Cuban Unions and the New Labor Law

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cuban workers at an International Workers Day parade at Havana’s Revolution Square (Photo: Raquel Perez)

HAVANA TIMES — The First Secretary of the Communist Party for Artemisa was dismissed from his post after the foreign press visited the province. The joke among journalists was that he had lost favor with the government when we all wrote positive things about the experiment he was heading.

That wasn’t the case. Soon afterwards, Ulises Guilarte would reemerge as the organizer of the Congress of the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC), the organization to which most Cuban workers belong (and the only one permitted by the authorities).

That the CTC should be headed by a communist cadre is not anything new. In fact, this has always been the case, even before the triumph of the revolution, when this union maintained close ties to the pro-soviet Popular Socialist Party.

What is novel and interesting is that a leader with experience in the implementation of “pilot projects”, that is, a Cuban Communist Party (PCC) official capable of putting reforms into practice on the go, evaluating their consequences and formulating possible courses of actions, should be promoted to the top of the union leadership.

In Artemisa, Guilarte had undertaken the extremely complex task of decentralizing the province’s political and administrative structures and of delegating authority to different provincial and municipal bodies. Now, the challenge posed to him could well be that of putting an end to the imposed and counterproductive alliance between Cuban unions and company managements.

The new labor law stresses that the job of the union is to “represent the workers in defense of their interests and rights, as well as advocate the improvement of their working and living conditions.” Such aims call for radical changes.

Truth is, Cuban unions have been functioning as appendages of company presidents, managers and administrators for years. They have focused more on “handing down directives” than in presenting higher-ups with the complaints, opinions, criticisms and aspirations of their members.

I don’t recall a single speech by a Cuban union leader calling for a raise in salaries, wage payments in hard currency, a shorter working day or lower retirement age. Quite the contrary, the CTC has supported each and every one of the initiatives impelled by the government.

Cuban union leaders tell me that the defense of socialism entails protecting the “strategic interests of the workers.” That may well be, but the truth is that, over the last few decades, they have done very little in defense of the “immediate interests” of their affiliates.

Cuban unions prioritize increased productivity over wage improvements for their members. (Photo: Raquel Perez).

Today, debates are on a new labor law which stipulates that all Cubans have the right to a job that allows them to satisfy their needs and those of their families, something which isn’t remotely the case at the moment, owing to the country’s low salaries.

Other interesting paragraphs in the bill promote the equality of women in the workplace and the protection of mothers and maintain that “workers have the right to participate in the management of the State entities where they work” (without specifying, however, what decision-making prerogatives they will have).

The bill finally introduces the needed distinction between employees and employers, in view of the fact that, with the authorization of small, private companies, everyone, workers and managers, could end up in the same union, under the category of the “self-employed.”

A number of things, however, still remain unclear. The conditions for laying off an employee, which seem to favor the employer considerably, is one case in point. The bill establishes that workers are entitled to one week of vacation a year and, though it specifies that this is the “minimum”, its possible interpretations are cause for concern.

The document does not specify whether foreign firms will be authorized to hire Cuban workers directly. Currently, such workers are paid in Cuban pesos, at a very unfavorable rate, despite the fact that these foreign companies pay the Cuban State in hard currency.

We find another gray area in the case of Cuban doctors employed abroad, whose incomes and working conditions, we are told, are to be determined by the Ministries of Public Health and Labor. The CTC will not have any say in these cases; the bill only stipulates that “the opinion of the union will be taken into consideration.”

Such vagueness is quite a serious matter when one is dealing with the sector which secures the greatest part of the country’s incomes, well above tourism or family remittances. A just labor law could be the key to keeping “the hen of the golden eggs” happy.

The debate surrounding the labor law will be productive if Cuban workers review it in depth and begin to defend their interests, if the CTC actually becomes their voice before the authorities and if the government includes these opinions in the final version of the document, demonstrating that this “popular consultation” is not a mere formality.

2 thoughts on “Cuban Unions and the New Labor Law

  • A union is not a union until it can call for an legal work stoppage as a negotiation tool. With the Castros in charge, this will never happen.

  • one week vacation a year. in democratic europe it’s a month or more. foreign companies pay cuban state entities hard currency for workers who receive a pittance of this in pesos. workers paradise? not hardly. cuba should promote free private enterprise and call it people power less they be accused of selling out to capitalism.

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