Which Side Are They On?

What Is American Labor Thinking in Honoring a ‘Union’ Figure From Cuba?

In its more honorable past, the AFL-CIO was staunchly anti-communist. But now, the same union is toasting a Cuban emissary. What gives?

During the Cold War, few American institutions were more resolutely anti-communist than the labor movement. On the surface, this might seem counterintuitive. The Soviet Union, after all, claimed to be a workers’ paradise, a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Reality, of course, was different. Just because communist leaders professed to represent the interests of workers didn’t mean they actually did. In communist societies, workers lacked the basic freedoms that their brothers and sisters in democratic societies enjoyed: namely, the right to assemble peaceably, free speech, and strike. Communist leaders insisted their economic system obviated the need for unions, though they gestured in the direction of the Western civil society model by creating “labor fronts,” regime-sanctioned bodies that served as tools of the one-party state. Any attempt at forming unions independent of the regime were ruthlessly suppressed.

For this reason, most leaders of the American labor movement understood communism to be a “uniquely dangerous enemy of free trade unionism,” writes Arch Puddington in his sterling biography of Lane Kirkland, the legendary president of the AFL-CIO and one of the Cold War’s unsung heroes. Workers are exploited under any form of dictatorship. But under communism, they are in a way doubly exploited, in that the exploitation is cynically implemented in the name of the working class. “There is no such thing as a Communist trade union official,” Kirkland said. “They are all just rulers of labor.”

To be sure, American labor was not uniformly anti-communist. At the outset of the Cold War, disputes between anti-communist and communist-leaning unions caused major ruptures within the movement. But the main labor confederation—the AFL-CIO—never backed down from its position that communism was an enemy of working people worldwide. In the late 1940s, the AFL published a map of gulags across the Soviet Union. When the exiled Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came to the United States in the mid-1970s, his first public speech was delivered at an AFL-CIO dinner. And the AFL’s most heroic international achievement was its early and unwavering support for the Solidarity movement in Poland, to which it secretly smuggled printing presses.

A fierce critic of détente with the Soviet Union, Kirkland assailed American captains of industry—those supposed lovers of the free market—for their willingness to cut deals with communist regimes. In a 1981 speech protesting the imposition of martial law in Poland, Kirkland even assailed the Reagan administration for being soft on communism, criticizing it for allowing “a steady flow of credits to those who keep Lech Walesa in prison, Andrei Sakharov in exile, thousands in psychiatric clinics, countless more in labor camps, and whole peoples enslaved.” The Polish communist regime of General Jaruzelski, he said, was a “fascist junta.”

Today, it is hard not to conclude that Kirkland would be anything other than ashamed at how his successors in the American labor movement have abandoned his legacy. Earlier this summer, labor leaders across the country, including those at the AFL, feted a Cuban government “union” representative visiting the United States. In late June, Víctor Lemagne Sánchez, secretary-general of Cuba’s Hotel and Tourism Union and executive committee member of the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC), began a two-week tour of 11 American cities—the first time in 17 years that a Cuban union leader acquired a visa to visit the U.S.

Like Soviet-era “labor fronts,” the CTC is the only organization permitted to “represent” workers before the Cuban government and is thus an appendage of a regime that routinely harasses and imprisons independent trade unionists (PDF). In addition to being a leader of a fake union, Sánchez also sits in a fake parliament, the Cuban “National Assembly of People’s Power,” in which all 612 deputies are members of the Communist Party. In Sacramento, according to the communist Workers’ World newspaper, he was warmly welcomed as the first Cuban “elected” official received onto the floors of the California Senate and Assembly—a mockery of those democratic chambers.

Sánchez was hosted by the Communications Workers of America in Berkeley, and paid visits to the San Francisco Labor Council, the San Jose/South Bay Central Labor Council, and the University of California/Berkeley Labor Center. On July 10 in Washington, Sánchez met with AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, Cathy Feingold, (director of the confederation’s International Department), and representatives from the AFL-CIO’s LGBTQ unit PRIDE at Work, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. The AFL-CIO did not respond to requests for comment.

The Cuban Workers Federation is not a genuine union but an instrument for controlling workers. At his speech in Berkeley, Sánchez claimed that membership in his union is “voluntary and conscious.” This is a lie. Membership in the CTC is compulsory for anyone wishing to work in government-run factories, stores, and resorts, which, in a country where the regime either controls or has a stake in nearly every aspect of the economy, comprises a huge percentage of the labor force. The Cuban hotel workers whom Sánchez ostensibly represents are not paid by the foreign conglomerates that partly own these establishments; rather, the businesses pay the Cuban regime in hard currency, and the regime, acting as middleman, pays its subjects in worthless Cuban pesos.

Ultimately, 95 percent of the wages earned in joint enterprises are garnished by the state. Any American trade unionist should understand how these practices violate both the letter and spirit of democratic, pluralistic labor relations, and the Cuban regime has been repeatedly criticized by the International Labor Organization and human rights organizations for its abuse of basic worker rights (PDF). Labor relations in Cuba can hardly be said to resemble the collective bargaining processes employed by unions in democratic societies. It’s more like indentured servitude.

One of the greatest insights offered by the international labor movement has been the notion of solidarity: the idea that a steelworker in Gary, Indiana, has common interests with a dockworker in Gdańsk, who in turn has a stake in the fate of a hotel maid in Guantánamo. Reminding American labor leaders of this legacy are independent Cuban trade unionists, two of whom wrote an open letter to the AFL-CIO protesting the organization’s welcoming a Cuban regime apparatchik (PDF). “Such a visit, until this moment irrelevant and confined to communism-leaning, pro-Cuban regime groups, and with no relevance in the trade union and political life of the United States, was institutionalized and enhanced by the meeting held at the AFL-CIO in Washington,” stated Joel Brito and Iván Hernández Carrillo, director and general secretary, respectively, of the International Group for Social Corporate Responsibility in Cuba, an organization advocating for the protection of labor rights and socially conscious behavior by international companies operating in Cuba. The CTC, they explain, is an “instrument of an oppressive State that systematically violates the most basic and fundamental human and labor rights of the Cuban people.”

These criticisms could have been lifted from a 2009 AFL resolution condemning “multinational enterprises that profit from the exploitation of Cuban workers and from the Cuban government’s chronic violations of international worker rights,” “the Cuban government’s continued imprisonment, arrest, torture and other acts of unconscionable harassment against independent trade unionists, human rights advocates and democracy activists,” and call for “authentic and democratic Cuban trade unionism.”

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Not long ago, the AFL would have lobbied strongly against a visit from a figure like Sánchez. During the Cold War, it repeatedly pressured the State Department to deny visas to communist officials posing as authentic trade unionists. In the 1980s, the New York State AFL president described a delegation of Nicaraguan Sandinista trade union leaders as “an enemy within floating around the United States under the guise of representing workers.” That description fits Sánchez, who is, in the words of Brito and Hernández Carrillo, “not a union leader but an oppressor co-protagonist of the worst indisputable violations of the fundamental rights of Cuban wage earners.”

What caused the change in labor’s Cuba policy? Part of the shift surely owes to the Obama administration’s Havana opening, which, by offering unconditional concessions to the Castro regime, emboldened the dictatorship. But larger forces are at play, namely, the gradual triumph of “progressive” anti-anti-communism over an earlier generation’s Cold War liberalism. Emblematic of this tendency is an article in The Nation by left-wing journalist Tim Shorrock appraising the AFL’s Cold War record as one stained by a “belligerent anti-communism” that today looks like a “dangerous anachronism.” But what’s truly anachronistic in the 21st century is a one-party state devoted to the worker-crushing principles of Marxist-Leninism, not the opposition to it.