Unions for Cuba
British trade unions display solidarity with Cuban unions at historic conference. CSC Campaigns Officer Ollie Hopkins reports
On Saturday 2 November, more than 200 trade unionists and activists attended CSC’s Unions for Cuba conference at the NEU headquarters in London. The vibrant conference, the largest trade union event of solidarity with Cuba to take place in the UK for fifteen years, demonstrated the bonds of friendship between British and Cuban workers.
Cuba’s delegation was comprised of fourteen labour movement leaders, twelve of whom were women, representing the country’s health, public administration, communications, transport, education, energy and mining sectors, and their Trades Union Congress (TUC) equivalent, the CTC.
On arrival in Britain, the delegation attended a welcome reception in the Marble Hall at Congress House, hosted by the TUC and London, Eastern and South East Regional TUC. Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary, warmly welcomed the Cuban delegation to Britain on behalf of the British trade union movement.
Speakers at the conference included general secretaries of Unite the Union and the CWU, Len McCluskey and Dave Ward; the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan ambassadors; and contributions from many other trade unionists, labour movement and student representatives, as well as academics.
Opening the first plenary, Sue Michie, CSC vice chair, said that the aim of the conference was to engage and inspire, “and to increase and strengthen solidarity between our two countries.”
“This is why this conference and CSC’s year of activities under the banner ‘Cuba60’ have been so important to counter US propaganda and remind us of the reasons there are to celebrate and defend Cuba’s many achievements in the face of the blockade,” she said.
Highlighting some of these achievements, CSC National Secretary Bernard Regan pointed out that Cuba has “three times the number of doctors per 1,000 to its population than Britain” and that during the past sixty years “400,000 Cuban medical professionals have travelled to 165 countries in all the continents of the world delivering healthcare.”
Maggi Ferncombe, UNISON Greater London Regional Secretary, welcomed the Cuban delegates: “From a union of a million women – I give particular greetings to the 12 Cuban women trade unionists here today,” she said to great cheers from the crowd.
Cuba’s “collective achievements are unbelievable…Their health system, their education system, their long life expectancy, and the four million people whose sight has been restored in Operation Miracle” were among the examples she drew attention to. She also stressed the importance of international solidarity with Cuba and urged all trade unionists to “affiliate your branches to CSC on Monday!”
Carmen Rosa López Rodríguez, Deputy General Secretary of the CTC, put Cuba’s achievements into a global context: “Free education, free healthcare, social security – these are achievements that the Cuban people have, despite the huge difficulties from the blockade, that so many people all over the world don’t have.”
Len McCluskey, Unite the Union General Secretary, spoke of the great achievements of the Cuban Revolution over the last 60 years: “The issue that most keenly matters to me is the development of labour rights in Cuba. From trade union activists being tortured and executed under Batista, today workers and their unions organised by the CTC have a special place in Cuban life.
“Workers and their unions have to be fully consulted and involved in decision-making at workplace level. The CTC and its affiliates are included in the great economic decisions that have to be made by the government,” he said.
He ended his speech by recalling a powerful anecdote on the importance of Cuba in Latin America. “Some years ago, before the time of Evo Morales, a Bolivian trade union leader visited our office and was asked ‘What would you say is the most important task?’ He replied,‘The defence of Cuba.’ Comrades, we can demand of ourselves nothing less than that.”
Breakout seminars through the day allowed delegates to hear in detail about the impact of the blockade on industry and economic development, trade union rights, health, education, sustainable development, and young people’s role in the political life of the country.
Pete Kavanagh, Unite London and Eastern Regional Secretary, gave examples of how the blockade impacted on British business too: “The blockade is extraterritorial – Unite represents workers in the finance sector – we often hear stories of banks getting huge fines for working with Cuba.
“We also represent Virgin Atlantic workers who fly regularly to Cuba. But you can’t book flights to Cuba online now as their website uses US Delta technology.”
Santiago Badía Gonzalez, General Secretary of the Cuban Health Workers Union, the largest trade union with over 460,000 members, said: “We see health as a fundamental right. We have an infant mortality rate of 4.0 per 1,000 live births– which is superior to our neighbouring countries who want to strangle us with their blockade.” He outlined some of the reasons behind Cuba’s impressive infant mortality rates – including that pregnant mothers have around 12 consultations during pregnancy, several times higher than the rate in Britain.
GMB official Ross Holden chaired a session called Cuban Futures. He recalled his experience on the Young Trade Unionists’ May Day Brigade to Cuba, where, he said, he saw how “socialism is so vibrant in Cuba, despite all the challenges that they face.”
During the same session, Mikeyly Ramírez Guevara, National Executive member of Cuba’s Energy and Mining trade union, addressed the issues of climate change and Cuba’s response, ‘Tarea Vida’ (Project Life), ashort-, medium- and long-term plan to tackle these challenges.
Iris Lorenzo, President of the Association of Innovators and Rationalisers (ANIR) in Las Tunas, explained how she was part of a CTC trade union department which worked to find ways for unions to navigate ways around blockade shortages. As the youngest member of the delegation at 26 years-old, she said: “Young Cubans don’t know anything other than blockade. We were all born under this policy which has tried to exterminate us over the years. And despite the blockade, we will never close our schools, close our hospitals or give up – we will never surrender our sovereignty nor ever grow tired of renouncing the blockade.”
Luis Castanedo Smith, CTC Regional Secretary, talked about the important role that Cuban trade unions play in contributing to legislation in the country, especially the updated Labour Code and the country’s new constitution which was approved in February 2019. Jessica Sangha described how her experiences as a Unite North East Yorkshire and Humberside delegate on the 2019 Young Trade Unionists’ May Day Brigade had “opened my eyes – we just need to spread the word that another world is possible and Cuba is the example of that.”
In a rally on Latin America, Dave Ward, CWU General Secretary, said: “Let’s hope we can resist US intervention in our NHS the same way that the Cuban people have resisted US intervention and the blockade.
“We will take inspiration from Cuba’s struggles. Your struggle is our struggle. Your values are our values. And your music is definitely my music!” he said to great applause.
Marcus Barnett, Young Labour International Officer, summed up the sprit of resistance to US imperialism in Latin America. “In Chile, Haiti and Ecuador we are seeing trade unionists, campesinos, students, indigenous populations, the impoverished, the retired, rising up to say no to neo-liberalism, no to inequality, and yes to sovereignty and dignity.”
In the same session, Santiago Badía Gonzalez explained the ways in which the US government was attacking Cuba’s international medical volunteers. “The US invests millions of dollars trying to undermine our internationalism. They try to say that our 20,000 medics in Venezuela are the army in disguise! They don’t understand the philosophy of solidarity and altruism.”
Cuban Ambassador Teresita Vicente, Nicaraguan Ambassador Guisell Morales-Echaverry and Venezuelan Ambassador Rocio Maniero all gave inspiring accounts of how their countries are resisting US attacks in Latin America.
Delegates had the chance to get to know in more detail about the lives of workers and trade union activists in Cuba in the ‘intercambios’ – exchanges which paired small groups of delegates with one of the Cuban guests for more in-depth question and answer sessions and discussions.
Alba de la Caridad Estévez Novo, national executive member of Cuba’s communications union, spoke movingly of how the Revolution had given her so many opportunities in life. She described her humble upbringing with a young mother and without a father and surviving on her grandmother’s pension, which was her family’s only source of income. The Revolution gave her the education, health and housing that she needed to thrive, she said.
Miriela Padrón Macías, Regional Secretary of the public administration union in Matanzas, was asked about the type of problems her members came to her with. She replied that most issues related to the difficulties people had carrying out their jobs due to the blockade. For example, the lack of modern computers which impacted on her members in banking and administration particularly, but also in other sectors where people often had problems accessing the right ‘tools for the job’.
Miriela also explained how members received full pay while attending the regular trade union meetings held in workplaces during working hours to hold the management to account.
Message of solidarity
A visual message of solidarity was sent to the ‘Anti-imperialist Meeting of Solidarity, for Democracy and Against Neoliberalism’ which was taking place in Havana on the same day. Delegates participated in a photo action, holding up signs which read ‘End the US blockade’ and ‘No to the Helms-Burton Act’.
A declaration was also agreed by Unions for Cuba delegates, which sent fraternal greetings to the Havana conference and made clear that “we stand united with you against the current imperialist offensive against Cuba and other progressive causes in the region.”
Summing up in the closing plenary, Gawain Little, Chair of the National Education Union’s International Committee, told delegates that “NEU members who visit Cuba on delegations come back inspired by what they see, but also asking ‘Why? Why would the richest country on earth blockade Cuba?’”
Although Cuba poses no military or economic threat to the US, Little said it was because of Cuba’s “moral threat – the threat of an alternative. It’s a fundamentally different way of organising society. It’s a shining light in a world dominated by capitalism – it puts the people first.”
Chairing the final plenary, Diana Holland, CSC National Chair, said: “as a woman trade union leader it is a pleasure to welcome such a large delegation of women trade unionists. And perhaps it’s an example to some in our movement that it is possible to have an international delegation with such a large percentage of women!”
Carmen Rosa López Rodríguez, concluded the conference by thanking delegates for their participation which she described as a testimony to the overwhelming rejection by the British trade union movement of the injustice of the blockade, and evidence of their solidarity with “our struggle, with the people and the Cuban workers.”
Discussions during the day had clearly shown the suffering of the Cuban people and the economic losses caused by the blockade, which had been exacerbated by the implementation of the Helms-Burton Act, she said. But Cuban speakers also displayed how the Cuban people move forward and continue to resist US intervention. “The blockade will only be lifted by solidarity from organisations, of leaders and workers like you, willing to continue to accompany us in this unfair fight no matter how hard it may be,” she said.
“We will never stop denouncing and condemning this genocide.
“For all these reasons, we encourage you to continue strengthening and broadening solidarity, fraternity and unity between Cuba and the United Kingdom, between the TUC and the British unions with the CTC and the Cuban unions, so that one’s struggle is the struggle of the other, to share the victories and to continue working for the welfare of the workers that are our reason for being.”
At the end of her speech Carmen awarded CSC Director Rob Miller with a special medal from the CTC, in a testament to the solidarity that Cuba has received from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the British trade union movement.
"We are handing over the medal to Rob, but really it is in recognition to all of you for all the work that you have done for Cuba, in recognition of Cuba, and that you will continue working on into the future, because, working together, a better world is possible,” she said.
CSC would like to thank all the trade unions who invited and hosted Cuban guests for the conference: Unite national and London Eastern Region, UNISON national, London, North West, Scotland and Wales Regions, ASLEF, CWU and NEU and all the regions and unions that welcomed them during their stay.
We would also like to thank all the unions from national, regional and branch level and organisations and individuals who made the year of Cuba 60 events possible, a full list of which can be found on our website: www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk
Following the conference the fourteen delegates had a busy programme of workplace visits and exchanges across the UK with their sister unions.
In Wales, Evelina Torres Acosta, Regional Secretary of the SNTS health workers’ union in Guantánamo region (twinned with UNISON Wales),visited hospitals, and had meetings with UNISON staff and members as well as attending a civil reception in Cardiff. UNISON Scotland and North West also hosted guests from the health and public administration unions in their twinned regions of Holguín and Matanzas. Unite national and Unite London and Eastern Region hosted Mykeyly Ramirez Guevara, national executive of the SNTEM energy and mining union , and Luis Castanedo Smith, CTC Regional Secretary for Havana. Their busy programme took in visits to Tilbury docks, Sizewell power station, a bus garage in Waterloo and the Dagenham Ford plant.
ASLEF guest Katia Labrada Vidal, national executive member for the SNTTP transport union took a ride in the Eurostar cab to Ashford, while Alba de la Caridad Estévez, representing the SNTCIE communications union, met with CWU general secretary Dave Ward and had a tour of the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, one of the largest sorting offices in the world.
The National Education Union (NEU) hosted Nayda Elisa Díaz Luis, SNTECD executive member, who visited schools in London and Oxford and attended meetings with branch and national union representatives.
SNTS general secretary Santiago Badía Gonzalez and Neisy Pino of SNTAP had a busy programme, attending branch and public meetings organised by UNISON in London, Birmingham and Cambridge.
Delegates based in London also had the opportunity to attend an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cuba reception in the House of Commonshosted by APPG Chair Karen Lee MP. Karen sadly lost her seat in December and CSC would like to take this opportunity to thank her for all her work over the last two years as chair of the parliamentary group.
CSC would especially like to thank the hosting unions for inviting comrades from Cuba and organising such varied programmes for them.