Pablo Velasco reviews Workers in Cuba: Unions and labour relations. A 2011 update. (Institute of Employment Rights)
Whether it is resolutions at union conferences, House of Commons receptions or summer garden parties, the uncritical lauding of the Cuban government in the British labour movement stretches from Brendan Barber to Bob Crow.
Workers in Cuba is a sophisticated piece of orthodox apologetics. It consists of a previously published essay by Debra Evenson, a foreword by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and an introduction and annex by academic Steve Ludlam. The pamphlet will be widely circulated and is sufficiently crafted to sow great confusion.
The authors assume that Cuba is, in the words of its constitution, a “socialist state of workers”. They believe that there must somehow be substantive workers’ power in Cuba. But although Cuban workers played a significant (and sometimes neglected) role in the struggle against Batista, it was not a self-conscious working class, with its own leadership and its own organs of class rule, that made the revolution in 1959. No working-class revolutionary party led the Cuban workers in their battle for self-emancipation. No democratic working-class institutions, such as soviets, were established, even in the early years, through which the working class could exercise control of the surplus product it produced.
No-one — and certainly not the Castro leadership — talked openly about building a socialist state in 1959. According to the historian Van Gosse, letters from Cuba to the US in the early days were stamped with the message “In Cuba we are living happy now with humanism, no communism”. The now uncritical American SWP (no relation to the British one) argued after the seizure of power that the revolution was for national independence and Fidel Castro was “consciously resisting the tendency to continue in a socialist direction”. If socialism in one country was nonsense in Russia in the 1920s, then how much more absurd is the endurance of “socialism in one (relatively small) island”?
Evenson’s essay uses legalistic formulas to avoid the real issues. She writes that, “Since its founding in 1939, the Cuban Workers Central (CTC) has been the only national organisation representing unions in Cuba.”
The Cuban Workers’ Confederation was from its inception heavily policed by Batista, first with the Communist Party and later by the corrupt Mujal. The first breath of revolution in 1959 shook most of the unions so hard the workers replaced the old bureaucrats with leaders more to their liking — many of them Castro supporters. However, in November 1959 the Castro government imposed its own slate, using Lázaro Peña and other Stalinists as their agents in the workers’ movement. By the so-called 11th CTC congress in November 1961, the CTC changed its name to Cuban Workers’ Central (rather than Confederation — hence the same initials), Peña became the new CTC general secretary. The CTC effectively became a labour front — it accepted government proposals to give up Christmas and sick leave bonuses and to work 48 hours a week.
Evenson argues that “Union membership is voluntary; but all workers have the right to join. There are approximately four million workers in Cuba; about 98 per cent are members of one of the national unions”. Yet such impressive density should make the reader suspicious, especially as strikes are unfeasibly rare (and there is no right to strike). Cubans join an affiliate of the CTC in order to get a job and to keep it, and to get many of the social welfare rations distributed through workplaces. This is not a sign of either militancy or union democracy.
Evenson notes: “Until 1992, the CTC was recognised in the Cuban Constitution as the representative of Cuban workers”. She recognises that “the CTC and the national unions adhere to the policies of the Communist Party of Cuba, which the CTC explicitly recognises in its statutes as the supreme political and ideological force in Cuban society”. She concludes, “there is a close and interdependent relationship between the unions, the government and the Party”. But the Communist Party monopolises the state and the state dominates the unions. Evenson undermines her own account, pointing out that “Until fairly recently, the CTC and the unions did not have their own legal counsel.”
Steve Ludlam’s essay is as slippery as Evenson’s. He writes that “Unions are legally autonomous and financially independent”, which may be formally true but rather avoids the historic dependence on the state and the way in which they are dominated by the state political, ideologically and economically.
He regards the argument “that the unions are mere transmitters of government policy” as “clumsy”, because unions everywhere have political alliances and the Cuban unions “transmit” in the other direction. But few would argue that workers and unions in capitalist states, dependent on bourgeois parties, are really in power. In fact the apologists struggle to demonstrate that Cuban unions are more than integral agents of the Cuban state.
Ludlam states that the CTC takes part in the formation of government policy. He states that in 2006 the CTC revived the workplace asembleas. Apparently over 80,000 assemblies met in 2008 to discuss preliminary production and service plans. Another mass consultation exercise discussed changing the age of retirement and raising pensions, with over 3 million workers meeting in 85,000 workplace assemblies to discuss the proposals.
If we assume the figures are accurate, they are still not sufficient to bear the weight of the argument. Ludlam admits that in the early 1990s, “the monthly asemblea system was hollowed out by the mayhem of the Special Period”. They were revived from the top down, just as the unions themselves were resuscitated in the early 1970s at the whim of the government. For sure the assemblies are a form of consultation and may indeed modify proposals. Staff meetings, quality circles, toolbox talks, and management briefings take place under capitalism, but they do not add up to workers’ control. The assemblies do not amount to workers’ power in Cuba.
Ludlam might like to think workers are discussing how to divide up the surplus product. In reality, workers in Cuba have so little power they have been unable to extract a ration for even half the amount necessary for their own means of subsistence. The matters discussed in the assemblies are invariably determined by the central state and focus on how to more effectively exploit workers. Whether it is increasing productivity, working longer or mass sackings, the Cuban ruling bureaucratic class have the resources and the power, while the Cuban workers always seem to lose.
According to McCluskey, this pamphlet “bursts the bubble of the so-called ‘independent’ trade unions exposing them as little more than a front for often foreign based interests”.
Ludlam writes: “It is not necessary to assume that every Cuban dissident is a mercenary, or that every Cuban critic of its trade unions is a US agent, in order to acknowledge that in the 50-year US dirty war against the Cuban people, ‘independent’ trade unionism in Cuba is hopelessly compromised by its paymasters in Washington and elsewhere.”
Suppose everyone arrested in recent years really has been simply a US agent dressing up in the garb of independent unionism. It is not clear this invalidates every other attempt to campaign for independent unions — for example in the early years of regime or indeed in the 1980s, when a Solidarnosc-type organisations was apparently set up, before it was repressed. Nor does it invalidate the demand for independent trade unionism in Cuba now and for the future. Such a movement would clearly have to recognise that its enemies were both the existing regime and the US government. Every new union movement emerging from Stalinist or totalitarian capitalist states has faced these dangers, including where it seeks allies, funds and support.
But self-organisation — and the freedom to meet, publish and disagree that go with them, are absolutely necessary if Cuban workers are to articulate their own interests. To deny even the possibility is to foreclose on the options for the foreseeable future and consign the Cuban working class to the role of appendage of either Castroism or US imperialism. For third camp socialists, there is another path.
On 13 September 2010, the CTC announced that half a million state employees were to be “redeployed” — tossed out of the public sector and into self-employment. The CTC highlighted a million “potentially redundant” posts, and the decision was endorsed by the recent sixth Communist Party congress, suggesting the process will be implemented, albeit more slowly than envisaged at first.
Ludlam tries to provide a positive gloss on this drastic retrenchment, arguing that at least the CTC was consulted and that the purpose is to “strengthen Cuba’s sovereignty and its solidaristic socialist model”. He makes a great deal of Resolution No.8/2005, which he believes made collective bargaining a legal requirement in Cuba and provided guarantees to workers in the event of redeployment. However he points out that the retrenchment undermines those promises.
He writes: “It is important to recognise that in some aspects of the redeployment programme, unions have agreed to some dilution of rights established in the 2005 legislation. The options of redeployed workers taking up ‘study as a form of work’ (established in the 2005 law), or of early retirement (as in the sugar restructuring in 2002), were withdrawn. Earnings-related unemployment benefit (‘salary protection’) established in Resolution No.8/2005 would now be time-limited; paid at 100% of salary for the first month, at 60% for up to five further months for those with 10 to 30 years of service”.
The authors of this pamphlet would have us believe that Cuban workers are basically happy to go along with their own occupational suicide — because they are really the owners of the state. A better explanation is that Cuban workers have been so beaten down, so atomised and so disenfranchised that they believe such protest would be futile. This is not a cause for celebration. Rather it should lead the Castrophiles to question the whole project they are supporting.
McCluskey states that the Cuban revolution is an “inspirational role model”. The Arab spring and the new workers’ movements and strikes in China are truly inspiring. Fighting austerity across the globe, workers need those real models. From Cuban Stalinism there is nothing inspirational at all.