"There is a battle raging with the bosses!"
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Corona Crisis in Italy
Interview with Italian trade unionist Eliana Como
Workers in Italy are resisting and fighting against the inadequate policies of the government in the corona crisis. Luca De Crescenzo and Yaak Pabst talked to Eliana Como from Bergamo about the double or contradictory life of the working class, the deadly tricks of the industrial association and how a strike is organised despite the ban on assembly
Hi Eliana and thanks for your time, we know you are very busy these days. Thanks to you, I think it’s important for workers all over the world to know what’s going on in Italy.
Please, tell us the situation the Italian workers are facing right now. We look to the future with concern. The measures taken by the Italian Government have been very contradictory from the outset and have shifted the enormous burden of the crisis onto the workers. Workers and employees are paying a very high price for this – both in terms of health and financially.
A high price? Millions of people in Italy lead a "double or contradictory life": on weekends, as »citizens« they can’t even go for a walk in the park. But on Mondays "as workers" - they have to go back to work and face overcrowding as workers, the buses and trams and come into contact with hundreds of colleagues. This puts them at risk to themselves and thwarts the measures to contain the infection to the entire population.
Who do you mean exactly? It is mainly about those who are required to work hard and who are usually not even guaranteed the minimum safety measures. The people most affected are, of course, those employed in what are known as essential sectors, in other words public services, starting with health care, but also in food distribution, transport, cleaning and public services.
Also affected are workers in sectors that are not essential to life, especially industrial production. These sectors which until recently were (and still are) in full operation. Moreover, the weight of this crisis has had a drastic impact on workers‘ wages.
In what way? Where companies have closed, workers' incomes were covered late and only to a totally inadequate extent.
But the government has ratified the »Cura Italia« decree. With the »cassa integrazione« they are supposed to protect workers from wage cuts? The government promises a lot, but the so-called 'cassa integrazione', only covers part of the salary. An ordinary worker gets just little more than the half of an average salary. Many people are not even entitled to the »cassa integrazione«. The more precarious workers are entitled only to a one-off bonus of 600 euros for the whole period they’re not working. The ones that work in small companies are covered only by a particular form of »cassa integrazione«, financed by the Regions, for which they will have to wait 5-6 months.
How many people are still working? According to some plausible estimates, 12 million are still going to work, that is 60% of the total employed. I can’t tell you exactly. The only answer I would give is: still too many!
But the government had decided to stop production in the non-essential industries. How does that fit together? These were just the announcements. Late announcements were made on Facebook by Premier Conte when there were already four thousand deaths in Lombardy alone. Lombardy is the most affected region and at the same time, the most industrialized region of Italy.
So nothing happened? Yet, but with a dramatic delay. And there is a battle raging with the bosses, as to what is an essential company.
Pardon? Yes, the day after the announcement by Prime Minister Conte, the Confindustria – the Italian employers‘ federation – put its hand on the decree, interfering in the definitions of the activities considered essential.
How so? The list of essential businesses simply became longer and longer. For example, among the activities considered essential, there is that of synthetic rubber. If it were for the indispensable latex gloves, it would be right. But we are talking about tyre production here!
Another outrageous example: the arms industry. The Ministry of Defence has made a statement in which it 'kindly' asks the manufacturing factories to slow down production. But this is a non-binding request, and companies don’t give a damn!
But then the government made a new decree, right? Let’s say that if the first one was already late, only to be forced to make another one - was a criminal waste of time. The days lost are not only those between one decree and another, there’s the further delay in the closure of the business; which arises from the possibility left to companies to fulfill orders in the meantime.
The companies were therefore still able to avoid closure. Therefore, even if the new decree is better than the previous one, it leaves many problems open, perhaps also due to the lack of conviction of the main actors themselves.
Is the government not convinced that the virus must be fought by all means? The question now is 'how?' Without the »wildcat strikes«, the threat of a general strike by the trade union movement and the many small protest actions in the factories, the agreements would not have been reached at all. The government was put under pressure by the workers. But, there are still many gaps left, and in many sectors it is not clear what is considered essential.
For example? I think about banks and insurance companies or postmen, who carry out not only essential activities, but who at the same time are at great risk and are a conduit for the infection. Two postmen have already died here in Bergamo.
How are the government measures enforced? Here’s the trick. Many companies have changed the definition of their industry from today to tomorrow, and suddenly they belonged to "essential" production. Moreover, companies that do not belong to the essential sectors, can keep being open if they belong to the production chain of an essential product.
Okay, but how is it defined? Through a self-certification of the company itself!
Seriously? The company communicates to the Prefect (i.e. the representative of the government in the province), who then consults the unions, but in the end it is up to him to decide. Not all Prefects are dedicated, and in companies where there is no union - we can do little or nothing. However, on the contrary, where the workers are strong and unionized, the companies have already closed.
Explain that more precisely, please. Ever since the emergency was declared, workers’ concerns have grown. In factories where there was a strong workers‘ organisation, the closure was immediately implemented from below. For example, the »Same« company from Bergamo, where one of the strongholds of 'Riconquistiamo Tutto!' is located, was already closed at the end of February with a trade union agreement.
But this is an absolute exception. Of course. But something began to move early also in other workplaces. The workers began to question the schizophrenic policies of the government: On the one hand, a government is flooding you with invitations and obligations to stay at home. On the other, you going to work every day as if it were nothing. But here, however, the unions made a mistake.
What do you mean? As anger and fear grew, the union focused on an unrealistic claim, that of work on safety conditions.
Why unrealistic? In many workplaces, especially in factories, this is impossible, there is no way to respect the safety distance. And it was also unrealistic to think that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) would arrive. Especially since in the meantime PPE was even missing for health care workers!
But surely the workers must protect themselves? Of course. But in the current circumstances of lack of Personal Protective Equipment, it is negligent to demand »safe work«, instead of simply closing down the factories. On the contrary, to have PPE would have been just as criminal: it meant taking PPE away from hospitals and essential activities.
What were the consequences of focusing on the motto for »safe work«? By doing so precious time was lost. Although a safety protocol was signed with the companies. But this was practically useless. While new obligations were introduced for employees, such as taking their temperature, for example, there were only non-binding recommendations for companies.
As a result, millions of people continued to be forced to work, and an important factor in breaking the chains of infection, namely the closure of non-essential businesses, was ignored.
How did the agreement actually come about? It would not have come about without the protest actions of the workers in the factories. They put pressure not only on the employers, but also on the three major trade union federations.
In what way? I can mention the factories where we are strong as 'Riprendiamoci tutto!': Namely in GKN, Piaggio, Electrolux, Fincantieri where the workers had already made their voices heard. But also many other industrial groups, including Fiat-Chrysler. Then there is the logistics sector, where the 'SI Cobas' has been organizing workers' struggles for many years. And finally there were more spontaneous and individual forms of struggles, like calling in sick, taking holidays or simply not showing up for work.
It may seem strange, but it was after the signing of the protocol that anger and fear exploded. A wave of strikes swept through the country. Not only where the workers were already strong and organized. They helped set an example, but even in the less radical factories - where the workers stopped production. Also because when some large factories closed, those of the downstream industries began to lose orders and contracts. The workers saw the situation change and acted accordingly.
But how is a strike organized in Coronavirus times? It was too late when the Confederate Trade Unions called for a national mobilization to shut down factories. So at the beginning, many workers have had to come up with their own ideas. The concern was so great that all the usual procedures were thrown out. To organize, workers used social networks. At Electrolux in Forli, the strike, which was successful, was organised entirely through Whatsapp.
But there is a ban on assembly and factories cannot be surrounded by picket lines … People are not stupid. Workers have nevertheless gone on strike, and they simply kept the minimum distance from each other in the picket lines in front of the factories.
And how did the trade union leaderships as a whole react to these movements from below? In my opinion, it missed a historic opportunity. The national leadership took two weeks to call for the closure of non-essential production. They didn’t even ask for it in the days when spontaneous strikes multiplied.
Why was that bad? That was the moment when the general strike had to be declared. The workers were there, and the government would have been forced to hear them. Instead, the trade union leadership focused on the watchword of strikes where safety conditions were not met. But we all knew that the safety conditions were not being respected almost anywhere. Time was lost, which in this situation means human lives, and left room for Confindustria to dictate its conditions. Now we are here, with these late and insufficient decrees.
What should they have done instead? Imposing the closure of all non-essential production was the condition to save even those who work in the many companies where there is no union: the small-medium companies, often subcontracting. These continue as if nothing had happened, where workers are extremely vulnerable to blackmail, are very often foreigners who fear if they lose their jobs, they will also lose the right to stay in Italy. I and many who fought in those days will regret that despite having said that from the beginning, we were not having been listened to by our leaders. But this situation cannot last.
What do you mean? First of all, in my opinion the situation is much more tragic than it is told. Here in the province of Bergamo many deaths are not counted because they die alone at home or in retirement homes, where the situation is tragic (even for those who work there), without being able to access the overloaded health facilities and therefore without official diagnosis.
What are your fears? My impression is that the situation will soon explode in many areas, including essential ones. In transportation, where fortunately there is 'SI Cobas' that organizes and gives voice to the concerns of logistics workers. But the situation is also becoming increasingly precarious in the supermarkets. They are still open at weekends and therefore the workers often lack the time to thoroughly disinfect the stores.
What is the situation for those who work in hospitals? There was a symbolic one-minute strike by the USB union, where health workers took a photo with the hashtag #ScioperaPerMe (Strike for me too!). In the hospitals and nursing homes in the north, all employees are under great pressure and have literally been on the front line for weeks. By this I mean the research, medical, nursing and cleaning staff.
The main problem is that the Italian health care system has been cut to pieces over the last decades – there is a lack of financial resources, materials and staff. This is unloaded on the medical and nursing workers, who have to take on an incredible burden these weeks.
This includes, for example, extreme shifts that go far beyond normal working hours. Even though salaries have remained practically unchanged for almost 10 years due to the austerity policy. One has to imagine that even the researchers who were the first to isolate the Italian virus strain in the hospital in Milan have insecure jobs. It is a disaster!
What are your demands in this field? We urgently need much more resources for public health and more staff. There is enough money. The government could now cut military spending, which in Italy is among the highest in Europe.
What lessons do you draw from the weeks so far? For me it is clear that not a single euro should be spent on private health care. We have seen that the private sector is not investing in what is needed in these situations. And we will have to ask ourselves what the real impact of pollution is, because the Po Valley is the most polluted and industrialised place in Europe, not just Italy, and that is where the virus has taken root.
I hope that we have also learned from all this that Confindustria is a criminal organisation that puts its profits above the lives of the very people who work for it and that the anger of the workers very often goes beyond the guidelines of the trade union leaderships.
Where do you see the role of trade unions now in Italy in ensuring that the pandemic is really contained? We have to push through the interests of the working class in the crisis. In Italy, for example, we are currently fighting for the actual and immediate closure of non-essential sectors of the economy. The strikes and protests in the factories will hopefully continue. Above all, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in southern Italy.
Another important lesson from Italy is that we are not all in the same boat. If the trade union movement acts according to the principle: »people before profits«, this also means resisting the crisis solutions of those in power.
Eliana Como is active in the trade union federation CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro). She is one of the speakers of 'Riconquistiamo tutto!' – a left stream inside the CGIL. She lives in Bergamo, one of the epicentres of the epidemic in Italy
This interview originally appeared on the marx21 Website. Reproduced with permission.