Cuban labor leader visits United States, first visit granted in 17 years
Lemange received an enthusiastic applause when he told the assembly, “We are here today to participate in this important event commemorating Bloody Thursday as an expression of Cuba's International solidarity and support to the ILWU and in particular to Nick and Howard who were assassinated by the police in 1934.” | ILWU FB.

BERKELEY, Calif. — Victor Manuel Lemagne Sanchez, the Secretary-General of the Cuban Health and Tourism Union, is currently on tour, visiting with labor unions, worker organizations, and progressive allies throughout the United States.

This marks the first time a labor leader from Cuba has been granted entry for an extended visit the United States since the year 2000.

The U.C. Berkeley Labor Center hosted a brown bag discussion with Sanchez on June 30, to a full room. Secretary-General Sanchez took the opportunity to show slides on the overall structure and organization of the trade unions in Cuba, and then afterward answered questions from attendees.

Sanchez said that the goal of the trip is to create links between labor organizations and workers in this country and those in the Cuban labor movement. His future goals also include plans to create an affordable travel package for U.S. workers to reciprocate with visits to Cuba.

Cuban labor code, he began by explaining, has an entire chapter on collective bargaining, which is enshrined as one of the permanent rights of Cuban workers. This section outlines working conditions that do not have to be negotiated contract-by-contract by bargaining units, because they are already codified as rights in Cuban law.

Workers are legally entitled to discuss potential contracts in a full assembly of their union and, until the workers approve of it, the contract cannot be signed. Sanchez also noted that Cuban labor contracts must be written in such a way that the language and content is accessible to the workers, simplifying them so they are not full of confusing jargon and legalese. Presentations to workers are created with the greatest amount of clarity, with well-articulated goals, timelines, etc.

One question that arose in the discussion concerned the challenges of organizing in Cuba’s new non-state economic sector. In the Sixth Assembly of 2011, Cuba created a new category of self-employed non-state workers, a force of 500,000, who are part of a planned sector of limited private enterprise.

Sanchez reported that in 2012 the hotel/restaurant trade, his union, had only 345 members from the self-employed sector. Since then, they have expanded their membership in this sector up to 27,000, out of the 36,000 who work in this industry as self-employed workers.

Sanchez is also an elected representative of the Cuban National Assembly for his district in Trinidad, Cuba, which is a popular tourist destination. He noted that in his district, the non-state activity is more prevalent than the state-run activity, so organizing must take a different approach, with sensitivity to the unique concerns of the self-employed sector.

Organizers use a face-to-face approach, door-knocking on worker’s dwellings, where they are often running their small business as a hotelier or restaurant. The organizers don’t approach workers to demand that they join the union, but instead approach them to establish a dialogue and create a relationship, and to explain what the union is and what benefits there are in joining. This approach is necessary in the absence of the usual implicit institutional and structural support for unions found in a state-run workplace.

The union, for example, offers free training to tourism workers, to foster a level of professionalism and quality for tourist destinations. Also, the union features high-quality promotional tools — with brochures and advertising for member hotels and restaurants. Sanchez added that the union has, through its efforts, been able to elevate the quality of the tourism standards in the non-state sector to the same high levels as the state-sector. Presently, 75 percent of the union’s work is dedicated to organizing the self-employed tourism workers.

The union also takes care to make sure that non-state workers are extended the same rights and protections as state workers.

Since President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba, Americans have expanded their travel to Cuba in droves.

“Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up 17.4 percent from 2014. American visits rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.” according to Reuters, 2016

As a result, the number of travelers to Cuba from the U.S. now ranks second, right behind Canada. Creating the infrastructure to accommodate another two million tourists could even potentially negate the damaging economic effects of the U.S. blockade of Cuba, Sanchez said.

The union, meanwhile, is also working to help develop world-class destinations that can compete with the top 50 restaurants and hotels in the world.

However, the union is also very careful to protect tourism workers, fighting to reduce their workload so their bodies won’t be destroyed by repetitive labor. For example, they try to help limit the number of rooms that hotel room cleaners must clean per shift, they fight to outlaw work shifts that are too long, and they try to make sure industry safety regulations are being followed.


Michelle Kern
Michelle Kern

Michelle Kern is Adjunct Professor, Creative Arts and Social Science Department at College of San Mateo, California. She is Chapter Chair at AFT local 1493, Organizer at AFT local 1493 and contributing writer to