How the pandemic kicked off a strike wave in Italy

Morgan M looks at the strike wave in Italy in the wake of government and industry response to the coronavirus pandemic, interviewing a firefighter who is a militant in a local “rank-and-file” union. Image: Workers at TNT FedEx facilities in Genoa and Bologna striking on April 7 for safer conditions.

When COVID-19 hit Italy, the government attempted to isolate individuals while maintaining the economy. As the government banned gatherings and emphasized the importance of isolation, it pushed workers to continue showing up to work, no matter the conditions there. The contradiction led to a wildcat strike wave across the country.

Broadly, in Italy, labor bargaining takes place on two levels: there are industry agreements setting industrial standards, and then there are those specific to a particular company.

There are three large trade union confederations (like our AFL-CIO) as well as two smaller, right-wing confederations. The three large confederations are the CGIL, which is the largest and used to be affiliated with the Communist Party, the CISL, which was Christian Democratic, and the UIL, which was affiliated to the Socialist Party.

At a national level, the union confederations negotiate with the Confindustria, which represents employers, and the government, in a tripartite “social partnership.”

On a company level, there are “works councils,” which represent the workers. All unions which have the support of over 5% of employees (there are no winner-take-all certifications like in the US) can participate in the council. There are two types of council, both of which have membership proportional to the various unions’ strengths in the company. The two types differ as to whether the unions appoint the stewards or the employees elect them.  

Alongside this process, there are the Cobas unions — COmmittees of the BASe, “base” meaning rank-and-file. There are many Cobas unions, ranging from the very small to ones with membership of perhaps 40-50,000. They operate similarly to the IWW in North America — both inside and outside the legal labor set-up. The SI Cobas has been attracting attention for organizing strikes in the logistics sector. The SI Cobas will often “strike to the bitter end” — until a resolution has been reached — as opposed to the limited duration strike, which is a more common tactic.

Unfortunately, the various Cobas union leaderships often see the others as rivals and don’t strike together.

I had a chance to interview Mariopaolo, a firefighter and rank-and-file militant in the “Unione Sindacale Di Base” (USB) Cobas union about the strikes there. He has been active for a number of years, keeping the USB out of the National Agreements so as to maintain the strike weapon. He is also active in a coordination of rank-and-file Cobas militants, trying to encourage unity of action between the various Cobas unions.

When the pandemic broke out, Italy began to isolate individuals in the north of the country. Can you explain the reaction of the working class to the limitation of workers’ actions?

In Italy, like most countries, especially ones where capitalism is old,  for years the working class has been marked by a general passivity.

In this situation, the government placing limitations on trade union freedom of action isn’t seen by most workers as a problem, because if you are not used to using a tool (strikes, assemblies, pickets) when it is taken away you do not miss it.

There have certainly been exceptions. On Friday March 4, ArcelorMittal [the world’s largest steelmaker, owning both Bethlehem and Republic Steel in the US] reached an agreement with the government on redundancies and layoffs at its steelworks in Italy. At the Genoa Steelworks, the FIOM-CGIL union [the largest union of metal and autoworkers in Italy] called a factory meeting — which they can do at any time for union matters — at the steelworks for the following Monday, March 9. ArcelorMittal forbade the meeting by citing the social isolation decree which the government had issued that day. The FIOM union at the steelworks replied that they would declare a strike and hold an assembly outside the factory. In the following days, however, the spread of the epidemic worsened considerably and this led to calling off the assemblies.

It should be made clear, however, that neither the governmental decree of March 4 nor subsequent ones, prohibited strikes. Therefore, because of fears of contagion, i.e. in defense of their own health, workers went on strike in many factories in the following period.

Did the government made it compulsory to work in isolation zones?

The government didn’t impose a halt to essential activities until March 23 (we will go into this later). The first cases occurred on February 21 in 10 small municipalities of a few thousand inhabitants in the province of Lodi (in Lombardy, south of Milan) and in a small municipality in the Veneto region. The government closed these 11 municipalities as “red zones” and nobody could enter or leave them. Since they were small municipalities, it was difficult for the companies within them to continue production, as a more or less significant part of their staff commute from other municipalities and therefore they could no longer access their jobs in the red zone, nor could they access the necessary raw materials and semi-finished products.

However, the situation changed on March 9, when the government created a much larger “red zone”, comprising the whole of the Lombardy region and 14 provinces in other regions.

In this way, limitations on the movement of people and on demonstrations, meetings and gatherings of all kinds were extended to one third of the national territory. But, since no halt of production had been called, the firms in the original 11 municipality red zones were able to resume production.

The same happened on March 11, when the government extended the ‘red zone’ to the entire national territory.

These measures, aimed at extending the restrictions on movement and assembly, began to worry workers, with the effect of making them go on strike in a good number of factories.

A number of strikes spread throughout the country without any proclamation by the leadership of the regime unions [CGIL, CISL, UIL — those that sign on to the National Agreements], which had not occurred in Italy for many years.

Faced with this situation, on March 14 the regime unions signed an agreement with the largest organization of Italian industrialists (Confindustria) and with the government, aimed not at stopping unnecessary production but at ensuring that they continued to comply with safety provisions for workers.

Was there a legal way to protect oneself at work?

The government decrees established mandatory measures to mitigate the risk of contagion. In several cases, trade unions used these legal provisions to force temporary layoffs on employers pending the implementation of these measures, as provided for in the March 14 protocol.

In cases where trade unions and companies did not reach an agreement on temporary layoffs, strikes were held. In some cases, the trade unions stated that these were not strikes but “abstentions from work.” It goes without saying that a strike is nothing more than a collective abstention from work. However, this distinction was probably used by unions and workers in the hope that unemployment benefits would be paid, as provided for in government decrees.

How did the wave of strikes start? Were they spontaneous? Come from the Cobas unions? Or from within the CGIL?

The strikes began to spread when the seriousness of the epidemic became apparent. They also developed in relation to the escalation of government measures, from February 21 to March 11.

We must be precise about the definition of a “spontaneous strike.” Certainly there was pressure from the workers to strike. In many cases the workers found support from the factory delegates [stewards] of the regime’s trade unions, who didn’t oppose the strikes. Some of the regional structures of the regime trade unions proclaimed general strikes: this was the case of FIOM [CGIL- Auto and metalworkers] in Lombardy, Trentino and Turin; FILCAMS-CGIL-CGIL [the CGIL union in Commerce, Service and Tourism] in Genoa.

It was the national leaders of the confederations — the CGIL, CISL and UIL — who did not organize the strike movement in order to stop non-essential activities on full pay. They did not call for a national multi-industry general strike, and on March 14 — when the epidemic had already shown all its severity and claimed thousands of victims in Northern Italy — they signed the above-mentioned protocol.

The rank-and-file unions — SI Cobas, USB, CUB, ADL Cobas — called for national strikes in one or more industries and, on March 25 the USB called for a strike in all industries, excluding essential workers.

However, these unions do not have the strength to promote genuine general strikes, even within individual industries, with the exception of SI Cobas, in logistics. Even in the situation created after March 8 and 11 — with the extension of the red zone first to the whole of Lombardy and 14 other provinces and then to the whole country — and the consequent multiplication of strikes, the national strikes of the Cobas unions have not succeeded in involving substantial portions of the workers. This was due, on the one hand, to the fact that the regime’s trade unions, while they supported the strikes that happened at both a company and regional level, limiting themselves to not unifying them at national level. On the other hand, to the fact that even in this dramatic and propitious situation for workers’ mobilization, the leaders of the Cobas unions refused to act as one and did not stop making war against each other.

How were these strikes organized?

The strikes were the expression of a basic movement on the part of workers who, in the face of the government’s appeals to the population not to leave their homes, found themselves forced to go to factories, often to multiple jobs, with a clear risk of infection. The business unions stewards often suffered from this double standard themselves, and this risk to their health was on a par with all other workers, which partly explains their widespread support for the strikes.

On the other hand, the lack of unification of the strikes into a national strike of all categories and to the bitter end, aimed not only at not exposing workers to the risk of contagion but also at obtaining full wages, slowed down the extension of strikes by limiting it mainly to areas where the epidemic was most significant, where workers were being blackmailed with “health or wages.”

CGIL and other trade unions seek to work with companies, similar to how the UAW does here in the US. If I understand correctly, CGIL has tried to work with companies/industry but has failed to do so and wildcats have broken out?

The severity of the epidemic had already clearly manifested itself by March 8. In the face of the spread of strikes, the protocol signed by the national leaders of the CGIL, CISL and UIL with the government and industry served to postpone the complete closure of non-essential economic units as much as possible. That protocol provided that the implementation of [health and safety and contagion containment] measures should take place through cooperation between the company and the trade unions in each production unit, and also provided for a temporary suspension of production, with unemployment funds going to workers and, if no agreement could be reached, the trade union reserved the right to call a strike.

In this way, on the one hand, the regime’s trade unions did not oppose strikes, but rather reserved the possibility of organizing them. On the other hand, they allowed the government to postpone suspension of non-essential activities until March 25, 11 days later.

Compliance with the rules for contagion containment, and agreements between the union and the company, were possible in those companies where the regime trade unions had sufficient strength and where there were sufficiently combative delegates.

Thus, workers in most of the small and medium-sized companies, where the majority of the working class in Italy works, were left at the mercy of the bosses.