HAVANA — “Did the 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump register a rise in racism, xenophobia, misogyny and every other form of reaction among working people in the United States? Is that why tens of millions of workers voted for him?”
That question was posed by Mary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, in one of the featured talks at a three-day conference here. The gathering was one of several events held in conjunction with the celebration of the international day of the working class, May Day, when more than a million workers mobilized in Havana and across the island.
Waters also posed a second question: “Is a socialist revolution in the U.S. really possible? Or are those like ourselves, who answer with an unhesitating ‘Yes,’ a new variety of utopian socialist fools, however well-meaning?”
Her talk, which focused on answering those questions, initiated a two-part program on the class struggle in the United States. The second part was entitled “From Clinton to Trump: How working people in the U.S. are responding to the anti-labor offensive of the bosses, their parties, and their government.” It was a panel of leaders and supporters of the Socialist Workers Party with years of trade union experience in major industries and other sectors of the economy, including agriculture. They described the multifaceted forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression working people face in the United States, and even more importantly, the growing resistance that the owners’ offensive is generating.
The two-part program was a central feature of the 12th International May Day Conference, held here April 24-26. The main sponsors of the event were the History Institute of Cuba and the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC), the country’s trade union federation. It was attended by some 130 people. Most came from cities across Cuba. Others were from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
CTC General Secretary Ulises Guilarte opened the conference with an address on challenges facing Cuban working people and the unions today, from the vantage point that here “the working class is in power.” Presentations were also given by leaders of Cuba’s Commercial and Food Workers Union and Tourism Workers Union.
Silvia Odriozola, of the National Association of Economists and Accountants, spoke on the state of the Cuban economy today. Another feature was a panel discussion on the Cuban sugar industry. Liobel Pérez, of the state sugar company Azcuba, explained steps underway to improve irrigation systems and the mechanization of the sugar harvest, as well as to develop biofuel from sugarcane derivatives.
Orlando Borrego, who fought under the command of Ernesto Che Guevara in Cuba’s revolutionary war, and served as sugar minister in the 1960s, spoke about his experiences working with Guevara in the revolutionary government. He described Guevara’s qualities as a communist leader who instilled confidence in working people that they could build a socialist society on new economic foundations and transform themselves in the process.
The conference program included more than 20 panels. Some discussed the situation facing working people internationally, from Argentina to Venezuela. Others took up the history of the working-class movement in Cuba, from the role of Julio Antonio Mella, founding leader of the Cuban Communist Party in the 1920s, to the textile workers strike during World War II. Another series focused on women in the Cuban workforce and unions.
The conference itself was held at a historic trade union and cultural center, the Cigar Rollers Palace. Founded by the tobacco workers union in 1925, it served for decades as a broader center for educational, social and organizing activities of the labor movement. It is now being restored to become a social center and museum on the history of the Cuban workers movement.
Presentation on U.S. class struggle
The final day of the conference featured the two-and-a-half-hour program on the class struggle in the United States. In her talk, titled, “In defense of the U.S. working class,” Waters addressed misconceptions and prejudices about the U.S. working class that are common in Cuba and elsewhere.
In replying to the two questions she posed, Waters described in some detail the importance of the teachers strike that exploded in West Virginia and has spread to Oklahoma, Arizona, and elsewhere. She explained how it is a response to decades of attacks on the living standards of working people by the owners of industry and their government. In West Virginia, she noted, the teachers strike “became a genuine social movement fighting for the needs of the entire working class and its allies.”
Waters said it’s not surprising that most of the states where teachers have walked out are where Trump won big majorities in 2016. She quoted a teacher from West Virginia — one of the most economically ravaged regions in the country — who said that people there voted for Trump for the same reason they went on strike. They have nothing but distrust and growing hatred for what they call the political establishment, both Democrats and Republicans, from Washington to state Capitols across the country.
Far from growing reaction, what we’re seeing among working people in the U.S., Waters underlined, is greater openness today than at any time in our political lives to consider what a socialist revolution is and why our class should take state power. That’s what SWP members have learned firsthand as they go door to door talking with working people in rural and urban areas across the country.
Is a socialist revolution in the U.S. possible? Waters answered, “Not only is it possible, but even more important, revolutionary battles by the toilers are inevitable.” What is not inevitable is victory. That depends above all on the caliber of proletarian leadership.
As evidence of the kinds of battles to come and the revolutionary capacities of the working class, she pointed to three of the most important class-struggle upsurges in the U.S. in the last century. One was the mass labor battles of the 1930s that organized millions of workers into the industrial unions, and especially the union-organizing drive led by the Minneapolis Teamsters throughout the Upper Midwest, who had a class-struggle leadership that included members of the Socialist Workers Party.
Another was the mass Black, proletarian-led movement of the 1950s and ’60s, which brought down Jim Crow segregation. Combined with the deep impact of the simultaneous example of Cuba’s advancing socialist revolution, it gave new generations unshakable confidence in what the working class could achieve.
These struggles became intertwined with what became the millions-strong movement against Washington’s war in Vietnam, which reached into the draftee army and shook the confidence of the U.S. ruling class.
In the second part of the program, Jacob Perasso, a union freight rail conductor in Albany, New York, described working conditions in the industry as bosses reduce crew sizes, extend workdays up to 12 hours, and cut corners on safety. He noted how his co-workers are seeking ways to resist these attacks and their openness to discuss what socialists put forward.
Alyson Kennedy, who was part of the first wave of women who fought their way into underground mining jobs, related some of the battles she was involved in, from West Virginia to Alabama to Utah during her 14 years as a coal miner. Currently working as a cashier at a store in Texas, she talked about the teachers strike in Oklahoma and its impact on working people throughout the region.
Willie Head, a small farmer in south Georgia, described the long struggle by farmers who are Black to keep their land and some of the forms of discrimination they face from the banks and the government. He explained how, like most small producers, he has had to work many different jobs off the farm in order to earn enough income to keep farming.
Róger Calero, drawing on his involvement in union struggles by meatpackers in Minnesota and coal miners in Utah, explained how anti-immigrant prejudices are driven by the U.S. rulers, not working people, and why the fight to prevent scapegoating of immigrant workers and win amnesty is a life-and-death question for the working class.
Omari Musa, a veteran of decades of union battles as well as the Black rights movement, gave numerous examples showing how and why today it is harder than ever for the U.S. capitalist rulers to use anti-Black racism to divide workers, and how this has strengthened the working class.
One panelist, Harry D’Agostino, a musician, who was unable to participate at the last minute, wrote out his remarks, which were distributed to everyone present. He discussed the particular challenges faced by young people just entering the workforce — and the impact of seeing the working class in action for the first time.
‘Amazed at conditions in U.S.’
After the presentations, a Cuban audience member asked why all the struggles in the United States seem to be by different “sectors” isolated from each other.
Waters replied that the apparently disparate struggles register the fact that working-class resistance in the U.S. is only now beginning to develop into a social movement, led by the working class, that can eventually become strong enough to bring together fights on different fronts so they reinforce each other. These different fronts are all class questions, she said, part of the fight to unify the working class in struggle.
The discussion continued informally over the next few hours. Numerous delegates said they especially appreciated the concreteness of the descriptions of job conditions and labor struggles in the United States — and were amazed by the facts presented.
A teacher from the Autonomous University of Chapingo, Mexico, told Waters that what she learned “completely changed” how she viewed what is happening in the United States today. Two Argentine teachers from the National University of Southern Patagonia told the Militantthey were glad to hear the discussion on the need to defend immigrant workers in face of deportations, an issue posed in Argentina as well, where the ruling class scapegoats Bolivian and other immigrants.
Discussion on Cuban economy
The economic and political challenges in Cuba today were a central thread of discussion at the conference. CTC General Secretary Guilarte reported that 584,000 people now work in what is often called here the “nonstate” sector of the economy. These include both owners and workers at private restaurants, landlords who rent rooms to tourists in private homes, members of cooperative enterprises in construction, transportation, and many other small businesses. Guilarte as well as economist Silvia Odriozola explained that the CTC is seeking to organize all those involved in the “nonstate” sector.
A Chilean delegate asked if that meant the CTC is organizing both owners and employees of small businesses as if they are all workers. Odriozola said that was accurate and argued in favor of the policy, saying that “many things are new and changing, and the problems are still being worked out.”
During a panel discussion on “regional economic integration,” an important debate took place between Pedro Ross, former longtime CTC general secretary, and one of the Argentine participants. Ross took the floor to argue that the fundamental problems facing workers and farmers in Latin America will not be addressed until capitalism is overturned, as was done in Cuba. He reinforced a point made by two University of Havana students on the panel who said the world capitalist system is in a long-term economic crisis that means no end to unemployment and poverty for millions.
When panel moderator Nerina Visacovsky, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, began to close the discussion period, saying, “We all need to learn from Che,” Ross interjected, “And Marx, Engels, and Lenin.”
Visacovsky replied, “Yes, it’s true we must study the classics of Marxism, but we also need to see how conditions today have changed so we don’t follow outdated recipes.”
Ross responded in turn, “In Cuba we made a socialist revolution. Ours is a proven ‘recipe.’ Capitalism must be overturned.” He added, “And to learn more about this, I urge everyone to listen to what the American compañeros will say,” referring to the panel on the U.S. class struggle scheduled for the next day.
Closing the final session of the conference, Cuban History Institute President René González Barrios thanked the U.S. socialists not only for the presentations but for bringing an array of books on the subjects discussed. Over the course of the three days, conference delegates purchased some 140 of them.
Among the most popular were Is Socialist Revolution in the US Possible? by Mary-Alice Waters, and two books by SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes: Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? and The Clintons’ Anti-Working-Class Record. A good number of participants got one or more volumes of the four-part series by Farrell Dobbs on the 1930s Teamsters battles, now available in its entirety in Spanish.