Trade union struggles and celebrations

Today, myself and another member of the delegation attended an anniversary celebration of the Confederation des travailleurs haitiens (CTH), held at their headquarters in downtown Port au Prince.

The celebration was a lively and festive event, starting at 10 am and lasting well into the afternoon. I’m guessing that 200 people attended in total, men and women both, and many young people. There were lots of speeches given, some tracing the history that the union has lived since its founding in 1959, others focused on the present challenges facing working people in Haiti.

I noticed that all of the speeches stressed the social role that the union must play in fighting for a better society. In other words, the union is not there just to negotiate better conditions of work for its immediate members; it must see itself as fighting for a better society. Thus, its concerns must encompass everything from wages and work conditions to issues of democratic rights and representative government.

CTH leaders stress that it is not a “political” union. Its leaders carefully avoid close association with political parties or causes. That’s because such descriptions or associations can be dangerous to leaders or harmful to the union. But for all intents and purposes, the CTH is a very politically engaged union, as any good union should be.

I was keenly interested in watching the union’s secretary-general, Paul Chery, give a talk to the gathering. He is a very engaging and educational speaker. I can understand why he is so well respected by his union members.

The union is now publishing a monthly journal, entitled “Lutte ouvriere”. I once helped to publish a newspaper by that name in Montreal, so it brought a smile to my face when the title of the CTH paper appear on the computer screen. We must make this publication known in Canada.

The union’s press secretary, Hubert jean, also publishes online a month-end review of the main news happenings in Haiti. This will be very helpful to receive in Canada in order to keep abreast of events here.

The CTH headquarters is located only a few blocks from the presidential palace in downtown Port au Prince. It is a spacious three storey building owned by the union; the top two floors are used. It is furnished, and there are a handful of computers available. More computers and furniture would be welcomed. The union went through very hard times in the several years following the 2004 coup, but is on the rebound now.

A drive by a local hospital with Paul Chery the day before highlighted the challenges the union faces. The workers there are organized in the CTH. But many earn starvation wages. Cleaning staff, for example, earn as little as US$2 per day. Another big problem is job security—many of the lower wage workers are employed in short-term contracts that constantly expire and must be renewed.

A ship inspector who works in the port at Port au Prince told me he earns $300 per month.

Meeting with Teleco workers
Three leaders of the union at the state-owned telecommunication company Teleco came to the CTH event in order to meet with us and share their story. Their union, the Syndicat des ouvriers (ieres) et employes(es) de la Teleco (SOETEL) is on the front line of attacks by the Preval government and foreign occupation against the state-owned enterprises in Haiti. Teleco is headed for privatisation, and the job cuts have already begun. 1500 workers were laid off on July 5. 1800 workers remain, but already 800 more layoffs have been announced.

The union leaders say the Preval government has announced its intention to privatise the state pension plan (ONA), the state bank (BNC), the APN (don’t know what that is), and the state electric company (EDH). An earlier, foreign-imposed, privatisation of Haiti’s state-owned cement company and flour mill, both located on the outskirts of Port au Prince, have proven disastrous. Prices of the products these enterprises produce have skyrocketed, and at the flour mill, grains are no longer processed. The former flour mill now simply bags finished product imported into the country.

SOETEL wants a decisive voice in the plans for the future of Teleco. It wants the government to invest in Teleco and make it a viable competitor to the foreign cell phone companies that have been invited into Haiti and now control much of its market. The company is a vital public institution because its network of wires and cables gives it a much more important place in the national economy than the fly by night wireless companies.

The union wants more financial compensation for those workers laid off. It opposes the company’s demand that laid off workers sign away any future claims to a job at Teleco as a condition of receiving layoff compensation (presently, one year of salary). They also demand that the 337 million gourde (app US$10 million) company pension plan remain the property of the employees.

Jean Mabou, Secretary-General of SOETEL told us, “We are appealing for international solidarity to fight the privatisation of Teleco.” They want their struggle to be known around the world. Unions interested in supporting their struggle can contact him by phone at 011-509-408-8274. He speaks English well.