Estratti dall’omonimo saggio che sarà pubblicato in New Forms of Workers Organization and Struggles: Autonomous Labor Responses in Time of Crisis (a cura di Dario Azzelini e Michael Kraft, Brill 2015).

A week of passion”

Monday, 20 January 2014, it’s early in the morning. A white van is parked outside the main gate of the warehouses of Granarolo – the dairy farming plant in Bologna – which has been the epicentre of a hard struggle for labour rights for the last months. It is the same van which had been parked outside the IKEA storage in Piacenza to support IKEA workers on strike. After six intense months of picket-lines and blockades the IKEA worker won. Since, the white van has become a sort of talisman for the Granarolo and Cogefrin warehouse workers.

It all began with workers opposing a 35 per cent pay cut, and them publically speaking out. For this reason 51 workers were then fired because they went on strike for better wages and labour conditions in early May. All of them had been employed by Sgb, Service Group Bologna – a consortium of cooperatives . Sgb manages sub-contracted labourers in Granarolo and Cogefrin warehouses. The latterdeals with plastics imports and exports between the Middle East and Europe.

From January 20 – 25, Granarolo and Cogefrin warehouse workers organised several on-off blockades together with students, precarious workers and social movement activists who joined the picket-lines. They demanded the reinstatement of the fired workers. The police used violence to interrupt the blockades three times. The first time was on the first evening on Monday, Jan. 20. The blockade had lasted an entire day, but at the end of the day the police managed to clear off the picket-line despite nearly two hours of resistance. On Thursday Jan. 23, police violently broke up a blockade which had been going on for at least five hours to ensure the transit of goods.

Their methods were less “conventional” than usual. Pepper spray might not be officially allowed in Italy yet the police made use of it; theybroke the hands of some workers trying to resist the clearance, and resorted to the entire repertoire of riot police brutality including violent charges and batons[1]. Two workers were hospitalized, five others ended up in police custody, with two of them getting arrested without any evidence. The day after, on Jan. Fri. 24,, police intervened the third and last time. In heavy rain, hundreds of workers, students, precarious workers and activists, decided to block the plant entrance to the bitter end as a sort of revenge for the violence and the arrests of the previous day. This time, the police dragged people away – one by one – from the picket line[2]. Then on, Jan. 25, a demonstration held outside the court demanded the immediate release of the two workers who had been arrested the previous day. This demonstration and the precious job of the lawyer forced the release of the workers.

 * * * * *

According to one worker this was a “week of passion” which aptly became as the title of a video posted on YouTube.[3] These very intense days of struggles split the city of Bologna into opposing sides: force against force. On the one hand, Sgb with its Granarolo and Cogefrin warehouses received the support of local and national political institutions, and the main trade union organisations. These then launched a coordinated attack against the workers on strike via political, media and judiciary channels. On the other hand, workers could count on support from social centres, political collectives, students, precarious workers, workers from other industries including public employees of the local administrations, and even from some novelists who made their support for the strike public. Everybody on both sides knew that the dispute was crucial. The stakes were high because the coop system which manages subcontracted work in the industry represents the dominant paradigm for the overall organisation of precarious work in Italy at present. Thus, the city of Bologna split along a class line.

When we look at this “week of passion” we can easily see that it was the peak of an extraordinary five-year long cycle of struggle within the logistics industry. On this basis, the paper analyses the forces and the actors involved in this cycle of struggle, the labour organisation, the social composition of the struggles, and the evidencing of the rise of an autonomous political subjectivity able to relate with “its” trade union in a pragmatic manner that we could define as “the workers’ use of the union.” To conclude, this paper will try to highlight the political lessons emerging from these struggles.

(…)

Labour, racialisation and composition of struggles

In logistics warehouses located in Emilia Romagna – the geographical focus of this analysis – the majority of workers are from North African countries such as Egypt, Morocco, or Tunisia. The others are from Eastern Europe, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan and East Africa. North Africans and Eastern Europeans tend to be recruited in their home countries by recruitment agencies acting within a legislative vacuum, which guarantees them large profit margins. South Asian workers were able to migrate to Italy under the Flows Decrees and its programme for seasonal workers. On the contrary, Sub-Saharan and East African workers entered Italy “illegally” by crossing the Mediterranean Sea with private boats often owned by mafia groups. The majority of these workers are male. Only very few women are employed in the industry. The average age tends to be between 25 and 35 years of age. Some of them are graduates or even enrolled in Italian universities. “Second generation” migrants who were born and/or raised in Italy can be found as well.

As the Bossi-Fini law established the tie between the labour contract and the right to stay in Italy[4] back in 2002, there is a strong link between one’s employment contract and the residence permit. The law tends to favour the establishment of a systemic process of racialization on the basis of the hierarchical construction of the labour market. In so doing, it establishes the subordination of certain social groups by others – a process eloquently described by Frantz Fanon[5]. As a consequence, in Europe as much as in Italy – more generally under capitalism- migrants are not excluded from the labour market but insteadfully included in the lowest strata where labour protection mechanisms and rights are either scarce or do not exist at all, where wages are extremely low, and where blackmailing practices are prevalent. Thus, the migrant labour composition intertwines with the European system of control and management of labour mobility. Migrants’ life and labour experiences, hence, are marked by constant blackmail, marginalisation and heavy forms of work exploitation.

As a matter of fact, when migration became a mass phenomenon in Italy in the 1990s, some industries saw labour protection, workers’ rights and wages rapidly decrease as a result.[6] Today the average salary in the logistics industry is equal to approximately a third of what was paid in the 1990s. Back then it was 3.5 to 4.0 million liras – i.e. around 2,000 Euros – now it is around 700 to 800 Euros a month.

Racism and racialisation processes function as “internal supplements” in the organisation of labour. Racism produces internal hierarchies, especially between Italians and foreigners, but also among foreigners themselves. The goal is to pit workers against one another and undermine the possibility of solidarity and the development of unity.[7] In this sense, racism is not an ideological vice, a nasty behaviour or social pathology. As a matter of fact, it is a completely internal dispositif to the capitalist mode of production. According to a worker on a picket line at the main gate of the IKEA storage in Piacenza, racism is the necessary dispositif to establish a “racial division of labour”.[8] He said:

 “In warehouses the ‘corporal’ used to say to Moroccans that they are better than Tunisians, to Tunisians that they are better than Egyptians or Romanians. The objective is to split up workers, putting a group against the other: ‘if you behave well, I’ll pay you more; do not join the struggles, etc.'”.[9]

Foreign workers’ poor command of the Italian language facilitates further blackmailing and exploitation. In producing differences and marginalizing the labor-power along the color line, warehouse management is able to exploit as much labour as possible (or even more!) and take advantage of the workers’ need for extra work in order to rise extra money since the low wages. As a result, large amount of surplus value is extracted. In light of this, overthrowing the “racial division of labour” was fundamental to interrupt the capitalist valorisation process, especially at the beginning of the mobilisations. Arafat, an Egyptian and one of the leading figures of the struggle taking place in Piacenza[10]

“We have met Indian and Chinese workers, we have recognized some differences to us Arabs, but what I said to my fellow workers was: ‘just forget where we come from, here we are all workers and all of us are exploited. This is the only thing we have to think about'”.

Similarly, a Pakistani worker employed at the Granarolo plant in Bologna declared: “Finally, all of us understood that bosses could exploit us more because we were letting them put us up against one another.”[11] These statements describe the processes of workers’ unification taking place within the struggles. These stand in explicit contrast to the capitalist command which tends to fragment the workforce. In a certain sense, this reveals how racial differentiation can also work for the production of the common.[12]

A powerful space of political subjectivation

“Initially our major problem was to unite the warehouse workers and to overcome the fear of wage retaliation or that of losing the job,” Mohamed Arafat, a TNT warehouse worker from Piacenza explains. Thus, it was within the struggles that workers managed to open up an incredible space for political subjectivation, or better, a space for autonomous subjectivation. This transformation of a subjected subjectivity into an autonomous and resistant subjectivity is capable of overthrowing capitalist command and interrupting the process of capital accumulation.[13] In fact, it was especially when workers managed to materially damage the companies that they dared more and found the courage to ask for better wages and labour conditions. The capacity of affection and diffusion of alternative political subjectivations could bloom in these struggles.

In one after the other warehouses which had been the workers managed to win their demands – the right to unionise, the application of the CCNL, the reinstatement of the suspended and fired colleagues, the settlement of never recognised overdue pay. Workers always reminded themselves that it was through struggle that “we got dignity for our jobs, which is even more important than money.”[14] As a worker highlighted during a meeting, in Arabic “dignity” is an expression standing both for resistance and liberation from exploitation. It has, in fact, the same root as the word ‘resistance’, ‘insurrection’, ‘revolt’. Here, the role of the Arab uprisings must be acknowledged as a factor in the political and autonomous subjectivation of these workers. In this sense the processes of resistant subjectivation within these struggles have to be understood as a wider and more complex terrain of conflict.

Many of the workers in the logistics industry are from North Africa. Obviously, they were not indifferent to the instance of radical change unleashed by the uprisings in their home and neighbouring countries. They were aware that radical change at their workplaces was a possibility as well. For this reason, the TNT workers in Piacenza referred to their local struggle as “the TNT revolution.” Arafat recounts:

“After thirty years of government Mubarak was finally overthrown. While nobody before seemed to have ever thought it would be possible, in the same way nobody ever expected that a struggle at TNT in Piacenza could take place and be victorious”.[15]

Within these struggles, the production of an autonomous and resistant subjectivity included a mix of different experiences that workers brought in from their home countries and from the contemporary just-in-time mode of production itself. Tired of the symbolic tactics imposed by the confederation of trade unions –“for them the only way to fight is standing up in front of the warehouses gates waving flags” – the workers chose instead to effectively damage the corporations. Since the beginning, this posed a “new” modality of struggle. They identified the enemy as “the bosses” and pointed out the weakest moment in the circulation of goods. After this, they were finally ready “to harm the bosses” – a claim continuously repeated by the workers themselves. Thus, the interruption of capitalist valorisation process became the main feature (and the actual weapon) of the conflicts in the logistics sector. In this way, the workers managed to not only cause huge economic damage, but also afflict the image of the corporations. Here, it is important to highlight that the workers gained the “skill” of identifying the most effective form of struggle on the job where they could accumulate technical knowledge about the cycle of production and distribution. Due to such knowledge, workers blockaded the warehouses exactly at the time when the largest amount of goods had to be delivered. And the mobility of goods soon became the mobility of conflict! The weeks long so called “cappuccino strike” at the Granarolo plant, for example, blocked about forty trucks which supply cafés and small businesses around Bologna with milk in the early hours of the morning.

However, the most significant development in terms of subjectivity production is the emergence of explicit political and militant subjectivities. Strike after strike, picket line after pickeline, has brought forth a significant “expertise” in managing the different moments of the struggle. This is particularly important since, these struggles have been the first political experience for the large majority of workers involved in them. Moreover, workers alongside students and precarious workers who joined the picket lines at Piacenza and Bologna have produced new forms of life through social interactions during these struggles, provoking a radical change in the life of these young migrants. In this sense, the words of a migrant worker involved in the struggle against Granarolo assume paradigmatic value: “I’ve been working in Italy for five years waiting for the residence permit with the idea of going to another country. As foreign workers we are extremely exploited here. But after these months of struggles, despite now having gained the residence card, I have decided that I want to stay in Bologna. I have found brothers”.[16] Hence, these struggles have not only managed to successfully interrupt the capitalist valorisation process, but they have also proved to be a fertile ground for the “conflictual cooperation” among logistics workers, precarious workers, and students, who, although starting from different daily experiences, all fight against their exploitation and precarity imposed by the coop system.

The workers’ use of the union

The logistics warehouses struggles were usually ignited by a small group of workers who organised for better working conditions. The struggle at TNT warehouses began as a community-based process, according to these workers. Mohamed Arafat reports:

“I went from door to door explaining our shameful contract to workers, the way in which, for years and years, the cooperatives and the bosses exploited and blackmailed us, saying that we shouldn’t accept this treatment ever again, that it is against our dignity” [17]

A couple of weeks later, this community-based process led workers to self-organise at their workplace. However, they quickly realised that self-organisation unfortunately was not enough. In order to effectively bargain with the company they needed trade union advocacy. Therefore, they looked for a union able to support a “real struggle harming bosses”.

In July 2011, with this precise intent to “harm the bosses” some TNT workers met the SI Cobas, a grassroots trade union, which was ready to block the circulation of goods. At the Granarolo and Cogefrin plants in Bologna things evolved in a similar fashion. During the summer of 2012 when mobilisations for the application to the CCNL began, workers first went to the main leftist union, the CGIL, but they did not agree to the blockade. Therefore, some of the workers turned to the UGL – a right-wing union – which a few months later would have signed an agreement implying a 35 percent pay cut. The frustration with the mainstream trade unions pushed the workers closer to SI Cobas[18]. At the Granarolo and Cogefrin warehouses, the fight for the over the CCNL began at the end of of April 2013

This case highlights the specific function which this grassroots union takes up on behalf of the workers. Migrant workers are sceptical about mainstream trade unions, they see them as unable or unwilling to take charge of the workers’ demands, and sometimes explicitly collude with the bosses and the coop system. For these reasons, workers chose SI Cobas, the union which would best met their needs: “a union that supports us in our struggles, struggles made up by strikes and picket lines concretely affecting the interests of the company owners”.[19] In other words, SI Cobas is a union working on behalf of workers, that is to say a union where decisions are directly taken by workers, and not vice versa. On the contrary, mainstream trade unions are perceived as service offices, useful only for filling out forms and procedures (such as the renewal of the residence permit, family reunification) but surely not as political actors struggling for labour rights. Thus, workers’ mindful and active rejection of passive mainstream trade unions can be said to have been a major feature of the logistics struggles. As a consequence, we can speak of a general unrepresentability of the workers. This expresses itself above all in workers’ use of the union as a flexible infrastructure in support of workers’ autonomy.

Both SI Cobas in Emilia-Romagna and the ADL Cobas (its sister union) in Veneto have demonstrated their willingness and ability in following the initiative of workers themselves. Since 2011 onwards they have rapidly expanded into many warehouses, opening up spaces for new workers’ organisations. During the blockades and on picket lines, workers, union delegates and political activists, openly discuss decisions in assemblies, with everyone actively participating in the fight. Practices, slogans and the timing of the blockades are collectively decided. The decisions are based on workers’ knowledge of the production and distribution cycle and on the availability of forces. SI Cobas has demonstrated a fairly high degree of openness to come into contact with other political practices, specifically those typical of social movements. The result is a multifarious cooperation. We have witnessed it during the so called “week of passion” at the Granarolo plant where each different actor contributed to the functioning of a well-organized and efficient blockade. This assemblage was able to constantly move from one level to another, in a very fluid manner. As a matter of fact, the struggle was able to move from the level of bargaining to the production of material for legal defence; from the level of blockades and picket lines to that of a boycott; from the level of cyber guerrilla Anonymous attacked and brought down the Granarolo website several times – to that of autonomous communication through national newspapers, social networks and self-managed websites. In so doing, they broke the initial veil of silence of the mainstream media, forcing them to no longer ignore the struggle.

(…)

References

Interview with Mohamed Arafat by Curcio, Anna and Roggero, Gigi 2013, ‘Revolution in Logistics’, uninomade.org, available at: <http://www.uninomade.org/the-revolution-in-logistics>.

Bologna, Sergio 2013, ‘Lavoro e capitale nella logistica italiana: alcune considerazioni sul Veneto’, paper presented at the 40. Anniversario della costituzione di Interporto Padova Spa, University of Padua, available at: <http://it.scribd.com/doc/133176059/Bologna-Sergio-Lavoro-e-Capitale-Nella-Logistica-2013>.

Bortolato, Eleonora and Curcio, Anna 2013, ‘Facchini, la vittoria del cappuccino’, Commonware, available at: <http://www.commonware.org/index.php/neetwork/32-facchini-granarolo>.

Chignola, Sandro 2012, ‘Per l’analisi del lavoro nero’, uninomade.org, available at: <http://www.uninomade.org/per-lanalisi-del-lavoro-nero>.

Curcio, Anna 2010, ‘Translating Difference and the Common’, Rethinking Marxism, 22, 3, 464-80.

Curcio, Anna and Mellino, Miguel 2010, ‘Race at work – the rise and challenge of Italian racism’, Darkmatter, 6, available at: <http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2010/10/10/editorial-race-at-work-the-rise-and-challenge-of-italian-racism>.

Curcio, Anna and Mellino, Miguel 2012, La razza al lavoro, Roma: manifestolibri.

Fanon, Frantz 1969, Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays, New York: Grove Press.

Quijano, Anibal 2000, Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism and Latin America, International Sociology, 15, 2, 215-32.

Pallavicini, Carlo 2013, ‘Assoggettamento e lotte nelle cooperative della logistica: un quandro generale’, Commoware, available at: <http://www.commonware.org/index.php/cartografia/198-assoggettamento-e-lotte-nella-logistica>.

Radio UniNomade 2012a, available at: <http://www.uninomade.org/ikeainlotta-diretta-su-radio-uninomade>.

Radio UniNomade 2012b, available at: <http://www.uninomade.org/deposito-ikea-bloccato-diretta-su-radio-uninomade>.

Roediger, David R. 1999, The wage of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, New York/London: Verso.

Roediger, David R. 2008, How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon, New York/London: Verso.

[1] See the video testimony of a worker https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgZvDeG12q4.

[2] See the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zr_J7iS_reo&feature=share.

[3] See the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soKaGUdDY08.

[4] The law, introduced in 2002, amending and restricting the national legislation on immigration and asylum, states that the residence permit will only be granted to a foreign worker who already has an employment contract. If the migrant worker loses his job, he will have to return to his home country or, on the contrary, he will be subject to processes of expulsion, previous a period of internment in CIE (Centres for Identification and Expulsion).

[5] Fanon, Frantz: “the shameless exploitation of one group of men by another” (1967, p.37).

[6] The history of migration into Italy is quite different from some European countries such as France or the UK where migration has historically been connected to the decolonisation processes in the aftermath of World War II. In Italy, in fact, migration is especially connected to globalisation.

[7] Roediger 1999, and 2008.

[8] Quijano 2000, Curcio and Mellino 2010, and 2012.

[9] Radio UniNomade 2012b.

[10] Interview with Arafat 2013.

[11] Bortolato and Curcio 2013.

[12] Curcio 2010.

[13] Read 2003.

[14] Interview with Arafat 2013.

[15] Interview with Arafat 2013.

[16] Bortolato and Curcio 2013.

[17] Interview with Arafat 2013.

[18] SI Cobas is a 2010 born grassroots cross-organized union (especially involved in engineering industry, public employment, services, logistics) which has also supported and organized workers struggles within the logistics industry, especially in regions such as Emilia Romagna and Lombardy.

[19] Interview with Arafat 2013.

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