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 was created.”
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 BBC Mundo.