Black Friday 2016 saw Amazon.it increase their orders by 1.1 million. But its executives had less to celebrate this Black Friday — workers at the Castel San Giovanni hub launched their first strike. The facility is Amazon’s largest in Italy, where the retail giant employs up to four thousand workers, less than half of whom have a permanent contract.
The strike — called by the three largest Italian unions, the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL), the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL), and the Italian Labor Union (UIL) — saw about half the permanent workers and some precarious workers crossing arms. They demanded better working conditions, higher wages, and permanent contracts for all.
Logistics workers organized by the independent union Si-Cobas joined the strike and planned to picket the Amazon hub. “[W]e want to unify and strengthen workers’ struggles, making them effective through blockades,” a representative explained. These actions represent “the only proven useful tool to obtain bargaining power in the logistics sector.”
Expressing solidarity with their comrades in Italy, Amazon workers in Germany walked off the job at six distribution centers as part of a long-running dispute over pay and conditions.
This is the first strike organized by the largest Italian trade unions at Amazon but the last of a ten-year wave of struggles led by thousands of logistics workers. Despite corporate and state intimidation and violence, this mobilization has grown, becoming by far the most important movement against the financial crisis.
Crisis in Italy
Since 2007–8, Italy has experienced an unprecedented deindustrialization process, losing at least 13 percent of its industrial capacity. The resulting loss of unionized jobs in manufacturing and construction has reinforced the precarization of labor relations, a process that austerity and structural reforms have deepened.
Meanwhile, restrictive immigration legislation and the criminalization of undocumented immigrants — introduced by the “Security Pack” passed in 2009 — has made immigrant workers even more vulnerable to blackmail and increased the racialization of the country’s labor relations.
GCIL, CISL, and UIL have done very little to oppose this.
In the 2000s these unions, CGIL in particular, did work to recruit precarious and immigrant workers. They also cooperated with social movements and antiwar groups. These initiatives had some impressive results: the number of unionized immigrants increased from about 224,000 in 2000 to 1,160,000 in 2011.
But these programs coexisted with increasing institutionalization. In the wake of the crisis, CGIL, CISL, and UIL often subordinated bargaining to the interests of economic “recovery.” Since 2011, they have signed agreements with employers’ associations that allow for the introduction of strike restrictions in company-level contracts.
The logistics sector moves against this history both in terms of economic trajectory and of unionization.
Between 2007 and 2013, the transportation and storage sector registered a 5.6 percent increase in production value. This growth depended mainly on increased outsourcing of all circulation activities, from material supply to final delivery, which align with production offshoring practices and contract logistics. The increase also reflects Italy’s strategic trade position between Asia and Europe.
As has happened globally, companies reorganized logistics along the lines of just-in-time (JIT) production in hopes of wringing even more profit out of their workers. But, just as JIT production intensifies exploitation, it also increases workers’ potential for disruption — a potential logistics workers increasingly recognize.
The Work of Logistics
In order to overcome Italy’s inadequate institutional and technological infrastructure, the logistics sector relies on cooperatives, which employ low-paid immigrant workers, to turn a profit.
To understand labor conditions in these workplaces, we must dispel of any illusions about the so-called red cooperatives. Over the last twenty years, these organizations have increasingly adopted capitalist principles.
For example, in order to be hired as an “associate worker,” job seekers must pay fees ranging from two to fifteen thousand euros. The cooperatives do little to regulate hours or wages, and workers must put all their time at the disposal of JIT production.
In many cases, bosses plan the opening or closing of cooperatives in order to wipe out workers’ accumulated seniority, avoid paying salaries, and sack unionized or militant workers.
Before 2015 these practices were so prevalent that some cooperatives took an average of fifteen thousand euros per year from each worker while paying about seven hundred euros in monthly wages.
Immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable. Cooperatives systematically encourage supervisors, mostly of Italian origin, to use psychological and physical violence in order to keep their workers in check. For example, as recounted in a book on Italian union organizing, supervisors
[controlled] the possibility of urinating by denying or delaying access to toilets . . . They regulated the rhythm of the working day to the sound of curses and insults . . . [without calling] workers by name, but whistling or using nicknames linked to their countries of origin.
In some cases, supervisors physically assaulted workers who asserted their rights or refused to submit.
By outsourcing to cooperatives, companies can meet JIT production imperatives, enforce extremely precarious working conditions, and reduce labor costs. As Sergio Bologna argues, this allows Italian logistics to compete despite its technological and infrastructural weaknesses.
But working conditions aren’t much better for the workers directly employed by multinational corporations.
In the Piacenza Amazon warehouse, for example, the average worker is thirty years old, but up to 80 percent suffer from health problems thanks to the intensity of work, its extremely fast pace, and the repetitive tasks. Management constantly checks workers with metal detectors to prevent theft, and employees must ask their foremen for permission to go to the toilet. The continuous pressure and humiliation workers face have led to endemic drug use for anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.
Thanks to management opposition, trade unions only started representing workers in the Piacenza hub in 2016, five years after it opened. CGIL, CISL, and UIL have also so far failed to organize the mostly immigrant workforce the cooperatives employ.
When these workers asked for support, the main unions did not organize their members and often signed local agreements that were worse than the national deals. This is because CGIL, CISL, and UIL have deep ties to the cooperative system. Indeed, former trade union leaders and politicians from the center-left Democratic Party (PD) direct many of these organizations.
That’s why logistics workers started to mobilize for themselves in 2008. About 160 employees of the Coop Leonardo at Bennet Origgio near Milan organized the first struggle. The workers contacted Si-Cobas, asking for help winning better working conditions and the right to unionize. Their action launched a ten-year strike wave.
Indeed, one of the main characteristics of this wave of struggles has been the combination of workers’ self-organization and independent trade union assistance. The strong ties of solidarity that grew between workers and political militants have allowed workers to overcome their fear and reclaim their economic and human dignity.
These organizing efforts grew into sustained local pickets and a series of national strikes, which demonstrated an enormous potential for disruption. According to Aldo Milani, national secretary for Si-Cobas, a one-day blockade at the IKEA store in Piacenza
means that goods are not loaded onto trucks. These do not arrive on time for the ships, producing a delay in deliveries at destinations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. A one-day blockade blows up the organization of the entire process . . . This means a big economic damage . . . In a warehouse where fresh food is stored, for example, a four-hour blockade means two to three hundred thousand euros lost.
In February 2015, after three national strikes, Si-Cobas signed an agreement with some of the largest logistics operators in Italy (GLS, TNT, BRT, and SDA). This deal significantly improved on the national logistics contract. It repealed the status of “associate worker” and required companies to directly employ workers and to hire those already employed in a warehouse in the case of a contractual change.
Moreover, these struggles have started to surpass the limits of the logistics sector, the trade unions, and the nation-state. Workers have promoted a broader front both with unprotected workers in the service and agricultural sectors as well as with relatively more protected metalworkers.
This solidarity produced a series of successful strikes in the spring of 2016 against the intensification of exploitation and compulsory overtime at the Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) plants in Melfi and Termoli. In response to this worker action, the leadership of the metalworkers’ union FIOM-CGIL — once the most militant union in the country — expelled the shop stewards involved in the strikes.
In contrast, Si-Cobas coordinated meetings with independent unions all over Europe and the world. It also organized initiatives against restrictive migration legislation and Italian imperialist interventions in the Middle East, building solidarity with immigrants and refugees.
Overcoming Repression, Extending the Fight
These mobilizations could set a dangerous precedent not only for the rest of the logistics workforce but also for all workers in Italy, including immigrant workers. This helps explain why companies and the state have worked so hard to repress them.
The government has threatened the most active immigrant activists with deportation. Alongside repeated police interventions, arrests, legal charges and trials, several unionists at cooperatives financed by organized crime were beaten and subjected to Mafia intimidation.
On September 17, 2016, a truck hit and killed Abd Elsalam Ahmed Eldanf, an Egyptian worker and father of five, while he was picketing GLS in Piacenza. According to witnesses, the company’s managers incited the truck driver to charge at the picket line.
Thousands of workers, mainly members of independent unions, joined the demonstration to denounce Eldanf’s murder, and the PD mayor of Piacenza recommended that shop owners shut down because of potential clashes.
Police have revived laws from the fascist era to repress the workers’ movements: during the strikes at the IKEA distribution center in 2013, for example, Aldo Milani and two other Si-Cobas unionists received fogli di via, Mussolini-era orders that forced them to return to their towns of legal residence.
State repression escalated in January 2017, when Milani was falsely charged with extortion during negotiations with a cooperative that subcontracts for the food company Levoni. Thousands of logistics workers denounced his arrest, called it a strategy of repression, and went on strike for his release.
The magistrate eventually cleared Milani and released him from prison, but a mandatory residence order stayed in place until June 2017, restricting the activist to the Milan area and making it impossible for him to participate in union activities.
This level of repression has not stopped workers from building bridges beyond the logistics sector and between independent unions.
A national strike on October 21, 2016, brought together several thousand logistics workers with transport, education, health, and agriculture workers who also belong to independent unions. Employees in the logistics sector organized dozens of blockades and pickets in the most important Italian hubs. In Naples, they planned a protest against FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne, while immigrants working in slave-like conditions in the fields of southern Italy took to the streets of Foggia demanding residence permits, decent contracts, better working and housing conditions, and transport facilities.
The next day, at a national rally in Rome against the Renzi government, participants renamed San Giovanni square “Abd Elsalam Square” to honor the “worker killed while fighting for the rights of all.”
The independent unions organized another general strike for June 16, 2017, and, starting in September 2017, Si-Cobas has pulled of a series of strikes at the SDA’s main hubs. Workers demanded better working conditions from this courier company, which Amazon uses as one of its main delivery services.
The three largest unions and all political parties opposed this strike, and some PD members even asked the Interior Minister to remove the pickets by force.
Despite opposition from bosses, the state, and the mainstream labor movement, the Si-Cobas blockade reduced the number of goods distributed by 50 percent and forced Amazon to look for other couriers in order to ensure the Prime delivery option.
The Black Friday strike signals logistics workers’ growing anger and increasing organization. The three largest unions called the strike to respond to this anger and to prevent independent unions from expanding their base to the core workforce.
CGIL officials reported that a group of “very young and courageous” workers held the first union meetings at Amazon in 2015, and, indeed, many young workers, both Italian and immigrants, took part in the strike.
The strike still showed many of the movement’s limitations. CGIL, CISL, and UIL called the strike against Amazon and agencies like Adecco, Manpower, and Gi Group, which employ temporary workers for only a few days or weeks. Many workers on short-term and on-demand contracts did not join the strike in fear of losing future gigs. Amazon could also bring in about 2,600 on-demand workers to replace strikers.
But some precarious workers did walk out, arguing that they would probably lose their job but not their dignity.
Some hundred Si-Cobas workers attempted to picket the Amazon hub, but the riot police stopped them. Even the three largest unions reject pickets as “illegal.” Nevertheless, the strike at Amazon slowed down the flow of goods and impeded the Prime delivery option. Workers also blockaded SDA, where a van tried to break the picket and hit two workers.
Strike Friday has shown the potential of strikes and of workers’ solidarity. It has also given international visibility to the still-little-known struggles of logistics workers in Italy. Along with the Deliveroo and Foodora courier strikes, the Amazon walkout shows that a new labor movement is growing in Italy, reacting to working conditions that are worsening by the day. Independent unions have mainly organized this struggle, but logistics workers have forced CGIL, CISL, and UIL to take strike action.
Amazon and the unions were meant to start their contract negotiations on the Monday after the strike. But Amazon postponed the talks. Faced by the ruthless distribution giant, it won’t take Amazon workers long to show the company the leverage they have.