On the night of 14 September 2016, trade union activist and logistics worker Abd Elsalam Ahmed Eldanf was killed in Piacenza, northern Italy, when managers of a GLS logistics warehouse sent a truck through the picket line that he was part of. Abd Elsalam was one of a group of workers from a local cooperative providing services to the multinational logistics company GLS – a part-Dutch, part-British venture and a subsidiary of the UK Royal Mail – who were protesting the refusal of their bosses to uphold a previously-negotiated agreement on the regularisation of their precarious contracts. His tragic death, however, represented only the most serious of a series of incidents that had accompanied a wave of worker struggles in the Italian logistics sector. One year on, the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice, and the repression shows no sign of letting up. Here we look at the events that led to the death of Abd Elsalam, and at how the struggles of logistics workers are becoming a crucial point of tension in a productive system that is ever more dependent on the sector to continue functioning. It is a struggle against particularly exploitative working conditions in a sector of crucial importance for the country – and the fighters are largely migrant workers.
Logistics: the key to global exploitation.
Over the last half century, logistics has become an intrinsic element in the functioning of global capitalism, fundamental not only for the distribution of goods but also for production, which relies heavily on the management of geographically dispersed supply chains. As global supply chains have come to be based on complex systems of subcontracting and outsourcing, transportation and communication technologies have become ever more crucial to manufacturing itself. Not only, however, is logistics fundamental to the organisation of production: it is also an important source of profit in and of itself. As such, logistics has taken on greater importance in times of crisis. When finding new markets and reducing production costs becomes more and more difficult, improving efficiency in terms of logistics management can be crucial both as a means of increasing the competitiveness of businesses and as source of extra profit. What we are seeing as a result is a shift in the focus of strategies for capitalist accumulation – from the sphere of production to that of circulation, translating subsequently into a shift in the balance of power between retailers and manufacturers. Suppliers are now increasingly subservient to retailers; supply is managed in response to ever-dwindling demand. Complex tracking technology is used to dictate orders to suppliers, which are under pressure to respond within strict time constraints; the ‘just-in-time’ model. As these processes took hold over the last half century, many began to speak of a “logistics revolution”, to describe the transformation of a sector that, from its origins as a mere offshoot of military strategy, now attracts vast amounts of investment in infrastructure and technology development.
Aside from its purpose as a response to falling rates of profit and economic crisis, however, the rise in logistics has also arguably served a repressive function. Logistics allowed offshoring, and offshoring allowed for the reduction of costs by relocating production to areas where labour was cheaper. It was hence a way of breaking up workforces that were compact, geographically concentrated and protected by strong labour laws – conditions under which it’s much easier to organise. Thus, an efficient logistics sector became the mechanism through which the workforce could be managed.
Technological development played an undeniably crucial role in the logistics revolution, but nevertheless, it’s a sector that still relies heavily on manpower, and on armies of low-paid and ‘low-skilled’ workers. Known for its high levels of exploitative practise, logistics management is constantly pushing the limits in terms of worker discipline, with the intensification of speed as the over-arching imperative. Workers are pushed ever-harder to meet the demands of the ‘just-in-time’ model of logistics management. Further technological advancement could help this process, streamlining organisation or improvements in infrastructure – but developments in this respect have actually been relatively slow; in this sector, workers are far cheaper than large capital investments in technological improvements or automation. That may soon change, if technology improves and and workers gain higher wages. Investments by interested parties in the development of automation technology for delivery operations give us hints as to likely long-term strategies for the sector. However, it will still be some time before the sector can do away with the the vast numbers of workers necessary to make international production and trade flow smoothly. For this reason, it remains imperative to maintain a flexible, disciplined and highly exploited workforce – keeping wages low to keep the logistics industry profitable. In the Italy, exploited workers in the logistics sector aren’t too happy about this deal – where global capitalism is kept on the move by keeping their wages low, their conditions poor and their work precarious.
Logistics and precarity in the Italian economy.
Italy has a large and fast-developing logistics sector, largely due to the many important Mediterranean ports on its shores. The region of Piacenza, where Abd El Salam was killed, is one of Italy’s main logistics centres. Piacenza sits in the middle of the Po river valley in northern Italy, an area of strategic importance in terms of the transportation and distribution of goods. Its central location between the continent and the peninsula means that 80% of Italian commodity flows circulate every year through the Po Valley region. Last year the logistics sector made up 13% of Italy’s GDP, making it the third biggest industry after construction and agriculture. Though the Italian economy has always been largely dependent on exports, in the last thirty years a large proportion of Italian manufacturing has been offshored to cut the costs of production. The result of this is that Italian businesses increasingly rely on complex supply chains for both production and trading.
And yet, despite the importance of the logistics sector for the Italian economy, levels of investment in technology and infrastructure have remained relatively low, especially in comparison to countries like Germany. Therefore, as Sergio Bologna has pointed out, in the absence of investment, Italian logistics maintains its competitive edge through its flexible and disciplined workforce; or, in other words, through high levels of workers exploitation. The Italian logistics sector has been satisfied in this need by a succession of labour reforms which, over the period of the last twenty years, have stripped back workers’ rights resulting in a progressive precarisation and fragmentation of the workforce across all sectors. The emergence of non-standard, insecure contractual forms, widespread practices of outsourcing and subcontracting, and the erosion of collective bargaining mean that poor quality, exploitative employment has become increasingly commonplace across the Italian economy.
Nowhere is the trend towards liberalisation and fragmentation in employment regulation more manifest than in the logistics sector, where the workforce is managed through varying levels of formal and informal outsourcing and labour subcontracting. Labour sub-contracting is an important tool in the strategy of fragmenting production and weakening labour, as it is used to construct a pool of labour available to work ‘on demand,’ able to respond quickly to fluctuations in the circulation of commodities. The majority of porterage and transport activities in Italian logistics are sub-contracted by large enterprises to small, local ‘bogus’ cooperatives. Cooperatives are a common business model in the Po Valley Region. A remnant from a radical past, their mutualistic and democratic purpose has long been lost, replaced by the model of the ‘bogus’ cooperative. Large enterprises outsource their logistic services to small cooperatives because, paradoxically, the cooperative business model offers further avenues for the exploitation of workers. Exempt from many regulations, they can make large savings on labour costs due to the ambiguous legal status of their members-workers, which actually makes it easier to let workers go. There have been cases of cooperatives managing to lay off the entirety of their workforce without consequence, simply by changing the name of the firm, bypassing regulations on redundancy and unfair dismissal.
On top of adopting sub-contracting practices at the margins of legality, logistics employers have also been exploiting for a long time the vulnerability of migrant workers, who make up the majority of the workforce at the bottom levels of the sector. Employers take advantage not only of the contractual instruments provided by the successive waves of deregulation and liberalisation of labour standards, but also of Italian immigration laws, in particular the 2002 Bossi-Fini law drawn up by the far-right Lega Nord in coalition with Berlusconi, which make residency permits conditional on work contracts, putting migrants at risk of deportation if they lose their jobs. The introduction of progressively harsher immigration laws, running parallel to the ongoing liberalisation of labour law, has therefore contributed to the insecurity and exploitability of migrant workers and to a division of the workforce along racial lines.
Struggles and resistance in the Italian logistics sector.
The logistics employers’ project of building a flexible, disposable and docile workforce has not always been successful. Across Italy, practices of exploitation have been met with fierce resistance from logistics workers. In Italy, as in the US, logistics distribution centres are becoming central sites for the leverage of labour against capital. And the struggles of the Piacenza logistics hub, where workers have been organising for years through the rank-and-file unions USB, SI-COBAS and ADL COBAS, are a case in point. Since 2012 a wave of worker mobilisations in the region has continued to grow, with workers drawing strength from the structural power they derive from their strategic location in the capitalist circulation network to advance a series of substantial demands. These include the implementation of the national sectoral collective contract; the right to be recognised as employees (and not as self-employed); wage increases; stronger protection from injury and illnesses; and more stable employment contracts. For those workers who are not Italian, the fight is also about more than just working conditions, but it forms part of the wider struggle against discrimination and for the right of migrant communities to live with dignity in a context in which racist discourse is becoming increasingly normalised. The largely migrant composition of the rank-and-file unions is thus an important element of these struggles, as their mobilization is not only aimed at their employers, but also against the state’s immigration regime. In logistics, as in other sectors in Italy such as agriculture, it is, in fact, migrant workers who are at the forefront in the struggles against exploitation.
Another important element of the Italian logistics workers’ struggles are the methods of organisation used. The large traditional confederate unions have been either largely unable or unwilling to take on the demands of precarious workers in the warehouses and distribution centres, privileging instead the preservation of dialogue and mediation with the large enterprises at the sectoral level. In response to the inactivity of the traditional trade unions, workers – especially those who are outsourced and employed on precarious contracts – have been turning instead to the more radical rank-and-file trade unions that have proven themselves to be much more receptive. These unions also seek to connect struggles in the sphere of labour with those in the sphere of social reproduction, mobilising around housing and migrants rights, extending their reach to the unemployed and the homeless. Therefore, whilst traditional unions have found it difficult to move away from a model which has as its central point of reference the Italian industrial salaried worker, the rank-and-file unions are doing the vital work of uniting these disparate struggles. They are also able to employ more radical tactics. Not being bound by the established confederate unions’ logic of action and conciliation, in the logistics sector they have successfully combined traditional and wildcat strikes with blockades of warehouses, the organisation of road blocks and the promotion of boycott campaigns.
The union action against GSL and the killing of Abd Elsalam.
The labour dispute which led to the killing of Abd Elsalam on September 14th acts as an irresistible symbol of the struggles which characterise the Italian logistics sector. The dispute began in early 2016. In May, workers at the local SEAM cooperative, which provides GLS with logistics workers, and the rank-and-file union Unione Sindacale di Base had succeeded in forcing an agreement from the firm which would have regularised the position of around 15 workers employed on precarious contracts, as well as providing for the reintegration of a group of workers who had been fired for trade union activity, a hard-won victory. A few months later, however, the company reneged on its agreements, and turned to another cooperative to find more workers to replace those it did not want to regularise. As a result, on the night of the 14th September the SEAM workers called a meeting with GLS to demand that the original agreement be respected. Tensions at the meeting were high, as GLS was determined to push for changes in its favour which had not been previously agreed on. As such the workers resorted to the threat of radical action and called for an immediate blockade of the surrounding roads should negotiations finally break down. At around 10pm a message went out to members of the union that strike action was imminent and preparations were made to blockade whilst negotiations continued. Police were called out, and arrived at the scene shortly after. At 11.35pm, after it was clear that all avenues of negotiation had been exhausted, the blockade was called and picketers proceeded to the gates of the GLS warehouse. Just four minutes later, at 11.39 Abd Elsalam – who in fact had a permanent contract, but had responded to his co-workers call for solidarity – was hit by a truck that had accelerated towards him.
It is likely that the driver himself had intended only to scare the protesters, or had not imagined that they would not back down, but in the heat of the moment he made, as it was subsequently described, a “fatal mistake”. However, the victim’s brother, a unionist also present at the time, testified that minutes before he had seen a GLS warehouse manager turning to the truck drivers on shift and shouting “run over them like an iron”, adding “don’t worry about the consequences, that’s my responsibility.” Other witnesses have corroborated his account. The public prosecutor declared the death to be a road accident, a position it continues to hold, though it has climbed down from its initial denial that a protest was taking place after CCTV footage clearly showing workers holding banners and megaphones was made public. However, it is the culpability of GLS that Abd Elsalam’s co-workers and family are fighting to bring to light. Abd Elsalam had been part of a struggle that had faced constant threats of aggression by the managers of GLS, as well as incidents of actual violence and legal intimidation. The death of Abd Elsalam, far from being an isolated episode, represented the culmination in a concerted attack on the union and the workers it represents. In fact, the same public prosecutor that declared the death of Abd Elsalam to be a road accident, had, earlier in the year, sought to bring criminal charges against delegates of the USB union for “infringing on the freedom to carry out commercial and industrial activity,” a charge dating back to 1930, when Mussolini was in power. To date there has been some progress as GLS has agreed to hire on a permanent basis some of its precarious workers, but there is still a long way to go. In fact the repression of logistics workers’ struggles shows few signs of letting up.
Despite these conditions, the Italian logistics workers are more determined than ever. The death of Abd Elsalam made clear the extent to which businesses will go to protect their interests in the sector, but it also galvanised the workers’ resolve. On the anniversary of his death, Abd Elsalam was remembered across Italy for his activism and for his sacrifice, inspiring a fresh wave of mobilisations. For our part, we must amplify the voices and their demands of logistics workers, to ensure that their struggles are brought to public attention; to make the labour that goes in the ‘black box’ of fast delivery services visible, and to prevent the death of a worker on strike at the hands of repressive management machinery from being eclipsed from history and passed off as a road accident.