The difference a revolution makes: textile factories in the U.S. and Cuba

March 25, 2002

SANTA CLARA, Cuba–During a tour of a half dozen cities in central Cuba by a team of volunteers expanding the circulation of Pathfinder’s newly published book From the Escambray to the Congo, by Víctor Dreke, we had an opportunity to visit a large textile mill here on February 18. The “Desembarco del Granma” (Landing of the Granma) factory complex, which also encompasses a sewing factory, produces not only the textiles themselves but a range of finished products, including uniforms for the Revolutionary Armed Forces and others.

Having been a textile worker myself for a year and having experienced the accelerated “productivity” drive of mills throughout the South of the United States, I was nearly blown away by how much better the conditions are for textile workers in Cuba.

In the United States, many textile workers work 12-hour shifts, three to five days a week. This extended workday was widely imposed over the last two years as part of the capitalist bosses’ stepped-up drive for profits. Supposedly you work three days one week and four the next, to total 84 hours in two weeks. But many workers, unable to live off those wages, “voluntarily” work an extra day or two each week. This is especially true for immigrant workers who, in addition to trying to cover their own living expenses, often send sizable portions of their checks back to their families in their countries of origin.

Workers at the Cuban plant I visited normally work an eight-hour day, five days a week. Currently they are working two six-hour shifts in order to reduce electrical consumption–6:00 a.m. to noon and noon to 6:00 p.m., with a 15-minute break.

At the plant where I worked there was no set lunch break. Workers are paid according to how much they produce, so those who are not fast or need extra money feel pressure not to take a lunch break at all, or to take a very short one. These conditions are common.

Layoffs have been sweeping the textile industry throughout the South. The plant where I worked laid off more than 50 workers in the winding department, in a plant of roughly 300.

In Cuba if there is no work, you don’t simply get thrown into the streets. Workers who are “temporarily laid off”–due to lack of raw materials, machinery, breakdowns, or similar causes–maintain their jobs and continue to receive their wages during the time that production is interrupted.

If your job is eliminated altogether due to restructuring of the enterprise, you are considered an “available” worker and your employer, working together with the union, is responsible for retraining you for another job in the same factory. If there are no jobs in that plant, you are given training and offered work in another factory, whether in that industry or a different one. While being trained and relocated, the factory pays you one month at full salary and up to three years at 60 percent of your previous wage.

Tending up to 18 machines in U.S. mill 
In the textile mill where I worked, I was a “doffer,” a very physically demanding job the way U.S. bosses organize it. I was responsible for tending 12–18 machines where yarn gets spun onto little hollow tubes called bobbins. When the tubes are full you have to “doff” them, that is, take a cart and zoom down the machine removing full bobbins and replacing them with empty ones. Each machine has as many as 120 bobbins.

In contrast, workers in the plant in Santa Clara are responsible for tending only five machines, and the demanding doffing process is almost completely automated! The winding department has about eight machines to a worker. And the pace workers keep in the factory here is steady but less physically exhausting than in the capitalist world.

In a textile mill, cotton dust is a particular hazard to workers’ health. It can cause “brown lung,” a progressively debilitating and sometimes fatal respiratory illness. The factory I visited here was well ventilated, including in the doffing department, which is usually the most dusty. At the plant where I worked it was so dusty that a short stint left you covered with white fuzz, eyelashes and all. Workers at the Cuba plant had little or no dust on their clothes at the end of the day.

Most plants I am familiar with in the United States have a doctor present–at least from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.–who runs breathing tests on workers a couple of times a year. They are also supposed to take air dust samples regularly. The role of the company doctors, however, is to help the bosses cover up the unsafe working conditions, get injured or ill workers back on the job as quickly as possible whether they are well or not, and undercut workers’ efforts to hold the bosses responsible for injuries on the job or demand improvements in conditions.

In the Santa Clara plant, as in all Cuban workplaces, there is a doctor and nurse, available at all times. They do regular tests to monitor dust levels and prevent lung damage. Their main concern is the health needs of the workers.

After a 12-hour shift at the plant where I worked, you don’t have much time for anything except what’s necessary to sleep and prepare for the next day. Life is especially challenging for single mothers, who struggle finding and paying for child care. Other tasks of everyday life become more difficult, too.

The Desembarco del Granma textile factory has a child-care facility, a hairdresser, a bank, bicycle and TV repair shops, and other similar services. The factory also organizes transportation to pick up the workers near their homes–24 different routes! Other mills and factories in Cuba make similar arrangements to help meet the needs of workers.

It takes a revolution 
How is all this possible?

More than 40 years ago working people in Cuba carried out a successful revolution. Led by the July 26 Movement and the Rebel Army under the direction of Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and others, they took power from U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought into being a workers and farmers government. They mobilized their collective force and began carrying out deep-going political and social measures to begin to reverse the social and economic devastation created by the system of imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation that prevailed before the revolution.

They expropriated the great landed estates and guaranteed land to every working farmer. They nationalized the factories and began producing to meet the needs of the Cuban people, not to maintain profits for a wealthy handful of families. And in so doing they earned the undying wrath of the U.S. government, which to this day is trying to roll back the revolutionary gains of the Cuban people.

In the United States and around the capitalist world, workers and farmers are always hit the hardest by any economic crisis. We are discounted by the ruling rich, who throughout the roaring nineties boasted of an economic boom while most of us were figuring out how to pay the gas bill.

In socialist Cuba, however, where political and economic power is in the hands of working people, the natural resources, the organization of labor, and the creativity of women and men throughout society are directed to meet different class interests.

The people of Cuba, too, are the victims of a world capitalist market they cannot escape from, and a brutal economic war directed at them by the U.S. government. But the revolutionary government in Cuba relies on workers and farmers acting together to open a road out of the economic crisis imposed on them and implements policies to minimize its toll on working people.

Brian Taylor is a coal miner and member of United Mine Workers of America Local 2133 in Alabama. 


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