Logistics is the Logic of Capital

The logic of logistics at Port Said in the Suez Canal, Egypt

Let’s start with the title. That statement, to which we subscribe, was formulated by a TNT  employee from Bologna during a debate held in Padova.1 Bologna and Padova, and more generally Emilia and the entire Northeast, are important nodes of the Italian logistical system and were epicenters of the struggles within and against this system that reached the highest point between 2011 and 2014. The debate in Padova was attended – along with activists, students, and precarious workers – by Si Cobas and Adl Cobas, the two independent unions that were central to those struggles2 Fast-forwarding to the “end” of those struggles, or rather, to what followed them, we see how logistics companies, after being taken by surprise by the early phase, during which they posted sizeable losses and saw their image tarnished in the process, succeeded for the most part in using those struggles to spearhead a restructuring of their organizational, productive, and technological capabilities. In the Italian context, this was particularly significant due to the historical gap of its logistics system compared to its international counterparts. The struggles turned this backwardness, highlighted by generally low levels of automation and the over-exploitation of an underpaid and racialized workforce, into a battlefield. Owners struck back not only by sending police to the picket lines – a routine practice even to this day – but first and foremost by using the conflict as a way to create additional layers of governance within the workforce.

In this article we focus on what stands between the logic of capital and the way the struggles ended. We analyze, that is, the very process of conflict, in order to understand its composition and its dynamics of subjectivation, to understand the genealogy of the present and the various possibilities which acted in it, and to think about wealth, limits, and unresolved problems. But before we jump right in, a few preliminary remarks are necessary.  

This article is based on material put together through a militant research practice.3 We use this definition literally, in that not only do we mean that those who conducted the research are militants and activists, but we want to underscore that this research was itself a crucial means of production, knowledge creation, and organizing. Indeed, student-workers and other precarious workers took part in the picket line and the strikes of the mobilized logistics workforce not only in solidarity with their struggle, but especially in view of building a common space of demands. The point is not to coat in a common ideology the clear differences existing between the various forms of life and work of different subjects. Yet, for a period of time, these differences found a common ground in the targeting of common enemies and in the fight against a more general and pervasive hijacking of their present and future.

Thus a cooperation in conflict was born, based on different assets, practices, and skills, that combined knowledge of how to organize inside and outside warehouses, how to face a police cordon and how to use the unions. This synergy also laid the basis of a large-scale boycott of Legacoop4 as well as several city-based demonstrations (as in Bologna, where the strikes at Granarolo5 spilled out of the workplace and into the city fabric), and established a direct channel of communication with mainstream media. In this respect, we believe that backtracking to a purely solidaristic idea of the relationship between the warehouse workers’ struggle and their outside allies – as happened at some points during this cycle – did in fact contribute to the progressive exhaustion of the earlier potentialities of those struggles.

The second preliminary remark concerns our field of inquiry, which is commensurate with the extensions of the struggle on which we focus. We are specifically interested in the logistics of distribution and in particular on the struggles within the warehouses dedicated to handling and sorting. The difficulty of moving beyond the limits of this specific sector by looking at the system more holistically and thus reaching a crucial node of capitalistic logic is, as we will see, one of the limits encountered by those struggles. Within this frame, our research developed in the northern region of Emilia, between the cities of Piacenza and Bologna. This is not because of their inherent preeminence over other areas: in Veneto, for instance, the history of labor organizing and mobilization has deeper and somewhat thicker roots6. But we chose these two cities because they are located at the heart of our area of political intervention and, as a case study, they offer insights that clearly contextualized but, at the same time, potentially relevant at a more general level of observation.

The Fight against the “Co-operatives System”

In Italy, all struggles within the logistics sector took place in a circumscribed space: the plain of the Po, in Northern Italy, is the hub of goods distribution and circulation for the entire country. Within this space, we can isolate at least 3 moments, or “cycles,” of conflict. Between 2008 and 2011, an early process of mobilization started to form in Milan’s hinterland, while disputes and strikes were recorded throughout the warehouses of the Northeast, in particular around the cities of Padova and Verona. Just a little bit south, starting with the blockades of TNT and Ikea facilities, the struggles spread from Piacenza to the rest of Emilia, only to culminate in Bologna. These three different areas of mobilization came together for the first sector-wide blockade and for the national strike of March 22nd,  2013, which was defined by very high rates of participation, sometimes close to 100%.

As epicenters of the struggles within the logistics sector, Milan, Piacenza, Bologna, Verona, and Padova are at the same time nodal points for the circulation of goods in Italy and Europe and, though their easily close distance to the ports of Genoa and Venice, they also work as entry points for goods from and to North Africa and the Middle East, respectively. It is not by chance that Ikea, a giant of global distribution, built in Piacenza the largest warehouse in all of Europe, and that Amazon has chosen the same area for its first Italian site, while the German group Hangartner invested in railway terminals by buying stockhouses in Verona’s interporto, through which runs all the agricultural produce being moved between the Middle East, Spain, Latin America, and Northern Europe.

Within this vast area, logistics co-operatives7 and global large-scale distribution companies profited greatly by the acceleration and streamlining of goods circulation processes. It is indeed not surprising that the logistics sector in Italy was only minimally impacted by the global economic crisis that is now ten years old, while import & export remained the only positive sector in the country, mostly thanks to intermodal transports, which allowed Italian exports to remain high while the nation’s industrial productivity sharply declined.

Differently from countries that invested heavily in automation and large-scale information systems, capital gains in the Italian logistics sector have long been predicated on the exploitation of an underqualified or underpaid workforce, mostly made of migrant workers. Migrant workers are easily exploitable on the basis of their administrative status, which is the deliberate result of the current politics of border management, and despite often boasting secondary and post-graduate degrees, the foreign workers in the logistics sectors are trapped in the labyrinthine system of co-operatives. This system, which in Italy takes on specific features, has allowed employers to bypass the protection and contractual guarantees included in the National Collective Labor Agreement8 Different actors operate within this system. There are, for instance, several “fake” co-operatives that are set up with the only goal of circumventing existing norms. They often are flight-by-night companies that appear then rapidly disappear or change name in order to create large fiscal gains9 This mechanism is clearly described by a worker at the Piacenza site of TNT, who had a central role in the strikes of 2011 and in the following struggles. “[These co-ops] change names every two years, so that they don’t have to pay taxes on their workers, essentially defrauding them. Or else they find dummies, like owners who are 80 years old and cannot be prosecuted.”

By using the appellative “fake co-ops” one risks to unduly reduce the question to a problem of legislative attention and judicial action. All of the co-operatives under Legacoop (which has substantial economic weight both at the national level, and in particular, in “red” Emilia), however, participate in this system, often profitably. It is not a coincidence that, while logistics workers were fighting against this system, the former president of Legacoop, Giuliano Poletti, was named Minister of Labor and Employment by then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

It won’t come as a surprise, then, that more 98% of logistics workers employed by co-operatives are migrants, caught between the tightening grip of the deregulation of the labor market on one side, and, on the other, the infamous migration law known as Bossi-Fini10 This law’s effects are visible first and foremost as a labor law that effectively shows border management as a mechanism to devalue the workforce by facilitating the blackmailing and exploitation of workers. Thus, even from the vantage point of this particular study, we can see how the competition between national and foreign workers for largely underqualified jobs and for access to a largely destructured welfare system is as real now as it was artificially constructed, step by step, by very clear political choices and agendas. Consequently, it is also easy to see how, on the one hand, the right uses the effects of this law in order to naturalize them at the level of race, while on the other hand the politics and policies of the left – of which the coop system is an integral part – are, to a large extent, the cause of this lamentable situation.

Inside the Warehouses

In order to better understand the logic of exploitation within this particular node of the logistics system we must, first, briefly lay out the structure and organization of labor within the warehouses where the struggles we are focusing on originally started. Work is organized mainly around a caporale, an “overseer” of sorts as they are often called by workers, who schedules shifts on the basis of strict hierarchies dictated by criteria such as docility, obedience, and race. His clear aim is to fragment and segment the workforce, thus making it more governable. Every week, the “overseer” sets for every worker their number of hours, which in turn determines their salary. Within this system, it was not infrequent for workers with a more active role in labor struggles to be assigned a minimal amount of weekly hours or even to be notified with a temporary suspension in retaliation for their organizing or for general insubordination. Similar actions represent only some of the ways in which blackmailing becomes mafia-style intimidation, as recounted by workers: “IKEA + CGS coop = MAFIA”, could be read on a banner during the strike outside the CGS warehouse in Piacenza. (CGS, or “Consorzio Gestione Servizi”, is one of the many actors in this murky constellation.) Physical intimidation and violence is not out of the picture either, in ways that recall the actions of strike-busters in early 20th-century America. During strikes, some workers saw their tires slashed along with other forms of threats, and in some cases were subject to physical assaults. In the warehouses that employ women, who remain a small minority of the workforce, cases of sexual harassment and more or less explicit aggressions have been frequently registered. In the case of the co-operative “Mr. Job,” which handles e-commerce packaging for the brand Yoox, continuous harassment and intimidation led to the rebellion of female workers and to a prolonged struggle in the company’s warehouse outside Bologna. The charge was led by female workers and demonstrated, among other things, how much the question of gender factors into the mechanisms of exploitation. When a case was formulated and brought before court, members of management responsible for the facts were found guilty and sentenced. This judicial victory, however, cannot distract us from the substance of the matter, which the female workers’ picketing and strikes forcefully brought to light: these acts are not forms of sporadic intimidation but integral parts of a general mechanism embedded in the power structure of the warehouses.

Through these tactics, the supply chain is able to follow the demands of a sector expanding, at least between 2011 and 2013, on the heels of growing exports favored by the economic crisis, while processes of exploitation intensified. In 2011, at the TNT warehouse in Piacenza – where the strikes started and then extended to Ikea and subsequently to all of Emilia – two-hundred carriers were fulfilling the task of five-hundred. Workers recount how the pace was obsessively kept by a line manager who, “day and night, kept screaming ‘come on, let’s go’, like a broken record.” This allowed the TNT group to reduce by half its labor costs and exploit these conditions to increase productivity.

In the Ikea warehouse outside of Piacenza, the number of “lines” to unload in June of 2012 had climbed to 35 per day from the usual 12–13. Once again, the increased productivity did not correspond to any pay raise, but it did result in the workers manifesting a growing number of physical ailments. However hernias, like joint and posture issues, often did not qualify as workplace injuries. When, subsequently, carriers went on strike to protest the increased working pace, several of them were put on a reduced schedule with two mandatory days off and a monthly salary of 400 Euros. In the warehouses operated by CTL (Co-operativa Trasporto Latte),11 which manages the distribution of Granarolo dairy products in the Bologna area, workers denounced long hours of work in cold rooms, at a temperature of 40° F,  deprived of proper equipment, as the leading cause for the workforce’s deteriorating physical conditions. The warehouse distributes, on a daily basis, products for the Italian, German, and Russian markets, and it employs 80 people. During each shift, there are 20 trolley operators and 50 pickers, that is, those who have to collect the packaged goods. In the numerous interviews we collected in front of warehouses and on the picket lines at dawn, details on the nature of the work kept coming up, as they did in Aadil’s story: “Everyone has their scanning ‘pistol’ set on their mission and the number of packages to be stacked on a specific pallet, later to be left at a pre-assigned door. Your job is done when your mission is complete. Usually we work from 2pm to 8 or 9pm. But at the end of the month no one clocks in 168 hours so no one receives a full paycheck, even if some of us work overtime.” Bharat, another warehouse worker, added: “The overseer has cast over the warehouse a climate of fear. If you don’t do more than 200 packages per hour he puts you on leave even when, by contract, we’re supposed to do 180 [packages per hour].”

Racialization as a Mechanism of Labor Control

In line with the overwhelming majority of migrant workers in the logistics sector as a whole, the bulk of the workforce in Emilia Romagna is mainly from North Africa (Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia). Less numerous yet substantial groups hail from Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South-East Asia, particularly from Bangladesh.

Many of them, but North Africans in particular, were hired in their country of origin by middlemen and work agencies, which reap great profits from this activity in part by exploiting the legislative void that surrounds these recruitments. The workforce as a whole is composed predominantly of young and very young men, with an average level of education, often holding a high school or technical diploma; some have a university degree or are currently pursuing one. Among them are also “second-generation” kids, who were born and raised in Italy.12 In warehouses, race-based hierarchies are material tools for the organization of labor. Cogefrin – a logistics co-operative that imports plastics from Arab countries that is destined to the European market – is a prime example of how these “tools” work. As told to us by Hassan, a warehouse worker, “[in the warehouse] there’s about 30 of us. Immigrants work outdoors. Rain, snow, sun, it doesn’t matter, we’re out there, and we have longer shifts, from 7:30 am to 10pm. We load and unload materials that get here in bulk, or in large bags. I, luckily, learned how to operate machinery, and so I load containers, which is still a dangerous task. Other workers have to manually unload 25-kilo bags into a tank with the help of a conveyor belt. Each tank contains 20 pallets of 55 bags each. We have to load seven tanks a day, that is, roughly 200 tons of goods moved daily by four people.”

The logistics and distribution sector’s peculiar organization of work, in particular the organization of workshops around forms of blackmailing such as those we saw earlier, along with the way in which migrant labor is regulated and managed within the EU, have resulted in a slashing of labor costs and a dismantling of labor protections and regulations.

In the years 2011–2013, when the struggles formed, the average salary was decidedly lower – in relative as well as, at times, absolute terms – than the average pay of a logistics worker in the ‘90s. By relying heavily on a racialized workforce, logistics co-operatives and companies were able to intensify the working pace, to increase productivity, and to maximize profits. In front of the Ikea warehouse in Piacenza, in the days of the strikes, a banner summed up well the process of production: “Coop. Facchinaggio = Schiavitù [Coop Facchinaggio = Slavery].” Indeed, inside the warehouses racialization has been working as an “internal supplement” to existing forms of hierarchization and segmentation of the workforce. Differences of ethnicity and nationality are often played against each other and used disruptively against the processes of solidarity and unification at play within the workforce. Concretely, racialization becomes the basis for the construction – on the part of the overseer – of true taxonomies of labor and for the deployment of ethnicity-based stereotypes: thus, Egyptians become “snitches,” North-African are “less productive” than Russians or Romanians, Asians are “docile and introvert” workers, and so on. From this angle, racism ceases to be a moral or humanitarian question, depending on tolerance or cosmopolitanism, only to become a terribly tangible mechanism that can allow or prevent processes of recomposition within the class. Only the struggles and the processes of subjectivation they determine can question, weaken, and finally defeat this mechanism. A TNT worker explained us as much, in very clear terms, on a picket line in front of the Piacenza IKEA warehouse: “The bosses gave me this disease, racism. I had become racist towards my workmates from other countries: the bosses tell Moroccans that Tunisians are better, then they tell Tunisians that Egyptians or Romanians are better than them. But we united around the struggle against exploitation, and along the way we also defeated racism. Now we know we’re all the same because we’re all workers.”

As it was the case in other eras, we must also remember that migrant workers carry, from their countries of origin, the experience – whether direct or indirect – of different practices and forms of political struggle. For instance, the revolutions later to be known as the “Arab Spring” were reshaping Egypt and Tunisia at the same time as the struggles, carried by a large number of North-African workers, spread to all of Emilia and the plain of the Po. It is not by chance, then, that a lot of organized workers were speaking of a “revolution of logistics,” linking their own local engagement to larger regional and global movements while claiming the heritage of a different tradition of political struggle.

Subjectivation and Workers’ Use of the Union

One of the first political issues that the warehouse struggles had to overcome was precisely the fracture that divided the workforce along color lines. The struggles coalesced and brought workers together where the owners and bosses had worked to hierarchize and fragment them. The workers, united, chose to move the conflict onto the terrain of their common exploitation as workers at the hands of capitalism. Debates in and around the strikes and picket lines often referenced the IWW experience, reflected in the strong presence of a highly mobile workforce, and in the experimentation with forms of conflict and organizing which were different from those of the unions, and in the tensions surrounding the “organizing of the unorganizable.” The slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” also came back, continuously shouted and interpreted as by an IKEA worker: “We understood that the boss is able to rule only if workers are divided, but now, when they’re touching one of us, they are touching everyone.”

Thus, the logistics struggles turned subjectivities from subjugation to revolt and toward the ability to sabotage the mechanisms of command. The unification of warehouse workers and their battle against hyper-exploitation using open-ended strikes, picket lines, and shipment blockades caused the sector huge losses. The struggles spread quickly to several road transport warehouses across Emilia, and workers were often successful in imposing to management some of their claims and demands. They obtained, for instance, the recognition of autonomous and self-organized unions, the review of salaries and working hours, the reinstatement of colleagues who had been suspended or fired, and the full payment of arrears. At the medium and lower echelons, the struggles took full advantage of first-hand knowledge of the peculiar mechanisms and delicate inner workings of the processes of circulation and distribution. Even before the will and the direction of the struggles manifested themselves clearly in the warehouses of Emilia, the usual mechanisms of governing and controlling the workforce had already taken a hit when the workers refused the organizing ideas coming from the “establishment” labor unions, which were deemed purely “symbolic.” This refusal for the certified unions’ strategy was expressed clearly by a TNT worker at the Piacenza warehouse: “If you take your flag to a traditional strike or go up to the room [of the warehouse], you can stay there your whole life, nothing will change. We’re done with hunger strikes and things like that, it’s the bosses who must be made hungry now. We already suffer enough every day at the workplace.”

What the unions saw as the docility and passivity of this slice of the working class was in fact their openness to forms of conflict that could “hurt the boss” in order to secure effective and material changes in their working and life conditions.

In order to cause the owners sizable losses, workers built on their knowledge of the logistics system and of the movement of goods to devise practices that hurt the system precisely where the damage would be most significant. Hence the unpredictable, “wild” nature of most of the strikes that composed this struggle. The mobility of goods thus became the mobility of resistance: while management was trying to reorganize the cycle of production and distribution elsewhere in order to elude the workers’ blockades, the struggle extended immediately to other warehouses of other areas, thus forming a network of organized resistance that extended over a large portion of land between Piacenza, Modena, and Bologna. This same mechanism of spatial diffusion of conflict was also implemented, at a later date, when general strikes affected the logistics sector as a whole.

Against the indifference and outright refusal to engage on the part of the sindacati confederali, we must investigate the relationship between the struggling workers – who often did not have previous experiences of organized struggle – and the sindacati di base that supported them. In particular, we will focus on the role of the Si Cobas union, which was the union most involved in the conflict across Emilia. We will do so by analyzing two cases that we believe best exemplify the relationship between union and warehouse workers. The first one tells us about the early stages of the organizing process within the Piacenza TNT warehouse, described in great detail by one of its early leaders, the Egyptian worker Mohamed Arafat:

The initial group was formed by about 20 workers, out of a total of 380. I personally went door to door to explain the terms of our contract, the ways in which they exploited us and robbed us for years, and we had to tell them that we could no longer accept this treatment which was trampling our dignity. I started training and organizing workers, assigning everyone a little task in order to increase our numbers. I got called by managers who told me that they knew that I was hosting meetings at my house. At that point, I thought, we might as well come out, go around the city, and try to convince everyone to join us. I visited about 60 homes  and in those days at TNT it looked like we had gained some ground in negotiations. A lot of people came to tell me that suffering and exploitation were everyone’s enemy and that they wanted to join the struggle. Sometimes, in order to make the movement grow, I had to tell a little “lie,” just to keep hopes up. When it was 20 of us, I used to say that other people were with us even if they were not involved, and that in fact we were about 100. Then in a few days we really made it to one hundred. […] We didn’t even know what the word “union” really meant. We thought that it only dealt with the renewal of our work permit and family reunification, or that it helped us with filling up forms, just like a service business. We never went to see the unions to demand justice and the respect of our rights, because when someone complains they tell you to “shut up and work.” They forgot the struggle. This is when I started looking around for a union that would support our fight the way we intended it, using strikes and picket lines to really hurt the owner’s interests. The union shouldn’t be using the workers. Instead, it should be made available to them. In July 2011 we met with Si Cobas, and I told them that we were organizing a blockade for the following week. They showed support, we started the blockade, and we won.

We can see exposed here the salient moments and the sequence of a process of struggle and organizing: unbearable working conditions, deep dissatisfaction with existing unions, the central role played by one or more workers, the importance of ethnic and community links (Arafat talked first to fellow Egyptian workers, then other North Africans) to foster a process that will go beyond these relationship and solidify them, and finally, the search for a union to back the strike.

Obviously, we also have to consider the element of fortuity that made Arafat travel to Milan and eventually find the union that will support him. This element of fortuity, however, is made possible by the relationship between material conditions of possibility and personal will. A combination of virtù e fortuna, as Machiavelli would say. Or, to quote the famous Marione Dalmaviva, “When you read Lenin you first think ‘how good he was,’ then ‘how lucky’ right after.” The point, we insist, is to build the conditions of possibility of being lucky.  

The second emblematic case is that of the workers contracted to the Coop Adriatica in Anzola Emilia, close to Bologna, in early 2013. The workers told us that they had been massively registered to CISL – a sindacato confederale or “establishment union” – until it signed a bogus contract with the employer and they all canceled their membership. They had, later on, the same experience with UGL, another sindacato confederale. Thus, in the workers’ eyes, the Si Cobas union became the only reliable and supporting structure for building and organizing the fight for better working conditions, regardless of their political or ideological orientations.

At the onset, the workers were attracted specifically by this function of the union as service provider. Within a larger crisis of representation, the warehouse workers were simply looking for logistical support for their demands, practices, and struggle. They were not looking for someone to speak on their behalf. We can thus speak of a workers’ use of the union, which subverts the traditional relationship between those represented and those who represent them. In hindsight, the mending of that traditional relationship is what partially disabled some of the most explosive elements of those struggles.

Reorganization within the Logic of Capital

In a recent article in The Conversation,13 labor movements scholar Kim Moody pointed out how the now well-documented decline of unions was accelerated by the “logistics revolution,” specifically the reorganization of the production and distribution of goods that “liquefied” those places where unions had their deepest roots. However, Moody continues, this “revolution” is permanently exposed to its own structural weakness, which is most visible in two elements: on the one hand, the intrinsic vulnerability of goods circulation networks, where targeting one node has consequences on the entire just-in-time system. On the other hand, what Moody calls “one of the great ironies of modern capitalism,” that is, “that we are now seeing the massive concentrations of manual workers that business leaders once sought to escape.” These are exactly the forces on which the struggles in Emilia were built, by using a concentration of workers as the base and by hurting the owner’s image and profits. It wasn’t possible to quantify the economic harm inflicted by every instance of the struggle. It was, however, possible to quantify the harm inflicted to Granarolo, a company that moves perishable goods (dairy products): for every four hours of blockade, the company lost 250,000 Euros (roughly 287,000 USD). We still don’t know with precision how much a day of blockade at the Ikea warehouse in Piacenza or at the Cogefrin plant near Bologna costs to the respective companies, but we do know that if goods are not loaded on trucks, they will not reach the ports from where they must be shipped to Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East in time, thus causing conspicuous delivery delays. Blocking a single warehouse can affect the system to the extent that it will need ten days to regain full operationality.  

Owners, as far as they are concerned, do not usually indulge in worrying about the struggle, nor do they solely resort to repression to break the blockades. First of all they study the movements, looking for their weaknesses and for ways of harnessing them, controlling them, and eventually turning them into a source of innovation and development for their own system. As a first response and in an attempt to bypass the blockades, companies that were hit with strikes and picketing modified their loading and unloading timetables, and often subcontracted part of the production to other sites, sometimes within a 50-km (40-mile) radius. At their highest point, the blockades followed the relocation of production to the new sites, but were soon outlasted by the owners’ capabilities of continuously re-organizing the chain of work, each time weakening the struggle. In the long term, however, companies opted for moderate investments in new technologies, which would increase relative surplus value while weakening the workforce’s contractual power and depopulating the spaces that were instrumental – as Moody showed – to the creation of a communal will to fight. It is difficult to say, at this point, whether those investments are part of a real long-term strategy or just short-term rhetoric. According to Gianni Boetto, whose vantage point is inside the warehouses, Italy today does not present the conditions for a technological leap that would thoroughly redefine the relationship between workers and machines. Only a few new tools have been widely introduced, such as voice-picking technology, devices to track individual productivity, RF “guns” or scanners for picking, and, in some places, sorting machines that read labels and redirect packages automatically. These machines demand more staff to operate, but part time, thus reducing the total time of employment. In Italy, these punctual technological advances are in fact part of a larger strategy that aims at meeting the higher number of goods moving through the country with a more systematic implementation of automation and the consequential shrinking of the workforce. Boetto calls this the “Amazon model,” pointing to the similarities with the American giant in the distribution and organization of labor inside the warehouses, and to the high level of insecurity that “hinders the process of self-organizing.” Furthermore, the “Amazon model” stands for more than the standard practices within the company warehouse, especially since it has come to signal a large number of measures and tools – technological as well as organizational – aimed at countering and preventing workers’ struggles. Now the goal of the struggle is to reposition itself against these new elements in order to avoid being reduced to a set of short-term resistance tactics.

Unionized contractual fights

The National Collective Labor Agreement, which expired in 2015 and was renewed only two years later, is referred to by Boetto and others as a scadenza liturgica, or something that “only has formal value, and remains a collection of empty words, unless workers fight daily against the owner’s resistance for its implementation.” The warehouse workers’ struggle was exemplary in that, in several occasions, its demands went beyond existing contractual provisions. For instance, they were able to introduce the principle of seniority as an automatic consideration for promotions, effectively making career and professional advancement no longer (solely) merit-based. Similar demands have been met in nationwide agreements such as the one signed by FEDIT (Italian Federation of Truck Drivers), but they need to be subsequently implemented through specific struggles at each workplace. Indeed, “in the blink of an eye, you can lose everything you’ve gained in years of struggles and negotiations. It’s really a jungle here.”

Yet, the NCLA still retains political weight, despite mounting claims of “formality” and criticism towards the trade union confederation or sindacati confederali, which leads negotiations and is seen more and more as a “State union.” After long rounds of negotiations between all parties involved, the final document is a balance between contracting regulations and flexibility. As of today, subcontracting companies are bound to hire workers from the contracting company at the same exact conditions, including retroactive seniority, matching salaries, and the framework regulating dismissal. All these issues were at the core of the 2013 struggle. Everywhere in the document, however, there is room to depart disregard these acquisition. For instance, a clause affords contractual exemptions to companies that invest in new technology.  At the same time, the archetypal figure of the co-operative, that is, the socio lavoratore – someone who is member of a co-operative while also being employed by it – hasn’t completely disappeared, even after it came under fire during the struggles as “someone who is paying for their own exploitation.”

If, on the one hand, the struggles succeeded in at least partially integrating their demands into the new contract, owners came away from negotiations with an increased flexibility to manage work, production, and distribution. The new NCLA extends the shifts to up to nine hours a day, and the working week now includes Saturday for all non-traveling personnel, an increase from the previous standardized 39 hours over five weekdays. Regarding the reorganization of work, some of the most salient changes include the possibility to modify the working hours after six months without the unions’ authorization, or even earlier after the payment of a small “disturbance fee,” or indennità di disagio. In addition to these changes, the owners managed to further limit the right to strike, a crucial move to shield their system from exposure to moral and economic damages. Following the strikes at Granarolo and elsewhere in the food distribution sector, companies obtained the expansion of the list of “primary goods” to include livestock, medicines, and fuel, thus making it more difficult for warehouse workers in that sector to strike effectively. Previously, only transportation was a “guaranteed service” in the event of a strike, whereas now these changes have effectively protected the whole logistical chain of these products.

This may very well be the single most important win that owners scored in the last NCLA. The supply chain is, of course, central to the logistics system, in that it encompasses the cycles of production and distribution of goods. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, defining what a “supply chain” means and what it includes is not a neutral or objective act. Its ultimate definition is the result of a struggle between opposing interests and positions. By obtaining, in a contract, extensions of existing regulations on striking over the entire supply chain, companies have thus built a much more secure defense for their otherwise dramatically exposed system, while creating a precedent for subjective interpretations of the boundaries of what is to be considered the “supply chain,” and for the use of their position of force to insert that interpretation in the final document. We can go as far as to affirm that the definition of “supply chain” is one of the decisive issues in the struggle against capital. The owners have – at least for now – won this fight by securing their interests and assets while weakening and fragmenting the struggle, which has not yet been able to fully bypass the compartmentalized nature of the warehouse network.

In this framework, the mid-range goals of self-organized unions is to “fight the new rules of flexibility and overtime imposed on workers by the new contract, to fight for pay raises and indemnities between one NCLA and the next, to systematize promotions in lieu of a merit-based system, and to extend health coverage well beyond its current benefits to include co-operative shareholders.” And this is how we got to where we are now.

Conclusions: Some Takeaways and Teachings

For every struggle – even one as important as the one that stormed the logistics sector – it is important to recount its merits as well as its limits.  We’ve enumerated its strengths in the preceding pages: the peculiar practices of striking and picketing, the ability to hit the system’s weakest links, and the workers’ use of unions are only some of the ways in which a specific segment of class composition – racialized and deprived of agency –  enacted its countersubjectivation. It is also worth noting that, although we isolated the years 2011–2014 as the period of maximum tension, the struggle within warehouses did not stop and conflict did not cease in the following months. On the contrary, picketing continued while sindacati di base  strengthened their position inside the companies. All around Emilia, the simple presence of a Si Cobas chapter means better working conditions, before any negotiation, and attests to the lingering threat that that struggle still poses to the industry. As we have seen, however, its impact on improving the overall working conditions was limited. First of all, owners used the card of the reorganization and modernization of production to fragment and fragilize the workers. Second, improving working conditions depends on power relations, which are not immutable but, at this time,  are unfavorable to workers. Third, demands which are imposed on ownership are different from demands that are met or from concessions that are made. The former contribute to power acquisition, while the latter can become an instrument of control. We have observed, in the field of our militant research, a progressive inversion in the relation between grievances and struggle. If, at the beginning of the fight, specific grievances informed the development of the movement, in its later phase the grievances became the struggle’s only finality, so much as to constitute – for some – its end. What we mean is that unions progressively ceased to be the space for a process of countersubjectivation only to become the natural endpoint of that process.

This progressive inversion points to a much larger issue that is deeply rooted in all the struggles of the past ten years: the issue of combining the need to extend the struggle “horizontally” within one sector with an external as well as internal recomposition unification.  The struggle within the logistics sector, for instance, did not feature a sufficiently strong effort towards external realities that shared not only similar types of exploitation but also the same will to fight them. A case in point: in 2014, during the strikes at the Granarolo warehouses, service workers at the University of Bologna – who had been contracted to the University by Coopservice, a large service coop in the region –  mobilized massively. The early presence of Granarolo warehouse workers, along with activist students, at the mobilization’s general meetings was crucial to get the struggle going, so much so that it borrowed from the warehouse movement specific tactics of striking and picketing. Together, participants in the general meeting identified in the exploitative system of co-operatives a common enemy, and from there, created a space that they called “no coop,” which manifested actively on May Day 2014 against CGIL (another sindacato confederale or  sindacato di stato). Nevertheless, this process of external recomposition stopped due in part to bad choices made by the union as well as other ally entities.

The difficulties in operating an internal recomposition were, primarily, in finding converging interests with entities operating not in the warehouses but elsewhere within the logistics system. A notable example of this are truck drivers, whose premises for organizing are different from those of warehouse workers. During the struggles we discussed here, the two groups rarely connected, in fact they found themselves in conflict with one another more often than not, especially given their respective positions along the supply chain: truck drivers must deliver the goods in order to get paid, warehouse workers must block deliveries in order to be paid better. As pointed out by Boetto, efforts to find a meeting point between the two groups are crucial, such as the movement around the recognition of night shifts as a specific working régime, something which is afforded to warehouse workers but not to drivers.

In sum, by confining themselves into the warehouses, the process of countersubjectivation and the potentialities of the struggle lost their momentum and diverted their trajectory towards a merely contrapuntal interpretation of the conflict, losing strength along the way.

Some ideological-political positions within the struggle itself that saw the return to the hegemony of manual labor as its exclusive and ultimate end further hindered this process. Even if, theoretically, we could espouse this argument as being against the posited hegemony of the so-called “immaterial” labor, in practice such argument acted as its specular opposite and, eventually, led to the same impasse. This is because logistics as the logic of capital – far from exemplifying a Platonic separation of body and mind –  shows instead the continuous interpenetration of highly refined ways of exploiting bodies and knowledge alike. Even warehouse work at its lowest levels, as we saw, is increasingly a combination of physical effort and technological savvy. At its highest level of success, the struggle used precisely this combination of effort and knowledge to hurt the interests of employers more deeply.

Finally, this combination is the initial ground on which logistics workers, intermittent and precarious workers, and students could meet. Precarious workers and students joined the warehouses picket lines because they understood that the same logic of exploitation that was being fought applied to them in equal measure. Yet, by progressively abandoning the effort towards recomposition, these movements returned to the narrow path of mere solidarity, which does not have sufficient wind to carry the generalization of the struggle. As we have seen, owners resort to innovation: they wait for the struggle and tire it out, then jump ahead of it. In order to anticipate this mechanism, we must change the trajectory of the conflict on the basis of what we’ve been taught. In our view, this is the only way to escape those micro-spaces in which, ultimately, employers will always prevail, and instead to try to fully elaborate the politics created by the contradictions of logistics as the logic of capital.

— Translated by Tommaso Manfredini

References   [ + ]

1. Translator’s Note: TNT is an international courier delivery service company, now a subsidiary of FedEx, headquartered in the Netherlands.
2. TN: Part of what is known as USB, or Unione Sindacati di Base, often opposed to the more institutional sindacati confederali, to which the text later refers as “establishment unions,” “certified unions,” and “State unions”: the most important of them are CGIL, CISL and UIL.
3. All interviews and research materials quoted in the text are available at uninomade.org and commonware.org
4. TN: A 130-year-old federation of various associations of co-operatives throughout Italy.
5. TN: Large dairy producer and distributor based in Bologna.
6. In the latter part of the article, particularly when discussing contractual matters and the state of workers’ unions, we rely on an interview with Gianni Boeno, long-time militant in the Padova Section of Adl Cobas, recorded in February 2018.
7. TN: Co-operatives represent the lion’s share of subcontractors within the logistics system.
8. TN: “Contratto Collettivo Nazionale di Lavoro,” or CCNL.
9. See Sergio Bologna, “Lavoro e capitale nella logistica Italiana: alcune considerazioni sul Veneto”, published on uninomade.org, 15 March 2013. Available at http://www.uninomade.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/lavoro_e_capitale_nella_logistica.pdf).
10. TN: Law Decree N. 177, 11 July 2002, named after the names of its two proponents, is the law that, among other measures impacting migrants’ rights, criminalized “illegal entry” as well as “illegal stay.”  It is still the blueprint for successive immigration reforms up until the latest Decree on “Immigration and Security” (September 2018) by Matteo Salvini (Northern League), current Interior Minister.
11. TN: “Co-operative for the Transport of Milk”.
12. TN: At birth, Italy only grants citizenship through “blood”: one of the two parents must be Italian, regardless of where the person is born. This rule to determine citizenship is known as ius sanguinis and is opposed to ius soli, or the “right of place,” which grants citizenship by virtue of being born in the country.
13. Kim Moody, “Modern capitalism Has Opened a Major New Front for Strike Action – Logistics,” The Conversation, January 3, 2018.

Authors of the article

is a militant scholar in the field of autonomous marxism, and part of the Commonware project.

is a militant in the Edu-Factory collective and UniNomade network. He is also a precarious researcher at the University of Bologna, and the author of The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America (Temple University Press, 2011).