Logistics and crisis: The supply chain system in the Po valley region

Struggles and the role of rank and file unions

In this part we’ll speak about the role of unions in logistics’ struggles. SI COBAS and ADL COBAS are the main “rank and file unions” that organized the struggles of migrant workers in the warehouse sector. In a sector ruled by the system of cooperatives (with continuous contract changes, widespread illegal behaviors and exploitation of the migrant workforce), the list of demands included the implementation of the national collective contract, the right to maintain the same working condition even after contract changes, the right to be recognized as employees (and not as associates, which, implies a cost rise and a lack of protection). Moreover they were asking for an increase in wages and a stronger protection from injuries and illnesses. The strike that took place on the 22nd of March 2013 was the first attempt to coordinate on a national level and in a single day of action the struggles of the logistic workers, which were originally born in different warehouses. Subsequently SI COBAS organized two other national strikes and, on the 1st of June, a general demonstration of logistic workers in Bologna in order to support Granarolo struggle. This demonstration was organized with the support of a local occupied social center. This collaboration between rank and file unions and some political activists from the social movement is a peculiarity of these logistics struggles. During this march at least 500 workers protested against the layoff of 50 logistics workers who were previously involved in harsh struggles for fair salaries and rights. Specifically, they were asking for the reinstatement of these workers and for the right to strike. In addition to these several strikes, one of the main strategy of the struggles was the disruption of contractors’ deliveries. The interruption of the commodities’ stream, reached through the organization of road blocks and the promotion of boycott campaigns, were the main disruption tools used by protesters. One of the most important struggle happened, as we said before, at Granarolo. Forty workers were fired from the Granarolo warehouse after the 15th of May’s general strike in the logistics industry. The reaction to this was the launch of a boycott campaign. As we can see the strategy of the protesters was to strike the contractors at the beginning of the supply chain, so that, in turn, they would pressure the cooperatives to comply with the national contract.

Rank and file unions are a sort of complex galaxy and they are different from confederate unions. First of all, rank and file unions are usually formed solely of rank and file members, with no full-time officials; they maintain stronger positions in order to protect workers’ rights; moreover they are usually well-established in specific industries or in specific geographical areas[8].

SI COBAS was born in the mid to late 90s and it is, nowadays, mostly active in the logistic industry. It is the only “rank and file” union where the presence of migrant workers is larger than that of Italians. This fact is useful to introduce the reason behind the strong connection that ties the migrant labor force with the unions and, subsequently, with class organization. The residence of migrants on the Italian territory depends on a specific law about migrations, the Bossi-Fini law, which binds the residence permit with a regular labor contract. The loss of the job doesn’t only produce poverty but it also represents a real threat of expulsion, that is why migrant workers are obliged to accept the worst labor conditions. Even if the unions support the claims of migrant workers, they do not fully acknowledge the double blackmail which threatens them and they don’t recognize the political role that the struggles of migrant labor can play to redefine the balance of power of the living labor as a whole against the instances of the capital. The immigration legislation is in fact a device used to discipline all labor force, both because it creates differences in the workplace – which produce racism among workers – and because it gives employers the power to manage the legal permanence of migrants on the territory. The leading role of migrants collides with a conception of union representation which is still closely linked to citizenship and anchored to a categorized conception of the division of labor[9]. The migrant labor force shows us some limits of the “union device”. Although the SI COBAS union has properly organized workers during logistics’ struggle, unions are only able to organize specific labor force sectors, starting from the material needs of their situations. In fact the warehouse industry is mainly composed by migrant workers, which imply practical and common claims. Unions could be seen as a kind of mass organization unable to represent the interests of the complexity of the living labor, but migrants have shown that there may be a class use of the union. In fact, unions refer to a collective dimension of the struggle, so they remain a tactic conflict tool which is still central. Nevertheless this tactic role of the union does not exhaust the challenge of organization: it is possible to use it exclusively within homogeneous segments, because the work is sector-based and because it is governed by an extremely specific system of civil and market laws[10]. For these reasons we can say that migrant workers have demonstrated and are still demonstrating that, through organization and through a wise use of the union device, they can fight for better labor conditions, that it’s why they have something to teach us.

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