Dawid Krawczyk: What is social strike?
Paola Rudan: In plain words, it’s an attempt at organizing labor in times marked by precarization and unprecedented worker mobility.
And in still plainer words?
Well, strike has never been an easy and simple thing. It’s not just about workers leaving their machines and halting production. Strike has always been something more – even in times when workers were all gathered in one facility, each and everyone linked by the chain of exploitation and organized in a labor union.
Unfortunately, today it’s even more complicated: first, because of the deep fragmentation of labor, which means that those who are linked to the same chain of exploitation experience different conditions in terms of contracts, legal status, gender relations and wage; second, because it’s probably impossible to name an entity capable of single-handedly organizing a mass strike, and bringing production to a halt.
The unions have no such power anymore?
I’d have my doubts about this. Today’s labor is divided along a number of different lines. Even in your typical industrial factory we are dealing with different forms of employment: it is sometimes the case that workers perform the same work under employment contract at one time, and under some other contract another time; there are those who are citizens, and there are those who are immigrants. As a result, they occupy different shelves in the social hierarchy. And all those differences result in individuals’ being granted or denied workers’ rights. Under such circumstances it is difficult for workers to communicate and fight for common goals.
Instead of improving, the situation has been growing more oppressive. For a long time, societies in Western Europe believed that we were experiencing a global process of embracing all individuals with workers’ rights. Quite a few people were convinced that over time the Eastern Europeans, and then the citizens of the so-called Third World as well, would enjoy the very opportunities enjoyed by the citizens of Western Europe. It turns out, however, to be exactly the other way round. Workers’ rights and social security are being dismantled piecemeal in the countries where, for a long time, no one have undermined the point of their existence. Western Europe is walking the trail blazed by the precarity-plagued peripheries.
In what way is social strike addressing these problems?
By building bridges between workers. Because on the one hand everyone works under the conditions of permanent precarity, while on the other, there are some differences, which make it difficult to organize around a common goal – the form of employment, just to begin with, or the level of salaries at the other end of the debate.
In Bologna, we have entered into collaboration with a couple of grassroots labor unions. For the most part, their members are people with full time employment contracts, but this doesn’t mean they are not open to workers in a situation less stable than their own or that they do not realize that precarity does not simply depend on contracts but is determined by the level of wages, the dismantlement of welfare rights and so on and so forth. We managed to get the workers of some city museums involved in the social strike on November 14, 2014: on the day of the strike they actually quit their assigned posts and joined the demonstration. That was something which a number of other city museums’ workers could not afford doing, as they were employed by an outsourcer. If they had left their posts, they probably might as well have not returned. But they also joined our action by publishing their pictures with slogans in support of the strike in the web. This shows one of the basic problems we wanted to highlight: not all workers have the power to strike; though the right is formally granted, they cannot use that weapons in their struggle for better work conditions.
But the strike’s overarching goal is to build a lasting bond between workers, who normally have no contact with one another whatsoever. It was good, therefore, that during the strike in November the situation was that of having the representatives of not just one plant or just one industry protesting in the Italian streets. We also succeeded in engaging those employed in the public sector. Quite a few of those who joined the demonstrations were employed by different offices.
The actions accompanying the social strike were also joined by the migrants working in Italy. And I think it is extremely important.
Again we need to go back to the recognition that workers are a very diverse group and yet they all are in a strikingly similar position. It is very easy to imagine a situation in which those in full time employment are hostile toward the immigrants, blaming them for drops in salaries. Explaining to them that in fact we’re all in the same boat takes some time, but is not impossible. Because you may have an employment contract and social security at the moment, but it is no big deal, since in a month or two you may end up with a temporary work agency as a service provider. Your having a contract with your employer is not decisive for defining your condition of security in contrast to a precarious one. What is decisive here is the structure of the job market, which imposes the constant readiness to have a contract terminated and to sign another contract in order to gain a salary. In the EU documents it is called “employability.” Migrants are especially exposed to it.
What is the cause?
Toward the end of the 1990s, there was a large number of workers from outside the European Union arriving at the job market, mainly because of the Yugoslav Wars. Governments reacted to that influx by introducing legislation which made residence permit conditional on employment contract. If you wanted to stay in a EU country, you had to prove you were legally employed.
Why do you consider this as dangerous?
Because as a consequence of those changes in legislation it becomes increasingly difficult for them to fight for their rights. Losing job has disastrous aftermath for them, including deportation. It also has a direct impact on salaries. If the employer knows that the employee’s entire life depends on their having the job, they can reduce the salary to their heart’s content: the worker must accept whatever they’re offered. Making residence permit conditional on employment leads us directly to blackmail. “So you wanna go on strike, yeah? Fine, go ahead. You’re gonna lose your job and they’re gonna send you back.”
In Italy the regulations that tethered residence permit to employment were first introduced in 1998. It was also back then that we started to realize that the migrants are the key entity in the political change, and to recognize the political centrality of migrant labor. Italy and others as well reformed their politics so that they could profit as much as possible from migrants’ work, while using the regulation of migration so as to worsen the working conditions of all. Belgium and Great Britain are also notorious for excluding from their social security systems even the so-called internal migrants, i.e. citizens of other EU countries. You don’t work, you practically have no right to services.
In order to learn what the relations in the job market will look like in a couple of years, it is enough to have a look at the regulations regarding the work of the migrants today. That’s why I believe the problems of the migrant labor are the focalizer of the problems faced by all workers: to get as much as that you don’t have to be anti-racist or be constantly declaring solidarity with immigrants.
You speak of the immigrants as if they were a homogenous group. I’m not sure if the goals of the manual laborers from the Central and Eastern Europe and the goals of the highly-skilled IT professionals who work outside their countries of origin may really coincide.
The class differences between workers you are mentioning are there indeed, no doubt, but abroad they get leveled. Borders tend to proletarize those who have crossed them. And of course not everyone is subject to the process to the same extent, but the stories about university professors laying tiles, or women with university diplomas cleaning up offices and caring for old people in private houses for a living have not been simply made up.
This is because once you’ve crossed the border, you lose many of your powers: in the case of the migrants from outside the EU, you don’t even have a residence permit. I mean you can have it on the condition that you are legally employed and can make a living, but then it’s not unconditional. And so you lose the opportunity to better your existence. Your bargaining position gives you few possibilities. Often the only real choice is to be made between accepting whatever the employer gives and returning home.
Despite those difficulties, migrants working in Italy organized a nationwide strike five years ago.
In Italy the strike – which took place on March 1, 2010, after the famous French call for “a day without us” – involved 48 factories in the Brescia province, 6 in Bologna, 12 in Reggio Emilia, 7 in Parma, while the huge market of Porta Palazzo in Turin was completely blocked and many migrants’ shops closed their gates. We do not know exactly how many of those who work in conditions that are particularly individualized and isolated – such as care and domestic workers – went on strike, but in the days preceding the strike in Bologna we were contacted by a unionist who simply asked why so many female domestic workers were calling him to learn how to strike.
This episode is illustrative of the fact that the unions where only partially involved, and sometimes they openly opposed the strike. They would say that migrants were too weak, and would not have been able to strike. They said we were “dividing the working class.” The true point is that migrants have always been a problem for the unions: first, because their mobility questions the national base of the unions’ structure and initiative. Second, because migrants’ mobility questions the internal division of the unions along the lines of their sectors of employment: mechanics, agriculture or care, services and transport and so on.
So while in certain places – like Brescia – some migrant members of the unions were able to overcome this opposition from within, in Bologna we had to find other means. We – as Coordinamento migranti – organized assemblies of workers (both Italian and migrant, and in some cases, such as the one of the Ducati Motors, the majority of the strikers were Italian) inside and outside their working places. We gained the support of the workers’ representation inside factories, and we took advantage of the Italian law’s strike regulations (according to which the right to proclaim strike is granted to anyone) in order to proclaim it. Then, the workers’ representation made a statements in support of and actually went on strike for 8 hours on the 1st of March. They were mainly from mechanic factories, but in some cases, like the already mentioned Ducati Motors, the support of the FIOM workers’ representation was not enough to ensure protection to the cleaners, who worked in the factory as subcontractors, so it was necessary to search for technical support of an external grass-roots union.
Finally, more than 10 000 people demonstrated in the streets of Bologna. We believe that this experience gave us important hints concerning both the difficulties and the possibilities of organizing a transnational social strike.
Let’s get back to 2015. What do you think about the reaction of the European Union to the so-called refugee crisis?
I am definitely not surprised by Angela Merkel’s recent turn in her position on the refugees. Many people were wondering how it was possible that she had been so intransigent on applying austerity measures to Greece, whereas she was so kind-hearted toward the immigrants. In my opinion, her two approaches aren’t mutually contradictory at all.
In Germany, an ever progressing precarization of work is under way. All neoliberal economists on the media call for an influx of new labor force, so that the current productivity level of the German economy can be maintained and the precarization of labor (exemplified by the diffusion of the so-called mini-jobs) could be pursued without sparking social turmoil. The Europeans need people who will work, pay taxes and finance the pension system.
Italian politicians are a little more insolent about it and some of them will declare in earnestness that we should accept the refugees but on the condition that they will work for free – cleaning up streets, parks and gardens. They call it volunteering. In fact, what we’re dealing here with is a more aggressive mechanism, one we’re familiar with: you can stay here, but only upon accepting certain, serf-like, conditions. And this process will affect all workers, not only the migrant ones.
It is the conservatives who much more often say how the immigrants are going to influence the job market. Normally they set the local workers on the “foreign” ones. On the other hand we can hear the calls to help the refugees. Volunteers bring blankets and food to the EU border.
The people who go to the hotspots are doing great job. Assistance in crossing the border is extremely important. But we need to make sure that we don’t treat the refugees merely as the objects of our care and generosity. This may be a very dangerous attitude, contrary to all appearances, which enables us, the Europeans to feel privileged, whereas in fact a vast majority among us are but little better off. We should be mindful of how much we have in common with those who are arriving in Europe.
Sooner or later it will be the job market that will bring us together. We will be working in the same stores, offices, factories.
Exactly. The scale of migration we are dealing with these days is unprecedented. Never before in recent history have there been so many people coming to Europe. And we must realize that this is going to bring about a still deeper precarization and further drops in salaries. We are facing a challenge. How are we going to go about it? Are we going to treat migrants as strangers and divide them into the good (poor refugees) and the bad (so-called economic migrants)? Or are we going to recognize them as the group capable of transforming Europe and changing it to the better, and to ask ourselves how to establish communication between migrant workers, both the new-coming and the old ones, and non-migrant workers, i.e. how to turn solidarity into organization?
Look how through their very presence at the EU borders they managed to make the member states abandon the legally binding regulations. Individual countries would gradually step away from executing the Dublin Regulation. It was simply impossible to carry on pretending it could still be applied. The migrants arriving in Europe these days are like a “storm” which must transform the way we live and work. The challenge will be how to organize the political answer to the many attempts that the EU will make to govern these movements.
How do you imagine those changes?
Today all workers’ clashes happen at the national level, because this is the level on which the laws regulating work operate. The surge of migration – both inside the Union and from the outside – calls into serious question not only the very idea of borders, but also the point of regulating work at the national level. We need to make it clear there’s somebody who benefits from the individual differences between national job markets, and that somebody is not the workers, to be sure. In Italy, workers of Fiat were fighting for raises, demanding changes on the local level. Their protest ended up in moving their plant to Poland, where the minimal wage is lower and the unions less vigorous.
The unprecedented worker mobility calls for adopting a transnational perspective to approach labor problems.
And according to this perspective, what should be changed in the first place?
Our demands in this respect are fairly clear. One of them is the European minimum wage – to prevent incidents of suppressing strikes from happening the way it happened at the Fiat plant. We are also making our case for the introduction of the European unconditional basic income, which might constitute a plinth of a future common social politics. It is no less important to make residence permit free from the contract-of-employment considerations. The regulations currently in place have been made to divide workers and to blackmail migrants so as to govern their mobility.
These demands are largely coincident with the demands you made during the Italian social strike.
This is true, and now we are concerned with creating the circumstances in which a transnational social strike would be possible. This was one of the reasons why we met a few weeks ago with European labor unions’ members and activists in Poznań. We know that the strike won’t start today or tomorrow. Just now we work to make sure we can imagine what such a thing might look like, and how to organize ourselves in it, actually experimenting.
Paola Rudan – since 2003 she is member of Coordinamento Migranti – an autonomous organization of migrant and Italian workers based in the city of Bologna and connected with other cities in Emilia Romagna. Since 2011 she has also been member of precarious di∫connections, an area of men and women, precarious and migrant workers, who put precarious and migrant labor at the centre of their political intervention, understanding precarity and mobility as the global and comprehensive conditions of contemporary labor.
Translated by Mikołaj Denderski. Photo by Coordinamento Migranti.