The Italian Workers Fighting Like Hell to Shut Down Their Workplaces

Leopoldo Tartaglia March 24, 2020

People wear face masks as they attend the live-broadcasting of Pope Francis' Sunday Angelus prayer during the Coronavirus emergency at Saint Peter's Square, on March 8, 2020 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

Italy is the West­ern Euro­pean coun­try where the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic spread first and where its trag­ic effects are being felt the most. As of March 17, the offi­cial data say 26,062 have test­ed pos­i­tive in Italy for COVID-19, 12,894 have been hos­pi­tal­ized — includ­ing 2,060 in inten­sive care — and 2,503 have died.

The epi­dem­ic explod­ed in the rich­est and most indus­tri­al­ized regions of north­ern Italy. Lom­bardy is the most affect­ed, fol­lowed by Emil­ia Romagna and Veneto.

Lom­bardy and Vene­to are exam­ples of one of the fun­da­men­tal issues called into ques­tion by the pan­dem­ic cri­sis: the ade­qua­cy of the Ital­ian health sys­tem, in par­tic­u­lar the pub­lic one. Italy still has one of the best pub­lic health sys­tems in the world. The health reform of 1978 estab­lished a uni­ver­sal and free health sys­tem, avail­able to all cit­i­zens, financed by gen­er­al taxation.

But this reform came at a time when the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty still exist­ed and the Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ments still had to deal with unions and the polit­i­cal pow­er of the work­ers’ move­ment. Since then, and with par­tic­u­lar vir­u­lence since the late 1990s, three phe­nom­e­na have over­lapped which have weak­ened the sys­tem dra­mat­i­cal­ly (even if, thanks to union strug­gles, they have not com­plete­ly destroyed it): (1) the region­al­iza­tion of the nation­al health sys­tem, dri­ven by agi­ta­tion in the North­ern Regions for seces­sion; (2) the pri­va­ti­za­tion of many health ser­vices, par­tic­u­lar­ly in these regions; (3) Euro­pean and nation­al aus­ter­i­ty” poli­cies that pro­duced cuts in pub­lic spend­ing and to work­er pen­sions, cuts which have strong­ly affect­ed pub­lic health.

In the last ten years, pub­lic health spend­ing has been cut by 37 bil­lion euros over­all, with a huge reduc­tion in hos­pi­tal beds and a con­tin­u­ous drop in med­ical, nurs­ing, and ancil­lary med­ical per­son­nel. Today, there are prob­a­bly no less than 50,000 doc­tors and 50,000 nurs­es miss­ing from pub­lic health. The pan­dem­ic has high­light­ed the great short­age of inten­sive care facil­i­ties: in Italy there are 5,000 beds in ICU units for 60 mil­lion inhab­i­tants. In France, with a few mil­lion more inhab­i­tants, there are 25,000; in Ger­many there are 30,000 serv­ing 80 mil­lion inhabitants.

The region­al­iza­tion and the con­tin­u­ous cuts to state resources ear­marked for health ser­vices — which are divid­ed among the regions on the basis of his­tor­i­cal expen­di­ture” — have led to the col­lapse of the pub­lic health sys­tem, espe­cial­ly in the South­ern regions which, for­tu­nate­ly, are still to date the least affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic. The dras­tic lim­i­ta­tions on peo­ple’s inter­nal mobil­i­ty should help lim­it the spread of con­ta­gion in these areas.


In this con­text, work­ers and unions imme­di­ate­ly mobi­lized to demand poli­cies and pro­ce­dures from the nation­al gov­ern­ment, region­al gov­ern­ments, and employ­ers which would guar­an­tee the health and safe­ty of work­ers and do the utmost to lim­it the spread of the virus.

The boss­es, espe­cial­ly Con­find­us­tria (the Gen­er­al Con­fed­er­a­tion of Ital­ian Indus­try, the largest employ­er asso­ci­a­tion) but also small busi­ness­es (which are very com­mon in the pro­duc­tive fab­ric of north­ern Italy), have insist­ed on the max­i­mum func­tion­ing of all eco­nom­ic and pro­duc­tion activ­i­ties, includ­ing logis­tics and dis­tri­b­u­tion, while ask­ing that the emer­gency health mea­sures imposed by pub­lic author­i­ties not be manda­to­ry, but sim­ply recommendations.

They have insist­ed that the deci­sion-mak­ing author­i­ty should remain in the hands of the com­pa­nies, in a uni­lat­er­al form, with­out any con­sul­ta­tion with the unions on either a cor­po­rate or ter­ri­to­r­i­al lev­el. The gov­er­nors of Lom­bardy and Vene­to have been waver­ing” because on the one hand the dra­ma of the sit­u­a­tion in their regions required dras­tic mea­sures to close down activ­i­ties and oblige peo­ple to stay in their homes, but on the oth­er hand they were sub­ject­ed to strong pres­sure from their elec­toral base, com­pa­nies, and small entre­pre­neurs who did not want to cease their eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties in any way.

The turn­ing point occurred on March 11, when the nation­al gov­ern­ment issued a decree that imposed the shut­down of a series of pro­duc­tion and ser­vice activ­i­ties and required” every­one not to leave their homes except for proven rea­sons of neces­si­ty.” But here­in lies the prob­lem: it is evi­dent that essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices and the whole agri-food chain — from pro­duc­tion to retail dis­tri­b­u­tion — should con­tin­ue their activ­i­ty, but why must oth­er eco­nom­ic sec­tors con­tin­ue their work, when the gen­er­al pre­cau­tion to slow down the spread of the virus is to sequester your­self in the house? And for those called to con­tin­ue to work, what safe­ty pre­cau­tions for their health and the health of oth­ers exist at work? Suf­fice it to say that even in hos­pi­tals and health cen­ters, with exhaust­ing work shifts and scarce staff, there are not masks, gloves, over­alls, or oth­er nec­es­sary pro­tec­tive equip­ment for everyone!


March 12 and 13 were days of true revolt in the fac­to­ries, ware­hous­es, and many oth­er com­mer­cial sec­tors. Where pos­si­ble, com­pa­nies and unions, espe­cial­ly for white-col­lar activ­i­ties, had already agreed on the acti­va­tion of smart work­ing (avoid­ing con­gre­gat­ing and con­tact) and tele­work­ing from their homes. But the met­al­work­ers’ unions — FIM CISL, FIOM CGIL and UILM UIL — called for com­pa­nies to sus­pend work until March 22 to san­i­tize all jobs and equip employ­ees with per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment. In the gro­cery sec­tor, the unions FIL­CAMS CGIL, FISAS­CAT CISL, and UIL­TUCS UIL asked that food stores and super­mar­kets close on Sat­ur­days and Sun­days and in the evening after 7 p.m.

Some met­al­work­ing and chem­i­cal com­pa­nies, pres­sured by the work­ers and their fac­to­ry coun­cils, have sus­pend­ed pro­duc­tion for the num­ber of days nec­es­sary for clean­ing and dis­in­fect­ing. The work­ers are guar­an­teed unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits from the Cas­sa Inte­grazione Guadag­ni (CIG, the Earn­ings Redun­dan­cy Fund), a sys­tem that cov­ers the income of work­ers in cas­es of the sus­pen­sion of pro­duc­tion. This is a sys­tem financed by finan­cial con­tri­bu­tions by com­pa­nies and employees.

In com­pa­nies that did not sus­pend pro­duc­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the epi­cen­ter” provinces of the pan­dem­ic, such as Berg­amo and Bres­cia in north­ern Italy, work­ers, sup­port­ed by their unions, struck indef­i­nite­ly until the com­pa­nies guar­an­teed safe work­ing con­di­tions. From the Dalmine steel mills of Berg­amo to those of Bres­cia, from the Fiat-Chrysler plants of Pomigliano in Naples to the Ilva steel plant in Genoa, from the Elec­trolux fac­to­ry of Susegana in Tre­vi­so to many small and medi­um-sized com­pa­nies in Vene­to and Emil­ia Romagna, from the Ama­zon ware­hous­es in the provinces of Pia­cen­za and Rieti, to the poul­try and meat pro­cess­ing com­pa­nies in the Po Val­ley, there were thou­sands of strik­ing work­ers who came out into the squares and streets, strict­ly at a safe dis­tance of one meter apart from each oth­er, as pre­scribed by the gov­ern­ment decree. Mean­while the RSUs (Rap­p­re­sen­tan­za Sindi­cale Uni­taria, enter­prise-based mul­ti-union bod­ies) entered into nego­ti­a­tions with their respec­tive com­pa­ny managements.

The strug­gle was so wide­spread that the gov­ern­ment — after days of resis­tance to the demands of the CGIL and oth­er union con­fed­er­a­tions for clear and manda­to­ry secu­ri­ty mea­sures and for the reduc­tion of all non-essen­tial work — decid­ed to con­vene a meet­ing with unions and employ­ers. The video­con­fer­ence — it was the first time in Ital­ian his­to­ry that a union nego­ti­a­tion had tak­en place this way — began on the after­noon of March 13 and con­tin­ued for 18 hours, due to the dif­fi­cul­ty of over­com­ing the irre­spon­si­ble atti­tude of the employ­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, Con­find­us­tria, which would have liked to keep every­thing open and leave uni­lat­er­al deci­sion- mak­ing to com­pa­nies on the mea­sures to be tak­en, such as on the lim­i­ta­tion of activ­i­ties and work­ing hours, and on the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of work and production.

In the end there was agree­ment on a shared pro­to­col” of mea­sures that com­pa­nies must take to ensure the health and safe­ty of work­ers, with a penal­ty of tem­po­rary clo­sure for not com­ply­ing. For work­ers their pay dur­ing stop­pages will be cov­ered by the CIG, the nation­al unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits sys­tem. The role of the unions and the RSUs, which have bar­gain­ing pow­er with com­pa­nies on all aspects of the orga­ni­za­tion and work issues, has been affirmed.


Sev­er­al issues remain open, which are today at the heart of intense union work. Strikes con­tin­ued on Mon­day, March 16, on many jobs where com­pa­nies had not yet applied the pro­to­col.” But these fun­da­men­tal demands — health first, then prof­it” — have been inter­twined, since the begin­ning of the epi­dem­ic, with the issues of job pro­tec­tion and work­ers’ income, in par­tic­u­lar for the broad range of pre­car­i­ous work and in the sec­tors not cov­ered by the CIG unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits sys­tem: all small and very small busi­ness­es, the retail trade, and the fic­tion­al­ly self-employed, such as rideshare and deliv­ery drivers.

The gov­ern­ment issued a decree on March 17 with eco­nom­ic mea­sures includ­ing block­ing lay­offs, pro­vid­ing unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits under the CIG for employ­ees who were exclud­ed, eco­nom­ic sup­port of 600 euros for the month of March for self-employed work­ers, an increase in days of parental leave for those forced to work while schools are closed. It also includ­ed urgent mea­sures to strength­en the pub­lic health sys­tem, with fixed short-term hir­ing of more doc­tors and nurses.

It will be impor­tant to mon­i­tor whether all work­ers are cov­ered — at a first read­ing, for exam­ple, domes­tic work, which is done by hun­dreds of thou­sands of migrant women, does not seem to be pro­tect­ed — and how easy and imme­di­ate access to sub­si­dies is.

For the enter­prise-lev­el mul­ti-union bod­ies and the union con­fed­er­a­tions, there is a lot of work: mak­ing agree­ments on safe­ty and the pro­tec­tion of income, defend­ing the most pre­car­i­ous work­ers, fight­ing to close all non-essen­tial jobs, nego­ti­at­ing with com­pa­nies and pub­lic author­i­ties to close the shops in the evening and on Sat­ur­days and Sun­days, and orga­niz­ing strikes and mobi­liza­tions when the boss­es try to evade their obligations.

These are strug­gles and demands for this emer­gency, but also for the after­math. Things can­not con­tin­ue as before. The devel­op­ment mod­el must be changed, the pub­lic sec­tor must be relaunched, and aus­ter­i­ty, neolib­er­al­ism, pre­car­i­ous­ness, and inequal­i­ties must be end­ed. It is time to end pol­lut­ing pro­duc­tion and to make eco­nom­ic and pro­duc­tive choic­es capa­ble of stop­ping cli­mate change.

The strug­gle con­tin­ues, even in the time of the coronavirus…

This is an edit­ed ver­sion of a piece by Leopol­do Tartaglia of the inter­na­tion­al depart­ment of the CGIL, Italy’s largest union fed­er­a­tion. Thanks to Peter Olney for trans­la­tion. The piece was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Labor Notes.

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