Organising workers’ Counter-power in Italy and Greece

19 January 2015

Austerity in Greece and Italy has struck workers' particularly hard, but it has also been the context for radical innovations in ’organising the unorganised’, building new kinds of work spaces and even taking control of production.

Trade unions in Southern European’s austerity-ridden countries have been considerably weakened by the last six years of crisis. Labour’s loss of power in countries such as Greece and Italy is significant. First of all, the tri-partite systems of collective bargaining (state, employers, unions) that characterised the 1990s and early 2000s in both countries collapsed. Neither state nor employers have shown any concrete willingness to re-establish some sort of collective bargaining mechanisms. Governments in austerity-ridden countries do not seem to need unions anymore.1

Secondly, despite their vocal opposition, trade unions have failed to block austerity measures, as well as other detrimental changes in labour legislation. The period 2008-2014 has been characterised by limited worker mobilisation in Italy and by the failure of the numerous protests and general strikes in Greece to deliver any concrete achievements. Worse, union members express deep mistrust of their own leader- ship, as does the broader population.

This bleak landscape does not give the whole picture of labour movement activity in those countries, however. In both cases, interesting labour-related projects are being developed to restore a workers’ counter-power, both by unionists and social movement activists who are exploring actions outside of the traditional trade union repertoire. They draw from concepts such as ‘social movement unionism’, social unionism or ‘radical political unionism’,5 which will be detailed below. This article aims to contribute, through the analysis of concrete experiences, to this debate.

First, we examine efforts to organise precarious workers in professions and productive sectors that previously had weak or no union presence. Second, we investigate projects addressing changes in the physical space where production takes place and their consequences on collective organisation. Then we turn the focus to workers’ mutualism (i.e. social solidarity structures ran by the workers themselves), initiatives providing access to welfare that are beyond both the market and the state. Finally, we look at projects that are posing broader questions regarding models of production and development. The article closes with some concluding questions and remarks regarding the future of trade unionism.

We argue that these experiences signal radical innovation in trade union activism. However, this innovation is not likely to spontaneously expand beyond dispersed experiments if it only involves the already politicised components of the urban youth that tend to compose social movements. It will require a massive effort by trade unions to renew their structures, discourse and practices, while labour-related social movement activists will need to contribute to organising all parts of the working population.

This essay was published in the State of Power 2015.

Pages: 10