BY SETH GALINSKY AND JONATHAN SILBERMAN
HAVANA, Cuba - "We've been forced to take a series of measures to confront the special period," said production worker René Blanco, referring to the Cuban government's response to the country's sharp economic crisis of the past few years.
"But this does not mean we've adopted a capitalist approach. These measures have not led to a change in people's consciousness. State domination of the economy has been maintained. And we've safeguarded the conquests of the revolution, like health care and education."
Blanco was the first speaker in a union assembly at the Miguel Saavedra machine shop, a factory of 250 workers in Havana's San Miguel del Padrón district. The meeting had been called to discuss and vote on a resolution, prepared by the leadership of the national trade union federation, the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC), for presentation to the CTC convention, which will be held April 27-May 2.
The document, written in thesis form, is divided into 11 major sections. It was published last November as a special supplement to the weekly union newspaper Trabajadores (Workers). Thousands of additional copies have been distributed to maximize access by the 3 million members of Cuba's trade unions. (The Militant published the entire resolution in installments in its March 18, March 25, April 1, and April 8 issues.)
Preparations for the congress began about a year ago with a round of municipal CTC assemblies out of which the draft theses were prepared. Between January 15 and March 15, the CTC organized discussion of the Theses in 80,000 workplace assemblies. In each province special union congresses of delegates from the workplaces have been held.
In larger enterprises, meetings have often been organized by separate departments to allow for greater discussion by the union membership, reported Luis Felipe Barallobre, a member of the national secretariat of National Union of Metal and Electrical Workers. The results of the meetings, including additional proposals made by workers and adopted by the local assemblies, are considered by provincial congresses and a special commission that will present its recommendations to the CTC congress.
Each assembly was conducted in a similar way, as laid down by the congress call. The chair announced the section of the theses under consideration and opened the floor for comments. When discussion on that section was exhausted, the chair called the vote and the meeting passed on to the next section. If in the course of the discussion a worker put forward a proposal, the chair would call a vote on it. An elected minute-taker recorded the proceedings to forward to the special commission. At each plant a representative of the municipal committee of the union who does not work in the factory participated in the meeting.
The metal workers union leadership invited an international team of workers reporting for the Militant to observe three assemblies. One was at the Miguel Saavedra plant, which manufactures cutting tools, machine tool accessories, molds and dies. The others were at two plants in the Guanabacoa suburb of Havana - the Fixtures Plant, a factory of 600 workers that makes plumbing and fittings; and Cubana de Bronce, a foundry where 280 workers manufacture bronze barrels for production use in sugar mills.
Theses come from workers' experience
The first two sections of the Theses take up the world political and economic situation and the defense of Cuba's socialist course. In that framework, the document describes the country's economic crisis, which was precipitated by the post- 1989 collapse of aid and trade at favorable terms with the former Soviet bloc governments.
Theses come from workers' experience
Cubans have faced severe shortages of food and other basic necessities, as well as disruptions of industrial production and transportation. This crisis, considerably exacerbated by the intensified U.S. trade embargo, bottomed out in 1994 and a slight recovery is under way.
In the discussion on these first sections of the resolution, several workers at the Miguel Saavedra plant commented on the effects of measures the Cuban government has taken to stem the economic decline and stimulate agricultural and industrial production. The measures include decriminalization of the use of U.S. dollars, opening of agricultural markets, legalization of self-employment for numerous occupations, and obtaining foreign investment in various areas of the economy.
One worker, Abel, referred to the statement in the CTC document that the "need to introduce elements of capitalism" has inevitably generated social inequalities. In this context, the theses state, it is vital to "continue defending the revolution's values and principles."
"Some people suggest that we're heading towards capitalism," Abel commented. "But everything is being done under the control of the working class. It's being discussed out in the factories. We're safeguarding the conquests of the revolution. This shows we're not headed toward capitalism."
"In other countries, when faced by economic problems they shut hospitals, they cut pensions," Bernardo La Ho pointed out.
"That's the difference between us and capitalism," interjected local union secretary Felipe Vidal.
"Even if the socialist camp has fallen, we have not disappeared and we are not going to. This is a revolution by the people for the people," La Ho concluded.
At the meeting, workers welcomed the international observers with enthusiasm, urging them to say a few words. They were particularly interested to hear fellow workers describe the depression conditions they face in countries like Britain and the United States, as well as the working-class resistance to the employers' attacks.
Delegations of unionists from many countries will be present at the CTC congress itself. "We are making an effort to give the congress an international character," said Noel Carrillo, of the CTC's international relations department, in an interview. "Besides observing the congress, we are inviting people from around the world to participate in a big May Day rally in Revolution Square. And on May 2 we are organizing a solidarity conference for the international guests."
Workers' increased management role
The discussions to prepare the CTC convention drew on the experience of previous rounds of workers' assemblies in Cuba, described by the Theses as "genuine schools of economics and politics." In December 1993 Cuba's National Assembly met to consider measures to tackle the country's economic crisis. But since the measures under debate would increase the prices Cuban workers paid for a number of services as well as items like tobacco and rum, the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party and of the CTC proposed that meetings be convened in every workplace before the National Assembly made any decisions.
Workers' increased management role
As a result, in early 1994, more than three million working people throughout Cuba discussed the alternatives they faced, made proposals, and profoundly influenced decisions later taken by the National Assembly on key questions facing the revolution.
These "workers parliaments," as they became known, were followed up by regularly convened "economic efficiency assemblies" to assess the implementation of workers' proposals and make further decisions on concrete measures aimed at collectively increasing productivity in the plants. Unlike the situation in capitalist countries, where improvements in efficiency simply benefit the employers and often lead to workers being laid off, in Cuba the issue of efficiency is of direct concern to the workers and the unions.
"We're the socialist owners of the economy," the Theses say, "and it's upon the success of the enterprises and work units that the solidity of the revolution and quality of our lives, today and tomorrow, depend." The efficiency assemblies, the document continues, are "an essential instrument to ensure the direct participation of the workers in the direction and control of the entire management of their workplace."
At Miguel Saavedra the discussion on efficiency was kicked off by the plant director, Lenin Echarmino. He reported that production at the plant had gone up 17 percent from 1994 to 1995, that workers' productivity had also risen and that, through productivity incentives, average monthly wages had increased by 14 percent, from 184 to 210 pesos. Echarmino outlined the plan for 1996 with a goal for increasing production by 25 percent.
The director's report provoked a sharp debate, with several workers expressing opinions on how best to raise production. First to his feet was Fermín Peña, a machinist on the cutting tools line. "The machinery isn't up to what's projected," he said. "The machines are very old and give us a lot of problems. What's more, there's a lack of raw materials. Often the solution is out of our hands. This month we're not going to produce any more than last month."
"We need new machinery if we're to set production targets like that," said section union representative Mercedes Vargas. "Workers in my section have made major efforts to achieve what we did in 1995. There's not much more room for improvement. We can't achieve a goal of 25 percent just through greater efforts."
Echarmino said he wasn't proposing this. "But we simply don't have the possibility of getting new machinery. We don't have the resources. That's the contradiction we face. We must boost production before we can finance new machinery."
The plant director noted that production increases over the last two years had enabled them to install a new cutter-grinder and improvements were going to be made to the welding machine. "We have to advance step by step," he said. "The only thing which we can be sure of in this world is change and instability."
"If you set unrealizable goals it will just lead to demoralization and apathy," replied Gustavo Pérez. "That's going to happen if this plan's not met."
"If the goals are not reached we won't receive our productivity bonus," added Marta Beláez.
Vargas, who operates the welding machine, remarked, "We feel bad if we don't make goals. The plan must be more than ideas from the head of the director. The union has an important role to play, not only in fulfilling the plan but in drawing it up."
"People predicted that last year's plan couldn't be met, but we made it," plant manager Ramón Bello commented. "But it's true we can't make the goals by effort alone. Scientific and technical advances are necessary."
Another worker said the heart of the problem remained the supply of raw materials, as well as tooling and maintenance of the machines, which he argued were "management problems beyond the control of the workers."
Wilfredo Reyes wasn't so sure of that assertion. "Work discipline is key to efficiency, and that's within our control. So is maintenance. Sure, they're old machines, but we shouldn't unthinkingly run them until they break down. If we hear a noise we should report it. We should take care of our work area. We need to develop a culture of production."
The assembly took a vote and decided to propose that Reyes's point be incorporated into the Theses.
"Another area that's within the control of the workers is quality," said Federico Martínez. "Scrap levels are going down, which means productivity per worker is increasing. That's our collective achievement. We need to be more inventive." Martínez pointed to the importance within the plant of the National Association of Innovators and Problem Solvers (ANIR) and the Technical Brigades of Youth (BTJ).
ANIR was established by the CTC in 1976. Soon afterward the Union of Young Communists initiated the BTJ. These voluntary organizations involve tens of thousands of workers and technicians who work outside of the regular working day to keep machinery running, invent solutions for unavailable spare parts, and come up with suggested improvements in work methods. Each year a national Science and Technology Forum meets to consider suggested innovations and prizes are awarded for the best ideas. With the acuteness of the crisis in recent years, especially the shortages of spare parts for machinery made in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as is the case with the bulk of machinery at Miguel Saavedra, this movement has grown in importance.
After two-and-a-quarter hours' debate, workers decided to call it a day. They would have to come back to another meeting to complete the discussion on efficiency, after more work was done on management's proposed plan, and consider the rest of the theses. The assembly then recessed and the workers threw a party.
After the meeting, Pedro García, Communist Party secretary at the plant, commented that the very fact of discussing a plan that day was an advance. "Planning was made virtually impossible between 1990 and 1992 by the fact that we lacked raw materials, and by the extreme shortage of oil. As this situation improved, by the end of 1993 we were able to start planning again. We're making progress."
Militant reporters had visited the Miguel Saavedra shop in December 1994. At the time, workers explained the victory that they had achieved by adopting their first plan in a number of years.
"During the workers parliaments, workers stressed the importance of improving job conditions, the canteen, and services available at the factory," reported Alba Estevaces, UJC representative at the time. Workers and union leaders reported that a big effort was going into improving the midday meal, as well as cultivating some land around the factory to grow fresh vegetables, generally very scarce at the time.
Another measure of progress, workers pointed out, was a change in the make-up of the union leadership, with some younger delegates being elected, many of them women. Estevaces is today a sectional union representative. She said such changes had strengthened worker solidarity in the plant. Grisela Quintano, the current UJC representative, agreed. She expressed pride in being among a number of younger women who had opened the doors for women operating machines and getting elected as part of the leadership.
The discussions at the assemblies on efficiency have always extended to broader aspects of the country's economic situation. The foundry workers at Cubana de Bronce devoted some time to the question of agricultural production, which is taken up at length in the Theses.
`We can solve our problems'
One worker commented on the agricultural markets, noting that these had helped increase the availability of food at prices lower than on the black market, but that prices were still too high. "That's not the fault of the peasants and cooperative members, but of the middlemen who have nothing to do with production and who are profiteering" at the expense of working people, he said.
`We can solve our problems'
The agricultural markets, established in 1994, are supplied by cooperatives, individual private farmers, and state farms, including those run by the armed forces. Prices there are based on supply and demand.
Another worker, Agustín Miranda, replied: "The only solution is to increase agricultural production; then the prices will go down." He spoke about the need to join with agricultural workers to boost the efficiency of the farm cooperatives known as UBPCs. The Theses raise the need to recruit more workers to these cooperatives, whose members belong to the CTC-affiliated agricultural workers union.
Luis Iglesias added that the problem is that the private peasants need the middlemen to take their produce to market. "They can't regularly leave their plots to go into town. The UBPCs use middlemen to sell their goods too, so the high prices are inevitable.
"But if we could help in increasing production in the UBPCs and other state agricultural units, and they marketed their own produce, prices would be forced down," he said. "The middlemen couldn't artificially inflate the prices and would be put out of business."
Helping to boost agricultural production was also discussed in the meeting at the Fixtures Plant in Guanabacoa. "Given the importance of sugar to the economy" one worker said, "it's important that we all do what we can to increase the harvest."
Over the last few years sugar production plummeted. Last year's harvest of 3.3 million tons compared with 7 million tons in 1992 and was the lowest level in half a century. It is too early to know the results of the current harvest, but Cuban officials have said they expect sugar production this year to increase for the first time since the beginning of the "special period."
Under the discussion on thesis IV, titled "The decisive effort to increase sugar production," Francisco Estuvero got up and asked, "What is happening with the sugar harvest?" He referred to recent press reports expressing concerns that the targets might not be met. "What is the problem? Is it poor machinery? A lack of machetes? Do we need better mechanization, new tractors or what?"
When a union official suggested he read the press to find the answer, Estuvero responded that the necessary information was lacking in the papers.
"It's not enough to see the statistics," he stated. "We need to really know what's involved. For example, if the problems are due to a lack of spare parts, we can make them; if it's a shortage of labor, then we can send more workers to help out with the harvest. We can solve the problems if we know what they really are." His remarks drew applause from other workers present.
Improved living standards
The increased self-confidence of workers expressed in the assemblies reflected the conviction that their collective efforts to resist the hardships and fight to raise production have begun to pay off, and that the worst of the economic crisis is over.
Improved living standards
The gross national product, which fell by 34 percent between 1989 and 1994, last year rose by 2.5 percent. The National Assembly has adopted an economic plan for 1996 projecting a growth rate of 5 percent.
A small but significant improvement in living standards has been registered. Efforts to halt the erosion of the social wage, which accounts for a high proportion of workers' standard of living in Cuba.
The long hours of electrical blackouts have been dramatically reduced since the worst period in 1994, and transportation within major cities has improved. Agricultural markets and special efforts at workplaces have improved food availability. In many cases, greater attention has been paid to provide other services at the worksite itself. At the Fixtures Plant, workers reported that they have a cobbler, a tailor, a hairdresser, TV and radio repair facility, bicycle repair shop and other services - all on the job.
One of the biggest factors contributing to improved living standards has been lower inflation and improved buying power of the peso. The amount of currency in circulation has been significantly reduced, from a high of 12.4 billion pesos in mid- 1994 to 9 billion today. The dollar exchanges on the street for about 25 pesos now, down from as much as 140 in August 1994.
This has had the effect of increasing the value of the monthly basic wage. In addition, varying systems of bonuses and other material incentives have contributed to increased living standards.
Discussion on wages
The discussion on wages was the single most debated point in the assembly at the Fixtures Plant.
Discussion on wages
The discussion was kicked off by Renimo Velázquez, who said his wages really were not enough to live on. This sentiment found an echo among other workers present. "Low wages have led to a `brain drain' out of the factories," he stated. "Even with the sharp new tax hikes for people who are self-employed, many such people can earn more in a day than I do, as a machinist, in a month."
At the beginning of this year, some 204,000 people were registered as self-employed in Cuba - a relatively small increase over the 180,000 a year earlier, although there are undoubtedly many more who are not registered. Of those accounted for, 25 percent are retired, 28 percent hold other jobs, and 45 percent were formerly unemployed or housewives, indicating that few workers have actually quit jobs to go into business for themselves.
One worker got to his feet to complain that an agreement he had struck a couple of years ago to raise his own wage had been blocked by the union. He referred to thesis 47, which states that management must strictly adhere to agreements.
Other workers took the floor to answer him. One pointed out he had negotiated this deal behind the backs of the union. The union is the workers' organization, another emphasized. "All such issues should go through the union," he said.
"We shouldn't be looking at individual solutions but at collective solutions to our problems," another worker insisted.
A third worker joined the debate to argue that the solution to the question of further raising wages had to be based on increasing productivity and output.
A reorganization of the wage structure is under way in Cuba to link pay more directly to production. The Theses state that the goal is that "wages paid in Cuban pesos must become the fundamental channel for work incentives." Over the past years, however, different types of incentive programs, described by the CTC document as "transitory measures justified by our economic situation," have been used.
In sectors that are key to production of exported goods, such as tobacco, the ports, and electricity, a percentage of the basic wage is often paid in "convertible pesos," a national bank- issued currency that exchanges with dollars at 1:1. In some enterprises workers receive a bolsa de aseo - a bag of goods like soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo, at rates cheaper than street prices. At others they get a jabita (small basket) of food items or other necessities.
To qualify for such incentives, workers in a particular enterprise must both achieve collective production targets and meet strict norms of attendance, safety, and discipline.
At the Fixtures Plant meeting, a worker complained that the system of material incentives at the plant was "garbage." He proposed a factory store be opened to allow workers who meet production and work discipline goals to buy goods at cheap prices.
José Luis García commented that he was in favor of incentives "but we shouldn't look at this in personal terms -
for me or for my kids. Incentives are important because what's needed is to get the whole country to work. We need to increase the value of wages. That's the way to do it and to answer those who say we don't have the resources."
García and others said that a factory store where everyone could buy many basic products at reduced prices can only come as a result of productivity increases so the enterprise has the resources to subsidize prices. This would at least be a collective solution to improving the workers' living standards, not an individual one, and would have a bigger impact than a even wage raise for everyone.
That's what the entire CTC theses and the discussion on them in the factories are all about: how the working class is bringing its weight to bear in finding a way out of the economic crisis through social solidarity, not dog-eat-dog competition.
Jonathan Silberman is a machinist and member of the
Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union in London. Seth
Galinsky is a conductor/brakeman and member of United
Transportation Union Local 1138 in Miami.
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