Political Recomposition in the Italian Digital Economy

August 16, 2018

On the 24th of November, hundreds of workers at the gigantic Amazon warehouse located near Piacenza, Italy, which serves as the main hub for the Italian market, went on strike. It was right during Black Friday. The strike, which happened simultaneously in Italy and Germany, was the first of a series of international mobilisations to address the need to improve work conditions in the distribution hubs that underpin consumption via the multinational e-commerce corporation. On the very same day, Jeff Bezos’s fortune jumped to a whopping $100 billion (US), making him the wealthiest person on Earth. What lies in between your home delivery and Bezos’ bottom line is a platform-based system that organises a massive workforce, speeds up work, and contributes to making jobs more precarious and instable – a hotbed for worker struggles. Many journalistic accounts have described the brutal reality of work at Amazon. To provide further depth, here I refer to classic studies of class composition in industrial societies, which can be useful to analyse how the digital economy incarnates in the specific political and institutional history of local contexts.

From FIAT to Amazon

While most of the thousands of young workers who enter the gates of the gigantic distribution centre every day have no experience of work in a Fordist factory, the assembly lines of 1960s factories have many similarities with Amazon’s algorithmically-managed shelves. In the 1960s, early theorist of operaismo Romano Alquati started investigating work at some of the most representative companies of post-war Italian capitalism, such as FIAT and Olivetti. His foundational work, mostly published in the radical journals Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, laid the ground for the emergence of workers’ inquiry as both a research method and a tool for political leverage. In collaboration (and competition) with other workerist Marxists, such as Mario Tronti and Raniero Panzieri, Alquati contributed to building a theoretical framework for studying the transformation of work, workers’ struggles, and the evolving relation between capitalism and technology.1

My own work is indebted to that story. When I started researching labour at the Amazon distribution centre in the logistics district around my hometown of Piacenza, in Northern Italy, I noticed many similarities to what Alquati had registered at FIAT in the 1960s. For example, what he called the “myth” of FIAT as a provider of good stable jobs is mirrored by Amazon’s attempts to position itself as an employee-focused company that brings stable employment back to the precarized Italian labour market. The labour unions’ struggle to communicate with the new subjects that compose the workforce is another striking similarity. Finally, the political role of the internal division of labour that Alquati identified at FIAT is in place at Amazon too, as processes of deskilling are coupled with strict hierarchies based on the need to subdue the workforce rather than on merit or organisational rationalities. Obviously, this continuity within the trajectory of Italian capitalism is but the framework for the novel characteristics that Amazon has imported onto the local context from the American digital corporation model. New elements include, for example, the role of the digital economy’s ideology in shaping work culture at Amazon. Reading Alquati in 2018 in the light of the transformations brought to Italy by global digital capitalism may prove useful to understand how the latter interacts with the local institutional and political framework: an essential step to grasp worker mobilisation and struggle within a specific territory.

Deskilling and division of labour

The “myth” of work at Amazon is based on several different elements. On the one hand, full-time Amazon jobs do pay a considerable salary compared to the kind of low-paid precarious employment that since the financial crisis of 2008 has become normal for young Italians. On the other hand, Amazon strives to import elements of the Silicon Valley ethos onto warehouse work culture. The company provides common areas where workers can play foosball (outside of their shift, of course), and a nominally informal work environment that is somewhat used to construct work at Amazon as “cool”. For example, workers can dress as they please, a feature that was repeated to me several times during a recent visit of the warehouse. This ideological project seems to be a desperate move in the face of processes of warehouse discipline and deskilling, and of the hierarchies that characterise the workplace. Furthermore, this happens in a context in which the desirability of work at Amazon has already been debunked by journalists and workers alike. The reality on the ground seems to be the falling apart of the moral order of flexibility that used to be hegemonic in the digital economy and is still present, albeit partially, in the gig economy.

In his work on FIAT, Alquati stressed how the company’s reliance on radical deskilling - made possible by the increasing presence of technology on the assembly line - allowed it to tap into the mass of unskilled workers migrating to Turin from the mostly rural and economically depressed South of Italy. At Amazon, technologies such as the algorithmically-driven barcode scanners that guide workers to retrieve or stow a commodity are crucial in processes of deskilling. In early 2018, Amazon even deposited an infamous patent for a future wristband designed to guide workers’ hands towards the right commodity on the shelf, thus further intensifying work while simplifying and standardising tasks, and further reducing the need for specialised workers. Indeed, Amazon can rely on inexperienced workers who can be trained in a matter of hours and are willing to accept extremely precarious employment conditions. As a result, the company can deal with a high worker turnover, which requires the replacement of workers who often endure the harsh work conditions for just a few months before dropping out.

This is not without consequences for Amazon. During production peaks, such as around Christmas or in late summer when the market for textbooks explodes, the company cannot rely on the local workforce to sustain shifts that can require up to 3,000 workers, about twice as many as the full time workforce which works at the warehouse year-round. This need for flexibility has required the company to expand its pool of labour beyond the local territory. For example, anonymous “Amazon buses,” run by temp agencies and reminiscent of the buses operated by Google in the San Francisco Bay Area, drive dozens of young precarious workers from suburban working class neighborhoods in Milan (one hour from the warehouse) to work peak shifts in certain periods of the year. These workers – called “green badgers,” as opposed to full-timers who carry a blue badge – have little to no job security. Yet it is thanks to them that consumers enjoy year-round services such as Amazon Prime.

These workers can also experience a systematic devaluation of their identity and dignity that goes beyond the stories about extreme work rhythms that we recurrently hear about from Amazon insiders. For example, the young pickers, stowers, and packers that work the shelves in the warehouse are referred to as “kids” rather than employees, and are subject to daily searches with full-body scanners. This is all but exacerbated by confronting what Alquati called “parasitic management,” that is, the fundamentally political nature of hierarchies and division of labour within the workplace. At FIAT and Amazon alike, the internal division of labour seems to be aimed at making employees accept widespread irrational hierarchies, and thus contributes to workplace discipline rather than serving organisational principles. Like FIAT workers in the 1960s, most Amazon employees criticise the rationality of the warehouse organisation rather than the conditions of their own individual job. For example, a worker may develop technical skills working with the algorithm that allocates tasks to pickers, only to be surpassed in the hierarchical ladder by new employees that are more prone to obedience and are willing to express faith in Amazon’s “myth” and work culture.

New subjects, old unions

In the early 1960s, the “new subjects” captured by Alquati’s inquiry were the result of major waves of internal migration from the impoverished South to the industrialized North of Italy. Unions, he found, experienced the impossibility to communicate to this new mass of workers hired to staff the production lines. And yet, Alquati foresaw the political potential of these new subjects, which was to explode a few years later at FIAT and beyond. Today, Amazon workers are rather an example of the global precariat, a mix of white and racialised, rural and suburban, male and female, ranging from teenagers, with a peak around 30, to workers in their sixties. This internal diversity contributes to generating challenges for unionisation. But political factors are at play too. Amazon is one of only a handful of companies in the region’s logistics district that have managed to keep out SI Cobas, the quickly growing militant union which has been at the forefront of many winning struggles in the area’s logistics industry and mobilises exactly the new subjects of logistics and e-commerce. Notably, SI Cobas has rallied against the system of outsourcing based on exploitative co-operatives, and has been in open opposition to local PD (Democratic Party) governments. The protagonists of some of these mobilisations have been, for example, migrant workers – mostly from the Maghreb – at IKEA or GLS, and young precarious women in successful strikes at Swedish corporation H&M’s warehouse.2 Still, even the arrival of more accommodating mainstream unions, such as CGIL and CISL, has meant that the infamously anti-union Amazon has been forced to the negotiation table for the first time, and has experienced one strike, with the looming prospect of more mobilisations in the future.

Unions have set out to pursue (and have partially achieved) somewhat limited but crucial goals, such as consistent scheduling, employment stability, and respect of national contracts. In the national political arena, they back more general demands, such as improving the contract that represents the main institutional framework for work at Amazon. Imposed by the grosse koalition government of Mario Monti in 2011, it has made it easier for employers to force weekend and night shifts onto e-commerce workers. Such forms of union intervention happen in the context of political differences and alliances among different groups. In the future, broader processes of recomposition that have already emerged in other companies of the e-commerce and logistics sectors may expand to Amazon. The mainstream unions are currently organising hundreds of Amazon workers, especially among full time employees, and yet they struggle to include the new subjects that represent the bulk of the workforce (the “kids”). So far, young, highly casualised precarious suburban workers have mostly resisted the conditions of labour in the warehouse by refusing discipline and dropping out, a sort of bottom-up casualisation. Should a wider recomposition of the workforce include younger precarious suburban workers, with their demands and political styles, Amazon mobilisations could prove explosive for the future of the Italian digital economy.

  1. A comprehensive account of Alquati’s and other early operaismo thinkers’ work can be found in Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, Pluto Press, 2017. 

  2. See Carlotta Benvegnù and Niccolò Cuppini, “Struggles and Grassroots Organizing in an Extended European Choke Point,” in Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Immanuel Ness, Choke Points. Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain, Pluto Press, 2018. 


Alessandro Delfanti

Alessandro Delfanti teaches at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto. He tweets at @adelfanti and publishes his writing at delfanti.org.

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