Thomas R. Donahue, former President, AFL-CIO.
San Jose, Costa Rica - May 14, 2008.
I am most pleased to join with all of you at this meeting of the International Group for Corporate Responsibility in Cuba and to bring you the greetings and expressions of solidarity of my fellow US trade unionists. I am currently the Chairman of the Committee for Free Trade Unionism, a US-based group rooted in the belief that there can be “no free trade unions without democracy and no democracy without trade unions”.
Allow me also to salute this organization for the honor which you are paying to the distinguished Costa Rica unionist, Luis Alberto Monge. Other will properly hail him as a former President of this great nation, I know him best as the long-time General Secretary of ORIT, the Regional Organization for the Americas of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. He richly deserves the tribute you offer him.
Nations such a Cuba, China, Vietnam and others, see the unions of their nation as creatures of the ruling party, as transmission belts for Party programs, and as vehicles for increasing productivity by making workers labor harder and faster for less. Our Committee sees trade unions as the only honest vehicle by which workers themselves can seek to improve their working conditions and the lives of their families.
Our US unions have been advocates for workers in other lands, and consistent supporters of democracy development all around the world, for more than a century. At the very first convention of our unions in 1881 the delegates expressed their support for workers and farmers in Ireland then badly exploited by their English colonial occupiers and we have never wavered form the opposition to exploitation and from the imposition of any kind of government control which deprives workers of their rights.
Today, the US unions maintain programs in more than fifty nations helping indigenous, worker-controlled unions to organize and to develop the necessary skills for collective bargain to advance worker’s conditions. Individual unions like the American Federation of Teachers maintain democracy-building and union-building programs for counterpart unions in many countries.
Two years ago we ran a petition drive to add U.S. union voices to the many other calling for the release and exoneration of the trade unionists, journalists, and other who where swept up in the Black Spring of 2003 and all the other prisoners of conscience suffering in Castro’s jails. Fidel ignored our pleas. Now we are organizing a similar drive to press Raul and to test again whether his promises of change go beyond cosmetic changes in the economy. Sadly, I think we all know the eventual outcome of that effort but also know we must continue to try –both for the prisoners and for the world, so that it has again held before it evidence of the intolerance of the Cuban dictatorship and the weapons it uses to suppress any dissent.
It seems to me that that work and the work of the GIRSCC is increasingly important in a world in which so many of our unions and other organizations seem to occupied which other matters and forgetful of the plight of Cuban workers. In a recent meeting of the eighty union representatives form the European Union and Latin America, the leaders adopted a fine statement on all the things that should be done to perfect trade and economic relations but had little time for Cuba. Indeed, the only time that country was mentioned in a four-page communiqué was in one sentence condemning the US economic embargo and in another protesting against violations of human and trade union rights in “Colombia, Guatemala and any other country”. So, in the polite and statesman-like language of this day, Cuba and its workers, its persecuted and jailed unionists, became “any other country”.
As has been noted in the world press, Raul Castro has now moved to relieve in small ways the burdens of some government regulation but to insure that there would be no mistaking his intentions he has at the same time moved to strengthen the Communist Party structure and its hold on the economy, and has called for another Party Congress in October to solidify the Party’s power and control.
And lest anyone think that allowing the sale of a few computers and cell phones signals a more humane society, he has strengthen the government’s efforts to control the Internet and stifle any ideas of relaxation of control and even refused to allow the creator of the Blog Generation Y to go to Spain to accept an award.
Your work in GIRSCC is to be applauded and your efforts to convince corporations doing business in Cuba need to be supported. The corporations operating in free nations around the world –many of them nations that have known the terrors of dictatorship- need to be pressed to do everything in their power to alleviate the conditions of workers in Cuba, Those corporations supply much-needed business activity and jobs in Cuba, but they should also insist on being able to employ workers in way s which don’t violate the norms set by the International Labor Organization –norms that the Cuban government pretends to support. And they should press the government for a rationalization of employment policies.
If -- and it is a very large “if”—there is any further opening to allow new investment in Cuba, this organization can be critically important in insuring responsible conduct by any new entrants into the Cuban economy. Investment which created jobs s vitally necessary for that economy but they must not be created in ways which allow only those favored by the regime to gain employment at low wages while he state continues to rake off the benefits of dollar and euro and other currency investments.
Those prospective new investors will have the bargaining power to insist on fair and decent treatment of workers, of they have the will to do so and this organization must continue to encourage them to develop that will. And when the US economic embargo is lifted, in response to Cuban government acts to permit the development of democratic processes and to allow Cuban workers their rights to free trade unions independent of the state, we will happily joint with GIRSCC in pressing American investors to insist on the observance of ILO standards and to treat Cuban workers and their free and democratic unions with decency and fairness.
There is not yet news form Cuba but I am convinced that your continuing efforts and those of countless others pressing for freedom and democracy and a decent way of life for working people will in the end prevail. The Cuban dictatorship, like so many before, will fall and the Cuban people will again enjoy the benefits of the society they will create.
Thank you for inviting me and allowing us to participate with you in your continuing efforts to restore democratic rights to the Cuban people.