Trade unions in Cuba and the emergence of a private sector

May 8, 2012 3:13 am Published by Leave your thoughts

On a warm April morning, the solidarity delegation of which I was part, met with Jesus Montera, international officer of the CTC, in the organisation’s Havana office.

The Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) or Workers’ Central Union of Cuba, comprised of eighteen separate unions, is Cuba’s answer to the TUC. Whereas union membership in the UK has declined over the past three decades to less than 30%, Montera explained that in Cuba, 94% of all eligible members, or three million workers, are part of a union. Membership is voluntary, though the reason it is so high is not just down to the basic employment protections offered to a union member but, Montera said, related to individual Cubans wanting to have a voice and to play an active part in shaping their workplace.

Workplace meetings of union members take place usually once a week in Cuba and members are encouraged to discuss issues pertaining to their working environment.

Montera explained how the unions comprising the CTC, independent of any government organisation, hold a lot of power in Cuba. In each workplace, the union representative, elected by the members via a secret ballot, has the right to sit in on meetings of the management and hence be privy to all their decisions. This policy exists at national level too. The general secretary of the CTC, Salvador Valdes Mesa, who gave the keynote speech at this year’s Mayday celebrations in Havana, has a seat on the thirty-two member National Executive, Cuba’s ministerial Cabinet.

The CTC is also able to present laws for debate in the Cuban parliament, on behalf of its members.

Montera, despite promising that he would have to leave the table at any moment to attend to an important matter, continued to explain about the workings of the CTC, patiently answering any questions thrown his way, without appearing hurried.

He told us that Cuba has had its rough times and left no illusions as to the challenges faced by the country. He explained how during the Cuban ‘Special Period’ (ie: the 90s, when Cuba rapidly lost 75% of its trade and suffered a 35% reduction in its GDP following the collapse of the USSR), there were periods when production simply ceased due to a lack of available raw materials. During these times, there was no work to be done. Nevertheless, the workers of affected industries still received 60% of their usual salaries whilst effectively rendered redundant. Once the raw materials became available again, they returned to their jobs.

There were a couple of points Montera was particularly keen to address, due to some misrepresentations about Cuba that had been doing the rounds. One was the claim that the CTC had been set up following the revolution to control Cuban workers. Montera explained how the CTC had been formed in 1939, 20 years before the revolution. Another myth was that Cuba had adopted a model of ‘Soviet Socialism’. Montera’s view was that every country had to reach Socialism its own way, every nation has a different history and culture; its people their own idiosyncracies. For this reason, he said, Cuba did not and could not follow a Soviet model as it would not have fitted in with the culture and the spirit of the Cuban people.

As in Britain, the retirement age in Cuba has also increased. However, Cubans were asked their opinion on the matter. Montera says that the majority, though by no means everybody, was in favour of raising the retirement age by five years to make it sixty for women and sixty five for men. The country is already known for having one of the highest proportions of centegenarians in the world and, according to Montera, 25% of the Cuban population will be aged sixty and over by 2020.

In return for working longer, workers would receive a greater proportion of their final earnings as a pension; more than the 50-60% of final earnings that currently makes up the pension.

Montera hastened to point out too that Cuba, just like other countries, has been affected by the global economic crisis. For example, Cuba is now paying more for certain imports, having spent $900 million more on food last year. The price of nickel, a major Cuban export, has also fallen heavily in recent years from a high of $50,000 (USD).

Nevertheless, Cuba has faced far worse in the past, such as during the ‘Special Period’, when Montera stated that 85,000 meetings were organised amongst workers, farmers, university students and ‘middle school’ pupils in order to seek the opinions and concerns of citizens about the crisis and discuss thoughts for solutions. Nowadays, Cuba is also part of ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América or Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), a trade block set up in 2004 that now consists of eight Latin American nations set up as an alternative to the US led free trade agreement NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).

One of the most recent changes to have come about in Cuba is the emergence of a growing private sector. Montera explained that 350,000 Cubans now work in the private sector, which is expected to account for 40% of the country’s GDP in the next few years. Private sector jobs are predominantly in tourism and hospitality. In Cuba it was not unknown for individuals to open up private restaurants in their own homes as an alternative to the state owned restaurants. The latter tend to be based in mansions formerly owned by wealthy Cubans pre 1959. Montera said that the CTC was keen to unionise private sector workers and ensure that they had pension entitlements post retirement.

When asked what advice Montera and the CTC could offer union members in Britain, Montera smiled and shyly stated that he does not like to impose his views on other countries.

Whatever changes take place in Cuba over the course of the next several years, one thing seemed clear: any changes made will be implemented primarily in the interests of the people. Cuba will not adopt a US style capitalism model, as some may hope or fear. Cubans have worked too hard over the past fifty years to give up what they have achieved. At this year’s May Day march in Havana, a 100 metre banner carried by the Cubans at the front of the parade proclaimed Preservar y Perfeccionar el Socialism – Preserving and Perfecting Socialism.


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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek

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