"Unions are totally enmeshed in Cuban society", Scott Wilson, an organiser for the Queensland branch of the Electrical Trades Union told a July 9 public forum, sponsored by the ETU and the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network (AVSN).
Wilson described the exhilaration of being part of the half-million-strong May Day celebration in Havana. "Union rights are guaranteed in the Cuban constitution. Union membership is very high, around 90% coverage compared to less than 25% in Australia." While union membership is not compulsory, Wilson said workers "obviously see the value of belonging".
"There are about 20 large unions affiliated to the Cuban Workers' Centre. There is no big disparity in wages between workers and managers, such as you see in Australia. During the 'Special Period', after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuban unions accepted responsibility to help tackle the economic crisis. Now that Cuba is coming out of that crisis, things are looking better for workers."
Wilson said that while "Cuba is not a workers' paradise", compared to most of Latin America "it is a just and fair society in which workers' rights and social conditions are protected".
Coral Wynter, who co-led the AVSN-sponsored May Day brigade to Venezuela, described the huge May Day march of 500,000-750,000 people in red T-shirts in Caracas. Wynter recounted the friendly reception to the 15 Australian brigadistas who had a special banner made expressing support for the Bolivarian revolution.
She also explained the political background to President Hugo Chavez's decision to nationalise the giant Sidor steelworks in the eastern city of Ciudad Guyana. "Although the workers' movement is divided, the Sidor victory was a landmark in the development of the Venezuelan workers' movement", Wynter said.
Those attending were urged to consider joining the upcoming November 20-30 AVSN brigade to Venezuela and the December 25-January 27, 2009, brigade to Cuba, sponsored by the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society. For more information, visit http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org and www.cubabrigade.org.au.