US Unionists and Their Cuba Problem / by W.T. Whitney, Jr.

Longshore union backs Cuba’s fight against U.S. blockade / Carlos Latuff, Mint Press News

Marx and Engels asked workers to unite and thereby lose their chains. (Communist Manifesto) Nevertheless, according to a People’s World commentator in 2017, “organized labor in the U.S. has … steered clear of the issue of improved relations with Cuba.” On the whole, U.S. labor has remained hands-off in regard to the cruel and illegal U.S. economic blockade. Over the course of 60 years, the blockade has devastated the lives of Cuban workers. 

Presently, the San Francisco Labor Council and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are seemingly alone among U.S. unions in protesting the blockade. The situation is different elsewhere: the British and Irish Unite federation, the French General Confederation of Labor, the Portuguese FEVICCOM union, the Building and Woodworkers’ International, and The World Federation of Trade Unions recently issued denunciations.

The ILWU Passed a Resolution Against US Blockade of Cuba, also donated syringes. Other unions should follow their lead,

An overwhelming majority of nations voting in the United Nations General Assembly, various regional alliances, religious leaders worldwide and in the United States19 U. S. municipal councils, and Cuba solidarity groups in the United States and abroad condemn the blockade.

The anomaly of the U.S. labor movement in regard to Cuba needs explaining. Marxist thinkers, primarily Lenin, lend a hand. Looking at the nature of unions, their internal workings, and situations within capitalist societies, Lenin found that trade unions are quiescent by and large as regards big political issues aggravating society.

In his What Is to Be Done (1909), Lenin looks at how union members gain political consciousness, whether through their own trade-union experience or as the result of outside influences. He proposes that for the most part, trade unionists’ exclusive attention to wages and working conditions leaves them with a stunted political awareness, so much so that their zeal for changing the factory system itself or fighting governmental oppression is weakened.

Lenin inveighs against the “traditional striving to degrade Social Democratic politics to the level of trade union politics.” (The reference is to the Russian SocialDemocratic Workers’ Party of which Lenin was a leader.) Instead of seeking economic reforms affecting only workers on the job, Lenin calls for “presenting to the government, not only demands for all sorts of measures, but also (and primarily) the demand that it cease to be an autocratic government.”

He adds that, “Revolutionary Social-Democracy has always included the struggle for reforms as part of its activities, but it … subordinates the struggle for reforms, as the part to the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and for socialism.” The danger lies in “strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers.” Indeed, the “Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade-union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression.”

Attitudes of the “economists” targeted by Lenin resemble those of U.S. unionists today; they too may be leery of engaging in political problems outside of their own living and working circumstances. The U.S. blockade of Cuba is a prime example. Nevertheless, the precedent of “economism,” the name often assigned to the kind of union leadership criticized by Lenin, applies to unions other than those in the United States. Something more must be at work to explain U.S. unions’ silence on the blockade issue.

Describing a “labor aristocracy,” Lenin suggested that many labor leaders compromise and collude with the masters of society on the assumption that, as high union officials, they can share in the wealth their nation derives from imperialism. The concept suggests that U.S. labor leaders’ response to the blockade of Cuba reflects their more general approach to imperialism. 

Writing to Karl Kautsky in 1882, Frederick Engels exclaims, “You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general. There is no workers’ party here … and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.”

Lenin in 1916 (Imperialism and the Split in Socialism) left little to the imagination: “The capitalists [in England] can devote a part (and not a small one, at that!) of these superprofits to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance … between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against the other countries.”

British historian Eric Hobsbawm elaborates, noting that: “the European proletariat has partly reached a situation where it is not its work that maintains the whole of society but that of the people of the colonies who are practically enslaved. . . . In certain countries these circumstances create the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat of one country or another with colonial chauvinism.”

He adds that, “the aristocracy of labor … arises when the economic circumstances of capitalism make it possible to grant significant concessions to the proletariat, within which certain strata manage, by means of their special scarcity, skill, strategic position, organizational strength, etc., to establish notably better conditions for themselves than the rest [of the proletariat].” 

The message conveyed in these commentaries on “is that U.S. union leaders may be so attentive to their own union affairs and to their members’ interests as to ignore developments abroad, like the U.S. blockade. They may think that the labor movement benefits by accepting U.S. imperialism’s methods and purposes. In neither case is their attitude unique to the U.S. labor movement. Counterparts in other industrialized countries undoubtedly share similar priorities.

Some clarity emerges on our realizing that racial oppression, a matter of special U.S. experience, is an integral part of imperialism. In 1920, in “The Soul of White Folks,” W. E. B. Du Bois asks: “How many of us today fully realize the current theory of colonial expansion, of the relation of Europe which is white, to the world which is black and brown and yellow? Bluntly put, that theory is this: It is the duty of white Europe to divide up the darker world and administer it for Europe’s good.”

Du Bois sees a weakening of capitalism: “The day of the very rich is drawing to a close, so far as individual white nations are concerned. But there is a loophole. There is a chance for exploitation on an immense scale for inordinate profit, not simply to the very rich, but to the middle class and to the laborers. This chance lies in the exploitation of darker peoples. It is here that the golden hand beckons. Here are no labor unions or votes or questioning onlookers or inconvenient consciences.”

Formerly European nations bore most responsibility for injecting racial oppression into imperialist practice. These days the U.S. government is an imperialist giant, and the admixture of racism and imperialism is mostly a U.S. phenomenon.

U.S. anti-imperialists, mindful of consistency, might see, or worry about, an obligation to be fighting racial oppression as they fight imperialism. Battlelines are blurred, and frustration is in store for many U.S. unionists joining anti-imperialist efforts such as the blockade. To begin with, they have to be aware, as noted by one observer, that “the AFL-CIO [has] its own ugly history of assisting US imperialism.” Some of them might take comfort by recalling their fight against racism in their own unions.

Annoyance would be the least of their troubles. Fighting imperialism, U.S. union workers would also be taking a stand against capitalism itself. That’s the logic of studies pursued by sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox. According to a recent observer, Cox “argued that racial antagonism and exploitation had only arisen in modern times, and developed along with the rise of capitalism in Europe and North America.”

According to Cox, (Race, a Study in Social Dynamics, MR Press, 2000) “racial exploitation is merely one aspect of the problem of proletarianization of labor, regardless of the color of the laborer. Hence racial antagonism is essentially political-class conflict. The capitalist, being opportunistic and practical, will utilize any convenience to keep his labor and other resources freely exploitable. He will devise and employ race prejudice when that becomes convenient.”

Cox continues: “The slave trade was simply a way of recruiting labor for the purpose of exploiting the great natural resources of America. This trade did not develop because Indians and Negros were red and black … but simply because they were the best workers to be found for the heavy labor in the mines and plantations across the Atlantic.  … This then is the beginning of modern race relations. It was not an abstract, natural, immemorial feeling of mutual antipathy between groups, but rather a practical exploitative relationship with its social-attitudinal facilitation.”

Proposing that racial oppression, capitalism, and imperialism are kindred phenomena, Cox tells us that fight against one is fight against the other two. If so, U.S. labor unions would be only too aware of the explosive potential of a scenario requiring them to oppose the capitalist system. The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and other assaults have already sensitized them to accusations of “soft on communism.”

Definition of a slippery slope: first oppose the U.S. blockade of Cuba, then turn against imperialism, then take on racism, and ultimately oppose capitalism itself. And then what? Far better to leave ending the blockade to someone else.

Author: W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine.