Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
September 13, 2001
Cuban Labor Practices
Overview of Organized Labor in Cuba
The Cuban labor movement is one of the oldest in Latin America. During its final days as a colony under Spain in the late 1800s, trade unionism and other political ideas found their way to Cuba through a continuous exchange of people and ideas. Spanish immigrants were often central in the establishment of a number of early unions in Cuba. Tobacco, maritime, and railroad workers were especially prominent in early Cuban trade unionism activity. During the First World War, trade union activity gained momentum and promoted establishment in 1924 of the first national central labor organization, the Confederacion Nacional Obrera Cubana, and a second central labor body, the Federacion del Trabajo de Cuba in 1927.
During the early 1930's, the labor movement went into decline following an unsuccessful effort to mount a general strike against the government of President Carlos Mendieta, which initiated a period of harsh, anti-union persecution. In the late 1930's, Communist labor leaders threw their support behind the presidential ambitions of Fulgencio Batista in exchange for the legalization of the Communist party and Communist domination of the labor movement. The reorganization of the labor movement during this time was capped with the establishment of the Confederacion de Trajabadores de Cuba (Confederation of Cuban Workers, or CTC), in 1938.
By the mid-1940s, a large number of Cuban workers were unionized and covered by collective agreements. In 1947, the Communists lost control of the CTC, and their influence in the trade union movement gradually declined into the 1950's. The assumption of the Presidency by Batista in 1952 and the intervening years to 1958 placed tremendous strain on the labor movement, with some independent union leaders resigning from the CTC in opposition to Batista's rule.
In 1958, the labor movement was a powerful force in Cuban society, with a role in both the business and national political scenes. Much of the movement's power came from its position as the largest organization in Cuba. Almost all sectors of the economy were organized, with union members reaching nearly one million or one in five workers. There were 33 federations and 2,000 unions grouped under the CTC. After the fall of Batista in 1959, the main concerns of the labor movement became job security, and the improvement of working conditions for its members through collective bargaining. Young labor leaders pushed to establish a more independent movement pursuing meaningful collective negotiations.
When Fidel Castro took power, he espoused trade union unity and promised to fulfill labor's goals. As Castro consolidated his political position, his regime sought to bring the CTC under the control of the Communists. The majority of the labor leaders who were democratic revolutionaries became increasingly marginalized and later purged from CTC leadership. By 1960, more than half of Cuba's 2,490 union secretaries general had been removed by the CTC and replaced with leadership in support of the Communist government. In November 1961, a CTC congress formally brought the confederation under communist control, declaring null and void many of the major labor laws and key provisions of collective agreements that had been achieved in the previous three decades.
After destroying the old formation of trade unions, the Castro regime charted a new role for labor, fundamentally changing the nature of unions in Cuba. Voluntary works, in which workers were coerced into providing their time for emergency tasks in agriculture and transportation, often with the threat of job loss if they refused, was initiated in 1959. The government issued production standards in 1960, and set minimum output levels and collective work requirements for enterprises. Government advisory councils were set up that concerned themselves with questions of worker discipline, safety and health, and working conditions, and were intended to take the place of independent trade unions. The labor movement was thus converted into an instrument of the regime.
The Communist Party selects the leaders of the CTC, the sole legal labor organization, whose principal responsibility is to ensure that government production goals are met. This federation does not act as a trade union, does not promote workers rights or observance of labor law, and does not protect the right to strike. The organization is under the control of the state and the Communist Party, which are also the managers of the enterprises for which the laborers work.
Despite disclaimers in international forums, the Cuban Government explicitly prohibits independent unions and agricultural cooperatives and none are recognized. Workers who attempt to engage in non-governmental union activities face government harassment and persecution. Workers can and have lost their jobs for their political beliefs, including their refusal to join the official union. Several small, independent labor organizations have been formed but function without legal recognition and are unable to represent workers effectively. The government actively harasses these organizations. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has highlighted violations in the area of employment practices and labor relations. In particular, the ILO's Committee of Experts on the Applications of Conventions and Recommendations and the International Society for Human Rights have documented violations with regard to Convention III concerning Discrimination in respect to Employment and Occupation, Convention No. 87 concerning Freedom to form Labor Organizations, and Convention No. 98 related to the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.