Cuban Trade Unions: Committed to socialism and the defence of workers
This interview appears in the October/November 2011 issue of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!
Ernesto Freire Cazañas
Since the mid-2000s, Cuba’s revolutionary government has introduced numerous measures to recover from the economic crisis of the 1990s and improve the efficiency of Cuban socialism. This process has intensified since 2008 to deal with economic and financial problems aggravated by the international crisis. Among these policies are changes to the employment structure. In September 2010, the Cuban Trade Union Confederation (CTC) announced plans to transfer one million unproductive state sector workers into alternative employment between 2011 and 2015; half of them by March 2011. Alternative employment includes understaffed areas of the state sector, cooperatives and self-employment. These changes were further detailed in the Guidelines of the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution, distributed and debated nationwide from November 2010, modified according to popular demand at the Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) (see FRFI 221) in April 2011 and approved in the National Assembly in July.
Cuba’s workforce is around 5.2 million. Prior to the employment changes, 800,000, or 15.4% of the workforce already worked in the non-state sector. Most of these are in agricultural cooperatives whose production features in the central plan; they sell a proportion to the state. Just 140,000 Cubans or 2.7% of the total workforce were self-employed. By the end of August 2011, self-employment licences had risen to 330,000, or 6.1% of workers. While this figure will rise, two-thirds of the ‘surplus’ state workers are expected to transfer into cooperative employment; a process that has barely yet begun. The following is an interview carried out by HELEN YAFFE for Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! in Havana in mid-September 2011, with ERNESTO FREIRE CAZAÑAS, member of the National Council of the CTC and head of the International Relations Department, about the changes to the employment structure and the CTC’s role. The interview demonstrates that Cuban trade unions, which are independent and financed through membership subscriptions, have a real and decisive influence on developments and policies in Cuba.
Helen Yaffe: The CTC announcement of September 2010 stated that 500,000 surplus workers in the state sector would be transferred to alternative employment by March 2011. However, this process was halted by the CTC. What were the principal reasons for this?
Ernesto Freire Cazañas: This is a gradual process that cannot be hurried. The objective of restructuring the workforce is the rational use of human and material resources. We have to ensure that no worker is left helpless through a policy of ‘shock therapy’. Rather, we want to use their work skills, knowledge and technical-professional training in the areas where we have a deficit in the country’s labour force. The CTC made that announcement to inform our people and the world that, along with the 18 national trade unions affiliated to the CTC and the National Association of Innovators and Rationalisers, we agreed with the policy approved by the leadership of the country; that the workers understand and support the measures taken to improve the economy of the country, which is the economy of the workers, the peoples’ economy, based on the socialist principle of distribution and of justice and social equity.
The CTC and the trade unions are the guarantors of this process; we guard against violations of the procedures established for the restructuring of the workforce. When the administration proposes that a person should stay or not stay in the work centre, they consult with a committee inside that organisation which advises the administrative director. The committee is composed of one administrative representative, one trade union representative and five other workers elected in the work-centre Assembly [by the whole workforce]. They are responsible for ensuring that the measures taken are fair.
Workers who feel that there has been a violation of the process have the right to complain against the decision. In the first instance they complain to another workplace organisation, the Grass Roots Labour Justice panels, which are also composed of an administrative representative, a trade union representative and three to five workers elected in the Assembly. They make a public analysis of whether or not the worker is right. Workers who reject their decision can make a claim at the labour courts at the municipal (borough) level and from then on the case is considered in the courts via legal channels.
Workers can also complain through the trade unions, in the workplace, at the municipal level and at the provincial level. We are representing people who do not agree with the decisions made. Many workers come here [CTC national offices] for clarification or to complain about measures taken. Regarding the alternative employment, this is chosen by the workers themselves.
Before this process began, it was discussed in more than 80,000 Assemblies organised with all the work collectives to explain the necessity of these measures and that no-one would be left without employment. Anyone who does not agree with their proposed redeployment has a period of salary guaranteed and if they decide not to take the alternative work, they can be registered with the municipal work organisation to see what work comes up.
HY: How is the CTC ensuring that non-state sector workers join trade unions?
EFC: Many of these workers, especially in the new cooperatives, will continue as members of the trade union they were in as state employees. In Cuba, trade unions organise according to branch or sector. For example, the health trade union includes everyone from hospital porter, to emergency doctors and the minister of health. With the new laws approved for self-employment, those individuals will organise according to the trade union branch in which they are engaged; those who sell coffee or own ‘paladares’ (home-based restaurants) join the trade union for gastronomic trades, those who drive bicycle taxis, or private taxis, join the transport trade union, and so on. A percentage of those with licences for self-employment are also already affiliated to a trade union. It will be those who had no official employment that the CTC will work with to encourage them to join the trade unions.
HY: What can you say about the relationship within the trade unions between state-sector workers and non-state workers?
EFC: The CTC and the trade unions face a challenge, especially in terms of the form and method of representing and defending workers’ rights. With workers in a social entity or in a closed centre we can call a meeting or an assembly for everyone to attend. But we cannot tell non-state workers to leave their business, or stop working, to come to the trade union. We are studying ways to address their problems and to represent them. These workers have many institutional relationships through the payment of taxes, work licences, public health for their sanitary licence, physical planning, People’s Power assemblies and so on. The trade unions’ role is to represent them in their problems and concerns in relation to those other institutions and the new mechanisms. This is a process of continuous improvement and, as you saw a few days ago, a set of modifications have already been made to bring more flexibility to self-employment. Through our contact with non-state workers we are aware of their concerns; about taxes, inspections and fines. We have been transmitting these concerns to the government. Our experience and that of those other institutions has led to the decision to introduce greater flexibility in self-employment legislation.
Self-employment will not be introduced in the main branches of the Cuban economy, nor in health, education, the armed forces or domestic security. Self-employment will exist in secondary areas, to complement the national economy.
HY: How can you ensure that workers employed by those in self-employment have fair representation and protection when they are in the same trade unions as their employers?
EFC: This is not new in Cuba. In the state sector all workers are affiliated to the same trade unions. In order to prevent exploitation of man by man, one of the 181 activities [areas in which self-employment is now permitted] is ‘contracted worker’. That means that these workers have an employment licence, have the right to join a union, social security, and the right to a salary as a contracted worker that cannot be less than double the minimum state salary for this employment. They cannot be exploited or made to work 14 or 15 hours. The trade union is here to prevent violations of their rights. All Cuban workers are protected by collective bargaining agreements. This protection applies to workers who have a licence, not someone pulled off the street. We tell non-state workers that for us to represent them they have to be within the law. If they sell stolen goods or hide their income, we cannot represent them because this is a workers’ state and this damages the workers themselves. That is money that is used to provide the free education that their children receive. This society provides a set of free universal benefits and non-state workers receive all the same benefits as state workers.
HY: Is the promotion of self-employment and cooperatives considered to be a temporary measure to deal with the current economic difficulties, or is this considered as a model for socialist transition?
EFC: This is here to stay, not to be reversed, but to go forwards. Socialism is a process and our system is being improved every day. When the political leadership of the Cuban Communist Party and the Council of Ministers approves a set of agreements they express their political will, but for these to become policy they must be approved in the National Assembly. I am referring to the legislative character of the process. The political will for these measures was expressed in the spring. Now they are being applied; through laws and resolutions, published in the Gaceta Oficial [legislative publication]. Then they become constitutional and sustainable.
As stated in the introduction of the Guidelines [for economic and social policy], in Cuba state control of the main branches of the economy will co-exist with other models of production. There will be state enterprises, private capital, ‘usufructos’ [farmers on rent-free land loaned by the state], self-employment, people who rent rooms, artists and so on. It will be improved as the economy develops.
This process cannot be understood in isolation. Cuba has a huge dependence on foreign trade. What happens internationally in terms of economic crisis, financial crisis and so on, affects Cuba. We need to substitute imports, for which prices have risen. We are developing new capacity in the agricultural sector. If we can substitute imports we can use this money for social investments. The US blockade has been intensified. US President Obama has declared he wants to continue squeezing Cuba until the regime falls. The ‘ferocious wolf’, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairman of the US Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Cuba should be attacked as Libya was. Look what they are doing to our five heroes, prisoners of imperialism. 
HY: In Britain most of the ‘socialist’ organisations claim that Cuban workers have no power and that there are no independent trade unions. What would you say to explain the role of the CTC and trade unions in Cuba?
EFC: I would like them to visit Cuba and speak to the workers. Cuban trade unions emerge, develop and strengthen in the workplace. Cuban trade unions do not exist in cafes or in the internet, nor are they virtual. We have the principle that every workplace organises a union branch. The vast majority of workers are in unions although there is no obligation to join one. Our statutes state that ten workers can set up a union branch. Where there are not ten workers a trade union committee or delegation can be set up.
Under socialism the trade union has two main functions. The first is universal for any trade union, the representation and defence of workers’ rights. In the case of socialist Cuba, we have another mission; to actively participate in the effort to develop the economy of the country, which is the economy of the people. We have trade unions of the workers, for the workers and by the workers.
 Announced on 12 September 2011, these modifications include permitting the hiring of workers in all 181 self-employment activities permitted, limited and specific tax exemptions and the exemption from social security payments for those of pension age.