Immigrant Workers Strike Hits Warehouse Sector in Italy
“We should get a prize from the Italian government,” said Mohamed Arafat. “Before our two-year struggle, most logistics and parcel delivery companies would turn to black market labor. It was normal for them to evade taxes. But after we decided to go on strike, many of them were forced to implement the national contract.”
Arafat, born in Egypt, is now a warehouse worker for TNT Express in the city of Piacenza in northern Italy. On March 22 he went on strike together with thousands of others who work for logistics and parcel delivery companies such as TNT, UPS, DHL, Polo Logistico, and others.
Logistics workers struck in Milan, the country's economic powerhouse, Bologna, Padua, Verona, and Treviso, all in Italy's industrial north. In the small town of Anzola, scuffles with the police broke out while workers were picketing a warehouse of the supermarket chain COOP to keep scabs out and prevent goods from leaving.
The March 22 strike was the first attempt to coordinate on a national level, in a single day of action, the logistics workers' struggles that have arisen in the last two years. These are the workers who sort and load packages onto a delivery company's trucks, but also those who work in large warehouses serving famous brands such as IKEA and supermarket chains such as COOP and Esselunga.
Logistics and courier activities form a unified sector in the Italian labor relations system. Bargaining is now nearing a settlement on the new national contract for the sector, but the strikers claim that CGIL, CISL, and UIL, Italy's three major union federations, are making big concessions without discussing the bargaining platform with the workers.
Many of the strikers belong to SI.COBAS or ADL COBAS, two small independent unions, and some belong to no union. Others belong to Italy's largest federation, CGIL, but went on strike all the same.
Antonio Forlano is a UPS employee and a shop steward in Milan. He is part of CGIL's reform caucus, The CGIL We Want. “Bargaining on the new contract is expected to wrap up by April,” he said, “but, so far, the least I can say is that workers were not appropriately informed about the bosses' demands.”
Those demands include, according to Forlano, increasing the work week from 39 hours to 40 without increasing pay, reducing vacation and paid leaves, making Sunday a normal workday, and, for new hires, eliminating the usual bonus.
The employers also want to extend from three to four hours the off-time contained within the warehouse workers’ shift. “”Now, these workers can be scheduled for a morning shift from, say, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.,” Forlano said. “After that, they may resume their job at 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. This is already disrupting their lives, but extending the off-time would be even worse, as it would mean the possibility of a 12-hour working day.
“Most workers do not live near their workplace. When asked to pause for four hours, they can't simply go home.”
Now the Contract Matters
According to Arafat, who is a SI.COBAS organizer, the employers are determined to get these concessions because, for the first time, they actually have to pay attention to what's in the contract. Before, they could skirt the contract by outsourcing, through a system of “cooperatives.”
“Now is different,” says Arafat. “This time they are aware that they are going to sign a contract that workers can enforce through their struggle.”
Cooperatives have a long history in Italy and were originally created for the mutual protection of workers. But today, in the logistics and parcel delivery sector they are often used to mask black market labor and cut labor costs. A warehouse worker loading packages onto TNT, DHL, or UPS trucks is usually an outsourced “associate worker” in a cooperative.
This means that cooperative members’ working hours, shifts, and pay are almost never in compliance with their contract. Instead they get starvation wages, unpredictable shifts, no pension contributions, and no union rights.
It also means a huge tax evasion on the part of cooperatives. “To give you an example, before our struggle our TNT pay slips used to read 'on leave,'” explains Arafat, “meaning a long-term, unpaid leave, and '0 euros' as a salary. So, all the workers turned out to be on leave and formally received no salary every month. The cooperative used to pay us in cash.”
The cooperatives are actually hierarchical structures: one or two members, usually Italian, are in command and are able to pay themselves luxury wages out of their agreement with the contractor. The rest of the workers, usually immigrants from Egypt, Peru, Romania, or Pakistan, are in fact simply employees.
This situation has been tolerated for more than 15 years. But since the summer of 2010, workers have been organizing, beginning at TNT in Piacenza. The law allows immigrants to stay in the country only if they have a job, so they risked deportation in order to strike to improve their conditions.
Strategy of Disruption
Arafat says their strategy was to disrupt the contractors' deliveries, which in turn would pressure the cooperatives to comply with the national contract. A series of SI.COBAS-led strikes erupted in Piacenza and spread to other cities in the north.
At the beginning of 2013, the balance sheet is in favor of the workers: where the action was prolonged and determined, they achieved much better working conditions, higher wages, and compliance with the contract. They started, here and there, to question the cooperative system. Direct hiring, though very difficult to achieve, seems now a realistic target in the long run.
Needless to say, these achievements involved a great cost. In the last few months, the tension between strikers and the police has run high several times.
Besides Anzola's recent episode, violent clashes between Polo Logistico workers and police erupted at the end of October in front of IKEA's huge warehouse in Piacenza. The warehouse is IKEA's main storage center in Italy, employing 500 workers who distribute products across the east Mediterranean region, and the Polo Logistico workers are employees of a consortium of cooperatives.
The center had to close temporarily December 17 because of the workers' picket, with serious financial repercussions. Aldo Milani, the national coordinator of SI.COBAS, has been given an exclusion by the Piacenza police: he won't be allowed to enter the city for three years. Twenty-nine workers were charged with unauthorized demonstration.
The March 22 strike demanded that workers be allowed to participate in bargaining for their contract. “Look, I come from Egypt,” says Arafat. “As you know, we had a revolution over there in 2011. In those days I used to say to my comrades that Tahrir Square could be everywhere, even in Piacenza.
“As a matter of fact, our struggle was a small revolution. Exactly like the people gathering in Tahrir Square, we realized the power of unity and we lost our fear. Ultimately, I think this was our most important achievement.”
Marco Zerbino is a freelance journalist based in Rome.