CUPE Delegation to Cuba – Reflections
During the week of November 10-16, 2019, CoDev Executive Director, Steve Stewart traveled to Cuba with delegates from CUPE National and CUPE BC. What follows are a series of “reflections” written by the delegates shedding light on their experiences and thoughts as they met with their brothers and sisters in Cuba.
Since 1998, CoDev has coordinated the partnership between the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Havana province section of the National Union of Public Administration Workers (SNTAP-Havana). With the most recent 5-year CUPE-supported project wrapping up this year – a shop steward training program that included the renovation and equipping of training classrooms at the union’s offices in different Havana municipalities – CoDev organized a delegation of CUPE representatives to meet their Havana partners. The project with SNTAP is supported by both CUPE National and CUPE BC, and representatives of both made-up the five-person delegation.
Delegates sought to evaluate the work of the 2014-19 training centres project, learn about the Cuban labour movement and the new challenges it faces with the recent tightening of the US trade embargo of the island, and to begin discussions with SNTAP representatives regarding future cooperation between the two unions.
Monday, November 11, 2019
Debra Merrier, Diversity Vice-President for Indigneous Workers, CUPE National
My first day as a member of the CUPE delegation in Havana, Cuba has been both amazing and overwhelming.
We had a meeting with SNTAP representatives of the province of Havana. They told us that this week the city of Havana wold be celebrating its 500th anniversary, and talked a little about the history of the Havana province division’s partnership with CUPE, as well as the structure of the Cuban union movement.
There are 19 national unions in Cuba, all of whom belong to the Cuban Labour Federation, the CTC. With 249,000 members, SNTAP is among the four largest unions in Cuba. The education and health unions are the largest. The union representatives shared with us two great sayings for understanding life in Cuba: “It’s not easy,” but, “it can be done.”
Later, we visited the CTC building in the municipality of Plaza de la Revolution, one of several in Havana province. The unions belonging to the CTC have 15,616 members in this municipality, with most coming from the health-care, education, culture and public administration unions. We visited a training classroom that had been renovated and equipped with the support of CUPE and then met with the municipal SNTAP executive committee at their office there – Local 26. There were six executive officers who spoke with us – all women. They told us that union executive officers were elected at congresses for a five-year term. A representative cannot serve more than two terms – for a total of 10 years on the executive. They told us that in recent years, new policies have been developed by the Cuban unions to encourage more participation by youth. So now, if you are over 50, you can no longer run for an executive committee position. They also told us about a partnership the unions had developed with the University to enable union members to specialize in labour studies by attending courses on Saturdays from 9 AM – 4 PM.
Something that surprised me is that there is no automatic check-off of union dues in Cuban unions. Instead, every member comes to the municipal CTC building each month to pay their dues to the union they belong to. We asked the SNTAP representatives what happens if a member doesn’t pay. They said it is the responsibility of the stewards to remind members if they are overdue with paying their dues, but if a member doesn’t come in and make their payments for three months in a row, they could lose their affiliation to the union.
This first day of our delegation in Havana has been an emotional and very educational experience. As an indigenous person, I feel it is important for me to be a witness to all I see here and have learned.
Tuesday, November 12
Monique Menard-Kilrane, Senior Officer, CUPE National
The heat has not risen yet, and we are back on the road, this morning with Pepe and Mercedes. We drive to Barrio Nuevo Vedado, where we enter what is called a policlínico, a polyclinic. There are numerous of these community-based clinics throughout the province of Havana, 82 to be more precise.
The policlinic offers services that range from x-rays to pediatric, physiotherapy to traditional medicine.
After a fascinating presentation from the chief of the polyclinic, we are taken around the establishment to visit different consultation rooms, doctors, nurses, technical assistants and many more. Conchita and Jorge, both experienced doctors, are our guides through the hallways of this impressive system. A young physiotherapist reminds us of the ingenuity of the Cuban people: “Despite the embargo, we will make it work”, she says, as she shows us how they fill empty water bottles with sand to make weights for rehabilitation exercises.
The whole health care system is built around 4 principles: promotion, prevention, curing and rehabilitation. Health is seen as a holistic practice. Each policlinic is affiliated to local health clinics, 16 per neighbourhood. Conchita and Jorge guide us to the closest clinic where Marta and Leticia work respectively as doctor and nurse. Three medical students are also in residence at the clinic, including an international student from South Africa. In order to best promote, prevent, cure and rehabilitate, Maria tells us that the clinic studies the demographic and needs of the people in their neighbourhood. Home visits are carried out in a formal fashion and everything is noted, including injuries or sicknesses, social conditions and living conditions. This helps the practitioners find the best health program for each individual patient.
As this clinic’s demographic is mostly composed of seniors, Maria also invites us to a circle of grandparents, organised by the clinic every Wednesday morning. This circle is a chance for the seniors from the neighbourhood to come together and to share with Maria and Leticia. For the staff of the clinic, this is a great opportunity to better understand the needs and adjust the care.
The visits and discussions were an inspiring experience.
Wednesday, November 13
Rebecca Reynard, General Vice-President, CUPE Local 5430
We visited the Palco Convention Centre, which opened in 1979. It was developed for the Summit of the Non-Aligned Countries Movement, serves as the flag ship for State Business Groups, but also holds many international conferences. The Centre employs 4000 workers, all union members of a special branch of SNTAP, the public administration trade union. It consists of a main hall accommodating 2000 seats with a number of smaller halls accommodating up to 200 seats. During our visit the Centre was very active with a Health and Sports Convention; AFIDE 2019. There were a number of concession stands, gift shops and beautiful courtyards. Connected to the Centre by a skywalk is a large hotel. Their workers also union members. The 4000 members are organized by 10 locals with 94 units among them.
We attended the Import Office on the grounds of the Palco Convention Centre, with the intention to discover alternatives for sending a shipping container of supplies to Cuba. We were quickly made aware that this would not be possible through their service and were advised to do what we are currently doing.
Following this, we had a working meeting with SNTAP to go over where the project is now and our goals for the future. SNTAP is required to have the program proposal by January 2020 to submit for government permissions. SNTAP expressed concern that once a program is approved, the funds received can only be used for what is in the program proposal. The previous program was approved for union training. They created classrooms with equipment and trained trainers to give workshops. They are focused on health and safety, primarily the need to use protective equipment and measures and also making management aware of the importance of health and safety. They have spent what they can on union training, however are limited by accessibility issues resulting from the blockade. The remaining funds could be reassigned as a donation and that approval would need to come from CUPE and Co-Development. SNTAP suggested that the future program focus more heavily on equipment rather than funds. We also discussed a skills exchange, where one year, reps from CUPE would visit Cuba and another year where SNTAP would visit Canada.
Thursday, November 14th, 2019 – A visit to the Viñales
Carmen Michelle Sullivan, Alternate Regional Vice-President, CUPE BC
We were joined by Mercedes – Deputy General Secretary (SNTAP-Havana) and Marcel, the son of a SNTAP member, who acted as our guides. During the two and a half-hour drive to Viñales, we learned that 94% of all Cuban workers are unionized. In the country, many of the workers are self-employed, and the union has worked to organize by reaching out through door to door visits. These independent workers join the union for the benefits of advocacy for their rights, participation, and solidarity.
The drive was beautiful. It took only twenty minutes for us to move out of the city and into the country passing tobacco, sugar cane, rice, plantain, and banana plantations. There were intermittent farmhouses, and seemingly out of nowhere, workers would step out of the fields to the side of the highway with cheese and produce for sale.
Once we arrived in Viñales, a small town and municipality in the north-central Pinar del Río province of Cuba, we stopped at the Los Jazmines Hotel. We met with René, the General Secretary of the hotels and tourism union local. As a union leader, René is the advocate for 65 employees at the hotel. His primary role is advocating for the members to make sure management is providing adequate conditions, meals, and wages. He has a seat and voice at the table for all management meetings. Once a month, all the workers meet with management, which helps to mitigate any issues. As part of the Tourism union, the 65 members pay approximately 1% in union dues. The hotel has a lifeguard, a doctor and a nurse who belong to the public health union. The cultural workers’ union provides the musicians and performers, and cleanup of the grounds and waste removal is provided by the Municipal union, affiliated with SNTAP. All the union sectors work well together and show strong solidarity. Each province has a union school where anyone interested in becoming a union leader can receive training. The unions receive the training together, another strong indication of solidarity. Under Cuban law every 5.5 months, all workers receive 15 days vacation. They have one-year paid maternity with the option of a 2nd year at a reduced wage. Sick and disability benefits continue until the doctor clears them to be back at work. In the tourism sector, all union employees pool and share their tips.
That evening we returned to Havana, where we were treated to an evening at the Tropicana with the SNTAP and Tourism union representatives, including the national SNTAP General Secretary Yaisel Osvaldo Pieter Terry. On our way back from the Tropicana, we had the opportunity to speak with Alina, the General Secretary of the Havana section of the tourism workers’ union, about women in leadership. She said, “It is not easy in Cuba (referring to the US sanctions and blockades), it is never easy, but we can do it because we are together.” She is proud to be a union leader. She continued to say, women are mothers, wives, sisters, and because of that, they are strong. Women are nurturing, focus on teamwork, and are strong communicators. It was empowering to hear her passion.
Friday, November 15 – Banks and Tornados
Aman Cheema, Co-Chair for International Solidarity, CUPE BC
On our final day in Havana we visited the Banco Metropolitano, the Bank of the Capital in Havana. We were joined by Avigail Perez Llanes (General Secretary SNTAP Havana), and Aciel (Secretary of Economy SNTAP Havana), Rosa who is the General Secretary for the Union in the bank, Bank Manager, and Marina Vice President of Banco Metroplitano.
There are over 4000 employees in total, and 622 tellers in Havana alone. There are 4 Regional offices for more immediate issues, 94 branches, and 26 savings branches in the remote regions. Currently the bank has 525 banking ATM’s, but unfortunately the ATM Company was purchased by an American and due to the trade embargo they can no longer receive any parts or support. An alternative is currently being looked at in China. The bank is trying to transition to a digital banking model, where the citizens would use an interact card instead of hard cash. This would help the bank in using the cash for investments. To help encourage this model, the bank offers a 10% rebate if citizens use an interact card on the 15th, 16th, or 17th of the month. Repair and construction workers are also part of the same Union, but slowly there is a shift in privatization and contracting out of those jobs. The workers are part of the Public Administration Branch Union. Once per month workers meet to discuss workplace issues such as; health and safety, hours of work, and working conditions. While they don’t have specific health and safety meetings monthly like we do, they do discuss safety concerns at the monthly meetings.
Being involved in the community is an essential part for each and every worker at the bank. As Marina (VP of Bank) said “the level of consciousness is help and support one another”. In early 2019, 4,000 homes were damaged due to a tornado, the bank management and employees worked longer shifts and days, so those in need could have access to loans or the money in their accounts. As of today, 90% of the homes have been restored. Also, workers volunteer with different programs around the region, one being assisting orphaned kids who don’t have the support of any parents or families. The employees “play” the role of mom or dad, with help from the government providing meals. Finally, workers, along with management, are encouraged to donate blood for citizens and signing petitions for issues locally and abroad such as the crisis in Venezuela. The community is an integral part of the union, and coexist together, almost becoming a community union.