3 July 2019

Why do British trade unions support tyranny in Latin America?


Last year, for the first time in my life, I seriously thought about joining a trade union. After ending up on the wrong side of a cordon while covering the annual Al-Quds protest, I had to ask officers to let me through.

Unfortunately, as a student freelancer I didn’t have a press card and had to rely on a sympathetic bobby to eventually let me out. I subsequently discovered that getting hold of a card meant joining the National Union of Journalists, the main trade union for journalists in the UK.

Unfortunately after a little research this was a bridge I felt unable to cross. Because, strangely enough, of Cuba.

The NUJ is listed as an official affiliate of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC). This isn’t some fluffy humanitarian group seeking to alleviate poverty on the Caribbean island. It’s a political organisation which exists to celebrate Castro’s communist revolution and to defend the dictatorial regime it spawned that governs the island to this day.

A glance at the CSC website gives a flavour of the parallel universe it inhabits, with gushing sections on the regime’s stellar achievements in areas such as  education, health and women’s rights. Broadly speaking, the CSC makes two fundamental arguments. Firstly Cuba is self-evidently a socialist success story, and secondly any defects, if they even exist, are down to the ongoing US blockade.

What the CSC fails to mention is that Cuba is run as an authoritarian dictatorship in which political opponents and human rights campaigners are ruthlessly suppressed.

According to the most recent Amnesty International report for the country “human rights and political activists continued to be harassed, intimidated and arbitrarily detained in high numbers”. As for that women’s rights record, the report also notes: “The Ladies in White, a group of female relatives of prisoners detained on politically motivated grounds, remained one of the primary targets of repression by the authorities. During detention, the women were often beaten by law enforcement officials”.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group the Cuban Government deems illegal, there were over 4,500 arbitrary detentions between January and October 2017 alone.

So why is the main trade union for British journalists officially affiliated with a group which celebrates the Cuban regime, when that regime refuses to allow either independent journalists or trade unions to operate?

According to the NUJ website, in what must surely be an effort at self-parody, “we work with organisations such as the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to highlight the abuse of basic human rights wherever they occur”.

One British trade union’s affiliation to the CSC could be put down to an error of judgement. But how about 22? Remarkably, that is how many UK trade unions, including most of the biggest and most important, are affiliated with the CSC according to its website.

These include Unison, a public sector union which is Britain’s largest with over 1.3 million members, and Unite, whose General Secretary Len McClusky is widely regarded as one of the powers behind Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. McClusky’s chief of staff, Andrew Murray, also serves as a top adviser in Corbyn’s private office. Incidentally, Murray only quit the Communist Party of Britain to join Labour in 2016.

Both Unison and Unite, and most of the other unions on the list, are also claimed as official affiliates by the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC). The VSC was formed to celebrate the authoritarian regime of Hugo Chavez, who ran Venezuela between 1999-2003.

According to Amnesty International the Venezuelan regime has “undertaken a systematic policy of repression” which together with the country’s economic disintegration has produced “three million refugees and migrants” since 2015.

As I discovered when attending a VSC rally earlier this year, the group now predominantly exists to blame the country’s woes on the American government and Venezuelan opposition, who are treated as little more than US puppets.The rally was held in the headquarters of the National Education Union, the main trade union for British teachers.

Quite why the NEU is offering support to such a group is unclear. When I asked them in February, the day after I’d attended the VSC rally, they denied offering the group any support. When I asked why they had hosted the VSC rally, the union stopped replying to my emails.

In total there are 15 trade unions who are claimed as affiliates by both the CSC and VSC, though there may well be more. Other unions are claimed as affiliates by just one or other of the groups, but for simplicities sake I’ve left these out.

The list of shame goes as follows: Unite, Unison, GMB, CWU, NEU/NUT, PCS, RMT, UCU, FBU, TSSA, ASLEF, NAPO, BFAWU, MU and NUM. This includes several of Britain’s largest and most powerful trade unions. Not one of them replied to enquiries about why the CSC and VSC claim them as affiliates.

If there was any doubt about the deep links between the CSC and VSC with a section of the British trade union movement, a brief glance at their websites and social media feeds will dispel it.

In May, for instance, the Cuban ambassador hosted a “Friends of Cuba” reception at his London residency. Those present included disgraced former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, Labour MPs including Shadow Home Secretary Diana Abbott and the Venezuelan Ambassador.  Also in attendance, according to the VSC, were “leading trade unionists from Unite, UNISON, NEU, CWU, RMT and ASLEF”. Meanwhile, this coming Thursday the VSC is holding a “Stop Trump in Latin America” rally at the headquarters of the Unite trade union.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many unions seem willing to give succour to tyrannical regimes in Latin America. After all, much of the trade union bureaucracy in the UK has been captured by the hard-left, who are able to get their people elected to senior positions on what are almost always pathetically low turnouts.

The British trade union movement is deeply shamed by its support for the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes’ apologists. So too are many supposedly ‘moderate’ MPs who have failed to do anything about it.

The links between CSC, VSC and our own trade unions also raises a troubling question. If the hard left are prepared to celebrate and defend far-left dictatorships abroad, how committed are they truly to liberal-democratic norms in our own country?

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James Bickerton is a journalist and founder of the Campaign Against Corbynism