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,” notes The Daily Beast’s Jamie Kirchick:*
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).
“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.”
Cuba explicitly prohibits independent trade unions, says the International Trade Union Confederation, to which the AFL-CIO is affiliated. Labor activists are harassed and imprisoned, notes blogger Yoani Sanchez, while the state-controlled labor fronts are used to bolster the regime, analysts observe.
As in China, trade unions under Communism are primarily ‘transmission belts’ for the instruction and implementation of Party diktats rather than independent bodies for representing and articulating workers’ interests.
*A former Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.