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April 14, 2016

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Building solidarity in Cuba

WORKER TO WORKER—CoDevelopment Canada’s Kirsten Daub and CUPE BC General Vice-President John Hall join Mindrey Marrero, head of international relations for SNTAP National, in Havana.

Building solidarity in Cuba

By Kirsten Daub

¡Qué viva Cuba! An enthusiastic cry heard many times during National Union of Public Administration Workers’ (SNTAP) convention in November 2015. CUPE BC General Vice President John Hall, also chair of the International Solidarity committee, represented CUPE BC as part of the international delegation to the National Union of Public Administrative Workers’ convention Havana, Cuba. Accompanied by CUPE 1004 member Kirsten Daub, CoDevelopment Canada’s executive director, John was joined by labour union representatives from Nicaragua, Norway, Argentina, Serbia, Ecuador, Chile, and Belgium.

As part of SNTAP’s international delegation, John and Kirsten had the unique opportunity to participate in the convention, meet with workers from a variety of sectors, and learn about SNTAP’s history and structures. The National Union of Public Administration Workers’ is one of Cuba’s largest and most diverse unions, representing more than 260,000 workers from 62 sectors including municipal services, banking, judiciary, customs, insurance services and many more. CUPE BC convention delegates would feel very much at home at a SNTAP convention, as much of the content was very similar to CUPE BC conventions: delegates met by sector to discuss and plan the union’s strategic direction, debated resolutions, and elected new leadership.

In addition to participating in SNTAP’s convention, the international delegation met with workers from several SNTAP-organized worksites. The visitors learned about the importance of SNTAP workers in providing public services in Cuba, as well as the challenges they have been facing with the recent changes to Cuba’s economy. At the Cuban International Insurance Agency, SNTAP-represented workers and management explained how the union functions in their worksite, how stewards are elected, how their collective agreement is negotiated, and much more. At the Julio Antonio Mella International Friendship Camp, delegates saw how SNTAP workers contribute to building international solidarity by hosting work brigades from around the world. Delegates met with SNTAP representatives who are members of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, and heard specifics of how the ongoing U.S. blockade hinders Cuba’s development

Defending public services in a changing Cuba

For several years, Cuba has been going through an important transition—one that will have significant impacts on the country’s economy and the relationship between the State and workers. Since 2012, Cuba has made important changes in its economic system. In an attempt to reduce the size of the bureaucracy and make state enterprises and services more efficient, the Cuban government has transferred several hundred thousand state workers to the “non-state” sector, or to other state enterprises. New non-state entities are organized in three different ways: as workers’ cooperatives, as self-employment, and as small private businesses. Private services that for many years operated in a semi-legal state are now fully legalized, while companies that employ fewer than five workers are exempt from payroll taxes—but all private businesses pay progressive taxes on profits.

Shifts have also taken place within the state sector. The government is transferring more decision-making power to local entities. Where state enterprises generate income, a profit-sharing model has been implemented that, at year-end, enables workers to share any profits generated by surplus production.

Our partner in the Havana Public Administration Union (SPTAP), for example, reports that since 2012, approximately 7,000 of its 59,000 members have shifted to the non-state sector. Of these, more than 3,600 have re-affiliated with the union.

The Cuban Labour Code, ratified in 1986, did not contemplate the new array of worker-employee relationships brought about by the economic changes above. In June 2014, the Cuban National Assembly passed a new Labour Code that includes sections on employment relationships in workers’ coops and private business, and decentralization and profit sharing in state enterprises. It also includes provisions for self-employed workers to affiliate with unions

CUPE BC and SNTAP—a partnership that works!

Since 1996, CUPE BC has partnered with the Provincial Union of Public Administration workers (SPTAP-Havana) – one of SNTAP National’s provincial components – to build solidarity between the Canadian and Cuban labour movement. SPTAP-Havana is the largest provincial component of SNTAP, representing almost a quarter of SNTAP’s total membership. CUPE BC supports a union education and training program with SPTAP-Havana, as well as periodic shipments of goods that are difficult to obtain in Cuba thanks to the decades-long blockade by the U.S. In addition to providing funds to refurbish training classrooms, CUPE BC supports ongoing training on themes such as stewarding, negotiating and enforcing collective agreements, occupational health and safety, application of the labour code, and leadership skills.

Within the context of Cuba’s changing economic and labour context, CUPE BC’s partnership with SPTAP-Havana takes on new relevance. An important component of SPTAP-Havana’s union education program is ensuring that activists and elected leaders are trained in Cuba’s new labour code. With numerous sectors now open to private businesses, SPTAP-Havana and other unions are now engaging with workers who were previously employed by the state to re-affiliate them, or with workers in newly legalized private businesses to ensure they are represented by a union. As such, another important area is developing new activists and leaders to ensure that the union has a strong presence in worksites and can reach out to rank and file members on the importance of their union in the protection of their labour rights.

While our contexts may be different, member-to-member conversations are like those in B.C.: the lifeblood of an active union with an engaged membership, ready to defend public services and worker rights. With the ongoing shifts in their economy, Cuban union activists are dedicated to ensuring that strong public services and worker rights continue to form the basis of a just society. ¡Qué viva Cuba, indeed!


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