Cuba: Labor

Ideas and Issues Labor Organizing

Havana, Cuba: The Central Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) building is an impressive multi-story structure complete with an elevator and a surprising number of well-appointed meeting rooms on many of the floors. One can look through the louvered windows across the street to the open windows in the adjoining building and see workers hand wrapping cigars.
Our delegation of labor lawyers, union, community organizers, and students began meeting with a number of officials of the CTC, the equivalent of the Cuban Labor Department, and a number of labor lawyers who handled various and sundry tasks for the labor organizations of Cuba. The system is extensive and dense.
There is a claim that all Cuban workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements in one of the nineteen (19) different national unions that compose the CTC. Dues at 1% of gross wages capped at 4 pesos per month are supposedly paid on a voluntary basis with no payroll check off systems by 99% or so of the covered workers. The heart of the organizational system is an intense layer of representation where there is a steward for every six workers and multiple layers of union structure – the CTC has some 2000 paid full-time staff for the more than 30000 elected leaders. Whew!
Organizing math is an interesting part of our work, so it will probably take me the better part of the week to suss out whether or not the claims and the math correlate. My rough figures would indicate that if the CTC dues percentages and averages are what they maintain, then the CTC would be grossing about $2 million (US) per year – and there is no clear indication of how they are spending that yet. We’ll see as we get deeper into the realities here and understand more clearly.
Listening to the speakers from early in the morning until after six at night I had a chance to read the materials thoroughly. The earlier bi-lateral meetings had in some cases issued extensive reports, which were both sincere and skeptical, and very well done. The license for this trip involved professional research and dissemination, and I’m doing it – and your reading it. (On the issue of what is legal in these days and times in terms of travel to Cuba – read the very helpful guide put out by the Center for Constitutional Rights based in New York <>.) To read the best two reports on labor unions and their situation in Cuba read the 2002 Report of the US Delegation to the 2002 Exchange Between U.S. and Cuban Labor and Employment Lawyers, Neutrals and Trade Unionists, which is available through the National Lawyers Guild at <>. A longer report with excellent information and some sound insights is written by Debra Evenson for the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice at <>.
Most interestingly at the end of the day we visited a taxi worksite that was part of base 21, which is something like a section of a bureau, which is the equivalent of a union local. We met with both elected officers and rank-and-file drivers. Workers’ paradise at between 200 and 400 pesos and month (which is something like $10 US to $20 US per month) from what both sides of the table allowed. Of course that had a point that all education, health care, much of the child care, a standard “food basket” and other benefits were handled by the state – rent or mortgages, since there is a huge percentage of home ownership in Cuba is capped at no more than 10% of gross income – and there are bonuses in many sectors. Still it’s not much money by a long shot! One member of the delegation asked a question about whether they were worried that if the blockade ended they would be flooded in dollars, and the Cubans were astounded that anyone could think this might be a problem – in essence they answered – bring it on!
It was an interesting interchange. People were genuine and straightforward. There was no duplicity or artifice, but it was amazing how tight the workers were on message. They all knew the ideology cold. They were not brainwashed, but they were prime examples of 45 years of successful political education. As an organizer, I had to sit in awe at the skill of a job well done. But, as an organizer I also had to wonder, if there was a time when these men and women really had the space away from the pressure of the U.S. and the isolation of their own country to try and list and sort by themselves. There was organization but no tension or conflict. There was structure but no strikes. I could see palm trees and bougainvilleas, but I was definitely walking a part of the planet where my work had never taken me.