The national campaign against IKEA in Italy

‘An injury to one is an injury to all’

‘Take a traditional strike where you wave your flag, or climb a roof in protest... you can spend your entire life there, nothing will change. No more hunger strikes! It is time for the employer to starve! As for us, we suffer enough every day in the work place.
This is not our struggle, it is everybody’s struggle in the crisis: if we win in one place it gets better for us all’ (Interview to Mohamed Arafat, logistics sector worker,, 01/11/2013).

‘The warehouse worker has no fear’: this is the slogan that has been backing the national day against IKEA launched by the two grassroots unions S.I. Cobas and ADL Cobas for the 26th of July. The campaign against the well-known ready-to-assemble furniture company is inscribed in a longer round of struggles within the logistics sector, whose starting point can be traced back to the 2008 picket lines blocking the entrance of the warehouse of the large retail company Bennet in Origgio (VA). These struggles, involving several companies (like TNT, DHL, Esselunga, Granarolo), stemmed from the workers’ demands for better working conditions, fair wages and the protection of workers’ dignity, and have put under attack a twisted system of subcontracting used by firms to avoid compliance with the collective agreement and with the guarantees thereon provided to the workers.

The logistics sector in Italy has indeed the peculiarity of being based on the outsourcing of contract work to external ‘cooperatives’1, which, acting as subcontractors, allow for the contractors to cut down the costs of labor, by sneaking around contract obligations and by constituting an intermediate entity between the employees and the (real) employer, which can then hide behind the easy alibi ‘I didn’t know’.

This system of exploitation is further exacerbated by the fact that the great majority of the workforce within the logistics sector is constituted by immigrants, the most vulnerable portion of the workforce. To be sure, immigrants not only have to submit to the same meager working conditions their Italian peers have to, but they also have to face a system of popular and institutional racism, embodied in the 2001 immigration law ‘Bossi-Fini’. The law subordinates immigrants’ permit to stay in the country to their contract of employment, making them easy prey to the employer’s will.

The case of the IKEA workers’ struggle is no exception to the system just described: the warehouse workers in the IKEA plant in Piacenza are mostly immigrants and are not directly employed by the furniture corporation. Instead, they are hired through the consortium of cooperatives CGS. In mid-October 2012 workers went on strike against their meager wages and for a more equal allocation of workloads. This struggle for the plain compliance with the collective agreement and with the most basic working rights was immediately met by the opposition of CGS and IKEA, whose decision was to allow for no concessions to the workers and to weaken the workers’ strength through punitive actions and threatening to suspend, transfer and fire the workers involved. 107 workers were fired with the justification that the strike had caused the cooperatives a loss in the orders coming from IKEA. ‘107 jobs up in smoke on account of workers’ protests’, was the title in the local newspaper ‘Il Piacenza’: we do not need to make a huge effort to read between the lines to understand that workers were fired because they dared to demand the observance of basic contract regulations and work health and safety rules.

After months of struggling, workers were reinstated in January 2013. But IKEA was not willing to bite the bullet: last May, 33 of the most active and unionized workers were suspended, and later 24 of them were fired.

It is in this context that SI Cobas and ADL Cobas called a national day of solidarity on the 26th of July. The need to strengthen the alliance against IKEA is urgent, especially considering the reluctance of the company to surrender to workers’ demands and open the bargaining table. Under this necessity, many other supporters (alternative media, students’ collectives, other trade unions, etc.) endorsed the campaign and organized rallies in 13 cities, spreading the solidarity also across Italy’s borders, with protests in Cordoba (Spain), Berlin (Germany), Vienna (Austria) and Hamburg (Germany).

IKEA’s response to the national day of action has not changed from their previous line of no negotiation. By no means does this mean that workers and their supporters are giving up. IKEA’s aversion to capitulate comes as no surprise: the management knows that it has a lot to lose from the workers’ victory, much beyond Piacenza. We say it ourselves: ‘The struggle of one is everybody’s struggle’. The IKEA leadership knows that every concession given in Piacenza is a victory for all the workers at IKEA. As Aldo Milani, national coordinator for SI Cobas, has stated in an interview on the struggles at Granarolo2: ‘At Bartolini, TNT, DHL, GLS, etc. we have been able to achieve some victories that call into question the collective agreement and that prepares the ground for the abolition of the system of cooperatives’3.

Moreover, the significance of the struggle of IKEA workers in Piacenza travels across national boundaries: IKEA is a multinational corporation operating worldwide. The warehouse in Piacenza is only one of many hubs composing long chains of production and supply that operate with an international range. Thus, workers in Piacenza have much more in common with workers in Poland, in Argentina, in the US, in China or wherever else, than they might think:

‘Globalized production, it is argued, not only creates a world working class that increasingly shares common conditions of life and work but also creates a world-scale labor force that often faces the same multinational corporate employer’ (Silver 2003: 9).

On the one hand these global networks allow capital to relocate production elsewhere when workers’ demands become too pushy (and in general when the conditions for profitability are endangered), making the ‘race to the bottom’ thesis4 a real threat. On the other hand, if we only reverse our point of view we can see how being situated within international chains of production and distribution can widen the scope of workers’ actions.

Moreover, the mobility of capital is not unlimited: capital’s ability to relocate production in every corner of the world – where the costs of labor and levels of unionization are low – relies heavily on the network of transport and warehouses constituting the logistics sector, which allows for the mobilization of commodities globally. This network, though, requires the creation of spatial configurations that are fixed5, such as specific regions of activity where wares are stocked, sorted, distributed. This makes it hard and costly for IKEA and other companies to move their business elsewhere. The IKEA warehouse in Piacenza is an example: despite IKEA’s initial response to the strikes of 2012, which was to threaten to relocate somewhere else, the centrality that the logistics pole in Piacenza has for the multinational company6 not only frustrated any plan to move, but even stimulated new investments by the firm (and by other multinational corporations such as Whirpool and Amazon).

What has been said so far pertains to the objective conditions in which our struggle takes place: the global economy is increasingly integrated, not only through finance, but also through long chains of production and supply cutting across national boundaries. The world is thus ever more unified. At least from the point of view of capital: there is no doubt that the bourgeoisie operates at a global level, and successfully so. And that it faces a proletariat that, instead, acts in the best case within the national borders. The issue here is subjective. Becoming a political subject, able to operate at a global level is the challenge faced by workers all over the world – from the warehouse workers in Italy, to the workers at Lear in Argentina, passing through those exploited in the American fast-food industry or in the Chinese factories – in this moment more than any time before.

For this reason, the struggle at IKEA in Piacenza – which has suddenly taken a national dimension – potentially speaks to all the workers of the world. It is not by chance that most of its protagonists are immigrant workers, many of whom have reached Italy after their involvement in the Arab Spring. Supporting the struggle at IKEA not only means supporting the workers in Piacenza, but can also help to lay the foundations for a real internationalism.

1 The peculiar element in the Italian logistics sector is not the strategy of the outsourcing per se, which is broadly adopted, but the role that cooperatives have come to play within it. The system of cooperatives has expanded significantly in the last few decades within the Italian economic fabric, in particular within the logistics, the retail and the service sectors. Born as a form of alliance between capital and labor (in favor of the latter) and according to the principles of mutuality and democratic participation, cooperatives are nowadays ‘temp agencies’ that guarantee a flexible workforce for a system of production and distribution based on the ‘just in time’ logic.
2 Workers at the dairy company Granarolo went on strike in April 2013 to demand fair wages and the suspension of the deduction of 35% of their paycheck justified with a unilaterally diagnosed ‘State of crisis’. Granarolo fired 41 of the workers on strike and sued them for damaging the company’s public image. But the workers did not give up, and very recently they managed to get Legacoop (the cooperative at issue here) to sign an agreement that provides for the reinstatement of the workers and the withdrawal of the charges against them.
3 Source:
4 The ‘race to the bottom’ thesis explains the crisis that the labor movement has undergone in the last few decades by blaming the hypermobility of capital and the consequent creation of ‘a single labor market in which all the world’s workers are forced to compete’ (Silver 2003: 3-4).
5 For more on the production of ‘immovable capital’, see The Limits to Capital, by David Harvey.
6 Piacenza is a strategic hub that gives IKEA access to the market in the Mediterranean area.

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