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Saggi e Articoli

11th annual TURI conference, VIENNA 20-21 May 2019

Precarities in the labour market and role of trade unions

From competition to solidarity: unionizing low wage immigrant workers

 Luigi Lama

Centro Studi Ricerca e Formazione CISL


 The aim of this speech is to illustrate the results of our research into three different experiences of unionizing low wage/ weak workers in different sectors:

  • Agriculture
  • Commerce and hospitality industry
  • Logistics and transportation

One we thought that the precarities was mainly a past times problem and that would be progressively eliminated, but a former trade union leader and now ILO general director said in 2017: «the classic stereotype of full-time permanent job, with fixed hours, and a defined-benefit pension on the completion of a largely predictable and secure career path with a single employer, however desirable it might appear, is an increasingly infrequent reality».

So a question raises: «Does history repeat itself?»

I show this picture because a month ago this painting by Jean Francois Millet painted more than 150 years ago was chosen for a conference about labour right

Our answer to that question is «No. We don’t think so»

We think instead we have to cope with a new complexity with four main dimension

  • Economic
  • Social
  • Political
  • Cultural

I can’t deal this topic here now, I just say that none has a friendly trend for unions and collective bargaing but Union action includes all of them.

Our major concern when dealing with such complexity is looking inadequate, as inadequacy deeply affects unionization and we really concern because We need strong unions in order to face the present challenges and make collective bargaining effective.

Analysing the three cases I said at the beginning we highlighted some main distinctive features of workers and counterparts.

On the side of counterparts we see we can consider as counterpart the employer, meaning who hired the workers but can be in some way the counterpart the client, who really use the services of the workers

Regarding the business dimension both kinds of subjects can be few, big companies or small, numerous companies.

Regarding the business duration, capacity/willing to last we see as stable, long-term companies as well as unstable, short living companies.

On the other side, about workers we see different degrees of mobility (some workers keep moving to get a job or find a better one). This is an important variable: without a consistent group of workers thinking to stop in a certain place and willing to make it lasting is very difficult to organize any kind of action. Usually the more mobile are workers the less they try to organize in a company or territory.

Among weak and less paid workers is more frequent the diversity in terms of origin, language, and customs; it makes more difficult to get a common identity, to trust each other. The same effect, but less strong, is given by different employment contracts.

All these factors together with the lack of hope to improve one’s condition can bring sometimes to Schadenfreude among workers, the absolute opposite to solidarity.

You know that all these different situations bring to tackle different problems, different in kinds and different in sizes. We have not found a successful recipe to solve them.

We have found some common principles in the successful experiences we analysed.

The first principle concerns collective bargaining: in order to occur and last collective bargaining has to be considered convenient for all involved parts.

Collective bargaining is convenient when the costs without agreement are more than the agreement costs. It’s the traditional way of pressure to bring employers to bargaining and then to accept an agreement. A strategic alternative is to offer benefits by an agreement that would be impossible to achieve without an agreement.

So there is two key questions for a successful bargaining strategy: «Does our counterpart fear lack of agreement? Does our counterpart perceive the benefits of agreement?»

Our strategy must bring to answer “yes” for some concrete reason to one of the two questions, or, better, to both of them. And the counterpart is not necessarily the company formally hiring the workers, but the one/ones using their services. Sometimes is that kind of subject more sensible to any actions of pressure.

The trade union action must be addressed to the workers as well. It is a dangerous illusion thinking that they always consider trade unions useful and friendly. We need to pay attention to communicate to them in order to make the benefits of collective bargaining visible and enjoyable by them. It must be perceived as convenient by the involved workers too.

The second principle concerns unionizing.

Building a collective identity can be schematically considered in three stages. The starting situation is not caring or feeling like an outsider regarding about any trade union and collective action as workers. The first step is passing to informal membership, meaning accepting to meeting a trade union activist or officer, usually out from the working place, get information about existing rights, sharing those information with colleagues, and, step by step, do it regularly. The arrival point in to build a group of worker ready to present themselves as union members and appointing representatives/building a representation.

To achieve this goal our priority is the cultural dimension, showing to each single worker that “union is useful to you now”.

Communication has always been important. In these cases is more and more crucial and we must make use of all available tools and media according to objectives, contents, recipients.

But nothing can connect people as much as face-to-face communication does.

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