Italy: "We're not Lambs to the Slaughter!" Class Struggle in the Time of Coronavirus

The Story of the Last Few Days

8 March. The Prime Minister’s Decree brought in new restrictive measures in the Lombardy-Venetia “red zone” and many activities throughout Italy were suspended, including prison visits.

8/9 March. The situation in prisons became serious. The disturbances began over a lack of communication about the risks and provisions relating to the coronavirus emergency. These then became riots when news that prison visits were to be suspended spread, whilst at the same time nothing was done to alleviate the overcrowding and the poor health and safety in the vast majority of Italian prisons. Spontaneous riots broke out in 27 prisons throughout Italy: from Milan to Foggia, from Palermo to Turin. More than 6,000 prisoners took part, 13 died, and dozens escaped. The demands of the riots became: security, pardon, amnesty. As the prisoners saw it they were being treated like animals for slaughter abandoned to fend for themselves. As often happens, they are the last to have a clear idea of what is happening, the first to raise their heads, albeit in an ephemeral way, and also the first to experience harsh repression. The fact is that the government was eventually forced to give them some reassurance.

9 March. That evening, Prime Minister Conte made a speech on television announcing that the Decree was being extended so that the security zone (formerly called the “red zone“) now applied to the whole of Italy, under the slogan #stateacasa (stay at home).

11 March. Another Conte speech announced a new Decree, closing all non-essential commercial activities, advising citizens to work from home where possible, setting up checkpoints and introducing fines throughout the country for those who do not obey the prohibitions. All bars and restaurants were to be shut and only shops selling food and pharmacies were allowed to open but you could only enter these with restrictions (limited numbers and keeping one metre away from the next person). From this point on you could only leave home with self-certification to meet unavoidable needs (like getting food), health needs or to go to work. But yes, you could still go to work, because the production of profit for the bosses must continue! Marco Bonometti of ConfIndustria Lombardia stated: "It is a sign of irresponsibility not to understand the problems that [we bosses] have". What problems? The increasing difficulty to produce profit, of course.

12 March. In the morning workers in hundreds of factories and companies went on strike and left their workplaces. They are all in non-essential production. The slogan "we are not lambs to the slaughter" spread like wildfire. The demand of these workers is, at the very least, that working conditions should be adapted in line with the health warnings to limit contagion, warnings that should apply to everyone.

Outside the workplace, everyone stays at home as much as possible, wearing masks outdoors, keeping at ‘safe’ distances, or in quarantine. By contrast, in crowded factories, with inadequate information, there are overcrowded changing rooms, and no disinfection. Apparently, it's much too expensive for the bosses to comply with the instructions on healthcare: and it's “irresponsible” of workers to demand them. So while bosses and managers have been at home for days, in the safety of their solitary confinement, the workers have to go to work instead. It is this simple line that marks the division into social classes that crosses the whole of society.

Class Struggle in the Time of Coronavirus

An evocative image of this situation is the 5.00am bus that, crowded with people piled on top of each other, takes the workers to the petrochemical plant in Marghera, near Venice. And there are many reported cases of workers being threatened with the sack just for asking for the coronavirus regulations to be applied.

The message from the bosses is “shut up and work even though we can’t offer you even the minimum conditions to guarantee your health”. This seems to be the slogan of the bosses everywhere, which has sparked the spontaneous strikes in Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Puglia. Hundreds of factories have stopped working. It's a pity we are not in position to give them all greater material solidarity, but we can at least spread the word about the strikes. We condemn the bosses, and support and spread the demand of all the workers: nobody should work if their health is at risk!

And it is not just in the factories and the warehouses. The same goes for the delivery riders. The government has taken care to ensure that the delivery of meals at home will not be suspended, but done nothing to ensure these workers are safe. It’s the same for supermarket workers, who often work without gloves and without masks, or with DIY masks, because the firm does not supply the proper ones. Likewise there are umpteen more or less essential workers who, like those in healthcare, find themselves working without clear instructions and procedures for their safety. The irrationality and arrogance of the State and of the system is once again only, and always, revealed when it comes to those who work.

A different, but equally serious, emergency comes from the tens of thousands of precarious non-essential workers and cooperatives who have stopped working and are stuck at home without pay. As the teachers in Naples highlighted, when they came out to demonstrate on 9 March — when it was still possible to do so — wearing white overalls and masks, asking for their wages to be paid despite the suspension of services. The line that divides this entire society into two social classes is today, in the time of coronavirus, clearer than ever.

Some Concluding Remarks

  1. It is only through struggle and conflict that the exploited can hope to assert their interests, starting with the most immediate ones (in this case physical health and wages).
  2. The trade union confederations (like the CIGL, CISL, etc.) put themselves forward as mediators of the spontaneous strikes, while the various acronyms of the rank and file trade unions (Cobas) claimed they started these strikes. They want to piggy back on the strikes on the one hand, or claim to have invented the slogan "we are not lambs to the slaughter" on the other, or even say that the workers joined the strike they started, etc. Take a tour of the sites of the traditional and grassroots trade unions and you will find a wide range of sickening examples of how trade union parochialism (putting the interests of one's own union acronym before those of the class as a whole) is the only thing that matters to them. For the union, worker spontaneity is a beast to be tamed and ridden, and class struggle is nothing but a phenomenon that must be exploited to fatten and legitimise its acronym. For the unions, what matters is not the class struggle, but the struggle against their rivals. Dividing workers by initials prevents them from joining together as a class.
  3. We have yet to see the Government’s proposals, but already they are talking about compulsory leave, no guarantee of continuity of employment for precarious workers, etc. which means they are making workers pay the costs of the coronavirus crisis. Until we the exploited turn this state of affairs upside down, society will simply remain divided into social classes.
  4. Protecting the health of everyone means really stopping all activities except those that are strictly necessary, while ensuring maximum healthcare and safety conditions for all. A minimum condition that this State, this system, proves not to be able to guarantee. In fact, building sites remain open, non-essential goods factories continue to produce, the surplus-value pump continues to operate... and if the crisis were to stop, it would be even more serious. This is the nightmare of the contradictory and sick society in which we are still forced to live: “for capitalism, profit is everything, whilst human beings are nothing".
  5. In general the capitalist system is proving to be not only not an option, but the worst of all possible worlds. It is now clear that this virus is taking the lid off the boiling pan of a crisis of epic proportions which capitalism has created but not solved. Locked indoors, how can those who do not work and without pay survive? What about the those who work in the black economy? What about small or fake VAT receipts? And, what economic and social devastation will we find when we eventually get back on the streets again?

The need for a revolutionary alternative is more pressing than ever. The crisis that awaits us, when we start getting out again, will be there every day to remind us of it with the increase in unemployment, poverty and the prospect of war – the solution to all the ills of decadent capitalism.

Saturday, March 14, 2020