All 9 entries tagged Labour
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September 24, 2012
When I went to Lisbon in May 2011, just after the country was forced to ask for financial rescue, I had found a depressed mood and people would have voted the conservatives into power a month later, out of lack of alternatives. My 3-week stay this month found a different situation. On Friday the 7th, just before the Portugal World Cup qualifier and at the peak of audience, the prime minister Passos Coelho spoke on TV to announce the latest and most draconian measure: a 7% increase in social security contributions equal to nearly one month of salary per year. Moreover, revealing the distributional effect of austerity policy, employer contribution were cut by 5.75%, as a measure to create jobs – as if employers would then start recruiting, with internal demand collapsing and no sign of a industrial policy.
The day after all bars and local restaurants in Lisbon (those where you can still eat for 5 Euros) had the TV on live economic news and people were watching in silence. But this time something clicked. The following Saturday mass protest demonstration occurred in the whole country (we witnessed those in medieval Evora): between 600,000 and 1m people on the street, which means nearly 10% of the population (think of 4-6m in a country the size of the UK, France or Italy). This Saturday, the government had to withdraw the measure: it is the first clear people’s victory against austerity.
Passos Coelho had been trying to be ‘more troikist than the troika’, in his excess of zeal to show that ‘Portugal is no Greece’. At the same time as Spain was trying to show that it is no Portugal, and Italy that it is no Spain. Southern European solidarity, regrettably, does not exist, and leaves individual countries with no negotiation power with financial institutions. But this government failure may be a turning point: resistance is possible. Let’s see if the national demonstration in the UK next 20th of October will imitate the exploit - although the British government so far has been skillful at picking its targets and fragment resistance, contrary to the Portuguese measure of social contributions increase for all, which angered the whole population at the same time.
And how does Portugal look like in the middle of this? After a lively conference in Lisbon and a few days rest in the Sagres area (the only unspoilt area of Algarve), we crossed the whole country from South to North, using the back roads, to finish in stunning Porto. Despite losing our way a couple of times, or maybe thanks to that, we encountered so many beautiful spots off the beaten track, without tourists but under uninterrupted sunshine, in agriculture Alentejo as well as in the mountains of the Serra Da Estrela and the Douro Valley. Emigration (a longstanding limit to Portuguese development since the time of colonialism) is up again. Easy to understand, with unemployment at 15%, falling wages and fast rising costs. The country is much more expensive than just a couple of years ago: the VAT on restaurants has gone up from 10 to 23%, and all tariffs (public transport, motorways, petrol) have gone up massively.
It is still a wonderful country, though, and wine and food quality have not been affected. You can still find a lot of good wine for less than 3€/bottle (is cheap alcohol an intentional troika policy as in Belorus?) More upmarket, we tasted the 2009 Vintage Port and it is really promising... let’s hope that when it comes to its best in fifteen years it, austerity will be a distant memory to drink at. Portuguese food is a well-kept secret. Not as varied as the Spanish one for geographic reasons, but extremely well crafted, starting from the unsurpassable sweets but including cheese, offal & pulses, and varied, rich fish soups (even if not as fine as bouillabaisse and brodetto, I must say).
In contrast to Spain, Portugal is only timidly starting to experiment with ambitious modern cuisine. We tried 100 Maineras in Lisbon, where the chef imitates the Rocas brothers in Cataluña in proposing a nine-course menu of nostalgic gastronomic deconstruction: sardines, bacalhau, suckling pig, Asian colonial inspiration, and even crisps in the shape of washing lines. Although all good and sometimes spectacular, and relatively humbly priced at 47 Euros (5.22 Euros per dish, that is), it did not really convince, and the puddings were particular boring. I don’t think it is because the chef Ljubomir Stanisic is actually from former Yugoslavia and the nostalgia is therefore artificial: it is not me who will underestimate immigrants! Nor because of the ingredients, after all not so different from the Catalan. It made me wonder why conceptual deconstructing cuisine works so well in Spain, France, UK, Austria, but not in Portugal – nor in Poland, where at Tamka 43 recently my Polish friend could only laugh. Maybe it is because ambition looks fine in imperial countries, while in peripheral ones it looks misplaced (I know, Portugal was actually the last European countries to let its colonies go, but its empire was so poor that it hardly counts). Or maybe because Portuguese and Polish traditional cooking is actually very skilled and, unlike the Austrian, British and Spanish ones, it does not need to be revamped?
April 18, 2012
Emilia-Romagna is a specific "social model" in Italy (Or actually two, because Emiliani and Romagnoli are two separate breeds). It has been ruled by the Italian Communist Party and its heirs since the war, it has the highest unionisation levels, and its public services for childcare and for the elderly are considered to be amongst the best in the world. The management of immigration is also better than elsewhere.
Like with all social models, there are visible cracks in it. The Right often wins in the most north-western part of it, Parma and Piacenza - the latter is where the new left journal "Quaderni Piacentini" was born in the 1960s, and despiute the small size it still has some lively political experiments (I used to escape there from Milan in my student years). It also shockingly won once in Bologna in 1999, showing that the Left monopoly cannot be taken for granted. Corruption scandals occur nearly as often as in the rest of the country - the Parmalat case being particularly noticeable. The Left here, despite its anarchist and communist roots, is as pragmatic as it gets though - the current leader of the Democratic Party, Bersani, is one example.
Last week, I spent two days, regrettably under the rain, in the hills off Bologna in the CGIL-Emilia Romagna convention centre, discussing with unionists about the state of industrial relations in Europe. All very interesting, and I had forgotten how long Italian unionists can talk for. Two observations. First, Italian speakers were nearly only men, despite the fact that the labour movement of Emilia Romagna has feminine roots, illustrated by the monumement to the rice pickers in the same location. Second, the food of Emilia (parmigiano, lasagne, agnolotti, mortadella, aceto balsamico...) is not the lightest but it is more and more a matter of cross-class pride. Maybe to compensate for the vanishing political one.
March 27, 2012
After a few days in Oslo, and a 6-hour train journey, I am in Stockholm since last Saturday. The train journey was a beautiful calm crossing of forests and thawing lakes, and it was unbelievably cheap: 95 Swedish korons, half the price of the airport train from Oslo centre to Oslo airport...
In Stockholm, among other things, I am attending the International Labour Process Conference, a loosely Marxist congregation of people doing excellent critical research on work, inspired by Paul Thompson's writings. One of the main topics today was 'lean production', something the Japanese of Toyota invented a few decades ago and became a management mantra, although there is dubious evidence about its effectiveness and some evidence of negative effects on employees.
Tonight's conference reception was held in nothing less than the City Hall, the majestic building where, every year, a dinner and ball is held for the winners of the Nobel Prizes. I am sick and tired of waiting for that prize that never arrives, so I thought that I would settle for seeing the place now. We were welcome, in the Golden Hall, by the City Council president. Surelywith a polite intent, she said that she was happy to notice 'lean organisation' among the themes of our conference, because Stockholm City Council is an enthusiastic implementer of 'lean organisation' systems!... This is a constant irony: the more we do research to criticise something, the more we end up legitimising that same thing. But never mind: the reception was nice, and Paul Thompson had the well-deserved satisfaction of addressing us in such a prestigeous setting.
PS. In my ten days in Scandinavia I have eaten fantastically. Long are past the times when these remote lands offered only smoked herrings and vodka. "Nordic cuisine" has its golden moment right now, and if Copenhagen gets most of the highlights, Oslo is no worse (Stockholm is a bit behind). The focus on seasonal products and simplicity produces splendid results, especially with cured or raw fish and meat. It is also very "lean" and healthy, unlike what many Scandinavians eat normally. Of course, prices are very high, but like with the rest of the Nordic model, this at least has the positive effect of directing competition to quality rather than price. And (thinking of labour process) I like the fact that the waiters and kitchen staff earn no less than me, speak many languages fluently, and don't need to beg for tips. Interestingly, they are mostly local: immigrants from low-wage countries remain in ethnic restaurants (but on one evening, when I addressed the waitress saying "sorry, I don't speak Norwegian", she smiled back "neither do I!"... she was from Brisbane). The most expensive item is alcohol (bottles of wine in Norwegian restaurants start at around 50 Euros), but again this removes from the market cheap & bad wines. Moreover, the nature of wine as near luxury has led to the commendable practice of offering also good wines by the glass at proportionate prices (1/5 of the bottle). It perfectly fits my "drink less, but better" principle - I'll always prefer spending €10 on a good glass than on a mediocre bottle.
Just to mention the best experiences: in Oslo, the Håndsverkeren ("craftworkers") on Kristian IV's Gate, for revised traditional norwegian food (excellent dessert of pickled apples) and microbrewery beer; Oro Baron Tordenskioldsgate (fish and deer); Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin(spectacular fish on the new fancy waterfront). In Stockholm, Rolfs Kökon Tegnérgatan (French-Nordic fusion - you can eat at the counter and watch what happens in the kitchen, which I love - whether in a little bar or at the Atelier de Joël Robuchon) and the traditional working-class beer hall Pelikan in the middle of Södermalm.
But the weirdest culinary experience was in Stockholm: a pizza with reindeer and lingonberries. If they knew it in Naples, they would laugh. But Nordic cuisine is no longer a laughing stock.
January 07, 2012
Even though Italy is the slowest changing country in Europe I know of (for good and bad reasons), something deeper is now changing and some images are emblematic. This week, after more than six decades, the FIOM-CGIL union has been expelled from the Turin Mirafiori FIAT factory, the largest factory in Italy and, when it was built in 1936, the largest factory in the world (up to 60,000 workers, now ten times less).
FIOM-CGIL is the largest trade union in the factory and has a heroic tradition as a pillar of the Italian labour movement – and of its communist component. Turin is where Gramsci’s workers' councils started after World War I, where antifascist strikes started in 1943, where the Hot Autumn of 1968 was at its hottest and in 1980 a month-long strike was one of the most significant ‘heroic defeats’ of the unionism worldwide. FIOM-CGIL is expelled because it refused to sign the last collective agreement, marking FIAT exit from the Italian industrial relations system (until then based on sector agreements and on eleted worker representatives), on which I wrote this blog last year.
Having spent months around Mirafiori interviewing FIOM activists for my PhD in the 1990s, the pictures of militants emptying their offices and removing decades of materials and historical pictures is heartbreaking – but even for who has not been there, the image of Gramsci’s portraits being removed has a strong ‘Goodbye Lenin’ reminiscence:
An international campaign has started to restore FIOM union rights in Mirafiori. I had written my reactions to the FIAT developments last year, and I feel FIOM, whose unhelpful nostalgia I had already highlighted in my PhD and my "Trade Union Activists, East and West" book twelve years ago, has some fault in scaling up the issue excessively. Their appeal says that FIOM refuse to sign the agreement because “it violated workers’ rights (including the right to strike)”: this is not technically true, as the agreement only introduced a peace clause, which although a novelty in Italian industrial relations, it is not as such as right violation and is commonplace in many countries. Nevertheless, the appeal is worth signing to remind of union rights at a time of upheaval in Italian industrial relations:
November 30, 2011
- Les neiges du Kilimandjaro
I am back to the UK, just in time for today's national strike in defence of pension entitlements (I was at the big rally in Birmingham), which makes it the appropriate day to review a movie I saw last week in Paris. The economic crisis has already been the opportunity for a few good movies, documentaries and not, but this is the first, to my knowledge, with a trade unionist as hero.
Michel, a grandfather in his fifties, is a CGT délégué syndical in Marseille docks, a romantic speaker who likes to quote Jaurés and speak at length. The limits of his working class solidarity ideals are put to the test twice when the crisis hits, and he negotiates a redundancy deal. First, when the names of the twenty redundant workers are to be drawn, should he add his own name in the draw, despite being protected from dismissal on the ground of his union function? He does, and he draws his own name, landing into unemployment. But the bigger test comes when he and his wife are violently burgled – the thieves are after the collection made for them by work colleagues, which would have made their life dream possible, a holiday at the Kilimandjaro (Les neiges du Kilimandjaro is a 1970s French pop song). Michel discovers soon that the burglar is a young workmate, made himself redundant, only carer of his two younger siblings. Should he tell the police? Or would that make him a petit bourgeois and a class traitor?
The movie is beautifully acted and is carefully directed by Robert Guédiguian, who knows Marseille intimately. He may not know, or pretend not to know, the French social system equally well: the draw as a system to select redundant workers is unheard of; social benefits do not work that way in France, not to speak of the care system for children. But it does not matter: I have to accept that this is not a movie on the regulation of employment relations, but a movie on trade union emotions. The inspiration of it is not a real story, but a poem by Victor Hugo, Les pauvres gens.
As researchers we often forget the poetry of unionism and its emotional side. There are some exceptions, like a few studies on solidarity (e.g. Rick Fantasia) and the studies of the ‘politics of anger’ (see the excellent analysis of Solidarity by David Ost). Indeed, today in Birmingham anger was the dominant feeling: how else to react when pensions of cleaners, nurses and teachers are cut, while bankers’ bonuses taxes are removed and business jets taxes postponed? But I would say that an increasingly broader range of emotions are at play nowadays. In fact, the social movement of 2011 in the western world, the one I had witnessed emerging in Madrid, is even defined by a feeling: indignation. Indignation is different from anger: it is not a reaction to a personal affront, but (according to Spinoza’s Ethics) ‘hatred towards one that has injured the other’ (not me!). It is a disinterested feeling, not easily explainable rationally, as in the case of 93-year old Stéphane Hessel.
The movie by Guédiguain is a poetic and touching portrayal of a whole range of emotions that affect a worker's and a unionist’s life. At times it reminds even of Ladri di biciclette. Maybe a bit sentimentalist: le Monde has written that the grace of Guédiguian's cinema is 'tirer de la fracture du monde ouvrier un outil qui fracture le cœur des bourgeois'. But there is art in this way of breaking middle class hearts with the broken working class. The movie won this year’s edition of the LUX prize, on which I commented last year and which is one of the few things the EU does well right now.
March 26, 2011
Very big demo against the cuts to the public spending in London today - 2 hours walking backwards through the marching crowd until I found my trade union.
Will it affect the government? Of course it won't. Not even the bigger demonstrations in France last autumn affected their government and their cuts (there were French veterans from those demonstrations in London today). That's not the point. The point is that such an event - the first such demonstration of social issues since those against the Poll Tax 21 years ago - will give strength and courage to workers and local communities fighting against redundacies and closures around the country. And that it forces politicians to take position: Ed Miliband, who owes the election to Labour leader to the trade unions, had to come out clearly today, after months of inconclusiveness, against the cuts. Let's see what happens - and for the moment, the pictures.
March 18, 2011
Italy celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday, and I am in Modena, 10 minutes away from Reggio, where the tricolore flag was created. As a student, I saw waving the Italian flag as an act of fascism. It was just acceptable only for sport events, but even for that it is no more now – with Italy fans regularly singing fascist songs and chanting racist abuse at the first black Italy’s player, Balotelli (and the only good player Italy has right now by the way).
Still, today I wore a five colour (three Italian colours plus two European ones) coccarda. As long as we remember the many dark days of Italian history (colonial policy towards the South; repression of German and Slovenian speakers; imperialist, mass murdering colonialism in Africa; and most of all fascism, Nazi alliance and anti-semitism), there is no reason why not to celebrate Risorgimento, which inspired peoples’ freedom from Poland to Latin America. With all its evident limits, and despite the legitimate nostalgia Milanese may have for aspects of Austrian rule, there is no doubt that the Italian state was better than what was there before. And today to oppose Italy’s celebrations are just the racists of the Northern League...
In Modena we are also remembering a very sad day of Italian history, the ninth anniversary of the assassination of Marco Biagi, industrial relations expert, by the Red Brigades in 2002. He was not the first colleague to meet this fate: Tarantelli and D’Antona were killed before him, many others were injured and threatened. Many of the victims also suffered abuse, first from the extreme Left, then by the government (Biagi was called a ‘ball-breakers’ by Interior Minister Scajola). Some colleagues, still today, are not free to go out without police escort. Labour relations is inherently controversial (and yesterday some young Italians told me my speech was ‘courageous’ as they would not be allowed to express that degree of criticism at the current government) – but if we do not fully respect difference of opinions, there is no point in it: terrorism is the denial of democracy, including industrial democracy. As somebody who cycles to work every day, I also love the logo of the Biagi Foundation (Biagi was shot while cycling home from work).
Finally, yesterday I was also on strike, to defend our pensions – and especially the pensions of our younger and future colleagues.
December 29, 2010
Christmas should be holiday time, and possibly inspire some peace. Not so at Fiat Mirafiori in Turin (a factory built by Mussolini and Agnelli to be the largest in the world), where the separate 'Christmas agreement' signed by Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil is the biggest disruption yet to post-war Italian industrial relations.
As I had written in my blog "Polacchizzati", and more extensively in academic papers, Fiat is using with an unprecedented consistency the threat of "coercive comparisons" amongst all its locations to achieve not just some wage concessions (we are used to that), but a strategic advantage through a radical change of the rules of the game. Specifically, Fiat's comparisons tend to be with Poland, and Polish factories are used as something I had called myself Trojan Horse for the Americanization of Europe (in the small industrial relations circles I am occasionally referred to as somebody who invented the Trojan Horse, but I must say somebody else had - a long time ago).
This is particularly true for Fiat as its CEO Marchionne, an Italo-American manager, is using the threats to implement an American style of industrial relations. The core of the dispute, to put it simply, is the exit of Fiat from all national and sector-level agreements, and the implementation of its own representation rules whereby only unions that sign company agreements have representation rights. The largest union, Fiom-Cgil, having not signed, would suddenly disappear from the company. Even in the bleakest cold-war times of anti-unionism and Cgil marginalisation, in the 1950s, the Fiom had its representation within the Commissione Interna (works council). Now it would not.
Important lawyers such as Pietro Ichino repeat that this is perfectly legal in Italy, consistent with the Italian constitution, and the Statute of Worker Rights of 1970 (the Italian equivalent of the German Betriebsverfassung, workplace constitution) as modified by a referendum in 1995. Unlike in France, multi-employer collective agreements in Italy have no erga-omnes validity, except for minimum wages, so Fiat is free to opt out from the 1993 national agreement that reformed employee representation through the creation of works councils called RSU. And after the law was modified by a referendum in 1995, workplace union rights are only for the unions that signed agreements - regardless of their representativity.
While this interpretation may be technically correct, it appears to me that excluding the largest union from recognition is against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Italian constitution of 1948, strongly rooted in the principle of democracy: at the time it was self-evident that unions signing any collective agreements would include the largest and most representative unions - otherwise, even fascist-era agreements, in Ichino's thought, should be considered as 'constitutional'... Moreover, the exclusion also goes against the often-forgotten European Directive on the Information and Consultation of Employees of 2001: something Italy initially even neglected to transpose, believing that Italian rules were already sufficient.... but we now see that it was enough for an outsider to arrive to disrupt all the Italian rules. The Trojan Horse has entred the constitutional walls of Italian industrial relations.
In theory a reformist solution is possible: new legal regulations to face the changed situation. France, against the odds, recently changed its regulations and introduced a principle of representativeness. In Germany, a country whose industrial relations in the 1990s and 2000s were seen as unstoppably eroding, I have recently witnessed a number of 'fixes', from the joint attempt of the employer association and the largest union confederation DGB to defend Tarifeinheit (bargaining unity) through a criterion of representativeness, to the introduction of legal minimum wages and the limitation of Ohne-Tarif, i.e. company opt-out from national agreements. American-style disruption does not suit well European societies, as even French and German employers have admitted. Will also Italy find a fix, defending representativeness as a core democratic principle? Or will industrial relations erosion symbolyse a broader erosion of Italian democracy? Interesting times ahead.
(PS: I have returned safely from Berlin, but not before being stuck overnight in Paris by the after-effects of the snow disruptions. Air France put me in a hotel in Disneyland, a place I had sworn never to put my feet in. Merde, why not on the Champs Elisées?)
July 28, 2010
Today's Gazeta Wyborcza (left) opens with a new Italian word, which I did not know yet myself: Polacchizzati, or Polonized, or zpolonizowani. It's an article about the ongoing protests in Italy against Fiat's threats to transfer production to Poland [background: Fiat made investment in the Italian plant, and apparently its survival, conditional on accepting a much worse working time regime, plus a sort of "no-strike" agreement; in a referendum, 63% of employees accepted this "deal", labelled as blackmail by the FIOM-CGIL union - but FIAT expected and wanted near-unanimity]. The Polish journalist, after describing with some amusement Italians' attachment to siesta, collects the voices of Italian workers in the Southern Italian plant of Pomigliano condemning Polonization as imposition of not just ever worsening working conditions, but also a mentality of self-exploitation: "why you Poles want to work that hard? what's wrong with you?". Which may remind of English voices such as "those fucking Poles, all coming over here, with their fucking work ethic", but has a point - as many Polish commentators on Wyborcza's website admit.
Media love turning issues of global work restructuring into national jokes - last year's strike at Lindsley refinery "against the Italians" was a spectacular case I described in a union magazine( iur.pdf). Maybe this is a good thing: at least issues are raised and noticed, even if in a distorted way. Mainstream media are unlikely to put collective bargaining, restructuring plans, working time systems or supply chains in the main news - or they would condemn themselves to audiences as narrows as this blog's. But things are always much more complicated. I can't resist the temptation of moaning 'I had said it...'. My thesis comparing Italian and Polish Fiat factories in 1999 (and later book) and pointing that Poland was not the cheap crap place Italians imagined, but a laboratory for the future, and that Italian and Polish unions should start speak to each other, was read by about five people and - also because in the meanwhile I was sent to Coventry - I did not manage to disseminate much to it to the people concerned.
I stopped following Fiat time ago - I tried, with some colleagues and friends such as Valeria Pulignano, to suggest a book on Fiat and globalisation in 2004, but all Italian publishers I contacted were sure that nobody, ever, would be interested in reading about Fiat's foreign factories - how foreward-looking from them. So I can't say much about the recent developments, but I have two impressions. First, what's happening at Fiat is a massive speed change in the aggressive use of relocation threats that multinational companies have been making for about two decades (Hoover swapping France for Scotland in 1993 is usually mentioned as the first case). This is the first case where 'coercive comparisons' have become 'total': everybody against everybody, at all times, in all directions. Southern Italy against Poland, Poland against Turkey, Northern Italy against Serbia... Only last year the Polish workers of Bielsko-Biala were still being threatened with relocations to Italy, unless they accepted different working time arrangements - no interest from Italy then. A permanent 'liquidity' of employment relations is imposed, whereby there are no guarantees and offers are made and withdrawn "a capriccio". Second, in no major car company is international union response as weak as in Fiat, which is therefore free to direct the dances at its own will: Fiat's European Works Council is said to be made inoperational by internal conflicts amongst Italian trade unions, and to an extent amongst Polish trade unions. Marchionne (FIAT's CEO) must have fun, sitting and watching the unions fight each other to exhaustion.
And Marchionne himself is often in the front pages, with his famous sweaters even in the middle of the Italian summer. In last Friday's Il Manifesto, in relation to relocations from Turin to Kragujevac, he is turned into another national stereotype, il cecchino Sergio (the Sergio sniper, playing on words with il cecchino serbo, the Serbian sniper).
So if this is the only game in town I'll add my contribution: isn't Sergio Marchionne (who spent most of his life in Northern America) just a typical yankee, as demonstrated by the fact that he didn't even let workers watch the football (soccer) World Cup?
PS: In its own way, the "Polacchizzati" article was still an enjoyable piece of journalism. Two days later Gazeta Wyborcza (the former Solidarity daily paper, still the best East of Berlin, and amongst the best in the world, for both journalism and commentary) reached much lower standards with a reportage on the Polish Fiat workers in Tychy. This was mostly based on the story of a happy family where both mum and dad work for Fiat and are ever so grateful to their magnanimous employer, who has made all their dreams true. Its style would have fit well in 1970s' Trybuna Ludu (the official organ of the United Polish Worker Party), when Tychy workers were reported to be equally grateful for their opportunity to contribute to the radiant communist dream.