The role of unions in revolutionary Cuba

A response to the International Socialist Organization

Wealth created by workers in Cuba benefits all the people.
Photo: Yander Zamora/Granma Diario

Sam Farber’s article of May 15, “Who do Cuba’s unions defend?” in the “Socialist Worker,” newspaper of the International Socialist Organization, exposes once again Farber and the ISO’s undying hostility toward the Cuban Revolution.

The object of Farber’s denunciation is Salvador Valdés Mesa, the General Secretary of the Confederation of Cuban Workers, or CTC.

Farber quotes Valdés Mesa’s talk on May Day 2012 at Havana’s mass rally of over 1 million people, lamenting that Valdés called on workers to “work harder and more productively.”

He derisively says, “A legitimate workers’ leader would at least have asked for a salary increase to protect the Cuban workers from the uninterrupted rise in the prices of consumer goods. But Valdés Mesa did nothing of the sort.”

Continuing, Farber says, “Without ifs, ands or buts, he declared that there will be no salary increases ‘while the country, with the measures that have been adopted, has not yet reduced payrolls and eliminated undue subsidies and free goods that conspire against an increase in the productivity of labor.’"

Farber’s latest anti-Cuba hit piece stems from his view that Cuba is not socialist, but rather what he calls a “bureaucratic collectivist” society led by a new "state capitalist" ruling class that oppresses and exploits the workers.

Farber at Berkeley in the 1960s

He and the ISO share a virulent hatred for the Cuban Revolution that goes back many decades. In the 1960s, Farber, then a student at UC Berkeley, was a member of a forerunner of the ISO, the anti-communist International Socialist Clubs. The members of the ISC were also known as the “Shachtmanites” after their long-time leader, Max Shachtman.

Brian Shannon, a fellow member of the club, later wrote about Farber: “Farber is an extremely knowledgeable authority on every error that could ever have been made during the course of the Cuban Revolution. He is a native Cuban and has specialized in attacking the Cuban Revolution. At Berkeley in the early 1960s, every word he spoke about the Cuban Revolution was an attack, 'including the “ands” and the “thes.”' He was so rabid that he made other members of the large U.C. Berkeley Shachtmanite club look pro-Castro. In short, I never once heard him express one word of solidarity with any of the gains of the Cuban Revolution.”

That last sentence applies to the ISO today. Every article of any substance about Cuba in their newspaper has been an attack. In the 14 years since the Cuban Five were imprisoned in the U.S., the “Socialist Worker” has mentioned them exactly once, a passing reference in an obituary for progressive attorney Leonard Weinglass written by a non-ISOer. For a supposedly “socialist” organization inside the U.S., whose government has relentlessly sought to destroy the Cuban Revolution for more than 50 years, this represents a complete abandonment of basic internationalism.

By his and the ISO’s logic, all leaders in Cuba, of the trade unions or the Communist Party or mass organizations, or simply anyone with a leadership responsibility, are bosses, or apologists for the bosses. The masses are exploited objects, having no role as protagonists in their society.

One key element Farber does not acknowledge—besides Cuba’s socialism—is that the wage of Cuban workers includes a social wage not provided under United States capitalism: free and universal healthcare, free education through university, subsidized food rationing for every Cuban from birth, even free funerals. About 85 percent of Cubans own their own home, and for those who rent, the cost is but 10 percent of one’s income. There is paid maternity and paternity leave for one year, one of many benefits absent from Farber’s calculations.

The essential necessities of life are provided to all Cubans by the state, but Cuba’s resources are not unlimited, nor is Cuba able to maintain the current level of subsidies or state employment—including that of maintaining unproductive operations—without putting at risk the most important priorities, healthcare and education.

Cuban workers play a role in deciding how resources are allocated

The determination of how Cuba’s resources are allocated—including wages—is a decision made by the government with input by the people, within the framework of a planned economy.

Last August, for example, a plan of major economic measures was approved by the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament. The proposals included substituting the country’s 80 percent of food imports with more domestic agriculture, reducing the state employment by up to 1 million workers, promoting self-employment to absorb those workers, and moving many other affected workers to construction, teaching and agriculture, where there is a need to fill tens of thousands of jobs in those fields.

The strategy is prompted by a pressing need to stimulate the economy and overcome economic challenges facing Cuba: the skyrocketing price of food worldwide, the continued depressed price of nickel ore, Cuba’s main export, and the severe hardships imposed on Cuba’s economy by the U.S. economic blockade. Cuba’s report to the UN last October detailed losses of $975 billion due to the blockade.

The effects of the three devastating hurricanes in 2008 are still being felt. More than 65,000 homes were destroyed by three major storms , and 250,000 seriously damaged. Most of the agriculture was wiped out in two provinces. Although much of the housing was restored and replaced, it wiped out much of Cuba’s reserves.

Almost 8.9 million Cubans—out of a population of 11.5 million—debated and discussed the new economic proposals, described in the “Outline of the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and Revolution.”

The national debate lasted 10 months, from November 2010 to August 2011.

Cuba’s urban and agricultural workers were central to those debates, including the proposals for reduction of the workforce in state entities, and the setting aside of certain norms such as seniority. Those debates were widely reported in the Cuban press, and a very broad range of opinions and suggestions taken into consideration.

These were not rubber-stamp sessions: out of 291 points in the document, 181 were modified and 36 new ones were added.

Part of the plan does include raising wages but it cannot happen while the resources are not available. In Cuba, unions do not advocate for their own members’ individual wages and benefits. The economic needs of workers and all the people’s needs are addressed in Cuba’s national plans. When a benefit is possible for all the people, it is granted to all.

For example, in the 2001 CTC Workers Congress, the economic growth was strong enough that it was announced that the six months paid maternity leave would be extended to everyone, for one full year, including paternity leave.

Farber’s claim that Valdés Mesa is not a “legitimate” worker’s leader because he did not make demands for wage increases, is a dishonest advocacy for the Cuban workers that completely ignores the consensus process of the Cuban masses in a system where the means of production, the land and wealth that is produced belongs to the whole population.

The workers are the power. Their government, their state and party are the political super-structure of an economic system diametrically the opposite of capitalism.

Why shouldn’t Valdés Mesa urge workers to make their workplaces more efficient and productive, especially when the wealth that is created directly benefits the people?

And to whom should he have made the demand? In Farber’s fantasy scenario, Valdés would have demanded higher wages from the “bureaucratic caste.”

There are complex factors involved in overcoming Cuba’s economic challenges and deficiencies, which the Cuban government, party and unions are the first to acknowledge and work to resolve.

Raúl Castro on workers' wages

On July 26, 2007, Raúl Castro, then acting president, spoke in reference to workers’ wages.

“…because of the extreme objective difficulties that we face, wages today are clearly insufficient to satisfy all needs and have thus ceased to play a role in ensuring the socialist principle that each should contribute according to their capacity and receive according to their work. This has bred forms of social indiscipline and tolerance which, having taken root, prove difficult to eradicate, even after the objective causes behind them are eradicated.

“I can responsibly assure you that the Party and government have been studying these and other complex and difficult problems in depth, problems which must be addressed comprehensibly and through a differentiated approach in each concrete case.

“All of us, from the leaders to the rank-and-file workers, are duty-bound to accurately identify and analyze every problem in depth, within our working areas, in order to combat the problem with the most convenient methods.”

The economic outline adopted by the National Assembly in August 2011 is the result of that thoroughgoing and critical analysis—from all sectors of Cuba’s society—of the economy.

Cuba is a workers’ state. The U.S. puppet president, Fulgencio Batista fled on a plane on Jan. 1, 1959, after more than five years of a revolutionary struggle led by Fidel Castro. Batista’s fascistic police, the army and repressive machinery fell immediately and a new revolutionary state was born.

The first proof of that was seen in the revolutionary measures carried out within weeks and months: reduction of rents in March 1959 and elimination of landlordism in 1960 and a sweeping land reform on May 17, 1959, barely five months after Batista’s overthrow. These were followed by the nationalization on a socialist basis of U.S. industrial property starting in 1960, and the complete socialization of all private property by 1968.

The wealth belongs to the Cubans

The wealth that the country creates—in industry and agriculture—benefits all the people. It is not wealth stolen by a class of industrialists and bankers and sent abroad in capital flight, like that which plagues all of Latin America. If there is anything sent abroad, it is thousands of doctors, teachers and other internationalists.

In strategic industries like nickel-ore mining, Cuba has engaged in joint ventures with foreign corporations, but that is because the mines’ operations ceased up in the early 1990s due to the lack of spare parts, when Soviet-Cuban trade ended. Today, nickel exports are the second largest source of hard currency for Cuba. But Cuba controls the means of production; no foreign entity dictates to the country.

The need for more production is evident in Cuba’s agriculture and food supply.

Since 2008, almost 2.5 million acres of previously uncultivated land have been distributed to tens of thousands of farmers—those already established and people entering agriculture for the first time. Not one peso was paid by those farmers to receive use of the land.

Attention to their needs is a priority of the government. Earlier this year, when it was evident that farmers were not purchasing farm tools because of prices that were too high for them, the prices were reduced by 60 percent by the government. That price was achieved by the government subsidizing the reduction.

More food production on those 2.5 million acres will mean more food for the population, and less resources spent to import food from abroad. No Monsanto, ADM, or United Fruit exists in Cuba to grow food for massive export. That was the Cuba before 1959. Then, United Fruit kept 200,000 acres of its best land fallow, while peasants’ families starved.

More production of consumer goods will mean improved conditions for the people.

More innovations in pharmaceuticals by Cuba’s remarkable biotechnology industry—to replace medicines that up to now have been imported—means Cuba does not have to spend hard currency to buy and ship medicines from abroad.

Yes, more production, efficiency and saving resources are the watchwords.

The role of unions

The unions in Cuba represent workers in the workplace to help resolve problems for the workers. But the duty of workers and unions is also to defend and expand the socialist gains, with each workplace contributing to raise production.

Unions in the capitalist United States represent the workers to try to lessen the level of exploitation, where the relationship between workers and corporations is antagonistic, and super profits are extracted from their labor.

With respect to union practices, it is interesting that in the United States, the unions generally seek compulsory membership and dues payment of all workers in the unit they represent, through means of a “union” or “closed” shop — unless prohibited by anti-union “right-to-work” laws.

It is understandable why a union would want compulsory membership under capitalism. Everything in capitalist society mitigates against the right of workers to organize: union-busting industries and anti-union propaganda that affects workers’ consciousness in a negative way.

The unions under capitalism are virtually the only organization that workers have to defend and represent them. They stand as an obstacle to unfettered exploitation by the corporations. But more public and private sector workers are seeing their rights to collective bargaining under severe attack.

We know what happened in Wisconsin and Ohio. The anti-worker offensive continues.

In late April, 17,000 teachers and support workers in Little Rock, Arkansas lost their right to collective bargaining when their contracts were declared null and void by a city commission. Union representation of workers in the United States is now less than 13 percent, an historic low.

In Cuba, union membership and dues are completely voluntary, and yet, 97 percent of the workers belong to Cuba’s 19 national unions that make up the CTC. Today, a major goal for Cuba’s unions is to reach out and represent the new sector of self-employed workers.

The workers' congress of a people in power

In 1996 I attended the CTC Congress, and witnessed several days of debate and discussion among the more than 1,900 workers who were elected to the Congress to represent their workplaces and unions.

The year 1996 was one of new hope for the Cuban people, coming after six years of severe economic downturn, with the Soviet Union’s sudden cut-off of trade to Cuba in 1989.

With the loss of 80 percent of the country’s imports of fuel and raw materials, the country’s production fell by 34.5 percent from 1989 to 1993, an astounding figure that would have caused capitalist governments to collapse or be overthrown.

The years 1989 to 1996 were a period of monumental struggle by the people of Cuba— workers, farmers, students, intellectuals—to withstand the hardship, and to find solutions to the shortages of everything essential for survival. They were determined to hold onto to socialism and all that the people had achieved in 40 years of Revolution.

To try to make up for the loss of 80 percent of the island’s imports of the most essential food, fuel and raw materials, the country had to find new sources of income.

And yes, as horrified as Farber is by the thought, the people had to work harder and raise production with what little resources the country had.

This was precisely the time that the U.S. government aggressively tightened the blockade, making it impossible for Cuba to buy goods from Latin American subsidies of U.S. corporations. To this day, ships from other countries are threatened with confiscation if they dock in a U.S. harbor after trading with Cuba. The Helms-Burton law of 1996 internationalized the blockade by sanctioning other countries that invest in Cuba.

In that 1996 Congress, I interviewed many of the workers for a video I produced, “Workers Democracy in Cuba.” I was struck by the enthusiasm of delegates who gladly proclaimed to my camera, “Last year we produced 400,000 towels and this May we have already produced four times that much. ... The workers in our province from all fields of work have gone into the fields to help harvest the sugarcane. … We have produced more shoes in record numbers than ever before…I am a National Vanguard worker, and I will continue to give my sweat and blood to defend this Revolution. … I have contributed 7,000 hours of volunteer labor, why wouldn’t I defend my Revolution on a daily basis?”

Only workers who live in a society where the people own the means of production would think and speak proudly about increased production. You will never hear a U.S. worker brag about his or her increased production, where workers instinctively know that production will only make their jobs obsolete and the owners richer.

Cubans pulled together, overcame challenges after loss of Soviet trade

When the Soviet Union canceled overnight all its trade contracts with Cuba in 1991, detractors of Cuba’s socialism predicted its imminent fall.

But as testament to the socialist consciousness of Cuba’s people and the revolutionary leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba and mass organizations, the whole country worked together to defend their socialist gains.

It took enormous sacrifice and hard work.

Scientists and agronomists together developed new methods of organic farming, and biotechnological innovations are now a new source of income for Cuba.

Thousands of hotel rooms were built by the construction union and volunteer micro-brigades to bring in tourist dollars. Now tourism is the number one source of income for Cuba.

Yes, everyone was urged to work harder, and they still are. But it is not an exhortation by a capitalist class seeking more profits nor a bureaucratic caste looking to get rich.

It is a revolutionary government and people trying to raise the productive level so they can reduce dependency on costly imports, while the United States government continues to implement new measures to block Cuba’s economic development.

It is understandable that an average worker raised under capitalism, without political consciousness, would instinctively mistrust all governments as adversary, and not have the slightest idea that Cuba’s government truly is of, by and for the people.

But it is political bankruptcy for someone like Sam Farber, claiming to be socialist, to characterize the speech of a revolutionary leader like Salvador Valdés Mesa as one befitting a capitalist boss.

It is a slap in the face to the Cuban people who have endured one of the most severe and longstanding policies of imperialist aggression for more than 50 years. Despite all odds they are determined to build and defend a revolution that truly strives to meet people's needs.

Farber has dismissed Cuba’s Revolution from its very beginning, because he asserts that the workers and peasants of Cuba did not really participate in the overthrow of Batista, and therefore, as a “top-down” struggle, it does not qualify in his eyes as a legitimate revolution.

Suffice it to say that the 20,000 people who were brutally murdered by Batista’s henchmen in the years before his overthrow, youth, workers and peasants who actively supported the revolutionary struggle, are testament to the massive opposition to Batista’s regime.

Fortunately, the Cuban Revolution does not need the International Socialist Organization’s approval or solidarity to continue its struggle. Cuba has countless friends and allies around the world. It has made and maintained achievements that are unmatched in all of Latin America and the oppressed world, and many “developed” countries, including the United States.

Its internationalism, from fighting apartheid South Africa’s invasion of Angola, to sending tens of thousands of doctors and teachers worldwide, has saved and enriched the lives of millions of people, and earned the admiration of the people of the world.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation is a firm supporter of the Cuban Revolution as the clearest example of what a people can do—in the most adverse of circumstances—when they take power.

We do not have to agree with everything that takes place in Cuba to be in solidarity with its revolution. Our duty is to actively oppose the U.S. blockade, defend Cuba, and fight for our own revolution at home.

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