Gilda Chacon is the Asia, Oceania, Africa and Middle East representative of the Cuban Confederation of Trade Unions (CTC) and an elected delegate of the People's Power Municipal Assembly.
Green Left Weekly's Annolies Truman interviewed her during her August 17 – 20 visit to Perth to liaise with WA trade unions.
How would you describe the different role of unions in Australia and Cuba?
The fundamental difference is that we operate under two different economic systems. Australia is a capitalist country and Cuba is a socialist country.
While we both have union confederations — in Australia the ACTU and in Cuba the CTC — the orientation of the unions is essentially different.
In Cuba, unions basically support the government's economic agenda because it benefits workers. The highest budget priorities are education, health (both free at all levels) and social security.
Public transport is cheap and there is little or no disparity in wages between workers and managers.
Because of the US economic blockade of Cuba, and the resulting economic hardship, unions have had to consider the national economy. We workers have increased productivity for the benefit of workers.
Unions in Cuba have the possibility of negotiating directly with the government because all our workplaces are state workplaces. Workers in Cuba are the owners of the means of production.
Here in Australia you have a different system.
There is a large private sector and industrial laws, such Work Choices, often favour business over workers. That's why unions here have to struggle constantly for wages, safety and other basic rights.
What have been some of the gains of the Cuban union movement?
We can freely organise unions in any workplace in Cuba, without asking permission, which means all our workers are protected and all of them have representation in every workplace.
Workers in Cuba are involved in political decision-making. All industrial relations laws are discussed with workers before being introduced into parliament.
For example, in September we are starting a process of negotiating a modification of our social security laws with workers from all over the country.
In common with many other countries, we're facing the problem of an ageing workforce. At present, women can retire at 55 and men at 60. Those retirement ages will need to be extended to 60 and 65, but the government can't change the law without workers' agreement.
In the workplace, workers have the right to discuss economic plans with management, to elect managers and to sack them if they're not doing their job properly. That's why we say we live in a very democratic country!
We also have special treatment for young people and women to enable them to contribute fully to society.
For example, women (or their partner if the couple chooses) are eligible for a year's maternity leave with a guaranteed right to their job.
The other day I visited a workplace and met an ordinary worker, a young Black woman, who is a member of the Council of State of the National Assembly, the highest decision-making body in Cuba.
Every worker has the right to be a member of a union, which is voluntary, and 94% of Cuban workers have chosen to take out union membership.
What can these gains be attributed to?
We have a government that acts in the interests of the people and our workers. That doesn't mean that we don't have contradictions but the important thing is that we don't have antagonistic contradictions.
We have agreed on common action in the face of the challenges our country has faced. For example, we've united on the need to defend our sovereignty against interference by the US, which wants to impose foreign policies against the will of the Cuban people.
Cuba has been described as the only sustainable nation in the world. What part have unions played in the transition to a sustainable society?
Unions are involved in all the main decisions of the country because we are an important part of our society.
With the US economic blockade and the collapse of the Eastern European socialist countries, we've been forced to become sustainable.
We've spent 15 or 16 years in the Special Period [as the period of economic crisis caused by the collapse of Cuba's main trading partner, the Soviet Union, is known] where we've struggled to cope without many of the resources we used to import. I remember the words of Fidel Castro at the beginning of the Special Period: "We have to develop our human resources, our brains."
Unions accepted this challenge and have been at the forefront of the innovation and creation of materials and processes that have had the effect of transforming Cuba into a country with sustainable agricultural and energy systems.
Do you have any words of encouragement for Australian unions to take a leading role in the climate change crisis?
Climate change is not just affecting a part of the world, it's affecting the whole world. If we don't take immediate measures, our whole planet will face catastrophe.
Capitalist countries have a big role to play because that is where there are the most consumers and where the greenhouse gas emissions are greatest.
Unions have to be involved in educating their workers and taking action to save the planet. In doing so, they'll be protecting their workers and their families.
The Western media have made much of the change from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro as Cuba's president. What do you think the change means for Cuban workers?
The important thing to remember is that the system hasn't changed. Raul Castro is maintaining the same policies of the Cuban government because Fidel, even though he was president, did not make decisions on his own.
In Cuba, we have "people's power", which means that when we make a decision, it is with the participation of all people in Cuba.
Since Raul Castro's election as president, we have seen some changes. But this is due to an improvement in the economy and is unrelated to the issue of whether Raul or Fidel is president. The changes are mainly relaxing some of the measures we were forced to adopt during the Special Period.
But it doesn't mean we are changing socialism. No way! On the contrary, we're strengthening the revolution and the socialist system in Cuba.
What are the main issues facing Cuban unions at the moment and is there any way Australian unions can show solidarity?
The main issues are workers' living conditions and how to continue to increase the standard of living in Cuba.
One of the main problems in Cuba is housing, which was put on hold at the start of the Special Period. With the improved economic situation, the Cuban government has voted to construct 70,000-100,000 dwellings per year.
Another area we are discussing is how to increase local food production. There is a global food crisis, partly caused by global warming, which will affect all countries.
We're preparing to produce more to feed the people, so as to avoid the situation we experienced in the '90s.
We're making sure agricultural workers have better conditions and everything they need to be able to cultivate the land. The government has passed laws increasing wages and giving land to farmers who pledge to use it to produce food.
One of the ways Australian unions can help us is by telling the world what Cuban unions are doing to protect their workers and the Cuban people, and the truth about the political system in Cuba — which actually gives a lot of power to unions and their members.
Australians can also join forces with 75 other countries on September 12 2009 — the tenth anniversary of the imprisonment of the Cuban Five in the US — in a day of international solidarity to demand their release.
January 1, 2009 marks 50 years of revolutionary struggle in Cuba to defend poor people and workers. Another important date is January 28 — the 70th anniversary of the CTC, which will be celebrated on May Day 2009.
Of course, we welcome visitors to Cuba. But in many ways, it's better if you can organise celebrations here in Australia and send messages of support. That way, many more people can participate.
And we can still celebrate together.