Cuba: Australian Workers Union tips its hat to Washington

More than a million Cuban workers mobilise each year on May Day, organised by the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba trade union federation.

[See also "Cuban trade unionist: `Workers are key participants in the Cuban revolution'".]

By Tim Anderson

January 26, 2011 -- This January the Australian Workers Union (AWU) wrote an insulting letter to the new Cuban ambassador to Australia, Pedro Monzón. The union’s response shows the tight ideological hold that the US has over the weaker, more compliant sections of the trade union movement in Australia.

Ambassador Monzón, who arrived in Australia in late 2010, had invited a number of union leaders for a chat. Paul Howes, as national secretary of the AWU, responded in what seemed an unnecessarily offensive way: “I would be happy to take up your offer to meet but this can, unfortunately, only happen once the Cuban government stops repressing independent trade unions and releases the many union leaders now in prison in your country.” He names five men, held in jail.

Paul Howes says the AWU has “been critical for some time” of Cuba’s trade union federation, the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC), which has coverage of almost all employees in Cuba. He claims the federation’s leaders are not elected but rather appointed by the state. After citing information prepared by US-funded groups, he concludes: “there is increasing talk of the need for unions to highlight this repression and put more pressure on Communist regime [sic] which rules your country to give workers real rights in the workplace”.

Perhaps in the haste to exorcise his youthful flirtation with socialism, Paul Howes may have missed the point that, since late 2009, the Australian Labor Party-led federal government has been engaging with Cuba on aid and international affairs. Never mind, he’s not a Labor member of parliament yet.

In the substance of his Cold War styled claims, Paul copied arguments developed by US-government funded groups, the latest of which is the Committee for Free Trade Unionism (CFTU), cleverly borrowing the old acronym for the international trade union federation, the ITUC (formerly the ICFTU). The CFTU has managed to have some of its material adopted by the ITUC. The “dissident union groups, the CUTC, the CONIC and the CTDC” that the AWU claims to support, do not exist as unions in Cuba. They are US-funded fronts.

Cubans understand very well that these groups -- like the "Ladies in White", the "independent journalists" and the "independent human rights monitors" -- are business operations. A Cuban friend of mine who works in one of the European Embassies in Havana is asked to hand out $50 to each of the "Ladies in White", and $30 each to their companions, for each event or action in which they participate. The money comes to this embassy from the US Interests Section in Havana.

Precisely because the US has been working these fronts for many years, Cuba’s trade unions maintain a united and pro-Revolution front. Unity has been a key strength of the Cubans, in face of half a century of US aggression.

The CUTC, which the AWU claims to support, is run by Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos from Miami. He is cited by Paul Howes as an ex-political prisoner who was jailed for his union activities. This is quite false. Alvarez Ramos was jailed in 2003 for paid collaboration with the US government in programs specifically designed to overthrow the constitutional order in Cuba. Such activity is a crime in Cuba, as in most countries. Alvarez Ramos was released in 2006 and lives and works for US-funded groups in Miami. That city’s Federated Union of Electrical, Gas and Water Plant Workers, in addition to the Washington money, gives the CUTC a leg up into the AFL-CIO.

The CFTU includes a gaggle of old AFL-CIO members, who in turn collect money from USAID and the trade union wing of the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED, set up by the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, is notorious for its backing of "transition" regimes for countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and Honduras. Its current activities focus heavily on Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. While the US has laws against foreign funding of political activities within the US, this is precisely what the US Congress funds the NED to do, in other countries.

The CFTU attacks pretty much every country on "union rights", except the US and its client states, and pays an extraordinary amount of attention to Cuba. Some of the group’s material has been adopted by the ITUC, to its discredit. Three of the CFTU’s 10 board members, including Alvarez Ramos, are working on Cuba.

For example, CFTU board member, Ms Lourdes Kistler, got NED money in the 1990s for the AFL-CIO’s "Committee for a Free Cuba" campaign. The CFTU’s website notes that she also secured the CFTU “a U.S. State Department grant ... to assist Cuban labor activists trying to organize democratic and independent trade unions”.

The US government has for many years funded a series of campaigns supposedly in support of "independent journalists", "human rights advocates", "labour rights advocates" and so on. The integrated "transition" program which provides these funds (from US Congress, the State Department and USAID, not to mention the CIA) for the various "independent" groups "requires" a system in Cuba which is based on a "free economy", with privatisation of all key sectors, including health. All this is spelt out in US law (the 1996 Helms Burton Act) and elaborated in the George W. Bush administration’s 2004 "transition" plan. The administration of US President Barack Obama has made no changes to the plan.

A "Free Cuba" must join the World Bank, decontrol prices, engage in an "effective privatization program", enforce new property rights and various other "free market mechanisms". The US government will also "encourage a Free Cuba to settle outstanding [property] claims issues as expeditiously as possible". This last one could put the Cuban people in debt for as much as US$100 billion. The impact of all this on workers' rights would be appalling.

Apart from Alvarez Ramos, other alleged labour activists mentioned in Paul Howes’ letter -– Nelson Molinet Espino (CTDC) and Iván Hernández Carrillo (CONIC) -– were jailed not for labour activism, but for collaboration with and receiving money from the then US station chief in Havana, James Cason. If your Spanish is up to it you can read about these people in Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Luís Baez’s 2003 book, Los Disidentes; and in the Trabajadores article by Aleida Godinez, "Revelaciones sobre el ‘sindicalismo independiente’ en Cuba".

It’s worth noting that the CFTU and the anti-Cuban AFL-CIO committee are made up of US citizens who are banned from travelling to Cuba to actually talk to Cuban trade unionists; that is, they are banned from talking to Cubans by the very same government that pays them to malign Cuba.

Paul Howes keeps this Cold War spirit alive by his own bold "boycott". He claims the CTC leadership is “not elected by workers but appointed by the state and the Cuban Communist party”. This is simply false and shows his great ignorance, probably willing ignorance, of the Cuban system. Fortunately there are a number of other Australian trade unions officials who have travelled to Cuba to talk with their CTC counterparts, and who would know more. The CTC has its own elections and provides input to all significant government policies and laws, before they are finalised.

It is true that the CTC works very closely with the Cuban state and the Cuban Communist Party. This is what is expected of a socialist system. Even in capitalist Australia most of the trade unions are embedded in the Labor Party, forcing them to back wars, privatisations and the interests of giant corporations. In Cuba the state-union link has meant the CTC, along with the Federation of Cuban Women, is deeply involved in policy development and has achieved some substantial gains.

Paul Howes makes an off-hand remark about the CTC supposedly collaborating in mass "sackings" in public enterprises. It is understandable that Australians might not know much about recent changes in Cuba. Reports from the US appear alarming and non-Spanish speakers would find the Cuban debates hard to access. But why commit to firm opinions based on ignorance?

With the involvement of the CTC, the Cuban government defined the rights of laid-off workers in the Ministry of Work and Social Security’s Resolution 35, October 7, 2010. Almost all current lay-offs are for productivity reasons, as in the 1990s, when the sugar industry was rationalised. The redundancy process involves an enterprise panel, including the immediate supervisor and a CTC representative. If laid off, the worker can apply for another position in the state sector, a small business license, a usufruct land lease or for work in the non-state sector. Laid-off workers receive full salary for one month, then 60% salary for up to five months, depending on length of service.

All Cubans maintain rent-free and mortgage-free housing, free health care, free education for life and subsidised basic foods. Social security, paid maternity leave (for one year) and free child care (from when the child can walk) is guaranteed for all. Have any Australian unions achieved this?

[Tim Anderson is a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University. This article has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Tim Anderson's permission.]