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On May 27-30 close to 2000 delegates from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), gathered in Denver Colorado to participate in their 25th International Convention. This health care, public services and property services union is the fastest growing union in the United States with 2.1 million members across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.
Delegates at the convention took up important issues that affect workers across the U.S. and the world, including the ever growing disparity in wealth between the 99% and the 1%.
Unlike any union convention before this one marked the first time that a significant intervention was made on behalf of the Cuban 5 anti-terrorists fighters who are serving long sentences in U.S. prisons. This was done by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign of the United Kingdom and the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5 of the United States, who joined forces in Denver to bring awareness about the case into this important convention. The fraternal relations between the SEIU and their sister union UNITE in Britain made it possible.
The day before the convention started at a meeting of the SEIU Latino Caucus, the case of the Cuban 5 was brought up to the almost 200 delegates who gave unanimous informal support to the campaign for the freedom of the Five and the right of family visits.
During the three days a steady flow of convention participants visited the lit table and signed up to receive future information about the Cuban 5. In addition, approximately 1500 packages with leaflets, DVDs, “Obama Give me Five” postcards and badges were distributed to most of the attending delegates.
Natasha Hickman, Communications Manager of the U.K Cuba Solidarity Campaign stated, “It was a long way to come to run a booth at a union conference, but it was worth traveling every mile. We really made an impact here. Hundreds of delegates were talking about the case and visiting the booth to find out more. Those that knew about the Five were really happy to have us here and many others on hearing about the Five for the first time promised to raise the campaign back in their locals.”
Alicia Jrapko, U.S. coordinator of the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5, was not surprised at all to find out the lack of knowledge about the Cuban 5 amongst SEIU workers. “This is our experience every time we reach a new audience, the lack of information about the Five is painful, but at the same time this opportunity allowed us to reach this important sector of workers who could not have been more sympathetic to this basic case of justice. I think they related to the issue because of their struggle for workers rights and because such a large percentage of this union is made up of immigrant workers who deal with family separation and racism on a daily basis. One person who received information on Tuesday return to our lit table the next day to tell us that she was outraged to find out about the case and was convinced the U.S. government should set them free right away.”
Although this was the very first time that a major U.S. union provided space to bring the case of the Cuban 5, other actions have taken place within organized labor in past years in the United States, but at a more local level.
For example in 2009, then President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 (ILWU) Melvin Mackay sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ask her to immediately grant a visa to Adriana Perez for the purpose of visiting her husband Gerardo Hernandez in the U.S. penitentiary in Victorville California.
A few months later the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2121 (AFT 2121) in San Francisco California, and the San Francisco Labor Council (SFLC), unanimously passed resolutions in support of the Cuban Five and their rights for family visitation.
And more recently, on August 13, 2011, workers, labor leaders and community activists came together at the United Service Workers West (SEIU) Hall in Los Angeles to participate in an event in solidarity that was just about the Cuban 5. Speakers at that meeting included Tony Woodley, former president of UNITE, the largest union in England, Cristina Vazquez from Workers United and Mike Garcia, California president of the SEIU-USWW.
The presence of the Cuban 5 at the SEIU National Convention was a step forward in the struggle to raise consciousness about these political prisoners and gives hope for opening new doors in not just the labor movement but in other audiences as well.
Reaching new sectors of U.S. society is the key for the freedom and the return of Gerardo, Ramon, Antonio, Fernando and Rene to their families in Cuba.