The following sketch is based on conversations in October 2015 with militants in and around the small Italian union SI Cobas (Sindicato Interprofessionale/Comites di Base), which has carried out and won militant strikes over the past few years with mainly immigrant logistics and warehouse workers.
About fifteen or twenty years ago, “cooperatives” became, in Italy, a major form of recruitment used by big logistics companies in the hiring of truckers and warehouse workers (facchini).
They are not to be confused with earlier forms of cooperatives, organized by workers for purposes of solidarity. These cooperatives are labor brokers, often literally Mafia, which arose when the major Italian unions (CGIL, CSIL, UIL) went into decline. They are intermediaries between workers and large firms, and compete among themselves to contract their members at the lowest price. Large companies such as IKEA, the Swedish furniture and appliance retailer, do not hire workers directly, but tell them to join a cooperative. Unlike slave owners, who have a certain interest in keeping their slaves alive and able to work, the cooperatives draw on an enormous revolving labor pool of immigrant workers to be sucked dry and discarded. The formal illegality of such practices is ignored; the law becomes involved only to crack heads of strikers and to lock them up. The big unions look the other way. A fired foreign worker risks losing residence papers and being forced underground. Workers are called in to work on an “as needed” basis, and troublemakers can be left at home for weeks or months, or transferred to another distant warehouse. The shop floor bosses control the labor shapeup, deny bathroom breaks and otherwise do everything to dehumanize the workers. Speaking little or no Italian, these so-called “worker entrepreneurs” are kept totally unaware of their rights to public assistance and health care, however minimal.
One of the most prominent organizations to organize workers to oppose the cooperatives and the companies employing them is the small SI Cobas (Sindicato Interprofessionale/Comites di Base, roughly Interprofessional Union/Rank and File Committees). SI Cobas was born in logistics in 2005. Their first important struggles began ca. 2011. The big strikes in Bologna in 2012 and 2013 stripped away the pretensions of the widely-touted “Emilia” myth of small productive firms with well-paid workers.
One of the SI Cobas’s first major actions was, at the request of the workers, a demonstration at the IKEA outlet in Casalecchio, in solidarity with the warehouse workers of Piazenza.
A first national strike in logistics took place in March 2013. Pre-strike meetings all over Italy were connected by video conferencing so that workers could see the depth and reach of their movement. When they struck on March 22, the pickets were attacked by the carabinieri (the national police force), leading to a day-long pitched battle involving hundreds of workers and cops. The warehouse, however, stayed closed. The success was announced all over Italy by Twitter. In a day, years of fear and isolation had vanished.
As one account of the March general strike in logistics reported:
[I]n Bologna, the movement constituted a first giant step after which nothing would be as before, either in the warehouses or in the daily lives of the workers. New general strikes, pickets, blockages, demonstrations in the downtown and throughout Italy, assemblies and boycotts became the daily reality of dozens and dozens of warehouse workers, of militants and trade unionists, who rode on the energy unleashed on March 22 to build an uninterrupted series of actions, attracting first the attention and then the participation of new exploited elements in a rebellion against the effects of the crisis and the politics of austerity. Wherever the warehouse workers succeeded in overturning the balance of forces inside the warehouse, they got better pay and erupted politically into view. The practice and narrative of the struggles as expressions of despair and defeat were overcome. The workers no longer cut their veins to win a few months of unemployment insurance and no longer fled to the rooftops of the companies in hopes of attracting the attention of the mass media. On the contrary, they organized to “put their hands into the bosses’ pockets” and to promote their own interests against management…. This little army of Spartacus had broken the chains, showing its weight in the global economy as well. When they fold their arms, millions of euros go up in smoke.
SI Cobas extended the struggles to Granarola (dairy products), TNT (international transport), to BRT (the Bartolini trucking company) and the Italian post office. Pickets appeared at IKEA stores throughout Italy. IKEA responded in part by negotiating national contracts with the three big unions, specifically excluding small ones such as SI Cobas, but these contracts meant little since few logistics workers belonged to the CGIL, CSIL or UIL. (This is a pattern on the part of the declining big unions, which also signed a national agreement in 2012 with Confindustria, the Italian employers association, again excluding all small unions, including the FIOM, the separate union of metal workers, from recognized collective bargaining.)
IKEA and other large companies had occasionally signed agreements with the cooperatives, but they were generally dead letter. Once again, in violation of national labor law, the cooperatives provide no sick leave. Like flight-by-night firms, the cooperatives appear and reappear with different names; they form a seamless web with the Mafia, banks, and some bureaucrats from the CGIL and the CSIL. They close up shop and sell their contracted members to another cooperative, making it impossible for workers to build up any seniority. By these methods, with no outlays for vacation, sick leave, or bonuses, it is estimated that the cooperative pockets 15,000 euros a year per worker, while the workers earn 700 euros ($675) a month. The companies naturally take no responsibility for what the cooperatives do with their work force.
The logistics struggles have been met with serious repression. The government has used the Rocco Code (Codice Rocco), still on the books from the fascist era, to attack them for violating “public order.” The national labor code specifically prohibits firing workers for striking, but this is enforced only at large companies. The small companies work in an informal labor market, and many militants have been fired. In May 2013, 150 police from the Ministry of the Interior were sent to occupy workplaces. The Italian secret services have warned that the logistics struggles were the most serious problem in Italy. The press did its part in portraying the immigrant workers as criminals. Militants’ cars were were set on fire. But this repression only led to an expansion of the strikes, picket lines and demonstrations.
These struggles also extended to broader struggles against the “Jobs Act” (the English name is used in Italy), which was decreed by the “left” Renzi government in February 2015. The Jobs Act basically shredded existing laws on layoffs, making them much easier, and also restricted access to unemployment insurance in the event of layoffs. In the run-up to the final version of the Jobs Act, the resistance was strongest in Bologna, including in schools at every level. These struggles involved immigrant workers from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), Egypt, North Africa, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and South America. Ninety percent of workers in SI Cobas are immigrants. At the same time many bosses in the cooperatives are themselves immigrants.
In Bologna in particular, SI Cobas extended the struggle to housing and to steep price increases in utilities. This ultimately forced the local governments (commune) to pay for utilities. Major demonstrations were also rather successful in stopping evictions. The “social centers” also became involved. In Piacenza, SI Cobas waged a three-month struggle at IKEA to force hiring of workers without the mediation of the cooperatives. The social centers helped the struggle at Baseano, the trucking company, by blocking deliveries. In December 2014, these struggles led to an agreement between SI Cobas and some big firms. These agreements forced the cooperatives to grant wage increases and sick leave to 2000–3000 workers and to respect national labor law. The union itself provides health care. At the same time, it attempts to avoid “aziendalismo,” or strictly workplace-centered organizing. It also faces the problem of losing members once a struggle, with pay increases and normalization of papers, has been won.
In conclusion, a note of caution comes from some libertarian comrades. They argue that many of the struggles were initiated by the workers themselves who then asked for help from SI Cobas. They also readily acknowledge that the struggles in logistics in Italy are important, and indeed have been the only victorious struggles there in recent years. SI Cobas, undoubtedly, has played an important role in them.
But workers in logistics, these comrades point out, have exceptional power when they disrupt the supply chain. Not, of course, that it is easy to organize strikes, given the criminal networks that control the work force, using violence. But we should not underestimate the fact (as was pointed out above) that these strikes are immediately effective, and that this efficacy is a highly relevant stimulus to action. They also point out that the logistics workers are organized by the structure of the work itself, and by informal networks of ethnicity, as much as they are organized by SI Cobas.
Finally, these comradely critics also warn against a certain mythology that has grown up around the union, promoted by people who do not do the hard work of organizing, while at the same time taking nothing away from the dozens of youth from the social centers who have definitely played a positive role in confrontations with the Mafiosi bosses and aggressive cops. Finally, these comrades question SI Cobas’s own self-conception on the centrality of struggles in logistics and on the possibility of extending their organizing model to other sectors.
-  The “Emilia” model refers to decades-old propaganda about small “flexible” firms using new technologies, paying high wages and generally pointing a way beyond declining mass industries. ↩
-  Translated from Fulvio Massarelli, Scarichiamo I padroni. Lo sciopero dei facchini a Bologna [Let’s get the bosses off our backs. The Bologna warehouse workers’ strike], Agenzia X, 2014, p. 19. ↩