Ditching the Fear!

IMG_0237

Warehouse workers struggles in Italy and their wider significance

by AngryWorkersWorld, July 2015

In May 2015, a few of us from AngryWorkers went to Bologna to meet some of the warehouse workers involved in the recent series of hard-won struggles in the logistics sector. There had been some important struggles against giants like TNT, DHL and Ikea and in many cases (although not all) they’ve won substantial improvements, such as higher wages, guaranteed shifts, sick pay and more dignity at work. So we wanted to get an idea of how they were organising, the dynamics of the struggles and what the general social atmosphere was like. We’ve been trying to organise with our co-workers in the warehouses in West London so our interest is immediate and practical in the sense that we want to learn from other experiences – but we also wanted to see if the form of struggle and organisation opens new political avenues towards workers’ self-emancipation.

Even though we mainly relied on translation and were there for just 6 days, we had some critical questions, which we thought we’d write down. We also outline the wider context in which these struggles are happening and their relevance to workers in the UK. If anyone has a better knowledge of Italian and the situation in Italy, we’d love to hear your thoughts so get in touch – our ropey Italian means we might have misunderstood some things! We will summarise this text for an article in the September issue of our local workers’ paper WorkersWildWest [1], so it is even more important to get the facts and perspective right. Please comment!

‘Ditching the Fear’ is a new film about these struggles in Italy [2]. If you missed the film during our ‘tour’ earlier in this summer, stay tuned for more screenings to be announced in the autumn – or get in touch if you want to organise a screening in your town. There is also an interview with SI Cobas organisers online [3]. The quotes we’ve used in the article below are taken from these. We’ve also used Anna Curcio’s article on the ‘Revolution of Logistics’ as a reference. [4]

1. Political Significance of the Struggles
2. General Situation
3. SI Cobas
4. UK and Italy: similarities and differences
5. Critical questions
6. Conclusions
7. Chronology of main struggles

1. Political Significance

So why do we think these struggles merit attention?

a) In a largely defensive arena of class struggle in Europe against cuts and ‘austerity’, warehouse workers in Italy have managed to turn the tables on the bosses and engage in more offensive struggles – in a new sector (logistics) whose emergence itself was closely connected to capital’s attack on the old workers’ strongholds through dispersion of production. In a situation where “for the rest of the workers in Italy, a pay increase of 7 Euro per month in the usual collective bargain contract is a great success”, some groups of workers have seen increases of 400 Euro a month. Not to be sniffed at!

b) The workers involved are mostly (male) migrant workers, largely from North, East and sub-saharan Africa and India. Migrant workers are usually blamed for the downward trend in wages and as such, are easily scapegoated for the ills of capitalist crisis. But here, they are the main protagonists against bad and worsening pay and conditions – which they are trying to impose on all of us. The division between ‘Italian’ workers and migrants was put into question from below.

c) Workers are attacking two important elements of the current capitalist regime: a multinational network (e.g. IKEA, DHL, TNT) that makes as much use of modern technology (GPS logistic chains) and localisation strategies (‘Walmart-isation’) as of personal, coercive, semi-legal structures like labour pool cooperatives and informal day-labour markets. Currently many people experience this combination of ‘electronic smart technology’ and over-exploitation: behind customer-friendly Apps and online shopping there lies the world of casualised Uber cab drivers, Amazon pickers and call centre agents. Proletarian struggles can make this contradiction between technological potentials and miserable reality explode.

d) To some extent, these struggles have recomposed the left in Italy (along with some others such as No TAV, anti-eviction struggles etc.). The usual sectarianism of left groups that happens everywhere had to be overcome when they related to an actual struggle that was taking place. Groups involved in different social centres, different cities and political backgrounds realised the importance of supporting these workers and bought different experiences and strategies to the picket line and general political debate. A ‘community of struggle’ was formed, which helped to overcome barriers between the different ‘communities of origin’.

e) The role of the SI Cobas rank-and-file union – as the main organisational vehicle through which these struggles have happened – is one which deserves closer attention. With larger trade union support in most European countries dwindling, there has been much talk of the rise of these smaller, rank-and-file (or base) unions better serving the interests of workers, as well as being worker-led themselves. The recent growth spurt in membership of the IWW in the UK is one example of a renewed appetite in finding forms of organisation that are more grassroots and worker-led. Over the last eight years, SI Cobas has managed to grow from about 0-10,000 members despite considerable state repression and intense pressure on workers to ‘put up and shut up’. Many new union offices opened in the last months – in Modena, Ferrara, Pavia and others.
How, and in what ways can we relate to these organisational structures as part of our own organising strategies and political perspectives?

We will expand on these issues below but first, some context:

2. General Situation in Italy

The logistics workers struggles of the past few years are located around Milan, Piacenza and Bologna, and Verona and Padua in the northeast of the country. These centres of goods circulation are also directly connected with the port of Genoa (on the west side of the country) and Venice (on the east). Many goods from the Middle East and North Africa are distributed through these ports e.g. fruits, vegetables, garments. IKEA, Amazon and other big companies have set up warehouses in this Po Valley region. During the 1990s, working in warehouses was paid the equivalent of 2,000 Euro on average, today the wage has come down to 800 Euro.

Working conditions

Working conditions in the warehouses in this region were/are bad: people would have to wait for up to 5 hours at the gates to be told whether or not they were needed; some workers had to take a four hour (unpaid) break inside the warehouse before being called to work again; overtime was compulsory and shifts cancelled openly as a punishment if you didn’t want to work weekends; large, cooperative-owned companies slashed pay by 35% ‘because of the crisis’; some people worked 12 hours and got paid for 4; the work was heavy and back injuries commonplace; sexual harassment (for women workers); work discipline/bullying was rife; payslips were calculated wrongly.

“Everyone was pushed to work faster. There was a supervisor who, day and night, shouted: ‘come on, come on, come on’, like a broken record! 200 people did the work of 500, so they saved the costs of 300 people. For five years, TNT enjoyed the best productivity levels in Italy but no one went to see under what conditions. The bosses reaped great profits and the workers were badly treated and becoming ill. It’s a mode of slavery. When I suggested to people that we should say no, they would say they couldn’t for fear of losing their job.”
(Mohamed, TNT worker) [5]

One of the supervisors, an old guy, made passes at the young women who are my age…twenty, twenty-one year old women. And he told them, in particular to the Moroccan women: “I like Moroccan women. You are all so slutty.” If you didn’t manage to meet the targets he said: “Either you meet the target or I shove it up your arse!” He told a workmate: “You are the next one to suck my dick.”
(Yoox worker)

Co-operatives

A quarter of the total logistics workforce in Italy work through ‘co-operatives’, many of which have similar functions to temp agencies over here. They were originally formed in the late nineteenth century in Italy by workers as a form of self-defence to avoid both the worst forms of exploitation and emigration from Italy. Devi Sacchetto writes that by the early 1920s, the cooperative system was so firmly established, particularly in Northern and Central Italy, that even the fascist regime didn’t dare destroy it. However, in recent decades cooperatives have proliferated, and their participation in new activities have expanded as they began to serve as sub-contractors to large firms, national and multinational enterprises. With this shift, working conditions within cooperatives – for both partner-workers and non-partner-workers – have worsened. [6]

3. SI Cobas

SI Cobas, which is a rank-and-file union, made a strategic decision to make contacts with workers in this sector. They’re a union that stands for self-organisation beyond professions or sectors.

“The history of the Cobas goes back to the struggles in the 1970s. We got experience of struggles in the big factories in Milan, some of the biggest in Italy. We have experiences of mass-worker struggles.” (Aldo, SI Cobas organiser)

“Our Cobas union was formed in the 1990s at the Alfa Romeo plant. Then it was called SLAI Cobas. The SLAI Cobas mainly grew within the metal sector. But it didn’t have a clear perspective of class struggle. No perspective of a broader way to organise, not just a sectorial way to organise. The union did not grow outside Alfa Romeo. Now we’re starting to spread this idea amongst workers. The concept of class struggle, of class solidarity and of the most widespread organisation of dispute as possible.” (Daniele, bus driver and SI Cobas activist)

Workers in the logistics sector were attracted to this union because:
a) they actively supported the minority of workers who self-organised strikes (primarily by getting external supporters outside to blockade the gate as a way to build support inside the factory);
b) they offered legal advice which is something that migrant workers are particularly interested in;
c) their combative attitude was markedly different from the abysmal track record of the other unions already present in this sector.

Two workers in the film say:

“I was a member of the CGIL for ten years. They only care about membership fees and they take bribe money.” (Sole Montagna worker)

“I went twice to the CGIL in Bologna and they said to me: “You’re better off switching jobs”. The problem is too big, we can’t do anything there.” Until we found a union which said: ‘We can sort this out.'”

When approached by a worker or a group of workers who want to do something against their conditions, SI Cobas tells them to organise a strike amongst themselves, which the union will then support by bringing supporters to the gates and linking them up with other warehouse workers. They also take care of legal strike procedures.

“The people from the big warehouses went to those in the small warehouses and told them they had won in the struggle for their rights, and that they are not alone. If they needed support from the other warehouses they would all come and help. That’s how it happened in Piacenza, at IKEA. There were only few people who protested and took part in the strike, just 10 out of 300 workers there! Only 10 went on strike. But people from other warehouses came to support the struggle!” (Karim)

When the strike/blockade begins, SI Cobas sends their delegates, who, as far as we saw, have a role in coordinating it, making speeches to boost morale and spread a more ‘political’ message, as well as negotiating with the bosses etc.

Management try and circumvent their tactics of blockading but so far, SI Cobas have done quite a good job in adapting their strategies accordingly – though we can already see that when they need to extend to an associated warehouse further away it becomes more important that workers ‘inside’ are involved and that ‘blockades’ by external militants would over-stretch themselves:

“Take the example of DHL in Italy: When this struggles began we had some problems. When workers blocked a DHL warehouse in Milano, DHL closed it and took the commodities to other warehouses, in Bologna, Naples, or elsewhere. They close the warehouse in Milano temporarily until the workers get bored and go home. But these workers did not wait until the gates were reopened but drove to the warehouses in other cities and distributed flyers there. They persuaded the DHL-workers in other cities to join the struggle. And immediately, in less than one month, there were banners everywhere and the whole camp was in struggle.” (Karim)

At the moment there are around 50 workers who have been dismissed because they are members of SI Cobas. They are partly sustained by the ‘cassia di resistenza’, which is a struggle fund that members pay into. The main struggles are about improving pay and conditions – particularly in terms of getting the national contract, which the main unions have signed with employers for the logistics sector, implemented. The recognition of SI Cobas is also very much part of the disputes, because employers do not recognise the union in terms of signing contracts with them until they are forced to do so (through blockades).

4. UK and Italy: similarities and differences

So why are these struggles and the context in which they are happening relevant to us in the UK? Some people might say, “But this is Italy and not the UK, over there the situation is different. These things might be possible there, but not here.” By ‘these things’ people are probably referring to the militancy of the struggles, the use of external supporters and ‘illegal’ blockades which stop trucks going in and out of the warehouses, the huge wage increases that have been won etc. At the current moment, these seem a long way off going by the state of struggle here.

Obviously there are differences between the situation in Italy and over here. But we think there are commonalities that we could use as a basis for thinking about what we could learn from their experiences – organisationally and strategically. Because we’ve been trying to organise in the warehouses in West London, we’ll use our experiences there as the basis for comparison, although they can largely be extrapolated more widely across the logistics sector in the UK. So let’s start with the similarities.

Same same…

Migrant workers

Firstly, warehouse workers in Italy and in the UK are largely migrants, who, to a significant extent, have not been in the country long enough to learn the language adequately to feel confident. In Italy they come mainly from North African countries such as Egypt, Morocco, or Tunisia. The others are from Eastern Europe, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan and East Africa. In west-London they mainly come from Poland, other Eastern European countries like Romania, Hungary, Latvia, and South Asia. They all face problems in overcoming language barriers and racism (between each other and from the outside). This obviously has implications for self-organising across a workplace with many different language groups, as well as in terms of how workers relate to the external environment, meaning supporters, the left, the union organisational framework e.g. all the bigger union meetings are held in Italian. In the film we see that is dealt with is various ways: someone is translating one of the union leader’s speeches at a picket line into Arabic on a megaphone and the union delegates are Moroccan/Indian etc. so speak to workers in their first languages. Similarly, in west-London many people (especially Polish) cannot speak any, or only a little, English. This is why our workers newspaper is bilingual.

“The first problem was how to unite all the workers of the company and fight fear together, fight the blackmail of a low income and the threats of losing the job, a constant pressure that has made many of us ill. To rule, they pit us against one another, Italians against foreigners (who are 90% of us), Egyptians against Moroccans. At GLS there were lots of Indians, most of whom speak hardly any Italian and the employer just took advantage of that to exploit us even more. We organised assemblies with the Indian and Chinese workers, we sensed the difference between them and the Arab workers but I said: “Forget where we come from, we are all workers here and we are all being exploited. We just need to concentrate on that.” (Mohamed, TNT worker) [5]

Reproduction

Secondly, the living situation and general work/life pressure is comparably bad. In Italy, laws like Bossi Fini mean many workers automatically lose their right to stay in Italy if they lose their jobs, so the pressure on them to accept low pay and bad conditions is high. The lack of benefits and social safety net for EU and non-EU migrants in the UK gives a similar pressure: changes that came in in April 2014 implementing stricter rules around benefits for EU migrants has meant many people find it insanely difficult to access housing benefit, working tax credits and even job seekers allowance after 3 months; and the government’s new rules set to come in in April 2016 will send all non-EU migrants earning under £35,000 back to their country of origin. We can see that the trend in increasing pressure on proletarians across Europe is converging even further.

Sub-contractual arrangements

Thirdly, while many warehouse workers in the UK work for temp agencies (often on zero-hour contracts), these work in a similar way to the so-called ‘cooperatives’ in Italy that employ most warehouse workers there. Most workers in these warehouses are employed as ‘share-holders’ in these ‘cooperatives’, and over 90 per cent of them are migrants. There is a national collective contract for the logistics sector in Italy, guaranteeing a minimum wage, guaranteed hours (168 per month), Christmas bonus, sick pay – but as ‘shareholders’ the cooperative workers are excluded from this. The ‘foremen’ or supervisors have a particular role: they allocate working hours to the cooperative workers. If they don’t like your face or if you don’t suck up to them and work your arse off, you get less hours. This is a similar story with the agencies over here. Both sets of workers don’t get guaranteed shifts. Cooperatives don’t have to pay national insurance contributions for their workers and agencies here often get around their obligations to pay for national insurance by signing their employees onto some sort of travel scheme loophole. The decisions about who gets shifts is often arbitrary and depends on how compliant you are to their rules.

Fear

Lastly, we can say that fear amongst workers was and is a common feeling. When we see the footage of militant struggles in Italy, it is easy to forget how these same workers, up until recently, were overridden by fear: of being deported; of making trouble lest they lose their jobs; of jeopardising their meagre incomes with a family to support… In the film, many workers talk about this palpable sense of fear to try and change their situation collectively for the better. Many of our workmates in the warehouses in west-London talk similarly, especially the women (who seem to be able to admit it more). With poor English and limited reference points of large-scale, local victories, this fear is used as a reason to not embark on collective action. In Italy, this was overcome because of a number of reasons, which cannot be discounted from happening elsewhere: news of victories in other warehouses spread amongst workers and gave people a sense that something could be won; external supporters showed that even as a minority, it was possible for some action to be taken; conversations inside warehouses that had been happening for a year or two became the basis for ‘spontaneous’ action.

…but different

External support

The main difference between the situation over there and over here is that warehouse workers in Italy got a lot of support from the outside, first of all from the SI Cobas union. When only a few workers joined SI Cobas and took the first steps to organise at work, bosses tried to victimise them and kicked some of them out. At this point, the union was able to get 150 to 200 external supporters outside the gate with them and to blockade the warehouses. After some time the bosses had to give in and take the workers back. More people joined the union after these successes and having seen the external support – and started themselves to support workers in other warehouses. This was the way in which SI Cobas got around the fact that many workplace struggles start out from a minoritarian position and from there, they actually grew and managed to spread struggles to different warehouses. These external supporters were mainly from political activists from the squat and social centre scene, which does not exist on the same scope and scale in the UK. Replicating this was somehow our hope when we distributed a leaflet directed towards permanent workers in the warehouse we were working in as temps trying to organise for guaranteed shifts and higher wages. We did a wider call out for support from the left to come and help us distribute this leaflet [7], thinking that if we had a sizeable number of people on the outside it would show temps inside (and management) that there would be external support if people took more collective steps inside the warehouse. But because we were quite far from ‘the left’ in central London and because of the early start, we only managed to get about 15 people to turn up throughout the day.

Squats and social centres

Many of the struggles lasted a long time: anywhere from 2 months to a year-and-a-half in the case of the strike at milk and dairy manufacturer, Granarolo. They weren’t won overnight. Obviously, in a situation like London, reproducing oneself throughout this time on no pay is no mean feat. We think it’s fair to say that in most cases and most places, workers themselves would not be able to lead a struggle in that way, if it takes six months to win it. In places like Bologna, they were able to do this partly because of squats that local groups organise on a large scale. Not having to pay rent and bills definitely takes off the pressure and can open up the space for more militant action. When we were in Bologna, we visited two bigger squats in the town centre. The squats were occupied by activists of Social Log, with and for migrant workers’ families, mainly from Morocco. An old Telecom building now houses more than 300 people, many of whom are unemployed and some of whom work in warehouses. Just the fact that there are squats makes it possible for workers to take part in forms of struggles which might result in losing several weeks of wages. This link between organisation at work and meeting housing/reproduction needs has been done on an impressive scale there – but seems unlikely to be possible in a place like London town. Groups like Plan C and others who are discussing ideas around the ‘social strike’ realise the importance of building these links in order to strengthen and support strike activity.

“So we started to build a militant movement, not only in the logistics sector. The logistics workers often go to demonstrations for housing rights and also support other sectors. They don’t just focus on the logistics sector. Now they help the metal workers, too. They have already helped the hotel workers.” (Karim)

Labour/trade union laws

There are also differences in terms of labour/trade union laws so for example, in Italy the SI Cobas managed to grow in size because they used the fact that official union delegates have 8 hours a month facility time. Delegates were able to use this to go to other warehouses and agitate/speak to workers there. The idea being to spread the disruption beyond individual workplaces and have a wider perspective of struggle. Similarly, solidarity strikes are legal in Italy, which they were also able to use in their organisational strategy. (Needless to say, some of these laws are now under review!) In the UK there is no obligation for employers to pay for facility time, and even if there is, there are strict rules about what this time can be used for – going ‘off-site’ to agitate other workers in other workplaces is not on the list! Widening disputes is pretty much impossible under formal trade union regulations, especially when bigger workplaces often have a few unions present representing different groups of workers e.g in a school, the teachers, headteachers, cleaners, canteen staff and caretakers are all probably represented by different unions, making it almost impossible to come together as workers in one workplace within the union structures.

Setting up an alternative union in a workplace where one already exists is also difficult in terms of getting recognition by the management. There are rules around how much of the workplace you have to represent etc. and warehouses in West London for example are, to a large extent, not un-unionised, at least for permanent workers. For us it was a bit disheartening to see that many of the (mainly older) labour activists we met during our tour in England mainly focused on this legal arena when judging problems and potentials of similar struggle in the UK.

This ‘legalistic’ view on what the unions can and can’t do reflects the fact that their material basis has been eroded and their legal recognition as institutions has become the main reason why they still exist. Their national, sectorial formal framework and their orientation on ‘permanent membership’ was not able to cope with the following challenges: A high supply of labour, threats to move production, segmented workforces, mobile capital secured through sub-contracting and temp contract arrangements. These have all worked to put unions on the back foot.

This is the background upon which unions make decisions against sections of their membership e.g. in 1998, all workers at the airline caterers, Alpha LSG, in Southall were T&G union members. There was a merger planned and management wanted to change workers’ existing contracts. Management bought in some temps to provoke the workers, a one-day ‘strike’ resulted in a lock-out for over a year. If T&G had used their 20,000 strong membership throughout Heathrow Airport to even threaten even an hour’s strike, the workers at Alpha LSG would have won. A similar situation repeated itself in the Gate Gourmet dispute in 2005. [9]

National wage agreement

In Italy, they also have a national wage agreement for the logistics sector, which, while it is mainly just a piece of paper, with enough actual pressure and a balance of power in workers’ favour, has been accepted by some bosses -mainly at the bigger multinational companies. This has given a sense of ‘struggling for legality’ to the strikes in terms of providing a justification for workers’ demands that the bosses are not following the existing laws with regards to pay. In the UK, there is no legislation or system of legally binding collective agreements which could give powers to local union organisations to represent all employees. And the crap minimum wage is legal and so low that any pay demand would automatically be going beyond what was merely the bare ‘legal’ requirement. The question then becomes more about what we, as workers need to reproduce ourselves – independently of what the law says we need. But while workers’ more offensive actions in the UK – by which we mean anything that demands ‘more’ rather than defending what already exists, particularly struggles for more than the minimum wage – have this potential to go beyond the discourse of ‘the law’ and the ‘logic’ of austerity politics, more often than not, it results in resorting to appeals to ‘ethical’ pay and treatment, which is obviously problematic. So for example, the temp workers, organised through GMB at an M&S warehouse in Swindon, are highlighting the loophole in the Agency Workers Directive by using slogans such as ‘ethical trading starts at home’ and appealing to the company’s supposedly ‘ethical’ credentials – because what M&S is doing is actually totally ‘legal’. [8]

Framework of ‘illegality’

Although the way workers ‘publicly’ explain the motives of their struggles only scratches the surface of the actual content and potentials of struggles, we nevertheless think it is important to make a note of it. In general, we could say that warehouse workers in Italy publicly explain their struggles by framing their treatment as ‘illegal’. By this we mean there is often talk of mafia involvement, bribe-taking to win contracts, national wage agreements not being adhered to etc. which provides a framework of ‘just (legal) cause’ to their struggles. While workers themselves may sometimes use ‘illegal’ tactics, the demands are mostly set within claiming what already exists for other sections of workers. In the UK though, it is already legal for agencies to not pay sick-pay or to not pay their agency staff the same as permanent workers through state-sanctioned loopholes. This is why we think struggles that fight for more than the minimum wage in the UK automatically have to use a different discourse of ‘justification’ – one that goes beyond the minimum legal stipulations. In the UK, we should try to understand and support these kinds of struggles where we can.

Blockades

“A one-day blockade at the IKEA store in Piacenza ‘means that goods are not loaded onto trucks. These do not arrive on time for the ships, producing a delay in deliveries at destinations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. A one-day blockade blows up the organisation of the entire process, and in order to restart it companies must wait at least ten days, meaning a big economical damage, as well as an incalculable damage to their image…In a warehouse where fresh food is stored, a four-hour blockade means 2-300.000 Euros lost. At any rate, to get an idea of the large damage caused by workers picket-lines and blockades we only need to look at the ritual brutal attacks by police against the workers in struggle.” (Aldo, SI Cobas organiser)

Blockades are illegal in both countries, but, as with everything, that is not so important as the balance of power which determines whether or not we can get away with them. In Italy, it is however, normally the individuals blockading that get slapped with fines, rather than the union. This means the union potentially can show more ‘fighting power’ that they can also then use to attract more workers. In the negotiations in Italy, dropping the fines for individuals is sometimes part of the deal. In the UK, it is the unions that get fined, which, while not meaning that they won’t ‘unofficially’ sanction blockades, does mean their visibility in terms of showing strength to other workers is curtailed, as well making them more averse to supporting and organising such actions more fully.

Workplace divisions

In terms of how the workplace is organised, there may be more sophisticated ways by which management divides workers in warehouses in the UK, maybe because these types of logistics warehouses have been established longer over here. In Italy, a job done through a cooperative is only ever that – there is never really any chance to get a permanent contract and be integrated more securely into the value-producing machine. This may be a reason why workers in Italy rebelled: there was no longer-term escape route. In the UK though, our experiences have been that agencies actively dangle the carrot of the permanent contract to keep workers loyal and working fast. “Just work hard and you’ll be made permanent.” Some people work a good 3 or 4 years before they accept that it won’t happen for them. The difference in pay between permanent and temp workers (which was almost £3 an hour – nearly 40 per cent more – for permanents in our warehouse), is also a good way to get workers to keep their head down, trying to get a permanent contract. Some warehouses have numerous contracts, all with different pay and conditions, which also makes it hard to come together e.g. at the Alpha LSG warehouse near Manchester Airport (that do aeroplane catering) that we visited recently, a worker told us that there were 37 different contracts inside! To a certain degree these more sophisticated divisions inside the warehouses also reflect the more segmented nature of the labour market in the UK e.g. the division between EU and non-EU migrants, non-EU migrants with papers and without.

At our warehouse, the shop-floor hierarchy was such that managers were often the same nationality as the workers (who were majority Polish). This gave credence to the illusion that working hard would mean it was possible to climb the ladder. It also meant that workers whose English was poor, spoke more and had a better relationship with their managers, who they could speak in their native language to, than with their, for example, Somalian or Romanian workmate, who they would have to speak in English to. In Italy, the workforce was split more along the lines of managers being ‘Italian’ and all workers occupying the ‘migrant’ roles (although obviously there would have been variations in terms of being able to speak Italian). This situation we can imagine adds to the ‘us’ and ‘them’ feeling that contributed to kick-starting the struggles.

Turnover

Another major difference is turnover, although this is probably more relevant a point for London than elsewhere in the UK where people tend to stay in the jobs for longer. In London, turnover is high and similar warehouse jobs are relatively easy to find. While this hasn’t worked in our favour so far (‘what’s the point in organising to improve things here when I can get a better job around the corner?’), it could: (‘there is little risk in trying to improve things, I can just get a job somewhere else.’) In Italy, higher levels of unemployment have meant people tend to stay in their jobs for longer, so building up relationships of trust would be easier. Perhaps also they get more frustrated: at the lack of an alternative ‘better’ job and knowing that it won’t get much better than this.

This has a knock-on effect in terms of whether workers find joining unions appealing. Membership fees are unlikely to be paid by minimum-waged workers, especially if the union has no programme to offer them. Doing things formally takes time, by which time people would have come and gone (in our previous warehouse, men stayed on average for 4 months, women for a bit longer). It’s no coincidence that workers at the distribution centre in Swindon who were picking for M&S organised through GMB: they had all worked in the same place for years and GMB made a strategic effort to recruit them i.e. said they would get them higher wages.

Larger social movement

With a large arabic-speaking workplace in the warehouses in Italy, the Arab Spring coincided with, and was an impetus for a more offensive struggle. In one of the most moving parts of the film, workers shout anti-Mubarak slogans amidst their chants against their boss. This linking up of sympathies and feeling part of a bigger struggle ‘back home’ is something that was quite specific to the dynamic of struggle in Italy at the time.

“After thirty years in Egypt Mubarak was thrown out, it was something that nobody could have imagined before. Similarly, no-one was expecting our struggle at TNT. For this reason we talk about revolution. For us this was like in Egypt: the revolution of TNT.”

Migration

Polish migration in London is constantly in flux. Flights are cheap enough and EU membership means its is easier to go back and forth. Lots of people go back to Poland for a month or two, leave, come back, leave again. This is a safety net of sorts. As of yet, it hasn’t provided the security needed to embark on a struggle where you might not get paid for a few months. We’ve found that it has actually been a more restraining force because many young people, many of whom hate London, intend to go back to Poland after an allotted time. The one or two or three years in London then is the time in which to gain some experience and make some money. This mental ‘deadline’ can dull the imperative to struggle and makes people continue to work hard, knowing that it won’t be forever. This was obviously different for migration in the 60s and 70s to the UK from the subcontinent for example, which was more of a permanent move. There was more of an incentive to settle in and make demands.

In Italy, many migrants have a permanent move in mind, especially if they are coming from north/east/sub-saharan Africa. Or they don’t have the resources to return, even if they wanted to:

“I was a university student in Morocco. I studied in my last year. Suddenly my father came and said: “Look, I have found a work contract in Italy. If you want to go…” The contract said: 1.200 euros basic wage plus two monthly wages extra per year. I calculated and thought, if I go to Italy I need a few things, the rent, the first few days…Therefore, I sold what I had in order to have at least 5,000 to 6,000 euros with me so I could stay afloat at the beginning when I do not speak the language and don’t know a lot of things. So I sold everything I had and came here…Then I started calculating and realised that I was getting cheated. The wage was wrong, and at the end of the year I did not get the two extra monthly wages no paid holidays, nothing! So I am being cheated, and I cannot go back either since I sold everything I owned. So I am trapped.” (Karim)

Maybe this is why many of the demands made by the warehouse workers in Italy, as well as other migrant groups, have been motivated by “dignity”. Workers use this word many times in the film and it has also cropped up frequently in other struggles of late e.g. the fast food workers Fight for $15 campaign in the USA, Tres Cosas in London etc.

So how can we understand it’s recurrence, particularly within struggles of minority communities? Perhaps within a context of racism, xenophobia, many divisions between different sections of the working class and recent migration within a time of cuts and ‘austerity’, the impetus to ‘make demands’ on the ‘host’ country can be daunting. Framing one’s demands by using the notion of workers’ ‘dignity’ could perhaps be understood as a way to bypass these barriers to struggle and reach out across such lines of division. The same rhetoric was used by Jayaben Desai, when she was convincing her co-workers to strike at Grunwicks in 1976, which was the first strike of female migrant workers in UK after WWII [10]. When they were worried about rocking the boat as newly arrived migrants, she said, “The strike is not so much about pay, it is a strike about human dignity.” Reclaiming dignity within capitalism could be read as expressing a desire to reclaim our lives over a system of profit – or a non-threatening appeal to a ‘benevolent public opinion’.

So, we would still encourage struggles to spell out exactly what they mean by dignity: it could (just) mean that we want the same legal treatment as everyone else and not be second class citizens. Or it could also open up the debate about whether it is dignified to have to work under the industrial/logistics-regime in general: it’s no kind of life to pick boxes all day, to become a puppet of productivity targets etc.

“…we regained some dignity, which is even more important than money. Before then, we used to go to work as in a prison, every day was worse than the one before; now we have won over the fear that the master used to repress all struggles. Now we know that if we don’t fight to change our life, nobody will do it for us: we are the makers of our future.”

5. Critical questions

We’re not saying that we can just copy things that are happening elsewhere, under slightly different conditions. But we can try and learn from their experiences. Apart from the positive sides of their struggles, we can also see some problems further down the line e.g. support from outside is good and might get things off the ground, especially in terms of giving workers some confidence to undertake collective steps themselves, but after a while, visible and physically confrontational type of actions like blockades will run into insurmountable pressure from the police. We also have to build a structure inside the workplace – if necessary, underground – which can keep up the pressure in ways which the bosses have difficulties in repressing: working slow, without people having to show their faces etc. We can’t wholly rely on full-time supporters.

We tried to talk with four or five SI Cobas militants, all still working in warehouses, about SI Cobas strategies and our own situation in west London. We asked the militants what they think the reasons are that some struggles are successful and others not – whether they see objective reasons for it. It is obviously difficult to have an open discussion if you have just met, but largely the response was that only 5% of the struggles have ended in ‘defeat’ so far (which surely is a question of interpretation!) and that the main reason is that either workers were not combative enough or the repression was too strong (e.g. in the case of IKEA – see below). Everyone basically said that ‘unity’ is the key to a successful struggle and that the will to sacrifice is a necessary part of it. This might be the right responses when we are trying to recruit members for our organisation – but leaves little scope for other workers to understand and learn from the difficulties of past struggles. As far as we are aware there is no public text published by SI Cobas that reflects critically on the struggles of the last seven years.

“Now everyone knows that we can achieve better working conditions through struggle, it is an essential weapon: if we are united, we can overcome the fear and win every fight.”

Here are some points in more detail:

State repression

Over time, as SI Cobas grew and workers were taking more collective action, the police and carabinieri (military police) started showing up more regularly and in larger numbers. They recognised the potential dangers of such a mass and growing militancy as saw it, rightly, as a political movement. There are loads of you tube videos showing the stand-offs and brutality used against the blockaders. The warehouses began to send compensation claims to SI Cobas for money lost due to disruption as wells as trespassing. Soon after, for the first time in Italy’s history, a trade unionist was sentenced to prison for calling a strike. Many activists have been banned from whole towns and cities. This state response on top on the usual deployment of mafia gangs to harass and threaten key figures in the struggles e.g. by burning cars and beating people up.

It was good to see that the blockades actually seemed to mainly be organised by workers themselves, by workers from other warehouses, and with the involvement of other migrant workers in the squats. But whilst this tactic of blockading and having external support to build confidence of workers inside the factory has up until now, been largely successful, it reaches an inevitable limit. We will never be able to out-weapon those with a monopoly on weapons. The question then we put to our comrades in Bologna, was what things they had tried to apply pressure INSIDE the warehouses, on a day-to-day, more invisible level? While we understand that flag and banner-waving militant actions serve a purpose, and especially for the unions who want to show strength and attract more workers, the downsides are that workers showing their faces get victimised and both workers and supporters end up being thrown out of the job and/or into jail/ put under house arrest.

Delegates

There is 1 delegate for 80 workers. The militant workers are ‘delegates’ for SI Cobas, which means that they can leave work for their union activities without facing the immediate threat of being sacked. We are not sure as to what extent this relies on a ‘legal protection’ or the acceptance of management that a dismissal might create more trouble than necessary (or the hope that if the delegate mainly agitates outside, then at least they won’t stir up more trouble ‘at home’). At any rate, these delegates are impressive. They go to all the pickets, speak to everyone, make speeches, do the organisational work, motivate people, entertain international visitors. Everyone knows them and they know everyone. Their commitment in these regards cannot be overstated. And yet, there is the obvious danger of burn out or victimisation, and it is not a coincidence that they are all young men, without children to support. In this situation, it is easier for them to talk about ‘sacrifice’ as the driving force of struggles.

We could also see the potential for the gap between the delegates and workers to grow wider, as they spend less and less time at work, take on more union responsibilities and are treated like heroes everywhere they go. At one SI Cobas meeting we attended, someone complained that delegates don’t hold their monthly meetings, which implies that workers rely on delegates to call for a meeting. When you have ‘naturally gifted public speakers’ and friendly, personable people taking leading roles e.g. in negotiations, you can see how power might get centralised. This comes out in ways e.g. official delegates speak and workers listen; workers in the film and in conversations often refer to SI Cobas as something like an ‘external helper’, rather than their own coordination. We think there is an awareness within SI Cobas that ‘militant’ duties need to be distributed more widely, but in what forms, we do not know.

Dependence on the left

Following on from the point about long-term over-reliance on external supporters, we would say that the ‘left’ is an unstable partner. While different political groups came together during these struggles, fractures and splits are inevitable, especially when questions of strategy arise – without wanting to mention details, even after six days in town we became aware of growing tension between different groups. One way to take this into account is to build more cross-worker support. To some extent, SI Cobas seem to have managed to achieve this – many pickets and demonstrations are made up of workers from that particular as well as other warehouses. This requires continual coordination.

Problem of formal union structure

Although we try and see the new developments within these struggles, we also see some of the problems as expressions of general problems, which occur once we struggle in a ‘recognised union framework’. Even though SI Cobas is a ‘worker-led’ union, it still has the problems of fulfilling its role as a registered union whilst not having full-time, paid staff. The workload is huge and getting bigger. They have to deal not only with the coordination of struggles, but media work, looking after individual workers, compensation claims, legal battles and disciplinary complaints.

In addition:

a) as formal and legal the union can be victimised, e.g. by withdrawing legal recognition; if we don’t prepare workers for this, the impact can be devastating;

b) the union favours certain actions over others, which, while might be good for them to grow, might also be against the interests of workers i.e. they deploy more visible and combative struggles through blockading that attract attention, but which could lead to more workers being singled out and victimised. This also shows that ‘blockades’ are not just a tactical question (how to do something as a minority), but also intrinsically tied to the organisational form of being mainly a ‘membership organisation’;

c) the need to attract more workers also means there is a temptation to only talk about victories, which hampers open, critical reflection about what workers can achieve under various conditions;

d) organisational competition is aggravated by managements’ strategy to make deals with other unions e.g. during the struggle at SDA, management signed a contract with the CGIL, CISL and UIL NAZIONALE unions, which was a similar contract as the national contract agreed with SI Cobas, though with disadvantages regarding sick pay and other extra payments. In this way, management was able to use the different interests of the various unions to split workers; ‘turf-wars’ between organisations – and finally between groups of workers – are likely outcomes, see e.g. the recent attacks on Si Cobas members at SDA in Rome;

e) management tries to use restructuring to undermine SI Cobas’ power-base (see report below on SDA); when we discussed whether ‘automatisation’ in the postal distribution centres was an actual threat or just a bluff by the bosses, we got many different answers; while some delegates said that it was just a bluff – may be to keep up the morale of workers – this could backfire by leading workers into a struggle which they cannot win easily. Similarly, outsourcing from Poste Italiane to SDA or the take-over from TNT by FEDEX were mainly seen in terms of whether it will formally undermine the basis of SI Cobas, and less about what difficulties or new connections this might create amongst workers within and beyond these companies.

6. Conclusions

In a sea of fear and mindset that nothing can done, these struggles in Italy are a glimmer of hope that situations can turn around and become a reference point for other workers. They also show that workers don’t need (legal) professionals or a big apparatus to ditch the fear and get organised.

But when nothing comparable is happening in the UK, the first question is how can something get going? Having a worker-led or grassroots union can be a good way to get things off the ground. Workers might feel more secure in the knowledge of having ‘union support’ even though from a standpoint of legal protection, this is largely illusory. In Italy, because of the differences in how the union can function, SI Cobas has, so far, been a useful vehicle to build wider working class collectivity – across a range of workplaces, at the same time as encompassing a larger field than the ‘workplace’ through its connections to the wider left and social centre scene.

But there are limits to this form. State repression and the delegate structure indicate that other (more invisible) ways should be found to put pressure on the bosses and generalise the struggle. If joining a grassroots union would mean 150 supporters turn up at the gate to support workers on the inside, great. But if not, we need to think of other things. In the meantime, we try and share experiences of what people do on a daily level to resist management pressures and struggle for more than just the crumbs. And while we are trying to build international coordinations of practical support, in particular around international companies like Amazon, we also want to encourage an open debate and reflection: which struggles were actually successful and why, how self-organised are our structures etc.

This debate also has to find out which of the current problems are specific to the particular struggle and which ones are more generally connected with the organisational form e.g. rank-and-file unions. One thing we could do is to re-examine the development of unions like SUD in France, which is a union that started out like SI Cobas and became ‘institutionalised’ in a relatively short space of time. [11]

7. Chronology of struggles

This summaries are taken from information from various sources although we have to admit, the material we found was sometimes contradictory and generally a bit too thin to really understand the strong and weak points of each dispute or conclusions by those involved. If anyone has information or amendments to add, please do!

Company name: Bennet (hypermarket)
When? 2008
Where? Origgio, north of Milan
Main issues: Low pay and falsified payslips

What happened? Some workers got in touch with activists in the small base union, SLAI Cobas, and through their network to the political scene in Milan, they organised the first picket outside the warehouse gates. They were surprised that the normally fractious and heterogenous radical left in Milan got 150 people outside the gates of the warehouse to support the picket. There were 5 strikes in 5 months.
Outcome: The result was 40 cents more per hour, a 500 euro one-off payment, the reinstatement of a sacked colleague, the transfer of two racist managers, union and delegate recognition. There were about 28 court cases against supporters, three of whom got a two-month prison sentence on probation.
After the dispute at Bennet had ended, more workers began to organise with SLAI Cobas, leaving their own workplaces to go and support other workers in the other ‘cooperatives’ who were picketing.

Company name: GLS (subsidiary of Royal Mail)
When? 2009
Where? Cerro, Milan
Main issues: Unpaid overtime, irregular pay, bullying, exhausting workload and pace of work

What happened? The state had seen the danger of these struggles and an arrangement was probably reached behind the scenes between the company and the government minister: a massive police presence was mobilised against the striking workers. About 50 police officers stood guard by the gate for 43 days, 24 hours a day. It became a no-go zone.
Outcome: The strike was defeated with 16-18 workers sacked (although they were reinstated a year later with compensated). But the massive efforts to stop the blockades pushed the conflict into the public spotlight and made more workers and activists aware of what was going on. From that point, different strikes proliferated and workers and activists who were involved founded the rank-and-file union SI Cobas out of SLAI Cobas.

Company name: TNT (courier and parcel delivery) [12]
When? 2011
Where? Piacenza
Main issues: The cooperative tried to massively increase the workload and work-speed at the same time as falsifying payslips and not guaranteeing any hours. Basic pay was 6 euros per hour.

What happened? Around 20 out of the 380 began to organise by going door-to-door in the are where they lived to talk with their workmates about the work contracts and payslips. When there were more of them and they’d agreed to to go on strike they tried to get some union support because they knew they’d need help with the bargaining process. They first got in touch with the big unions (CGIL, CISL and UIL) and soon realised that they weren’t going to stand on their side.
Outcome: The struggle ended with a wholesale victory. The workers got the introduction of the national contract and a fixed number of hours (168 hours a month), the customary minimum wage, Christmas and holiday pay, sick pay and in addition, food vouchers. All in all, a massive pay increase. The news of this breakthrough result spread like wildfire across the region of Piacenza and Bologna. Now, 80% of the TNT workforce is a member of SI Cobas, with the equivalent organisational power that goes along with it.
After winning the fight against TNT, mobilisations supported by SI Cobas quickly moved to other warehouses: Gesco North: GLS, the Antonio Ferrari group, Bartolini. Then struggles spread to the rest of northern and south-central Italy e.g. SDA in Rome.

Company name: Ikea (furniture company) [13]
When? June 2012
Where? Piacenza
Main issues: They wanted the introduction of the national wage contract. Ikea had also increased the daily unloading target of 12 to 13 ‘warehouse rows’ to 35.

What happened? A SI Cobas delegate and two Moroccan workers from TNT went to Ikea to convince workers one-by-one to start organising. After the first strike, an agreement was signed introducing the national collective agreement, the dignity of employees and union recognition. But this was never put into practice. A few months later, the cooperative tried to go back to the conditions before the strike: they cut most of the employees’ hours so that they were forced to stay at home two days a week and only earned 400 euros a month. When productivity fell, everyone had to work overtime. They tripled the hourly average of pallets and then in October they fired 12 workers and suspended 90 that resisted the new pace of work. Every day, from October 2012 to January 2013, workers and supporters blockaded the warehouse demanding the reinstatement of the suspended workers. Three were taken back. On November 2nd police intervened with extreme violence, leaving 20 people wounded and 30 people getting charged.

Meetings were had throughout this period, but Ikea wouldn’t budge. On December 18th in Bologna, students, precarious workers, political collectives and social centres alongside workers from Piacenza and Bologna and delegates from SI Cobras, organised a picket line at the IKEA store just outside the city. Although the police attacked the demonstrators, many IKEA clients expressed solidarity with the workers, acknowledging a common condition of precarity. Then, blockades and picket lines at the IKEA warehouse in Piacenza were repeated during Christmas and until early January, when IKEA accepted to reinstate the 9 outstanding suspended workers.

Outcome: In June 2014, 24 workers were sacked again. Both gates at both warehouses in Piacenza were blockaded but they still weren’t reinstated. By March 2015, all but one had taken a redundancy payout of 15,000 Euro. The remaining 125 SI Cobas members inside the warehouse didn’t find a way to put enough heat on the bosses during the dispute, while the largely symbolic international ‘solidarity campaign’ lacked teeth.

National strike of logistics workers
When? March 2013
Where? Milan (the country’s economic powerhouse) and Bologna, Padua, Verona, and Treviso (all in Italy’s industrial north)
Main issues: The strike was to demand a new national contract for logistics workers to include: the right to have jobs preserved after contract changes; to recognise employee status (in cooperatives workers are often forced to become associates, with consequent expenses and lack of protection); increase in wages and more protection from injuries and illness.

Antonio Forlano, a UPS employee and a shop steward in Milan said: “Bargaining on the new contract is expected to wrap up by April, “but, so far, the least I can say is that workers were not appropriately informed about the bosses’ demands.” Those demands include increasing the work week from 39 hours to 40 without increasing pay, reducing vacation and paid leaves, making Sunday a normal workday, and, for newly hired people, scrapping the usual bonus. The employers also want to extend from three to four hours the off-time contained within the warehouse workers’ shift. “”Now, these workers can be scheduled for a morning shift from, say, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m…After that, they may resume their job at 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. This is already disrupting their lives, but extending the off-time would be even worse, as it would mean the possibility of a 12-hour working day.”

What happened? Thousands of workers for logistics and parcel delivery companies such as TNT, UPS, DHL, Polo Logistico, and others went on a 24-hour ‘general strike’. In the small town of Anzola, scuffles with the police broke out while workers were picketing a warehouse of the supermarket chain COOP to keep scabs out and prevent goods from leaving. This strike was the first attempt to coordinate on a national level, in a single day of action, the logistics workers’ struggles that have erupted over the last few years.

Company name: Granarolo (international milk and dairy-producer who operate in China, Europe and Africa)
When? 2013
Where? Bologna
Sub-contractual arrangements: In a complicated sub-contracting arrangement, the workers there worked through cooperatives that are members of an association of cooperatives called Service Group Bologna (SGB). In turn, these cooperatives work for a logistics firm called CTL that is part of the contractor to Granarolo. Granarolo is a company itself owned by a cooperative, Consorzio Granlatte, which is a member of Legacoop, an association bringing together some 15,000 cooperatives, which protects the interests of the big groups like Granarolo and is also the economic arm of the Democratic Party.
Main issues: Legacoop decided to cut workers’ wages by 35 percent – with a wage that was already wrongly calculated. They had earned about 1,000 to 1,200 euros per month, including overtime, which went down to 600-700 euros per month. Legacoop blamed the cut on the global financial crisis even though workers were working overtime!

What happened? Granarolo workers decided to do something with Cogefrin workers (plastic imports and exports), who were in the same cooperative and suffered the same pay cut. The bigger, more established trade union associations told them nothing could be done as the agreement had already been signed and that they should count themselves lucky they even had a job. They approached SI Cobas, who told them to self-organise, and go on strike, which they did in May. The day after the strike, 51 workers who had taken part were all sacked. They went to the labour inspectorate, to the carabinieri (military police), and the police and complained about their dismissal. After the inevitable lack of reaction, they blockaded the warehouse together with workers from other warehouses. At this point the state intervened immediately with violence and intimidation. The next day the workers came back to blockade. And the next day, for one month, two, three months…

The LegaCoop intervened. The warehouse which had sacked the people, the trade union associations, and the head of the police all signed an agreement stating that some workers would be reinstated, and further negotiations would be held to reinstated others if the blockade would end. Workers agreed. During this period, workers sustained themselves on a struggle fund that warehouse workers and supporters were paying into.

But by the end of October nobody had been reinstated. The day the agreement expired workers returned for what was dubbed a “week of passion” [14]. The warehouse was blockaded for a whole day by workers and supporters, including from all the local social centres and squats. There was a serious attack in the night, after 9 hours of blockade but the next day, twice as many people arrived and SI Cobas called for a regional strike. There was another serious police attack, and a national strike was called.

In January 2014, a new strategy of wildcat blockades were deployed after Granarolo tried to adapt its logistics’ schedule to cope with the early-morning blockades. More severe police repression ensued. Two workers were hospitalised, five others ended up in police custody, with two of them getting arrested without any evidence. Meanwhile more than a hundred of workers returned to the gates, as working activities were stopped in other companies’ warehouses in the province of Bologna. A solidarity demo marched in Milan. Anonymous joined the fray by putting the Granarolo website out of action in the evening and organising a fax bombing to clog up the company and the police forces hotlines.

1000 people from Granarolo and other warehouses across the region marched in Bologna on February 1st, 2014.

Outcome: The workers at Granarolo won better conditions, but there are no SI Cobas members inside anymore.

Company name: Yoox (online fashion)
When? 2014
Where? Bologna
Main issues: Sexual harassment from the male managers, work target pressures, low wages and the their general treatment (e.g. they weren’t allowed to talk to each other).

What happened? A small group of female workers went on strike, were sacked and then re-instated after three days more of strike action.
Outcome: Target pressures were alleviated, they got better wages, the male managers were all replaced with female ones. They still don’t have the wage agreed in the national contract though and some women in SI Cobas have been moved to other warehouses further away. A significant increase in SI Cobas membership inside the warehouse also did not materialise after the first strikes. More recently, three women have been suspended (with full pay) but there was a small strike in June 2015 to get them back to work. They have now been given back their jobs as a result of the strike but some others have been suspended for clashes with security.

Company name: SDA (subsidiary of Poste Italiane, parcel distribution)
When? 2015
Where? Bologna
Main issues: Workers wanted to enforce the same national agreement that was gained at TNT, BRT and GLS.

What happened? On the 23rd and 24th of April 2015 SI Cobas and ADL Cobas organised a national strike in the distribution centres of SDA (this is one of SI Cobas’ strongholds), in order to enforce the same national agreement which has been gained at TNT, BRT and GLS. SDA only agreed to some of the demands and left a loophole in case the contract with the cooperatives changes.

Outcome: In response to the national strike SDA decided to close the distribution centre in Bologna between 27th of April and 12th of May, affecting around 500 workers. Militants told us that the work was transferred to a distribution centre in Firenze, which is about one-and-a-half hours drive away. A SI Cobas leaflet states that this closure was meant to break the workers’ resistance in Bologna, but that it had no impact on the workers – and they add that even the bourgeois law sees this closure as illegitimate. Prior to the closure the management in Bologna had tried various other ways to divide the workers, e.g. by introducing a second cooperative as labour pool.

There have been four meetings at the Prefettura (town council, also location of the police president) between the 4th and 8th of May without a result. On the 7th of May SDA signed a contract with CGIL, CISL and UIL NAZIONALE, a similar contract to the national contract agreed with SI Cobas, though with disadvantages regarding sick pay and other extra payments. So management is able to use the different interests of the various unions to split workers. Another aspect of this division at SDA is that during the national strike called for by SI Cobas, the members of USB, another rank-and-file union, went to work. Former delegates of SI Cobas who had been recalled after they didn’t represent workers’ interests anymore had joined USB and with them, some other workers.

We are not sure about the following events. As we understood it, SDA basically said that they will make most of the 500 workers at the distribution centre redundant due to mechanisation of parcel sorting. Some militants questioned whether it was actually about mechanisation, or more of a threat against SI Cobas. SDA presented a list of 300 workers who could go back to work, a list which excluded the SI Cobas delegates and active workers. Between 12th and 14th of May various meetings and protests take place, with around 300 SDA workers participating, refusing the management’s redundancy list. On 14th of May the workers at SDA Bologna went on strike against a new list, which still excluded some workers – the USB guys went to work. Similar situation on the 15th of May, though this time 200 police turned up at the depot. SI Cobas told the police that if they don’t retreat there will be solidarity strikes in all other SDA depots, which worked.

When we arrived in Bologna on the 20th of May the situation was still that around ten SI Cobas delegates were excluded from the list. During the late evening there was a blockade of the SDA depot in the outskirts of Bologna. Around 150 SDA workers took part. In Rome SI Cobas organised a similar blockade, but when police retreated for some time, some ‘truck drivers’ at the depot attacked the SI Cobas picket with batons and four workers had to go to hospital. It is unclear who these ‘drivers’ were: some say that the bosses of the drivers’ cooperative are fascists, others said that it were 40 CGIL members who attacked the workers.

We asked militants whether they see a chance to expand the dispute to Poste Italiane, but they said that workers there would be too afraid. Meanwhile further restructuring in companies where SI Cobas is active is taking place, e.g. TNT in Italy has been taken over by FEDEX, which might have an impact on negotiated contracts.

FOOTNOTES
[1] http://www.workerswildwest.wordpress.com
[2] See http://www.labournet.tv for full film online (italian with english subtitles) in September 2015
The trailer can be viewed here: http://en.labournet.tv/video/6783/ditching-fear-trailer
[3] http://en.labournet.tv/video/6676/cycle-struggles-logistics-sector-italy
[4] http://effimera.org/the-revolution-in-logistics-di-anna-curcio/
[5] http://www.uninomade.org/the-revolution-in-logistics/
[6] http://isa-global-dialogue.net/striking-against-cooperatives-migrants-lead-the-way/
[7] https://libcom.org/forums/announcements/call-our-friends-distribution-day-after-action-drinks-grnford-13122014
[8] http://www.gmb.org.uk/newsroom/m-s-swindon-yes-for-gmb
http://www.gmb.org.uk/newsroom/demo-at-m-s-swindon-store
[9] http://www.striking-women.org/module/striking-out/gate-gourmet-dispute
[10] http://www.striking-women.org/module/striking-out/grunwick-dispute
[11] http://www.wildcat-www.de/aktuell/a035sud.htm
This is a good interview with former activist of the rank-and-file union SUD – unfortunately only in French and German. SUD formed in France during the end of 1990s. The interviewed comrade was a ‘full-time’ delegate, working in the postal service. He relates that the internal structure was pretty rank-and-file during the first years, up to the point when the elections for works councils took place at France Post in 1994: SUD became second biggest union in the telecommunication sector, third in post. Delegates started to participate on various boards (health and safety etc.). He also describes the problems concerning the alliance with CGT during 1995 public sector mobilisations.
[12] http://www.uninomade.org/the-revolution-in-logistics/
[13] http://en.labournet.tv/video/6691/ikea-dismisses-24-workers-piacenzaitaly
[14] http://en.labournet.tv/video/6686/granarolo-january-20th-25th-week-passion

Advertisements