Organizing workers’ counter power in Italy and Greece

Lorenzo Zamponi and myself just published a piece on new forms of workers’ organizing in Italy and Greece. The article Organizing workers’ counter power in Italy and Greece is included in the annual report of the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam) State of Power 2015.

You may find the article here.

The whole book (edited by Nick Buxton and Madeleine Bélanger Dumontier) is available for download here.

Article Abstract:

During the last three decades, the gradual loss of labor struggle’s centrality in the context of social conflicts in Europe, as well as the decreasing  trade unions’ ability to represent an effective counter-power to capitalist hegemony, had been almost unanimously acknowledged in the scholarly and activist debate.

The economic crisis and the implementation of austerity policies, altogether with the explosion of unemployment and precarious labor, most prominently in Southern Europe, triggered a renewed interest among radical activists and heretic unionists on how to effectively organize contemporary labor struggles. The need to rebuild and restructure workers’ counter-power in the context of neo-liberal globalization is now a pressing issue for a relevant part of the European left-wing and oppositional landscape.

In the last few years, labor research has focused on what has been termed as radical political unionism or social movement unionism in Europe and the United States. Forms of radicalized political unionism and forms of labor organization adopting techniques and practices of social movement campaigns have been identified and analyzed.  Yet, the cross-fertilization between movement practices and union activity is not limited to radically politicized activism: campaigns, boycotts, performances and other forms of action developed in the social movement  context are being increasingly used also by mainstream trade unions. Furthermore, inside the big union confederations the problem of re-examining workers’ organization in the era of precarity and globalization is gradually starting to be addressed, even if with an inexcusable delay.

On a more theoretical level, the concept of social unionism has gained prominence, lately, among labor-related movement milieus and workers’ grassroots experimental projects aiming at establishing a simultaneous presence inside and outside the workplace. Social unionism is generally perceived as the attempt to unite, under hybrid organizational forms, struggles related to the post-Fordist workers’ labor condition, with the ones responding to the so-called living space or social reproduction (housing, access to basic goods, private debt, working-leisure time balance). A major difference with past interpretations and mobilizations is that the current wave of social unionism is not merely aiming at improving the negotiating position of labor organizations with regard to employers and/or the State, but rather focusing at establishing counter-power structures, able to operate autonomously through mutualist practices and a radical re-configuration of productive relations.

Yet, despite the rich theoretical debate and the plurality of concrete projects working on the above, a dual problem is to be noted: On the one hand, it has proven extremely hard to break down the concept into exact practices and organizational forms (and to identify in which ways their combination will differentiate itself from the past). On the other hand, it is unclear how the existing projects are planning to escape from the usual prefigurative politics trap, i.e. self-exiling to the margins of an, undisturbed by their presence, capitalist economy and society.

Based on rich empirical evidence from the Greek and the Italian case, this article’s aim is to examine the latest developments regarding new unionism, movement unionism and social unionism’s theory and practice, point out the main challenges the activists are facing and propose conceptual clarifications and advancements in the perspective of the reconstruction on an effective workers’ counter-power up to task of challenging the neo-liberal hegemony.