On recent events around SiCobas in Italy

Logistic workers against exploitation

Two articles by Battaglia Comunista translated from Italian analysing two stories which demonstrate some of the limitations of base (rank and file) unionism. The first concerns the split in SiCobas which has seen the formation of Solcobas and the second on a classic sting targetting of Aldo Milani, chief spokesperson for SiCobas.

Submitted by Internationali… on April 16, 2017

Unions have never been revolutionary but in the epoch of imperialism and state capitalism they have become increasingly integrated into the capitalist legal apparatus, into the capitalist state. They have in effect become a layer of management with their own organisational and political interests which are not necessarily always those of the membership. As a reaction to this we have seen from time to time over the last century various attempts at organising alternative unions. One form that keeps being resurrected in various places is the “rank and file union” which promises to be more responsive to its members. At least that is how they always start out. In Italy after the postwar boom, as workers grew tired of union manoeuvres which continually sold them out, they turned in the 1980s to “comitati di base” (base committees or rank and file unions) known by the acronym Cobas. Over time these rank and file unions disappointed their members or their leaderships fell out and so they split (unitary organisations which don’t unite the workers!). After Cobas we got a whole alphabet soup of acronyms of one organisation after another (as mentioned in the first article). The latest of these was SiCobas but, as the first article details, this split late last year so that we now also have Sol-Cobas. The issue would perhaps be a bit arcane for CWO members and sympathisers if it were not for the fact that a) there are some similarities between the SiCobas experience and the various struggles around the gig economy currently going on in the UK. These involve new rank and file unions like the IWGB and the UVW as well as the IWW and then there are more struggle based groupings like Angry Workers of the World. b) many of those who express admiration for it know little about SiCobas other than through its own publicity. c) Sicobas like so many of these organisations in the UK also operate mainly in warehousing and distribution (so-called logistics) sector and the vast majority of their members are also migrants. In both the UK and Italy there struggles are seen as marginal and are ignored by the mass of the working class.

The first article is about the split between Sol Cobas and SiCobas to show that the problem lies in the union form in the context of today’s real class struggle. The second makes a similar point by looking at the latest “sting” by the bourgeoisie against the leader of SiCobas. Just for background information, Aldo Milani is the national coordinator of the SiCobas rank and file union. He was arrested on 29 January 2017 charged with “extortion”. He had allegedly accepted a bribe and the police video footage showed his companion, a consultant for a cooperative (and not connected directly to SiCobas) called Piccinini, pocketing an envelope which was said to contain €5000 and supposed to be part of bigger payment of €90 000 paid to Milani by the representative of Levoni Brothers in order “to buy social peace”. It appears like a classical stitch up and Milani has always maintained that it was a trap and that “they set me up”. The “facchini” (used to be translated as porters but now refers to warehouse and logistical workers in general) of SiCobas, who are mainly migrants, then launched a series of strikes (in at least 40 places) and Milani was released the next day but told he could not leave his home province of Lombardy.


The split in Si-Cobas and the birth of Sol-Cobas

Introductory Note

The rift inside Si-Cobas appears to be the inevitable outcome of a “difference of opinion” – and subsequent “actions” – between two wings of the union leadership: all, it has to be said, still to be confirmed, The dispute has been going on “for about two years” but has become “increasingly evident over the last 6 months”. It seems to have been a lengthy conflict yet, until the expulsion, was completely unheard of, at least externally, during several episodes of mobilisation where the rank and file (base) union was solid in the warehouse workers’ struggles. Otherwise, there have been only the small "episodes" (which also need to be verified) that were mentioned in the communiqué that Si-Cobas issued after the ejection. (Concerning the signing of separate agreements on the part of Zerbini’s Lombard group, apparently neither authorised nor agreed and discussed. Available on the web).

Rather than a simplistic account of mere disagreements between functionaries over control of the organisation – which are of little interest to us – the following article attempts to briefly analyse what, in our opinion, are the real reasons for a split which is the culmination of a deep internal crisis (both political and trade union). Above all, the split is the outcome of an underlying misconception of the relationship between political and economic struggle: one which entirely focuses on giving priority to the “union” (assumed to be the only method and instrument of economic struggle) and its alleged ability to give birth, over the course of the struggle itself, to that essential body: the class political party. – Or, at any rate, to be able to ... "to deputise for" it, whilst waiting for it to be eventually "formalised". (See the Platform for the First Congress of Si-Cobas, 2015.) A party, therefore, whose role is downplayed and reduced, you could say to secondary importance, compared to a union which is such a hybrid that it is no longer able to act as a mediator in the struggle against capital. Thus, a revolutionary party – which by its nature is inherently incompatible with capital ¬– is to be "born" from an organism, the union, whose raison d'être is to bargain with the class enemy, without acknowledging any contradiction in this, nor, in fact with the very existence of capitalism.

Union splinters

Radical base, rank and file, class, unionism: depending on the adjective used by the various trade union organisations to qualify their work, we’ve become familiar with the regular splits, the creation of new, apparently reconfigured organisations, the decanting of militants now towards one then to another of the different acronyms that belong to a now multi-stellar universe of "confrontational" unionism, with all its disagreements and squabbles.

There is a centrifugal dynamic which periodically cuts across all the various “political/union” options – from the most classical institutionalised “radical reformism” which is not averse to occasionally having a more or less "dialectical" relationship with the political parties, themselves now profusely deconstructed – to the "alternative" left, including those who hold to a kind of "revolutionary class syndicalism" and include the overthrow of this society in their programme.

As we outlined in the introduction, a recent split in the Si-Cobas – which over the last few years has enabled a new, super-exploited branch of the working class, the warehouse workers, to gain representation via harsh struggles which have brought their contracts into the national negotiating framework – has led a number of trade union activists to create the Sol-Cobas.

For a broad analysis of this split we will concentrate mainly on the document: To the Militants of Working Class and Self-organised Unionism, a text which marks the break with the Si-Cobas and the birth of Sol-Cobas. It is this document which frames the insults, the low blows, no-holds-barred attacks ... and which, more than other positions taken, clarifies the terms of the contradictions which led to the split. Obviously it is up to us to grasp the real nature of the problem, namely the "role of class unionism". We need to look beyond the specifics of how they are presented, and link them to the underlying nature of the body (union) in which they have arisen, beyond the contingent reasons that are advanced in polemics,

To understand the origin of the contradictions, let’s look at the breeding ground of the warehouse workers’ struggle, within which the Si-Cobas acted, both in terms of the overall (negative) framework of the class movement and in terms of how it objectively and subjectively acted as a catalyst for a series of extremely contradictory impulses towards the emergence of an independent class position.

So-called "class unionism” has been the common denominator of all these actions. The warehouse workers’ struggle objectively marks the arrival on the scene of fragments of a new class movement and its related problems, starting with the condition of super-exploitation which in a sense is a precursor of a wider worsening of the terms of capital-labour relations. The "union" project reflects its advance but also its limitation.

Basically the criticism launched by Sol-Cobas against the leadership of Si-Cobas simply mirrors these contradictions:

“It is satisfied that a section of the bosses have formally recognised (our) goals and that, in exchange for an agreement on more flexibility and productivity, they will make a few concessions to base (rank and file)unionism, thus overcoming the crucial veto of not having signed the CCNL 1 and therefore not in line with the agreements on representation".

And further on, getting more concrete:

“In fact, while the organised workers became stronger as the struggle developed, at the same time the level of bargaining increased (....) But if, on the one hand, it is natural for the struggle and bargaining to intertwine in a contradictory process, [BUT IN FACT THIS IS THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM!] on the other it can be seen that the union line goes against the path of struggle in two fundamental aspects (…): 1. The perennial search of Si-Cobas for formal recognition by the bosses. 2. Acceptance of the bosses’ request for the strikes to be self-regulated.”

So far the Sol-Cobas text tells us nothing new about the dynamic of “class unionism”. Basically the “Union” is the ‘UNION’: the organised negotiating body for the workforce inside the capitalist system. Adopting the adjective “class” doesn’t alter its contractual nature, its underlying role of representing workers at every level: sectional, corporative, etc.

If the role of trade unionism in the imperialist stage is even more apparent in the current climate of crisis, this is one aspect of the contradiction. The other is the ever-recurring wishful thinking of "class unionism" to present itself as the foundation of a political alternative for the class under a variety of different labels. If the Sol-Cobas text eliminates the prospect of Si-Cobas being both "Trade Union and Party" as "one of the worst pantomimes", we need to remember that even here they are not recognising anything new. Indeed, the whole thing can be summed-up in terms of two weaknesses: weakness in terms of the class as a whole and with regard to revolutionary subjectivity.

So, on examination, this crisis simultaneously becomes one of "political perspective" and at the same time a crisis of "trade union perspective", out of which they are trying to find a political alternative. Basically the response from Sol-Cobas, whilst highlighting some issues which they do not deal with in detail, simply stands at the opposite side of the argument without resolving the inherent contradiction of the problem. Whether it is the “political” or the “trade union” response, both hold to the same framework and so repeat the same contradictions in another form. Coming down on the side of ''workers’ self-organisation" and admitting the trade union character of the daily struggle – seen as just a "training ground for workers' struggle”, cannot remove the underlying contradictions which stem from its nature as a "trade union" entity. Not only that, on the question of the party, although its strategic importance is recognised, it is in fact downgraded to "... the real fruit of the class struggle which concretely and daily organises itself", and goes on to theorise something that is certainly not new:

"A New Workers’ Movement [the capital letters are in the text] would first of all need to expand as a breeding ground of struggle, as a real working-class laboratory able to fight the class adversary where it concretely bases its power (starting with workers' control over the organisation of work).” [?!]

Perhaps we are witnessing the revival of "Gramscian councils", of "councilism", of old-fashioned "workerism"?

In a distorted way, this latest crisis of “class unionism” reflects the current balance of power between the classes. It reveals a "subjective" political perspective that is trying to be something new. Instead, however, the various practical attempts to find a new political response are repeating the same old problems and contradictions ad infinitum.
Saturday, 27th August 2016

Translator’s note
Even without Italian you can get an idea about the ‘base unions’ and the like in Italy. Check out, for example:

Political reflections on the attack on Milani and SiCobas

1. Recently, the Bologna court imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement of Aldo Milani, Secretary of SiCobas, following the operation against him at the Levoni enterprise in Modena: the content of that operation, its media exposure, the subsequent pronouncement of the Bologna Tribunal, made the political purpose of the whole affair absolutely clear, so much so that Aldo Milani himself is acutely aware that its immediate political aim is: "To limit the activities of the union and they will go to the end of the road to do it".

2. The event can not simply be put down to an amateurish operation by Levoni, even if it was a little botched, to preserve the authority of the business and political system in Modena. In our view, focusing on that would not help to grasp the overall meaning of the episode.

3. As we have often said, the SiCobas in recent years has represented logistics workers, the sector which has produced more episodes of struggle than any other in Italy. The extent of their protests, the forms of conflict they have undertaken, and their organisation in confronting the employers, has definitely been an advance on the current substantial class retreat; they have constituted a point of reference for active solidarity in a wide variety of situations.

4. From the start, the warehouse workers’ movement faced conditions of exploitation and conflict that we reflect the general condition of the working class. Their struggle against semi-slavery was immediately opposed by the bosses and police who spared nothing in their fight against the striking porters: from blackmail and arrests, to fist fights, including mafia-style assaults on the leaders of SiCobas themselves.

5. However the Modena operation against Aldo Milani represents a quantum leap in the struggle between the conflicting parties in this field. If in the course of the struggles in recent years the method of the bosses and the State has been to occasionally attack the trade union and workers' initiative with their normal brutal arsenal of repression, this time the focus was on the political heart of the matter: to push the workers into a corner and put its representatives under supervision, forcing the movement, as a whole, onto the defensive. They have gone from defending the system of logistics, in particular, and capitalism in general against workers’ demands by economic and police measures, to the use of political power which the bourgeoisie can dispose of at will, to restrict workers’ room for manoeuvre. The event highlights today’s general problem that the margins for negotiation have been reduced to almost nothing and any situation wedged within the interests of the capitalist system must be reduced to a marginal role in the face of these very interests.

6. Some comrades felt that Aldo Milani’s "mistake" was due to his behaviour or his "carelessness", or from his now bureaucratised mentality in not needing the active presence of the workers with him in his function as a trade unionist. Such ideas grasp some aspects of the problem but don’t really explain it. As communists we must understand the full political significance of the events. The representation of workers' interests on a trade union level, at a negotiating table, natural for an organisation that calls itself a "union" has revealed its own inadequacy in the face of the chosen ground and the political objectives of the opposing party. Aldo Milani, as a union leader, was ready for a confrontation/clash with the other party on the level of negotiating with whoever he faced, but those on the other side of the table made him feel the real strength of the ruling class by shifting the terms of that confrontation/clash onto a political level: via criminalisation, questioning the very legality of the struggle of the workers, attacking their union representative and, above all, through all this, they brought the terms of the fight with the workers' onto a level that was more congenial to the employers, thus pushing the struggle onto the back foot and into retreat. That this all arose from the defence of the specific interests of Levoni does not change their practical political and general impact, as subsequent events have tended to prove. But this lack of understanding between the trade unionist logic of the SiCobas and the political methods the employers adopted has demonstrated the inability of SiCobas, and those who give it "solidarity", to understand these events politically.

7. A political reading of the situation means recognising its practical impact on the processes of building class organisation. The first aspect is that building around demand struggles (which for us is not necessarily a union issue) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for dealing with the bigger picture. We are not just fighting a single boss, but the bosses’ whole system and all the forms bourgeois domination takes to guarantee its existence. The second is that we can see that most of the current class struggle has taken place under the harsh conditions imposed by the general state of class retreat, as well as the bourgeoisie’s response, which in its turn has brought all its weight to bear on the struggle. In fact it has operated in several ways, to encircle and wear down these struggles, forcing them into a kind of fatal "war of position" aimed at eroding their capacity to mobilise. Put another way, bourgeois action not only tends to break proletarian initiative at any given moment in order to keep it fragmented and subordinate to its interests, but it also tends, constantly, to effectively marginalise and isolate it. The only form of conflict allowed is the compulsory recomposition of the class on terms compatible with capitalism. Even the most radical forms of struggle are relegated to minor episodes and thus effectively weakened, i.e. without real potential to affect the power structures that determine at various levels, the state of oppression. The movement thus runs aground, retreating to a condition of extreme defence, and ultimately cannot mature to the level of a political alternative to the system capable of leading it "out of the doldrums". This is the crux of the operation that was launched in Modena. It might not yet succeed, but we need to be aware that they have the bit between their teeth and will not give up easily.

8. Narrowing down the problem to the demand for trade union "rights", even the demand for SiCobas to continue to operate, as the most immediate issue raised by the whole Levoni affair, may contain some truth but it is only a partial truth. The real issue of the organisation of the class and its vanguard must instead be addressed both strategically and politically. We have to take into account both the contradictions of a general phase of proletarian retreat, and the need to rebuild class unity wherever real struggles take place. Anti-capitalism has to be the basis of the programme that bring together at an organisational level the discussion between those who are developing the initiative of communist militants and the development of the vanguard organisation: the Party.

9. Once again, instead of drawing up a serious balance sheet of decades of workers' defeats at the union level, of the real relations between the classes, of serious reflection on the lessons and needs that have emerged from the actual confrontation with bourgeois society, and a critical and radical attitude that should characterise anyone who wants to stand on the terrain of class struggle, all that has come out of this affair are schemes centred on the union as the only form of proletarian organisation needed. These schemes don’t promise the necessary leap in political maturity which the communist vanguard has to promote.

February 27 2017

Originally posted on the Internationalist Communist Tendency website.

  • 1Agreements signed up to by various firms in the past decade and negotiated on the basis of a national platform drawn up SiCobas and other base unions