We’ve translated another article on the question of the protests against state-imposed Covid measures, such as the Green Pass in Italy. The protests in Trieste were widely presented as a ‘dock workers’ mobilisation’. In the article, Bologna raises some pertinent questions: are all actions that workers take automatically ‘workers’ actions?’ How does the involvement of a dock workers’ organisation in the protests relate to its previous ‘politicisation’, which included the support of a faction within port management, which subsequently turned them into a factor in local and national politics? Some of these aspects are difficult to understand from afar. We have just finished the translation of an interview with Sergio Bologna that sheds further light on the protests. We will publish it shortly – watch this space…
Those who participated intensely in the movements of struggle and protests of the seventies can carry with them, as part of their political baggage, a series of stereotypes that sometimes prevent them from understanding the movements of today. What is happening at the moment in Trieste is not immediately decipherable, especially for those who are not there in person. No one can deny, however, that many of the categories, which were historically used to understand certain mass behaviours, became useless long before the events in Trieste. The need for clarity has long been felt with urgency. This is my small contribution to clarity, matured in my years of study and teaching on the history of the workers’ movement.
I would like to talk about the category of ‘paternalism’.
What was meant by this term? (and I don’t use the past tense coincidentally). It has been understood as a behaviour by employers to offer their employees better conditions than they would have gotten or could get through traditional trade union organising [‘dialectics’, dialettica]. At the root of paternalism is always the idea that the union is superfluous. This can also be brought about through the establishment of a ‘yellow’ union in the company. Paternalism is always conservative in nature and should not be confused with forms of employers’ social policies that can actually be highly innovative. Can the experience of Adriano Olivetti , for example, be dismissed as paternalism? I don’t think so.
But paternalism is a phenomenon of an era when the unions were strong and representative, of times when national collective agreements were valid and predominant. In these times, ‘paternalistic’ employers who were willing to give ‘a little something extra’ were those who only recognised agreements on the company level. This is not our era. Nowadays, the national collective agreements are worth less and less there are approximately 900 of them registered with the National Council of Economics and Labour (CNEL) ; the presence of the trio’ of the three mainstream unions CGIL, CISL and UIL on the shop-floors is being eroded continuously; in the logistics sector these unions are even at risk of becoming minoritarian, as the proliferation of individual company agreements is favoured by the presence of the rank-and-file Cobas unions. But more importantly there is another factor of a structural nature that changes the connotations of the term ‘paternalism’. Italy is made up of small or microscopic companies, of artisanal enterprises, where relationships of the ‘we are all family’ type are enforced. This is in the best of cases, because situations where the most elementary of workers’ rights are denied are becoming more and more common, including cases of slavery. Italy is the country of subcontracting, of outsourcing, of the caporalato.  This is even the case in respectable companies (see, for example, the case of Grafica Veneta).  An employer who pays national insurance contributions already risks being considered ‘paternalistic’.
The ports and the case of Trieste
The problem of the port of Trieste fits into this picture. When Zeno D’Agostino became president of the national port authority ADSP, the working conditions in the port of Trieste, and in particular those of casual and ‘on call’ day labour, were the worst in the whole of Italy. Bankrupt cooperatives, endless disputes, in short, ‘the wild west’, to quote from a comparative research by ISFORT  on Italian ports. For the contractors that operate at the port terminal – let’s face it – it could very well have continued like this. Instead, Zeno D’Agostino, taking advantage of the legal powers to stabilise the workforce given to him by the establishment of the Labor Agencies by Minister Del Rio, thought he could put an end to this situation. He thought that the situation only damaged the port of Trieste and was very similar to that of thousands of small companies that survive by evading in one way or another the payment of taxes and social insurance contributions and the recognition of the most basic workers’ rights. D’Agostino did not ‘innovate’ anything, he re-established legality. But in the Italy of today it has been an unusual step, in particular in the public sector, which is so prone to outsourcing.
Did he do this because he ‘has a soft spot’ for dockworkers? He did so because, as a public manager, he has the mandate to preserve and enhance the value of a state asset and he understood that the best way to do so, to make port traffic grow, to attract investment, to increase employment, is to guarantee social peace obtained not through under-the-table bargaining or favouritism, but by recognising workers’ fundamental rights. In the specific case of port work, by limiting precarious labour conditions.
Can this be called ‘paternalism’?
Of course, it was a decision taken ‘from above’. It was not the result of a struggle of workers with pickets, hours of strike, night vigils, wage loss and perhaps legal repression – all the usual repercussions that you see in those cases of struggle, where you have to win workers’ rights with sweat and blood. Like you see during the struggles of the workers of the logistics warehouses, where workers are even killed on the picket. It was the result of a ‘managerial’ choice that – not a minor detail – turned out to be very right.
The CLPT (Collective of Workers of the Port of Trieste) continues to remind (and reproach) D’Agostino that they had shown him solidarity when an unfortunate sentence of the National Anti-Corruption Authority in Rome sacked him. That was a beautiful page in the history of the CLPT, but I believe that with that gesture, the port workers were also defending themselves and the rights that D’Agostino’s managerial choices had granted them. It’s not just that they ‘went overboard’ and defended their President for principles sake. Of course, they could have stayed home and not taken to the streets, but they would have missed a beautiful day in the sun.
Then things changed, the dockworkers made different union choices, other dynamics came into play. In some cases the contractors at the port terminals tried to re-establish authoritarian working conditions, which were promptly countered by a workforce that by now had strengthened in solidarity (but also by a decisive [and supportive?] attitude on the part of the port’s general management). Sommariva’s decision to accept the appointment to the presidency of La Spezia, a different port in northern Italy, meant that a managerial figure, with whom the dockworkers had a strong empathy, left Trieste. The CLPT began to be recognised as a decisive factor in local politics and went beyond the port boundaries and issues, becoming – we can say – an actor in Trieste’s politics. As things changed, relations with the Presidency changed. But things changed just as they did in other ports, such as Genoa, where a part of the dockworkers, for the first time in seventy years (!), decided to turn their backs on the CGIL. This should not shock us. If one thinks of the dramatic situation of the formation of the political class in Italy today, of the fact that we can have semi-literate deputies and ministers with zero experience in the subject matter on which they should govern – one should be happy that port workers can become not only trade unionists in their workplace but also ‘citizens who do politics’.
But at the very moment they become such a political factor, they cannot think of evading the political judgment of others, they cannot think that their public behaviour should always be judged good-naturedly only as ‘the actions of an honest worker.’ Particularly today, with the problems raised by Covid and the government’s management of the pandemic, aggravated by the deadly hesitations of the WHO, the complexity of the situation has increased out of all proportion. The confusion of languages has increased, the systematic distortion of reality is a constant exercise, the disregard for competence is displayed on the stages of television shows. Today’s complexity strains the most ‘seasoned’ politician, let alone everyone else, including ‘freshmen’ in politics.
‘No to the Green Pass’ as a unifying goal
I wrote at the beginning of this article that veterans of the protest movements of the 1970s can carry stereotypes and prejudices that prevent them from understanding today’s reality. This is what happened to me, too. When in Trieste the coordination of the No Green Pass movement and the CLPT declared an all-out blockade of the port, I immediately thought of it as a neo-fascist initiative. From this point of view, Trieste has a rich CV, let’s not forget that it was the cradle of Gladio , as Franzinelli well reconstructs in his book on 1960 and the Tambroni government. Instead, I was very wrong (it must be said that I haven’t been in Trieste for at least three months, August included). Reading on www.infoaut.org the clear chronicle, written by the protagonists, of that movement that eventually saw thousands of people in the square, I realised that I had ended up off the mark. The movement had been set up and managed by young people who are in the opposite camp to the extreme right.
But this did not reassure me; on the contrary, my perplexity increased and with it the unanswered questions. I will report just one.
I find it curious that the protest has focused on the port, that is, a workplace that, however good or bad in general, still provides the best working conditions in comparison. Was there no other symbol of the arrogance of power or of the exploitation of workers in Trieste and its surroundings that could be identified as a target? Is the port the worst image of Italy today? To the point of mobilising people from all over Italy and making them rush to the gates? Does anyone remember such a phenomenon in Italy for a union struggle? Yes, there is a precedent: the demonstration on the 18th of September for GKN  in Florence. But that was a demonstration with the support of CGIL and some parties. The Trieste protests seem spontaneous, something never seen in Trieste before when it comes to trade union struggles in a specific workplace.
And so my thoughts turn to another place of work, which can be seen with the naked eye from the port, from where all those people are: Fincantieri in Monfalcone, a public company – just as the port is public – where the model of work organisation is ‘slightly’ different, based on contracts and subcontracts, on the recruitment of foreign labour from those environments that are considered the hell of the world of labour: from the shipyards of Bangladesh. A workplace where investigators and legal prosecutors have also found corruption and caporalati. There, in May of this year, the union signed agreements on contracts that are best forgotten. There, at Fincantieri, everything is quiet. There, the CEO, Mr. Bono, can declare to the press that he would gladly hire thousands of young Italians but, unfortunately, they prefer to be riders…
In reality, my question remains unanswered because it starts from a misunderstanding: that of considering the Trieste protests a union struggle. But that is not a trade union struggle, unlike the case of GKN. It is a political protest against the governmental management of the pandemic. It therefore concentrates on a single symbolic target – which happened by chance – not only all the anger, frustrations, and impulses that have accumulated in this year and a half, not only student protests, not only workers and their families, but also all the explosive potential of the ‘no-vax’ movement and the will of the opposition of Fratelli d’Italia  and neo-Nazi groups that have every interest in destabilising the Draghi government and to openly challenge public order. The glue of all this was the declaration of the blockade to the bitter end that, from a strictly trade union and CLPT point of view, was an idiocy, because even a child would have understood that the blockade could not have held more than a couple of days.
If this is true, then it is also plausible that the ‘No Green Pass’ movement:
(a) was initiated by the ‘anti-authoritarian’ milieu (said for brevity) in Trieste;
b) when it unexpectedly developed into a wider mobilisation, the port workers organised in CLPT jumped in; and
c) instead of demonstrating in front of the Prefecture – the symbol of the state and the government – they went to block the port and
d) there they served up on a silver platter a nice lunch to those who were not invited. To tourists passing through, to militant ‘no-vaxers’ and neo-Nazis.
But why did the dockworkers go and get themselves into a situation that could have escaped their control? We mustn’t forget several things: that the Green Pass is an issue that specifically concerns work and workplaces, that the basic logistics unions had declared a general strike on the 15th of October and that the solidarity of the citizens with the protest against the Green Pass had been massive. In the end, however, in Trieste it seemed that the game was played between those who were willing to end this ‘turn’ of the struggle (and maybe resume it later or elsewhere) and those who thought they could continue the blockade to the bitter end by reinforcing the workers’ picket line with the mass of the ‘self-invited’ mentioned above.
It didn’t necessarily have to end badly. Instead it ended with police charges, but the supporters of the blockade to the bitter end should have known that from the beginning. Someone who ‘wanted’ it to end like that must have been meddling within. At these junctures, too much naivety is not allowed. I only hope that an embryonic core of political militants [ceto politico] does not lose enthusiasm, but knows how to draw the right lessons from this experience. For this reason, on one point I would like to be clear and abandon for a moment the role of an otherwise impartial observer.
The ‘no vax’ movement can only be of the extreme right-wing
I know the dilemma of whether to vaccinate or not well. I had faced it in my family, with my son, although it was a less severe case. For this reason I distinguish between the individual problem and the membership, the militancy within the worldwide ‘no vax’ movement. One can be a worker but not belong to the labour movement. I consider the idea of freedom of the ‘no vax’ movement to be the most contrary to the idea of solidarity that underlies the very existence of the labour movement, the union, the left. I wrote about it in a text circulating on Facebook and on several sites (including https://www.officinaprimomaggio.eu/interventi/).
When the pandemic broke out, I was as disoriented as everyone else. The only voice was that of a government made up of debutants, I’ve been fed up with the TV show-level of discourse for some time. How to orient myself? I remembered that I had heard about epidemics in 1974-75 from people who had studied them in depth, from people with whom I had worked, from men like Giulio Maccacaro, professor of medical statistics, director of ‘Sapere’, founder of ‘Epidemiologia e Prevenzione’, inspirer of ‘Medicina democratica’ and of that movement of struggle for health that revealed the damage of asbestos and of many other toxic substances that were lethal or carried degenerative diseases. People who had anticipated the founding criteria of the national health service, people who fought Big Pharma and research subservient to multinationals, people who fought for a medicine based in communities and a policy of prevention based on public awareness, people who thought about the training of health workers. These people of the movement engaged with everything that the current governmental management of the emergency has not wanted or been able to give us. It is a great tradition of knowledge and civil passion, it is ‘my’ culture to which I had to remain faithful. And this also means that the management of the epidemic cannot be limited to vaccination campaigns. It is a much more complex problem that must be addressed with different strategies, so as to help guide people towards an intelligent and conscious behaviour. I too have had concerns about the vaccine, but not about the need to be vaccinated, and when they told me “you are a guinea pig!” I replied that I was well aware of it, but that the vaccination has borne fruit, the numbers said so. With that good bit of tradition behind me, should I have run after the various ‘no vax’ gurus and gone arm in arm with that guy with the buffalo horns who stormed Capitol Hill? Or with some of the characters who cackle at the gates of the port of Trieste?
Olivetti was an employer interested in ‘modern management’ methods, which included employee surveys and other sociological tools.
A ‘gang-master’-system of exploitation
Warehouse workers from Pakistan who worked for that ‘reputable’ company reported years of abuse
Project of the deep state and fascists during the Cold War.