2010 Labor Conference REPORT

Labor Conference - VII
December, 3, 4 and 5, Diciembre 3, 4 y 5, 2010
Hotel Palacio Azteca - Tijuana, Mexico

¡La lucha obrera no tiene fronteras! 
The workers’struggle has no borders!
Uniting America's Working Class and Increasing its Influence

U.S.-Cuba – Latin America- International Relations •
FTAA/NAFTA: the ALBA Alternative • 
Crises-Integration and Solidarity
Immigration between US/Latin America
Inmigración entre Estados y Latinoamérica •
Free the Cuban Five from U.S.prisons – Family visits now!

Voices of Militant Labor Call for Unity and Struggle at International Conference

By Bob McCubbin and Mike Eilenfeldt
Tijuana, Mexico

For the seventh consecutive year, on the first weekend in December in this dynamic border city the U.S./Cuba/Venezuela/North America/Latin America/Caribbean Labor Conference brought together trade union leaders, social movement activists and socialists from various countries of the Western Hemisphere for intense discussions focusing on the global crisis of the imperialist system, its increasing belligerence and its devastating attacks on the living conditions of the international working class. In the face of this unprecedented crisis conference speakers discussed fightback strategies, focusing on the role of trade unions and the building of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) as important factors in the global struggle for workers’ power. Five Cuban women represented the Cuban Workers Central Union, the Federacion Sindical Mundial, the National Assembly of Peoples Power and the Families of the Cuban Five.

Conference dedicated to freedom for the Cuban Five

The Friday evening opening of the conference was dedicated to the struggle for freedom for the Cuban Five heroes. These Cuban revolutionaries, who have been held prisoners in U.S. penitentiaries since 1998, are hailed worldwide for their efforts to expose anti-Cuban terrorist plots hatched in Miami. Their arrests by U.S. authorities were unconscionable and the demands for their immediate release grow daily. Cheryl LaBash, a main conference organizer, a U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange coordinator opened the session, calling attention to the eye-catching, wall display of the political cartoons of Gerardo Hernández, one of the Cuban Five. She urged conference attendees to use public displays of the cartoons and paintings of Antonio Guerrero to increase awareness of the struggle of the Five. She reminded everyone that freedom for the Five is a workers’ issue exactly because it is the power of the workers’ movement that will free them.

Martín López Ortiz, representing the Frente Amplio de Izquiera Social de Michoacán, welcomed the conference attendees to Mexico and affirmed that the peoples of the world reject the injustices of the empire, such as the jailing of the Five, as confirmed at the recent international gathering of 350 delegates from 56 countries in Holguín, Cuba. Alicia Jrapko, the tireless coordinator of the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five, spoke next, thanking everyone for their firm support for the Five. Silvia García Tabío, representing the Cuban National Assembly of People’s Power, discussed legal aspects of the cases of the Five in detail. She concluded, however, by emphasizing the overriding importance of the support offered by several large Canadian unions in a letter they co-wrote to President Barack Obama demanding freedom for the Five. She urged that their example be followed by other labor organizations.

What followed was a deeply moving talk by Ailí Labañino Cardoso, the oldest daughter of Cuban Five prisoner Ramón Labañino. She described in measured, but emotionally painful terms, the suffering of the Five and their families caused by their isolation and their separation from one another – especially for children. Concluding the evening program was a short video statement by migrant farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta demanding freedom for the Five.

Effects on workers of global crisis of imperialism

The Saturday morning session was opened by Ignacio Meneses, co-coordinator of the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange. Meneses pointed out the importance of the fact that among the trade union leaders that would be speaking were those that had effected fundamental change in the system where they lived and others who were now struggling to do so. The struggle of the workers continues, he noted, in the face of intensified imperialist attacks against Cuba and against the ALBA countries.

Ermela García Santiago, member of the National Secretariat of the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC), spoke on the economic blockade of Cuba and its consequences. The blockade’s costs for Cuba have been and continue to be staggering. Despite the recent United Nations vote of 187 countries to end the blockade, the U.S. defiantly maintains and even hardens it. In the face of this attack and also the tremendous damage caused by the recent hurricanes, Cuba remains firm in preserving and strengthening its revolution. That is the only purpose of the national discussion and changes now taking place in Cuba.

José Humberto Montes de Oca Luna, representing the Mexican Electrical Workers union (SME), described the present capitalist crisis as generalized and global. As a result, the capitalists have unleashed an offensive against the workers, deepening their politics of exploitation. In Mexico, as elsewhere, they have responded to the crisis with increasing efforts to privatize state enterprises. Montes de Oca gave a detailed description of the SME struggle against Mexican oligarchic efforts to destroy it, including legislative and judicial attacks, and the jailing of union leaders. The basic fightback strategy must be the class struggle, he emphasized. We need political independence. We have on our side thousands of retirees, our families and the rally of 70,000 in Aztec Stadium. He urged conference attendees to write letters of support for the SME leadership to the Mexican president and to Mexican legislators. Finally, he called for a Mexican peoples assembly to demand that Mexico join ALBA.

Bail Out the People leader Larry Holmes received a standing ovation following his presentation analyzing the capitalist crisis. The near collapse of the economic system two years ago, he said, ushered in a new reality on a worldwide basis. The present system is incredibly productive, but no longer sustainable. Part of our job is to break through the ideological wall that prevents workers from demanding a new system, a system that works in their interests. He cited the political strikes of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the plant seizure of Republic Windows and Doors by the UE Local 1110 workers that happened two years ago during this conference two years ago, as inspiring examples of the kinds of struggle that are needed. He concluded with the idea that whatever differences groups on the left had in the past, they are probably not important enough for us not to come together now. The only question should be: Are you ready to fight the system? The workers must come before capital!

In the discussion period, Cristina Vásquez, president of Workers United, expressed her organization’s support for the SME workers and the Cuban Five and introduced the delegation of laundry workers that had come to the conference with her.

ALBA as a growing alternative

The second session of the day was opened by Fredy José Franco, general secretary of the Nicaraguan Federation of Teachers of Higher ]Education. He spoke of the fundamental difference between ALBA and the so-called “free trade agreements” pushed by the U.S. ALBA is based on solidarity among its nation members, and each nation’s particular strengths are used to complement the deficiencies of other member nations. Its programs in Nicaragua include the effort to eliminate illiteracy, provide free health care, raise the minimum wage and reduce poverty and social inequality. In Nicaragua little by little the privatizations carried out by the pre-Sandinista neoliberal policies are being undone. He expressed confidence that following the November 2011 elections the Sandinista government will be able to deepen the socialist revolution there.

Lucy Pagoada, representing the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular of Honduras, denounced the recent coup there, citing the connivance of the U.S., the Honduran military and Church as well as the national oligarchy. She described it as a coup against ALBA, since, in fact, the coup government has withdrawn Honduras from ALBA membership. She pointed out that the biggest military base in Central America is in Honduras and is controlled by the U.S. But the coup, she concluded, has awakened the people to political struggle.

Sabrina Green, a longtime activist who has spoken at previous conferences in support of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and the MOVE organization’s imprisoned members, raised the question of what had happened to the billions of dollars of doners’ money supposedly destined to aid the Haitian earthquake victims. While the Clinton Fund ignores the demands for assistance and Hilary Clinton insisted the elections go forward, wasting money that could have helped earthquake survivors, Cuba has increased its aid to the victims.

Adolfo Cardona is a leader of Sinaltrainal, the Colombian union of food and beverage workers. He cited Colombia as the most dangerous country in the world to do trade union work. Of each 10 union organizers killed in the world, eight are Colombians. Although Coca-Cola’s war against unions is at the top of the list of murderous corporate atrocities, Cardona said that many transnational companies have set up in Colombia to exploit its resources and labor and participate in the repression of the people. As the rich have become richer and richer, the poor have grown poorer. Thus the struggle for justice must continue.

Ermela García Santiago’s earlier presentation focused on the decades long blockade imposed on Cuba by the U.S. In this presentation she concentrated more on Cuba’s revolutionary approach to the problems caused by the present global economic crisis. Cuba is now in the process of making adjustments, beginning with a popular debate on what changes are necessary. The issues are being discussed openly and are displayed on the Internet for anyone interested in the details. The necessity for change is prompted by the global economic crisis, whose negative effects Cuba is not immune from. Cubans know that wealth comes from human labor and growth comes from good planning. Also, there are sectors of the Cuban economy where there are excessive government subsidies and other sectors that harbor excessive numbers of workers. The readjustments are being made over extended periods of time by the workers themselves. And the worsening conditions that are motivating these changes are shared by everyone. What is indisputable is the support of the Cuban workers. They understand that these changes will strengthen the revolution.

The third session of the day was preceded by an appeal from the floor by Guadalupe Duarte, representing the Movimiento por la Justicia 5 de Junio. She requested and received conference support for the struggle of the parents of the 49 children burned to death and the 70 others injured in a terrible fire caused by the negligence of the owners of a privately owned nursery school. The first scheduled speaker in this session was Hilda Chacón, International Relations representative of the CTC. Chacón noted that this is the 70th anniversary of the World Federation of Trade Unions, which was born in the struggle of the 1930s against European fascism. Its 16th congress will be held next year in Greece. She commented that because of the struggle going on there now there is no better location for the congress.

Clarence Thomas, third generation longshoreman and organizer of the Million Worker March, spoke next. As a leader of Local 10] of the International Longshore and Warehouse union, he focused his presentation on two important recent political actions carried out by his union: the refusal of Local 10 members to unload an Israeli ship following the Islaeli commando slaughter of activists attempting to peacefully break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and the longshore workers shutdown of 5 West Coast ports following the cold-blooded police killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland.

Unión del Barrio leader Ben Prado spoke on his organization’s view on the need for integration with Latin America, in particular with ALBA. Capitalism, he noted, cannot solve our problems. He also stressed the need for self-determination and said that his organization is guided by the principles of consciousness, organization, action and liberation.

Rosie Martínez, leader of the Latino Caucus of SEIU Local 721, denounced the inability of the imperialist system to address the needs of working people. We must, instead, base ourselves on the solidarity of workers worldwide and have our own program and demands with workers participation and democracy.

Hilda Chacón’s second presentation focused on ESNA, the Encuentro Sindical Nuestra América. The main objective of this international grouping is promoting unity of action of workers. Martín López Ortiz is the Mexican coordinator and the Mexican section has been hailed as the most effective in the work of ESNA. The current focus is for big mobilizations on Dec. 10 against U.S. military bases. The next meeting of ESNA will be in Managua, Nicaragua, next year from July 17 to 19.

Megaly Batista Enríquez, a representative of the Dept. of International Relations of the CTC, affirmed that the spirit of ALBA is sharing: fuel and other energy sources, hydroelectricity, cattle raising, biodiversity, pharmaceuticals, knowledge of pre-Columbian cultures, minerals, help for disabled people, potable water, etc. Concrete programs have so far included free eye care, literacy campaigns, and the training of technicians, doctors and nurses and expanding use of the sucre as an exchange currency.

Martín López Ortiz compared present conditions for the Mexican people as similar to those of the Great Depression. But he noted that the people are now awakening to the need for change and, in particular, for Mexico to join ALBA. He urged support for the Dec. 10 mobilization against U.S. militarism, mass support for freedom for the Cuban Five, participation in the Athens meeting next summer, the organizing of peoples assemblies and using the Caracas Manifesto of last July as a guide for future struggle. Later in this panel, he commented that the Mexican oligarchy is using the pretext of the war against drug trafficking to militarize the country.

Cristina Vásquez offered vivid images of present conditions for workers and poor people and predicted that the situation will continue to worsen. The solution, she reminded everyone, is to organize. Unity is what gives us strength. She concluded that the only way we are going to stop the downward spiral is when the workers take the reins of power all over the world.

Fredy Franco summarized the main idea of a joint declaration by Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro urging that the broadest solidarity should guide ALBA with no national interests that come at the expense of other peoples. He noted that the free eye operations sponsored by ALBA in Nicaragua would have cost over $2,000 each if done before ALBA.

Even the social evening following this session was highly political, with Sabrina Green speaking about a commemoration of assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, Cristina Vásquez calling the hotel workers to the front of the hall to be applauded, Los Angeles International Action Center organizer John Parker speaking and playing a video about his recent trip to Iran. Ermela García Santiago elaborated  about Fidel Castro’s recent warnings on the imminent danger of the U.S. launching tactica nuclear war through attacking Iran or the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

The Sunday program began with a presentation by longtime autoworker and UAW activist Martha Grevatt. She offered the distressing situation] of closing auto plants, lost jobs and two-tier wage agreements. Told cutbacks were necessary to save their jobs, many workers went along with them and then lost their jobs anyway. In these desperate circumstances, Grevatt suggested the choice now for the union is class struggle or suicide.

Oliverio Esquivel Reyes, Mexican coordinator of the World Federation of Trade Unions, described sixty years of losses for the Mexican workers, both in the national political system and in enterprise privatization. This history was depressing, but the growth of the WFTU, from five unions originally to 40 now in the Mexican section and the proposal for a trade union school in Tijuana are reasons for optimism that the class struggle in Mexico is heating up.

Enrique Torres Ponce is general secretary of the Independent Union of High School and College Educators in the state of Michoacán. He reported that his union was able to stop cutbacks and, in fact, force an increase in the budget at the secondary level and reduce the cutbacks at the primary level. But nationwide, money for education is being diverted to the military. His prediction was that these victories will encourage more unionization.

The struggle for immigrant worker rights

Opening the second Sunday session, New York May 1 Coalition organizer Teresa Gutierrez highlighted the case of Victor Toro, detained and arrested for lack of documentation and now charged with terrorism because of his position as a Chilean leader against the fascist takeover orchestrated by the CIA in 1973, he intends to expose the U.S. role in the anti-President Allende coup and demand political asylum since being sent back to Chile might well result in his assassination by still active Pinochet supporters. She also discussed the proposed DREAM Act, legislation that would offer citizenship to undocumented youth, but force many of them into U.S. military service. We need to educate these youth to demand a DREAM Act without militarism. Her final thought was that a U.S. spring tour by SME leaders would have as an additional benefit raising the political level of next year’s May 1st actions.

Daniel Montes, an organizer for Unión del Barrio in Los Angeles, described the U.S. Southwest as Mexican territory occupied by the U.S. and noted that in the last 30 years even more Mexicans have migrated to these lands. These workers, living in the worst conditions, support the economies of two countries. Countering the Democratic Party’s usurpation of the powerful movement of these workers in recent years, Unión del Barrio has challenged the Democrats’ slogan of “Today we march, tomorrow we vote!” with “Today we march, tomorrow we organize!” The Obama administration is deporting more workers than Bush did. Our answer is mobilization of the communities. On Dec. 10 in Los Angeles’ Macarthur Park we will demonstrate where two months ago the police assassinated a Guatemalan worker. And since the mayor of Los Angeles and the governor elect of California say they favor immigrants let’s make them act on that and support all our demands with action.

The final speaker at the conference was Ben Prado, a San Diego organizer for Unión del Barrio. He pointed out that the capitalists have never recognized the rights of the workers. Capitalism turns everything, including people, into merchandise. It’s important, he stressed, to unmask the truth that the U.S. is the biggest violator of human rights. We need to learn from the example of ALBA. The problems of immigration have no solution within the context of capitalism.

In addition to alternative media who covered the conference, several Tijuana media representatives, including Telemedia 33 and Radio La Republica were present.