Doing Voluntary Work…Voluntarily

Yusimi Rodriguez

"Voluntary" field work.  Photo: Caridad
"Voluntary" field work. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 4 – The 50th anniversary of the first volunteer workday in Cuba was commemorated on Sunday, Nov. 22.  That very first day of volunteer labor was carried out at the Camilo Cienfuegos City School and included more than 2,000 participants.

The promoter of voluntary work in Cuba was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who considered it to be an economic, ideological and moral factor for the advance of the Revolution.  It was an important element within the system of economic development foreseen by him.

He believed that in the stage of building socialism and communism, what was important was not only the fact of having shiny new factories; socialism was making possible the development of the integral human being. He believed that people should be transformed at the same time as production advanced.  He felt that work was not being carried out properly if only goods and raw materials were produced and not human beings at the same time.

Che defined voluntary work as labor performed outside the normal working hours and done so without receiving additional economic remuneration.  In it, work could be performed within or outside people’s regular workplaces.  He felt that one of the most important tasks in the period of transition, along with the socialization of ownership of the means of production, was the creation of a new attitude toward work.

Voluntary or Obligatory

During my life as a worker and a member of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), I have gotten upset every time they have called me to do voluntary work.  I graduated as an English teacher in 1999, and in September of that year I began working in a technical school.  It was also at that time that I joined the union.

A few months after having begun the school year, the union secretary came up to me to tell me that on Sunday I “had to” come to the school because there was voluntary work.  I told her -half jokingly and half bothered by the tone of her voice and her overbearing attitude- that if it was voluntary I didn’t “have to” go.

My boss’s eyes opened wide, but she limited herself to looking me square in the face with the utmost seriousness.  When we were alone, she told me that if I didn’t participate in voluntary work, I would be reported to the school; this failure to participate would also be taken into account when evaluating my work at the end of the course.

Likewise, my wage for the following school year would depend on that evaluation.  When I told the story to my parents, they gave me a hard time; they told me that I shouldn’t refuse when they called on me do voluntary work, adding that such an attitude could harm me in the future when I looked for another job.

When a person requests employment in certain fields (like higher education, the press or even tourism), their social conduct on the block where they live is checked.  In this verification, it’s not enough that a person has had no problems with the law, or that they’ve respected others and have been a hard-working and disciplined person – it’s also necessary to know if they belong to the CDR.

In fact, the person responsible for this verification visits the CDR president to pose certain questions: Does the person do CDR block watch?  Do they participate in voluntary work?  Do they relate well with the neighbors?  If you’re not a CDR member, or any of the other answers are negative, the possibility of you obtaining the position you’ve requested can shrink.

But that generally doesn’t happen; people try to avoid such problems, so they participate in voluntary work, which -after all- is not done every day and nor is it that demanding.

The Reason Has Changed

The main function of voluntary work has ceased being a “disinterested contribution to society”; instead, it has now become a mask that’s necessary to wear, a kind of a protection.

I’ve seen voluntary work where people only clean in front of their house, though it was already clean, or they stand around on the sidewalk with a broom, since there was nothing to do.  This stems from the fact that the work is summoned at the national level or is decided on in honor of some historic date. Sometimes people don’t even know the reason for the voluntary workday, but what’s critically important is that other people see them there.

Che established that for this work, performed outside the regular workday, no type of remuneration was to be received.  He should have also specified that the lack of willingness to perform this labor would not result in any type of coercion or punishment, or alternately that people should not expect any types of perks or preferential treatment for carrying it out.  Otherwise, to what degree is that work really voluntary or -especially- disinterested?

Sara Gomez’s 1973 documentary “Sobre Las horas extras y el Trabajo voluntario (On extra hours and voluntary work) reflects the commitment that was felt by people toward this practice in the first decades of the Revolution.  Many people donated thirty or more hours a month in the factories in which they worked.

For these extra hours that they worked, they accumulated merits, which could then embroil them in controversy around their earning some type of appliance at their workplaces.  The documentary also shows that often these extra hours represented an expense in electricity which exceeded any benefit obtained.

Likewise, in several cases the work day was frittered away by those who received pay for it, though later these same workers earned merits for their extra hours.

Many women worked the entire week at their workstations, and on Sundays they sacrificed being with their husbands and children to carry out volunteer work.

In the documentary, one of these women talked about one experience when they were taken by truck to a place where there were some stones, and they were directed to move them to a different place.  The next volunteer workday consisted of moving those same stones to a different place, because they were in the way.  The women were directed to move these stones on several Sundays until they were finally instructed to return them to the original place they had moved them from the first time.  At the end, the woman only asks that the coordinators not make them waste their time.

Without Fear or Opportunism

Around four months ago, I performed garbage collection in the Alamar neighborhood with an artist friend.  The amount of garbage strewn about the streets of our city is something that I’m concerned about, and I feel that it is not enough to write about this.  Sometimes it’s necessary to do something.  I’ve also gotten involved in planting ornamental trees in the Electrico municipality on the outskirts of the city with another friend.

These were nothing other than acts of volunteer labor, for which I will receive no money or medals – nor does that interest me.  I have realized that the idea of voluntary work is something grandiose, beyond ideology and political intentions.  I’m not an admirer of Che – I can’t avoid certain reservations about the idea of producing humans.

I deeply respect individuality, free alternatives and actions, even the freedom to do nothing.  But when participating -of my own will- in the activities I mentioned, I felt it was worthwhile in doing such volunteer labor when it was really voluntary and the objective was to do something useful, without fear or opportunism behind it.

A few days ago, I heard a high school teacher question the mother of a student because he had not participated in “his turn” at doing voluntary labor that weekend.

“Class attendance and punctuality during the week are obligatory, as are weekend activities.  And students’ attendance in these is evaluated.  Don’t complain if at the end of the course your son receives a bad evaluation,” the teacher told the student’s mother.

The teacher’s arguments were very convincing and I’m sure that the student won’t miss any more work or obligatory volunteer activity on the weekend. What will in fact be missed, perhaps for his whole life, is the true meaning of voluntary work.

4 thoughts on “Doing Voluntary Work…Voluntarily

  • Michael, what you say is true. My wording may have given a wrong impression. I was not saying that voluntary work is not good–in fact, it’s great. I meant that the “idea” that socialism can and ought to function out of “moral” incentives, as opposed to “material” incentives, was injected into socialism to switch the movement over onto a anti-cooperative, anti-workable track.

    The idea took root that workers are degraded by material incentives; that material incentives are an evil, humanity-eroding element of social production. This false concept was foisted on the movement to turn it away from “direct” worker ownership of the means of production through cooperatives.

    It is the bourgeois coming into the socialist movement who equates the natural desire of workers for the material support of their families with the money lust of the capitalist. This ruinous idea has helped destroy every transformation that has tried to operate under its pernicious influence.

  • Although voluntary work may have crept into the SOCIALIST movement in the 1800’s, it has been part of civil society since the very beginnings of civilization. It has been part of religious institutions at least since the days of the Sumarian, Egyptian and early Chinese civilizations. Hence, I think it an error to see it merely in economic or class terms. It has more to do with human solidarity, a sense of community and belonging. Volunteering is hardly a bourgeois, and existed long before the bourgeoise came into existence. When I have a sense of ownership to that for which I am volunteering, I gladly perform these tasks. Without volunteerism, I don’t know how society would hold together. Volinteers are the backbone of any community, and I can think of many examples, such as the athletic program at my daughters’ school, the local Grange, town library, periodic “green-up days,” etc.

  • What a great article! It is so provocative, yet there is so little space and time for comments!

    One idea should hvr be examined more closely, the concept that working without thought of remuneration or recognition is a way to changing human beings, and of making them more socialistic. This is an idea that crept into the socialist movement in the 1800s, and its influence has not been salutary.

    It was part of deprecating the working people’s desire to own their own means of production directly, and to receive ownership of the values they produced. The capitalists of course were horrified at such a concept, and saw to it that this new socialist movement should equate the workers’ desire for just compensation with the capitalists’ lust for more and more profits at the workers’ expense.

    Socialism thus became infected with a bourgeois concept that dovetailed nicely with the Marxist formula of the state owning everything and the workers laboring for small change.

  • Thanks for your perceptive article, Yusimi! How does voluntary work remain vital, rather than become just some cumbersome chore which, for appearances sake, must be performed? As you inferred, it must be work which is really needed, and there is plenty which needs to be done. The example you described, of moving stones from one place to another, then back, sounds like a modern retelling of the Myth of Sissyphus! Voluntary tasks should be conceived, and enacted, locally, rather than through some amorphous generalized diktat handed down from on high. Of course specific tasks can be part of a larger campaign, such as the Zafra de los diez millones, in which I participated in 1969-70, but this must be well thought out, and be working towards a specific goal. The question is: How do you arrive at “doing the right thing” simply because it is the right thing to do, and you are internally motivated to do it, rather than through some external reward or threat?

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