Can the #22M logistics workers’ strike be a first step towards the generalization of struggles?
Rethinking strike, finding the functional equivalent of the union-form, building up generalization processes. These are the hassles we had to be dealing with during these last years, when the new composition of living labour and transformations of the mode of production made almost all previous organising tools obsolete and unusable. Facing these Gordian knots, it has been very hard, if not impossible, to go beyond enunciation, or even symbolical allusion, and to exceed the simple observation of what is not anymore working. Even in this case, social struggles must indicate us possibly not solutions, but certainly substantial hypothesis addressing the directions are answers should tend to going towards. So it is for logistics workers’ blockades and wildcat strikes, which by now – in virtue of their common features, extension and duration – we can define as a true cycle of struggles. It was on this basis that a general logistics workers’ strike was called on Friday, March 22nd: it will not simply be an event, but a further important step in the process of conflicts’ accumulation and expansion. Both before and after the 22nd, the porters of the cooperatives managing commodity circulation in central and northern Italy won’t do any extra-work, underlining in this way their willingness to really harm the counterpart and its interests. Defining such strike as a sectorial one wouldn’t only be reductive but also misleading, as it is precisely sectoriality to be put in discussion by these struggles that, on the contrary, are talking us about generalisation and recomposition.
The rupture of fragmentation and class composition
The workers, porters in particular, at the centre of these struggles, are almost all migrants. It isn’t hard to understand why: existing legislation blackmails them and poses them at the bottom of the labour market hierarchy, where borders between employment and undeclared work blur, where contracts are only formalities that bosses can easily disrespect, where the intensity of exploitation doesn’t know rules nor limits. In the system of cooperatives – job model of the Left and principal enemy of these exploited workers – command hierarchies are sharp-cut and articulated: from the top of a company to a network of gangsters and spies, through the ordinary employment of mafia gangs harassing key figures in the workers’ struggles (burnt cars, threats and aggressions, etc.). And it is precisely in these extreme conditions, however, that migrants become the paradigm of contemporary precariousness, thus of the general composition of living labour.
If previous mobilisations against Bossi-Fini legislation (that in Italy controls and manages the living labor mobility) were animated by a classical anti-racist and solidaristic scheme – possibly necessary but certainly insufficient –, within current mobilisations, on the contrary, what is under attack has come to be the overall logic of exploitation that affects society as a whole, within which, and not separately, differential processes of migrants inclusion take place. Such qualitative leap is well illustrated by the words of a Moroccan TNT-Piacenza porter: “bosses provoked an ill in me: racism. I had become racist to the detriment of some colleagues coming from other countries, bosses say to Moroccans that Tunisians are better, to Tunisians they say they are better than Egyptians or Rumanians. But in the fight against exploitation we found unity and defeated racism. Now we know that we are equal because we are workers.” In other words, struggles compose through subversive cooperation what capitalist exploitation – within which racism and racialization are among the most violent dispositives – constantly attempts to separate and hierarchize. Thus, it is from the recognition of a common condition – condition for which “everyone must bring home some bread” – that these processes of struggle and subjectivation are being built. Therefore, racism, as workers seem to tell us, can be destroyed only by fighting exploitation. We cannot step back from this assumption.
On the other hand, the adjectival use of the term “migrant” is important not only from the point of view of subordinating dispositives, but also from that one of conflictual forms. Mohamed Arafat, key figure in the logistics pole of Piacenza, explained us the importance that “Arab Springs” had on migrant workers in Italy: “to us it was as if we were in Egypt: TNT revolution!” Thus, destroying racial fragmentation dispositives has also signified creating a transnational space of circulation for struggles, conflictual practices and revolutionary imagination. Here, the political composition of global living labour takes shape, resistant to any abstract homogeneity and, precisely because of this, able to express itself through common languages.
Strikes must harm bosses
Workers of logistics companies say their first contact with unions happens, in the first place, because of essentially bureaucratic matters (residence permits, family reunions, modules to be filled in). It is the same relationship found in service offices: once again, from this partial angulation, we can well grasp several transformations of the union-form. For the rest, confederal unions in the best cases are absent; while in the more frequent worst cases are entirely accomplices of bosses and of the system of cooperatives. When they call on a strike, it is always ritual and symbolical: the same workers call it “traditional”, that means incapable of harming the material interests of bosses and having as the sole aim the public exposition of the workers’ condition of misery, and thus representing them as victims deprived even of the faculty to speak and of subjectivation. “We don’t do this kind of strikes, they are useless. And we neither want anybody coming to tell us to hunger strike, as we already do it in our everyday lives. The boss must now hunger strike, not us!” In fact, it is from the refusal of any demonstrative form of strike, and of the subject that embodies it, that the mobilisation springs up. Even (apparent) passivity in determined circumstances can become a form of struggle, as Romano Alquati was already explaining us at the beginning of the sixties.
“We need to harm bosses”, the workers repeat. And, as they have knowledge of the productive cycle, they know when to strike, where to blockade, and how to do it. For instance, after strikes in November at Coop Adriatica in Anzola (Bologna) (the biggest warehouse in Emilia-Romagna, distribution centre of all ‘red’ coops of the region) the match seemed lost. In February, however, struggles erupted again: on Saturday 23rd pickets –begun well before the sun had risen over the cold Po plain – blockaded the entrance to tens and tens of back-legs hired by recruiters of day labourers in other cities and regions, from Cesena to Friuli. But this still was not enough: it was only when lorries full of commodities had been blockaded, and when bosses realized the more than concrete risk of losses worth hundreds of millions of Euros, that the SI Cobas union delegate had to be called on to treat with the boss. The final result was that all major workers’ demands were met.
In this manner, workers get it over with the merely symbolical and ritual plane of strike, and reappropriate it as a tool within and against the processes of contemporary capitalist accumulation. Therefore, the production of imaginary ceases to be a separate element or, even worse, a representative substitution and goes back to live within the materiality of struggles. In order to act on this plane, a union is necessary, but not as the delegate of the struggle nor to represent anyone: the union that workers are looking for and that they have found in SI Cobas or Adl Cobas rather have to put its structure in service of their autonomous organisation. In other words, there must be a working class use of the union. Hence, it can be said that the union is useful only to do struggles, otherwise it is useless.
Beyond the strike: the question of recomposition
The logistics workers’ cycle of conflict has brought back on the political agenda a theme that Italian movements seemed to have almost forgotten: victory. Bartolini, Ikea, Coop Adriatica, just to mention three among the several examples of struggles that manage to reach their goals and that are proliferating. “Before we were enslaved, after the struggle everything changed”, a worker concisely says. The violence of repression has been so ferocious as ineffective: it simply constitutes the measure of the fear that these struggles have engendered in the counterpart. The major claims concern the abolition of cooperatives’ blackmailing mechanisms and of bosses’ discretion on working hours, rhythms, holiday retributions, salary – “we want equal increases for everyone”, says Aldo Milani, SI Cobas delegate. In these struggles, thus, salary returns to become a political question, after a long period when it had been reduced to a mere element of negotiation to be put on the table in exchange of employment stability.
However, as we were saying, it would be wrong to limit the strength of this cycle of conflict to the logistics sector. In the last months, not only have we witnessed students, precarious and activists participating to pickets, but also the organisation of common initiatives (think to the block of the Ikea store in Bologna). Recently, in the province of Bologna bosses ask with a vein of apprehension: “students and social centres they will come with you too, won’t they?” In any case, the question goes beyond solidarity between different subjects. In assemblies, for instance, workers have often talked about the university and about the fundamental importance of a student mobilisation, not only in terms of a rhetorical unity, or asking support for pickets, but above all because directly interested. Several of them, in fact, have either diplomas or degrees and border after border have been experiencing on their very skin the deskilling of their labour power. Others, especially second-generation migrants, because of rising fees and costs and a decrease in income and welfare, either try paying for their studies or simply do not access education. On the other side, students and precarious perceive in the exploitation and in the struggles of migrants a continuity with their own forms of life (sometimes they are even employed within the same perverted system of cooperatives). It is evident that in the logistics sector it is condensed a huge accumulation of skills and knowledge cooperation, which companies must keep separate in order to rule over exploitation. It is from the destruction of these dispositives of segmentation that, materially and not ideologically, the question of recomposition arises. Differences here cease to be a tool for fragmentation and become networks of common cooperation.
This step obviously requires adequate organising processes, able to both intensify and generalise conflicts: this is probably what’s at stake beyond the #22M. Last week preparatory assemblies may possibly constitute some first embryonic common spaces to build up and develop these processes. The bet is on the table, and this is already an extraordinary result of these struggles.
* original by UniNomade, here.