Cleaners at the Cisanello hospital in Pisa picketed their workplace for over three months, from October 2012 to January 2013. They were protesting the proposed cancellation of 78 jobs to comply with the cutbacks to healthcare spending. Their determination earned them the nickname of "lionesses," several tensions with local high ranking members of their union, and, eventually, victory against the contracting firm. Their resistance and solidarity shows that workers can still win in times of austerity.
The lionesses of Cisanello
For the cleaners at Pisa’s Cisanello Hospital, the nightmare began in October 2012 when the Local Health Agency of Pisa announced a reduction of 5% in the cleaning budget to comply with the Spending Review bill passed by the Monti cabinet. The hospital had only recently been renovated, with the Emergency Department opening in 2010.
Sodexo, a French-based corporation providing cleaning services to the hospital, announced that 78 jobs out of 306 would have to go: a reduction in the workforce by 25%. This seemed disproportionate even compared to the actual cutbacks in the healthcare budget. However, the cleaners at Sodexo did not give up their jobs easily: they decided to stand up and fight back. Their determination earned them the nickname of “lionesses,” the respect of their fellow citizens, and, in the end, victory against the firm.
In October 2012, the workers started organizing demonstrations inside the building (“cortei interni,” a very popular tactic in the 1970s), temporary strikes, rallies, and all sorts of informative action to call attention to their situation, including distributing flyers at the primary elections of the Democratic Party (PD). The workers also interrupted a local Democratic Party meeting devoted to healthcare on November 5. The actions of the “lionesses” of Pisanello were part of a much wider wave of protest against the Spending Review and the draconian cutbacks to healthcare spending. In particular, a delegation of Sodexo workers opened the rally against austerity that blocked the city of Pisa on November 14, during the 14N European General Strike.
On October 25, the struggling workers created a permanent picket in front of the hospital. On December 4, they also occupied the information center in front of the Emergency Department: the occupied office became both an information center and a logistics office for the pickets.
Sodexo finally backed off on January 10, announcing that no job would be lost and they would reorganize and redistribute the workforce instead. Even after reaching a settlement, many workers decided not to leave the permanent picket but to keep fighting, extending their solidarity to the workers of the nearby Ginori factory and to the many other workers threatened with layoffs and job losses in the district.
The tensions with the union
As many of the workers said in interviews with AUT Pisa (a local independent web tv), none of them had had previous political involvement. In addition to saving their jobs and livelihoods, the struggle of the “lionesses” of Pisanello was also a journey of self-awareness, demonstrating the transformative power of resistance.
At the same time, this struggle deeply compromised their ties with Filcams CGIL, the left-wing union which represents a large proportion of healthcare workers. Only COBAS, a radical left-wing independent union, supported the workers in their struggle. In fact, high-ranking CGIL members initially described the Pisanello picket as self-centered.
The tension continued to mount during the three months of picketing, with the Sodexo workers pushing forward, and often against the weaker stance of their union. In particular, CGIL cancelled the one-day strike called for November 14, a move that was criticized (and disobeyed) by the struggling workers at the Cisanello hospital.
A new chapter began on March 7, when 70 cleaners publicly gave up their membership of CGIL, seeing the union as complicit with the status quo and the region’s powers that be – notably the centre-left Democratic Party, which has ruled Tuscany and the province of Pisa for many decades.
However, instead of joining other, possibly more conservative unions, the workers formed an independent committee for the defense of workers. This is a loud reminder to the unions (and especially to the left-wing ones) of the importance of the word ‘movement’ in the phrase ‘labour movement’.