Unions in Cuba: Who Do They Defend?
May 8, 2012
By Samuel Farber*
HAVANA TIMES — In the 1930s, at the height of Stalinist terror, a
Russian miner called Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov, became famous – and
infamous – for supposedly having extracted 102 tons of coal in less than
6 hours, exceeding his quota by a factor of 14.
Under the direction and thrust of the Communist Party of the USSR, and,
of course, with the support of the unions totally controlled by the
government, the Stakhanovite movement spread to all industries forcing
the competition for hyper production among workers.
Stakhanovism left a very bitter memory in the political culture of the
USSR and Eastern Europe, analyzed and pictured in the unforgettable film
The Man of Marble, by the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda.
It was that quasi mythical figure of Stakhanov that came to mind when I
read the May Day speech and interview published in Trabajadores (April
29, 2012) with Salvador Valdés Mesa, general secretary of the
Confederation of Cuban Workers and member of the Political Bureau of the
Cuban Communist Party.
In fact, Valdés Mesa sounded a lot more like the Head of Personnel of
the Cuban state than a union leader particularly when we consider that
the unions exist to defend the interests of the workers, even in a
supposedly socialist state.
Although in his interview Valdés Mesa mentioned, almost in passing, the
improvement of working conditions and consumer goods as a goal of his
Confederation, he did not even mention the subject in his May Day
speech. It is clear that the dominant theme in both pronouncements was
his demand for the Cuban workers to work harder and more productively.
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.
Without ifs 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."
The union leader did not even demand an improvement in the notoriously
deficient transport system so that the workers could get to work on time
thereby contributing to a rise in productivity.
Neither did he demand that the administrators share in the sacrifices of
the workers and that they also become productive.
To be sure, the union leader defended piecework rates (pay "according to
results") rejecting the well established union principle that opposes
pay by piecework in favor of payment according to time worked.
Valdés Mesa as well as Raul Castro and other Cuban Communist leaders are
invoking the "principle of socialist distribution" to justify piecework.
The "principle of socialist distribution" refers to pay according to
work (in contrast with the communist principle of distribution according
But pay according to work does not necessarily imply piecework.
Compensation according to work can easily and perfectly be established
by counting the hours, days, weeks or months that workers have labored.
It is obvious that in contrast with piecework, from the point of view of
the workers, compensation according to time worked constitutes an
elementary defense against super exploitation by the bosses, in this
case the state being the boss.
Besides, pay for time worked is more compatible with the development of
solidarity among workers, while piecework stimulates competition among
them. Can there be any doubt about which of those would be the choice in
a socialist economy and society truly controlled by the workers in
contrast with an employer state like the Cuban?
Valdés Mesa also rejects the right to seniority. Throughout the history
of capitalism, genuine unions have insisted in giving priority to the
workers that have worked longest not only to defend the older workers,
for whom it would obviously be more difficult to find a job, but also to
protect all workers from favoritism and the arbitrary behavior of
supervisors and bosses.
But Valdés Mesa rejects seniority – and ignores any other measures that
would protect black workers and women – on behalf of "suitability,"
precisely the criterion favored by big business in the capitalist
countries when they lay off workers.
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, where I live,
has undertaken a big campaign to layoff public school teachers without
regard to seniority, supposedly to retain only the "suitable" teachers.
But the real agenda behind this policy is to attack the teachers' union
and weaken the solidarity among its members.
And how is "suitability" to be determined in Cuba? As decided in 2010,
this will be the task of a "Committee of Experts" elected, by a show of
hands, in general workers' assemblies, before which a slate of
candidates jointly elaborated by the enterprise management and the
official union will be submitted.
For anyone aware of the political situation in Cuba, it is obvious that
those elections will be purely cosmetic. It is worth noting that the
government has excluded from the jurisdiction of the Committee of
Experts any decision affecting administrators and political cadres and
The work status of those people will be decided by the institutions and
authorities that appointed or elected them.
It is evident that not too many Cuban workers see their official unions
as genuine unions and as a "suitable" instrument for the defense of
their interests, whether inside or outside their workplaces.
Valdés Mesa implicitly recognizes this when he admits, in the interview
published in Trabajadores, that "there are workers who do not believe in
It is understandable that for this and other reasons the general
secretary of the official central union is worried about the
Confederation having the "capacity to be a protagonist in the updating
of the economic model."
That is why the official workers' confederation has organized the newly
self-employed people; the union leaders already claim that they have
recruited the great majority of these.
Although we do not yet know for sure what the Confederation is planning
to do with the self-employed Cubans (and quite apart from the fact that
only a minority of these are workers and that the great majority are
proprietors, although of small businesses) is there any doubt that the
main impulse behind this is to control the self-employed just as in the
case of the state workers?
It is very clear that the official workers' confederation and its
affiliate unions are not authentic unions but representatives and allies
of the employer state.
It is also clear that never before has an independent union movement
been as necessary as in the present transition towards a new
exploitation model that will likely lead to numerous protests by workers
and peasants as has happened in China.
What will the nascent independent left in Cuba do in regard to such an
(*) Samuel Farber was born and grew up in Cuba and is the author of
numerous articles and books about that country including his most recent
Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959. A Critical Assessment (Haymarket