A Black Friday in Italy

In the two or three articles I read on the issue, the reporters mentioned the Fiat strikes of the 60’s and 70’s, comparing the one that today, Friday, November 24th 2017, is taking place at the Amazon distribution plant in Piacenza to the union fights that, on a much larger scale, characterized the history of Italy during the economic boom. There is no comparison: today, only 10% of the Amazon workers in Piacenza are on strike, the warehouse is regularly functioning, and, after all, there are other two warehouses in Italy. If the unions wanted to hit the company on the day in which the most sales are expected, then we can say that this strike is a failure.

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However, this small strike can be seen as both symbolic and symptomatic of the unprecedented and puzzling social/cultural/economic transformations, Italy is experiencing in these first decades of the 21st century. And the result of these changes is still hard to foresee.

Not many seem to be particularly convinced by the Italian Amazon’s workers claim that working in that warehouse is hard. More look at their fair salary (an average salary of about 1400 euros a month), the many medical benefits and insurances option they have. And while the unions say that the workers are forced to walk too much everyday in the warehouse, that there are pathologies connected to that type of work, there are also other workers who feel very lucky and safe working at Amazon (La Repubblica of today had a good number of interviews to various workers).

It is as if a new generation of workers and of Italians has a new attitude, and is willing the accept the sacrifice of labor (the sacrifice of men and women who spend most of their life in a warehouse so that people can have what they can buy and the company they work for becomes the most powerful entity/corporation in the world) as an inevitable step towards wealth and economic progress. And in a country that has always been characterized by an incredible attention to the rights of the workers (at least the Italian workers, not the thousand of immigrant/slaves exploited in agriculture), to the point that at times the workers rights have been deemed more important than the economic growth of the country (just think about the retirement system in Italy), this new attitude is as powerful as a revolution.

However, a legitimate question remains: is this the right path?

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What she said

20120629-181152.jpgHere is, exactly, what she said: “This reform is a wager in behavior changing in many ways. My big fear is that we don’t overcome this challenge. Everyone, not just workers, have to understand and change. That includes youth, who need to know a job isn’t something you obtain by right but something you conquer, struggle for and for which you may even have to make sacrifices”.
She is Elsa Fornero, the Italian Labor Minister, who was two days ago (the day in which the Italian Parliament passed a new Labor Reform) interviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Fornero is definitely an expert in the field: a professor of economics in Turin, she wrote extensively on pension systems, welfare, and many other topics, which are nowadays on everybody’s mouth in Italy. Yes, she is an expert, like many others in the “technical” government of Italy; still, her last remark has shocked many Italians. It was in some way very similar, especially in the accusation made to the “youth,” in a statement given by a former Minister of the Economy, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, who, in 2007, called young Italians “bamboccioni” (mama’s boys), for their tendency to live home with their parents for a long period of time. Without really considering the option that they stay home because it’s hard to find jobs.
Fornero’s statement is weirdly in contrast with the tears she cried during a press conference, at the end of 2011, when the Pension reform, she felt forced to write, was just passed. And even stranger is the fact that in that occasion the tears start to fell when she was about to say the word “sacrifices”. It does not seem that this word had the same effect on her this time.
We are starting to get used, in Italy, to these Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figures in our ruling class: Sergio Marchionne, FIAT CEO, before destroying, in a few months, years of rights conquered by the workers, with his imposition of new labor rules in his factories, had nicely declared, that the cost of a worker doesn’t affect the total cost of a car for more than the 6%. If it is not such a big deal, why do you have to destroy their rights?

A friend sent me an email two days ago. It was a link to an article on the Italian website of the newspaper L’Unità, it said something like “Elsa Fornero says ‘a job is not a right'”. And in the past hours I have been reflecting. You know, the press. If you take a title like that, and you don’t contextualize it, it doesn’t make sense. Maybe it is not what she meant. And then I said, let me look for the original article. And then after reading it, I said, well, maybe it is not exactly what she said, if you look at it in the context….but still I realized that I was just trying to justify a person for something she should have not said. Especially because she is a Labor Minister. A Labor Minister cannot say that a job is not a right, because – I believe – that among her main duties, there is the one of giving everybody the right to have a job. And she is the Labor Minister of a country where the first article of the Constitution (a text on which that Labor Minister swore), says “Italy is a republic founded on work”. Which also means that, without work, Italy would not exist.
Yes, a job is a right. Because in the society in which we live today, if you don’t work (apart some rare cases), you don’t have money. And if you don’t have money, you don’t eat. And if you don’t eat, you don’t live. So a job is a part of everybody’s right to a life.

Yet, there is another aspect of Fornero’s words that needs to be discussed. She talks, indeed, about the need of a behavioral change. What is this exactly? Well, I really think there there is a mixture of populism, stereotypes, and truth at work in this idea.
It is common knowledge in Italy and abroad, that Italians “do not want to work”, and “they steal (!) salaries”. The worst part is that while once these were critiques coming from the outside, now the Italians themselves accuse each other. It is this idea of a lack of ethics among Italians, that creates confusion, in my opinion. It is one of those things that definitely has a truth in it, but that truth quickly becomes a myth. And you cannot build politics on a myth.

My mother, a just-retired high school teacher, today told me the story of one of her students who, having being told: “studying is important, if you don’t study it will be hard for you to get a job and finding a position in life”, answered: “professor, who cares? I will always be able to find a job as a gym teacher”. First of all, my apologies to all those Italian gym teacher who work hard everyday of their lives, but the gym teacher is usually considered in Italy as the do-nothing job and it is in that sense that my mother’s student was hoping in that job. One can easily say that his ethics are shared by many Italian kids and summarized in this statement: “I have to do my best in order to make a lot of money.”
Work ethic and democratic values are at stake here. They are polluted by a general disaffection towards hard work and the belonging to a nation, to a community. Italy is affected by an individualism, which is all but romantic. It’s a selfish perception of things and of the world, based on the idea that if things are bad, one should not be the one to change it, but the one to survive. No matter what happens to the others.

But it is not trough the cancellation of workers’ rights that a government can resolve this problem. If we don’t understand this, we will never “overcome this challenge.”