 pesos in salary don’t even get me through the beginning of the month. Thank God I have friends in other countries, because if I didn’t I might not have shoes to go to university, nor a watch to be able to teach my classes within the required time limits, nor a backpack for my books and documents. Never mind dreaming about having a computer to prepare the classes well, or be able to consult current books and sources that no one but myself will supply.
These are only some of the things that are necessary for my work, but that I can’t afford. Further, even with friends that help me out from time to time, I never have a peso in my pocket at the end of the month, and not because I spent them on vice or gambled them away.
Furthermore, in the eight years that I’ve been working, I have never seen the union intervene to make life easier for the workers or to defend them in a difficult situation. Although I have no doubts that this sometimes happens, I myself have only noted them making demands and controlling the lives of the workers. My personal experience is that the workers don’t feel part of the union, but only see it as one more control mechanism, far removed from their interests.
One of the reasons, I believe, for the apathy is that the dues money goes to a national office that decides how it will be used. Not one peso is left for the initiatives of the workers themselves in their workplace. Later the central authorities divide it out according to their priorities. I don’t doubt that the funds are accounted for, but I also don’t doubt that the first thing they defend is their privileged position near the seat of power. That is to say that even though the roof of my school building might be falling down, there would be no way that the workers could put together their dues to fix it. Instead they must wait for it to be declared a priority of the national union.
I’m going to relay an anecdote that, like all anecdotes, doesn’t prove anything, only gives an illustration. A while back I was receiving a class (unrelated to union business) at the National School for Cuban Workers’ Union Officials. Something surprised me there: while the university classrooms are literally falling to pieces, these classrooms gleamed with new windows, nice paint and everything you need to make use of the latest audiovisual teaching techniques.
In addition, I couldn’t help noticing the lunchroom. The food in the lunchroom of my university is nearly inedible, although many students on scholarship as well as professors of high prestige eat there because they have no other option. It is served in plastic trays that are always covered in grease because they lack detergent, and there’s no cold water, etc. In contrast, the cafeteria of the union official’s school was of very high quality with a variety of food choices, impeccable hygiene, decent plates and silverware, cold water…in short they had everything necessary for a good lunch. Shouldn’t the official’s school, which in the end is financed by the workers, be kept on the same level as the simplest workers’ lunchrooms? I should add that I’ve never worked in a place, from hospitals to research institutes, where the situation has been different.
To be continued…