LOS ANGELES — Over 60 union workers at the Los Angeles Workers United hall, home of the Laundry, Distribution Centers and Skills and Manufacturing Workers, listened with excitement to an address by Gilda Chacon Bravo, a leader of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). Chacon is the first Cuban trade union representative to be granted a visa to the United States in many years and is touring the country.
WFTU has 70 million affiliated members, with 150 organizations in Latin America alone. The U.S. and Canada are the only countries in the Western Hemisphere that have no affiliates.
"One of the main objectives of our tour is to have an exchange on labor issues here, and introduce the federation to the North American labor movement so we can support and show solidarity with your struggles. What is happening in Wisconsin and other parts of your country are opportunities that the U.S. working class should not miss," said Chacon.
This is the time, she added, to unite for dignified jobs and confront the attacks on collective bargaining rights. "The tactics that are being used against you, as workers, have been used on workers throughout Latin America. The blame is being placed on the workers, but we say the fault lies with those who caused the crisis, the transnational corporations and their neo-liberal policies."
Pepino Cuevas, a leading member of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), is also part of the tour. He spoke about the electrical workers, one of the oldest unions in Mexico, and their struggle to save the union and defend its constitutional right to exist.
After several unsuccessful attempts to break the union, the Mexican government has forced its members out of their jobs in a huge power plant and declared it closed, using police and military force. The union is currently filing charges against the government for constitutional rights violations since the SME is registered as a public union and is therefore protected under constitutional law. They are asking that the 16,599 workers who have not signed off on their rights be reinstated, that their years of service be restored in full, and that the government pursue negotiations with the union.
The Mexican government's main objective was to close down and privatize the power and telecommunications services and get rid of the union. The union has also filed charges with the U.S. Labor Department for violations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We are inspired by the support we have received from trade unions all over the world, including the WFTU," said Pepino Cuevas. He continued, "I want to share a lesson that I learned in my youth. When I became an electrician I realized that I enjoyed the good salary and benefits that were already in place, but people fought for those things. I did not do it myself, but it is up to me and all of us to fight to not take any steps backwards."
Gilda Chacon Bravo also gave a brief overview of developments in Cuba and other Latin American countries. She first mentioned the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA). This alliance, an initiative of Cuba and Venezuela, aims to ensure that all natural resources benefit the host country and then be shared by other member countries for the benefit of the people, not for profit. Under this alliance several projects have already been launched, such as
- Mision Milagros, which has performed over 3 million operations to restore eyesight to people requiring cataract surgery and with other treatable vision problems;
- The Manuel Espejo project provides disabled people with the special medical care they need;
- Yo Si Puedo, a literacy program developed by Cuban educators and now used worldwide. In Venezuela and Bolivia illiteracy has been eradicated in just a few years, as recognized by the UN.
Ms Chacon invited everyone to the Trade Union Conference of the Americas to be held in August in Nicaragua. From Alaska to Patagonia, social organizations and workers who want to attend are welcome, "At this conference we'll join together with the goal of finding solutions to the common problems we face as workers" she said.
The Cuban trade unionist continued, "The most important result of these conferences is that attendees come to the conclusion that the current economic system can no longer offer us what we need and thus we must find other alternatives. If you ask me what system that would be, as a Cuban, I would say it is socialism," said Chacon.
Another event to which Chacon invited the audience is the annual exchange of Cuban labor leaders with other workers from the Americas held each December in Tijuana, Mexico. The event is held in Tijuana because this ensures the participation of the Cubans, as the U.S. only rarely grants visas to Cuban citizens. "At this exchange we are honored to have the families of our heroes, the Cuban 5, whom we are fighting to bring home soon."
Finally, Chacon gave a brief overview of the changes taking place in Cuba, and how Cuba continues to advance despite the blockade. She argued that the changes that occurred when Fidel Castro stepped down did not result from any conflict, as the right-wing media reported throughout the world.
"We Cubans know that Raul is putting into effect what the Cuban government had already agreed to, through a long process," said Chacon.
Commenting on the upcoming Communist Party Congress, Chacon observed, "This is a democratic process which expresses that the concept of democracy and power rests within the people and it is they who make the decisions in their country."