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The deep strata of workers in an opulent Europe

The inauguration of the Draghi government has revived top trade union leaders anxious to be involved by the government of all, all the more so in the era of the Recovery Fund.

The word consultation has been the most used in some recent trade union comments. Annamaria Furlan, of the CIS [Italian Confederation of Trade Unions] is explicit in calling for a great consultative pact [Il Messaggero, 8th February]. Pierpaolo Bombardier, secretary of the UIL [Italian Labour Union], adds that the consultation must become a method to help the country restart. Maurizio Landini, of the CGIL [Italian General Confederation of Labor] sees the novelty in the fact that social partners have been involved in the establishment of the new government [Conquiste del lavoro, 11th February].

The two phases of European imperialist politics

In this sense there are many comparisons to the Ciampi govemment of 1993, omitting that consultation was functional to limiting the costs of labour. There are instead similarities with the Monti government, formed in 201I after Mario Draghi, the incoming president of the ECB, along with the outgoing one Jean-Claude Trichet, sent the ‘secret letter’ to the Berlusconi government, urging intervention on pensions, public employment and labour market reforms: in short the German cure paid for by the workers.

There is no doubt that today we are in a second phase of European imperialist politics, that of the post-pandemic recovery. But it is superficial to think that Draghi’s purpose is simply to spend hundreds of billions. It should not escape our attention that this river of money is flowing within the channels of European restructuring: it is given on condition of structural reforms, including energy transition, with a view to raising the productivity of the system in general, and companies in particular.

A change of tack is urged to the trade unions too. If the restructuring is European, if the Draghi government is ‘Europan’, it is at that level that the game must be played. Looking up, as Landini invokes, requires study, vision, and the organisation of a truly European trade union.

Unemployment and lack of hiring

On the labour front, the first deadline of the new Italian government is the March 31st end of the freeze on redundancies and the end of the coronavirus furlough scheme. The trade unions have requested an extension until the end of the emergency. On its part, the General Confederation of Italian Industry — through its president Carlo Bonomi — has requested the lifting of the ban on firing employees and extend the furlough scheme only to companies in serious difficulty, removing constraints for others (La Stampa, February 4th].

In the case of a lifting of the firing ban, there are many who predict hundreds of thousands of new unemployed, which would be added to the 444,000 jobs lost in 2020, according to ISTAT [Italian National Institute of Statistics] calculations. There is also another fact that must be considered. The quarterly bulletin of Unioncamere [Association of Small and Medium Enterprises] and ANPAL [National Agency for Labour Market Policies] forecasts a reduction in new recruitment in the first quarter of 2021 by almost 25% compared to a year ago, with a drop of 47% in the accommodation and catering sectors: redundancies must therefore be added to the lack of recruitment. And there is a paradox, which is not new: one third of the predicted hiring in the period will be difficult to accomplish because of a lack of manpower, especially in relation to technicians and graduates, but also workers in the engineering sector (foundry workers, welders, toolmakers, etc). In fact, the idea that a laid-off waiter can become a welder overnight is a perplexing one.

The metalworkers’ contract

Meanwhile, in February, an agreement was reached over the renewal of the metalworkers’ contract. The obtained salary increase (€112 monthly for the 5th level of the pay grade) is somewhere between the unions’ request (around €150) and the bosses’ offer of €65. However, it should be borne in mind that this increase will be divided into four tranches and will not be fully implemented until June 2024, four and a half years after the expiry of the previous contract (December 2019). Certainly, this is a superior salary increase to the one obtained in the 2016 contract when, also because of a bad decision on the part of the unions, it was limited solely to the recovery of inflation. But a clause hangs over the actual gains: unless specific agreements are reached, the increases absorb the ‘super-minimum’ pay raise. This is a rise of corporate or individual wages particularly common amongst white-collar workers and technicians, who may therefore find themselves with a lower increase or none at all.

Having said this, it is odd to hear the union leadership sing the praises of an extraordinary achievement: as expressed by both Francesca Re David of the FIOM-CGIL and Roberto Bengalia of the FIM-CISL. Perhaps this is a reaction to the narrow escape from the danger of non-renewal. It does not seem to be an occasion to celebrate nor to beat oneself up over. It is rather about recognising the fact the agreement was determined by a situation that is certainly not favourable to our class, a starting point from which to take steps forward in the future.

The deep strata of workers in an opulent Europe

In the range of class stratifications, we cannot forget the deepest strata, those who had paid and are paying the highest price for the crisis caused by the pandemic. Even in the home of the social market economy, Germany, these strata are neglected. The denunciation comes from the 28th January edition of the weekly magazine Die Zeit. Many have lost their mini-jobs, their second or part-time jobs. This is not all: while it is true that inflation is at a standstill at 0.5%, the prices of basic necessities have risen by 2.4% in 2020, disproportionately affecting lower income strata. Moreover, the closure of schools and kindergartens has meant that free food for children has stopped. The moral: the poor have become even poorer. […] Many were helped (Kurzarbeiter, enterprises, the self-employed, students, families), but not the poorest.

A study by the Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI), which has close ties to trade unions, calculated that in Germany, compared to an average loss of 32% of wages caused by the crisis, those with a monthly income of less than €1,500 lost 40%: those who had less lost relatively more (Handelsblatt, 20th November 2020). The phenomenon of the working poor, i.e., wage earners with an income of less than 60% of the median, is the focus of an analysis by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) based on Eurostat data. In the EU, almost one in ten workers (9.4%) falls into this category, and their number has increased by 12% in the year of the pandemic. These are often young people with fixed-term contracts, part-time jobs, and/or immigrants.

The workers’ club amongst wage stratifications

Another study by the European Commission from April 2020 estimates that immigrants make up 13% of the so-called key workers; and in some sectors they are literally essential in filling vital roles. They make up more than a third of cleaning, more than a quarter of construction, a fifth of home care, a fifth of the food industry, and a sixth of drivers. The ETUC’s report notes that among migrants, low-skilled workers are over-represented in a number of key occupations, vital in the fight against Covid-19, but their value is often overlooked.

The activity of the workers’ club revolves around the broad spectrum of wage stratifications: from the metalworker to the young service-sector worker and the immigrant. An activity which aims to defend living and working conditions and to unite the class in the strategy of the struggle for communism.

Lotta Comunista, February 2021