Labor movement begins to reassess its approach to Cuba relations
Improved relations with Cuba are seen as beneficial to both sides. Jobs would be likely to be created in the US. | AP

With the exception of the independent United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers and a few others, organized labor in the U.S. has, for a long time, steered clear of the issue of improved relations with Cuba.  Recently, however, at its July 18-20 Convention, the Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO passed a strongly worded resolution calling for an end to the U.S. economic blockade and travel restrictions on that country.

Around the world, a great number of labor unions and labor federations have come out in support of  good relations with Cuba and in opposition to the U.S. economic blockade and other anti-Cuba actions. For example, in the United Kingdom, coordination of work in support of socialist Cuba is strongly connected to the labor movement and especially to UNITE, the British steel workers’ union.   This is true in many other countries around the world.

The anti-Cuba position in US unions  is related to the impact of Cold War era anti-communism on the labor movement.  During the Cold War, leftist, communist and progressive unionists were driven out of positions of influence in the labor movement by various means. Just one of these means was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which criminalized the communist presence in labor leadership (this was later declared unconstitutional, but meanwhile much damage had been done).

U.S. labor withdrew from the World Federation of Trade Unions in 1947, and for a number of years the resources of U.S. organized labor were deployed in undermining communist and leftist influences in labor unions worldwide. Under such circumstances, labor solidarity with a country like socialist Cuba was well-nigh impossible.

Only in recent years have U.S. labor activists made headway in raising the Cuba issue in major unions.

For example, the very large Service Employee’s International Union (not an AFL-CIO union but rather part of the “Change to win” labor federation) played an important role in the campaign to “Free the Cuban Five.”  More recently, SEIU memebers hosted one of the first recent visits of a Cuban labor leader, Manuel Lemagne Sánchez of the Cuban tourism industry, to speak to U.S. audiences.

The full text of the resolution passed at the Washington state council meeting follows:

WHEREAS, the U.S. blockade of Cuba has had devastating impacts on Cuba’s workers, union members, and citizens, restricts U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel to Cuba, and, if lifted, would create jobs for U.S. workers; and

WHEREAS, a number of labor and community leaders from Washington State have traveled to Cuba on study tours and have learned valuable lessons regarding universal health care and providing for those most in need; and

WHEREAS, following the Obama administration’s partial moves to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations, now the Trump administration has expressed its intention to reverse this trend and tighten the blockade of Cuba once again; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, that the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO goes on record supporting an end to the travel restrictions and the trade and financial embargo against Cuba, and oppose efforts by the Trump administration to tighten the blockade; and be it finally

RESOLVED, that the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO shall send this resolution to its affiliates, area Labor Councils, and to the AFL-CIO, urging the AFL-CIO to pass a similar resolution at their 2017 convention.

The resolution is remarkable in many ways.

First if all, it appears to have been only the second instance of a state AFL-CIO passing a resolution calling for an end to the blockade and travel restrictions.  Last year, the California state AFL-CIO passed a similarly strong resolution on the subject, also with the instruction that the issue be taken up at the level of the national AFL-CIO. (in 2015, the DC-Maryland AFL-CIO passed a resolution calling for an end to the travel restrictions).

Secondly, the wording is very straightforward and uncompromising—no weasel words here!

The resolution uses the world “blockade” instead of embargo.  The Cubans use the word “blockade” because for the past half century and then some, the U.S. government has not only prohibited its own corporations and citizens from trading with Cuba, but has also tried to block other countries from doing so, even resorting to threats and sanctions against close U.S. allies and trading partners in the process. It also calls out Trump for threatening to reverse the modest advances in U.S.-Cuba relations achieved during the Obama administration.  Most importantly of all, it calls on other state labor councils and the national AFL-CIO to get on board the effort to end the U.S. blockade and travel restrictions, specifically mentioning the upcoming AFL-CIO convention to be held in St. Louis, Missouri, October 22 to 25.

Our sisters and brothers in California and Washington State have staked out a courageous position on Cuba; it now behooves all to do whatever we can to bring all of U.S. labor, including the national AFL-CIO as well as the Change to Win and independent unions on board!


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.