Italian Warehouse Workers Say: Stop All Non-Essential Activity to Stop the Virus

Workers in Italy sitting outside a warehouse on strike in orange vests.

Workers in Italy's warehouses are increasingly going on strike to protest conditions that expose them to the COVID-19 virus. Photo: S.I. Cobas.

S.I. Cobas, or in Italian the Sindicati Interaziendali Comitati di Base (Cross-firm Base Committees) have done extensive work organizing in the logistics sector, principally in northern Italy. As their name suggests, base committees are formations at the “base” and are not part of the country’s three principal trade union federations: CGIL, CISL, and UIL. They initially arose in the 1990s in manufacturing, teaching, and hospitals in reaction to the perceived collaboration of the traditional unions with the government and the corporations.

There are cobas in many industries and sectors, but S.I. Cobas has a focus on organizing logistics workers in the north of the country, principally in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy. Their members are largely immigrant workers, many from northern Africa. They have engaged in several high-profile struggles against companies like Ikea and DHL, employing the tactic of striking and then blockading the flow of merchandise in and out of the warehouses.They rely on community and political support to buttress these tactics.

Reprinted in translation below is a flyer they issued to their members and supporters on March 16. While a lot has happened in Italy since then, we felt it was useful to share this perspective with U.S. workers, as the situation here is becoming more like Italy's every day. For another point of view on the situation in Italy, see the article Dispatch from Italy: Class Struggle in the Time of Coronavirus by Leopoldo Tartaglia of the CGIL, Italy’s largest union federation.--Peter Olney and Labor Notes eds.

STOP ALL NON-ESSENTIAL ACTIVITY TO STOP THE VIRUS

S.I. Cobas rejects the Government-Employers-Official Unions (CGIL, CISL, UIL) agreement which, to preserve profits, keeps factories, warehouses, and shops open, puts the lives of workers at risk, and allows the contagious virus to keep spreading among the population.

S.I. Cobas and ADL (Associazione Diritti Lavoratori – Association for Workers Rights) COBAS have converted the strike warning already proclaimed into a directive for workers to all stay at home to protect their right to health and life, calling for the immediate closure of all non-essential activities and full wages to all workers.



An Italian warehouse worker holds a sign that says, "I am staying home. I am not a piece of meat." Photo: S.I. Cobas

We demand the closure for at least two weeks of all activities and services with the exception of essential ones, such as food and drug and medical supplies production, workplaces where all safety measures and equipment must be provided.

Workers who stay home must receive 100 percent of their wages. They can only be called in for cleaning, which must be completed before their workplaces reopen.

This position is based on a cold examination of the epidemiological data.

Although the Civil Protection reports try to soften them, data show a very strong progression up to 3,590 new infected people and 368 deaths as of Sunday, March 15, for a total of over 20,000 infections tested and 1,806 dead. In reality, actual infections are already hundreds of thousands and the dead are bound to exceed China's 3,000.

The government had to take drastic measures to stop the infection, but under pressure from the bosses, it took only half measures with great delay: the millions of workers in factories, warehouses, transport and even shops—from electronics to cosmetics!—are told to do what we are forbidden to do as citizens: to continue traveling and being in crowded places. Because of this, workplaces continue to be sources of contagion and infection and deaths will continue to increase.

LABOR NOTES RESOURCES

ORGANIZING IN A PANDEMIC

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Workers must not be forced to put their lives at risk for the bosses' profits!

The law on safety in the workplace (Article 44 of Legislative Decree 81/08) states that workers can leave their workplace in the face of a "serious, immediate danger that cannot be avoided," such as the current coronavirus epidemic.

The government-employers-unions (CGIL, CSIL, UIL) agreement actually denies this right:

  1. It is up to the employers to decide whether to continue production or not;
  2. Sanitizing workplaces and the adoption of protective measures and equipment is left to the employers, without control by public health authorities;
  3. If any worker falls ill with coronavirus, no quarantine is mandated for his/her colleagues;
  4. If face masks are not available, work can continue, except where the "safety distance" of one meter cannot be kept. Yet several studies have shown that the distance of one meter is not sufficient to prevent contagion, nor are common masks a guarantee;
  5. The agreement also does not deal with how workers go to work: trains, buses, and carpools are all potential contagion vehicles, which the agreement leaves operating;
  6. The agreement allows workdays of 8 to 10 hours day after day, even at distances of less than one meter, but it does not allow workers to meet in assembly to defend their rights and health collectively, even if they comply with safety standards We do not accept the virus being used as an excuse to prevent workers from organizing!
  7. Coronavirus has been proven to survive up to two days on surfaces: delivering parcels becomes another possible infection danger. One more reason to stop the logistics warehouses. Non-essential products can wait two weeks!

Several factories in Bergamo and Brescia, and even the FCA Group, have closed for these reasons, in the face of workers' protests. In the face of the dramatic progression of the infections and deaths, the Lombardy Region itself has proposed shutting down all non-essential activities.

The government-employer-union agreement betrays workers who have gone on strike in recent days in order to stop putting their lives at risk by working. We say: life before profits, close all non-essential activities, until the infection is stopped!

We are also risking our lives because the Italian health system only has 5,000 lung ventilators to save the most seriously ill, and many have been left to die because there are not enough lung ventilators for everyone. This is the result of cuts in health care spending. Germany has 28,000 ventilators, almost six times as many, for a country with one and a half times Italy's population.

One F-35 fighter jet costs more than 7,000 ventilators. It would have sufficed to buy one less to save thousands more people at any time. Enough with cuts to health care, invest in life, not death! Especially in times when environmental devastation, the result of this capitalist mode of production, will possibly lead to new major health emergencies.

Health care personnel have been cut for years and they were not sufficient to meet medical needs in normal times. Now doctors, nurses and other staff are subjected to deadly workloads and very high rates of contagion because safety rules are not observed: hospitals are now the most dangerous outbreak centers. Immediate hiring in health care is required, and there must be strict compliance with safety standards for all staff.

We are not facing a normal union dispute for economic reasons. This is about health and life, not only of the workers concerned, but also of the whole community.

For these reasons, starting this week we call for a real mass absence from work in defense of everyone's health and life.

March 16, 2020, Milan