The dawn of a new cycle of struggles?


December 14, 2018

A previous version of this article was published in Italian on Global Project.1

A new challenge to face

Logistical infrastructures have become central in the contemporary organization of work and capitalist production. In the current phase of capitalist accumulation, characterized by low levels of growth, profitability is primarily pursued through facilitating and speeding up the circulation of goods and increasing the number of exchanges, rather than increasing production. Within this model, the logistics sector plays a key role, because of its capacity to reduce the space and time necessary for capital circulation. This is not a new phenomenon: already since the 1980s, large-scale industrial restructuring and waves of global offshoring have led to the emergence of global supply chains that rely on logistics to function. However, the more recent emergence of digital platforms as the new and dominant business model through which value is created, captured and distributed in 21st century capitalism2 has amplified the importance of logistics. Indeed, the business model of several digital platforms is based on bringing together different groups of users – producers and clients – and enabling exchanges between them on an unprecedented scale and with ever-increasing speed. Whilst the extraction of data is arguably the primary source of value accumulation for digital platforms3, the rapid and efficient circulation of goods to fulfil digitally-mediated exchanges is equally crucial.

By organizing and enabling goods’ circulation and exchange, logistics becomes therefore central to contemporary processes of capital accumulation – both in manufacturing and in services.

It is not by chance that in the last few years, a host of major technological innovations and transformations have been concentrated in this sector. In Italy and abroad, the supposed benefits and progressive potential associated with this process of technological innovation have been widely eulogized by many authoritative voices both in the political sphere and in the trade union movement.4 And yet, we still know relatively little about how this transformation has been received, and most importantly challenged, by one of the main actors involved: the workers. After years of apparent decline of the organized labor movement, new and radical forms of worker mobilization and organization have been recently emerging across advanced capitalist economies, especially within the most advanced segments of the logistics sector.

TNT and DHL couriers, Foodora and Deliveroo riders, warehouse workers in Amazon and Leroy Merlin have mobilized in recent years across several European countries to demand better conditions of work and life. Italy has been no exception to this pattern. These struggles explicitly challenge the notion of technological innovation as an inherent, positive marker of progress. Equally importantly, they also dispute some ingrained beliefs about the nature of these occupations and the implications that their characteristics have for resistance. The first belief relates to the very nature of logistics jobs, commonly considered to be at the vanguard of current processes of technological innovation. Such processes of technological and organizational innovation are believed to exponentially increase managerial control over workers, and thus potentially limit possibilities for resistance, organization and collective action.5 The second belief has to do with the political composition of this workforce, where levels of ‘traditional’ unionization are very low. Non-unionized workers are indeed commonly considered amongst labor sociologists to be politically apathetic, unable to organize and initiate forms of collective struggle.6

And yet, logistics workers have been the protagonists of a new cycle of social mobilization which has forcefully emerged in Europe in the last seven years. These new struggles have displayed innovative traits both in terms of organization and in terms of forms of action, and have been supported either by conflictual rank-and-file trade unions, or directly by the creation of autonomous workers collectives. In sum, the two beliefs discussed above appear to have been clearly contradicted by the very emergence of these mobilizations. Understanding how and why these workers have managed to organize and respond with new forms of struggle to the new capitalist offensive, challenging it on its own favorite terrain – that of technological innovation – is thus absolutely necessary for all those observers who, like us, believe in the possibility of re-launching class struggle in the current capitalist cycle. The notes that form the basis of this article are the fruit of a work of militant enquiry undertaken by the first author, together with other comrades and colleagues, in the last few months in the Italian cities of Turin, Milan, Piacenza and Bologna, interviewing and taking part in the mobilizations of workers in the warehouse logistics and food delivery sectors.

Beyond production: on the centrality of logistics in contemporary capitalism

Marx noted that “while living labor creates value, the circulation of capital realizes value”, highlighting the interdependency of the processes of valorization, realization and distribution within the circuit of capital.7 If surplus value is created in the productive sphere, it is only through the distribution and sale of goods that surplus value can be effectively realized. In this regard, the incapacity to sell goods, whether caused by insufficient consumption or from blockages and resistances in the supply chain, implies that value cannot be concretized. The laws of competition oblige capital to constantly diminish the time necessary for the circulation of goods (turnover time), given that, during this time, surplus value cannot be converted in profit. If the amount of surplus value that can be accumulated by capital depends on turnover time, it follows that logistic efficiency is a critical determinant for capitalist profitability. If we take the Marxian definition of capital as value in motion, each blockage and slowing down of circulation implies a net loss of value, because capital which is frozen and not moving is no longer capital.8 As David Harvey recently highlighted, ‘any failure to maintain a certain velocity of circulation of capital through the various phases of production, realization and distribution will produce difficulties and disruptions’9 and capitalist crisis.

In an often-cited passage from the Grundrisse (1857), where capital’s intrinsic capacity to overcome barriers and obstacles of any kind in its constant process of circulated is described, Marx emphasizes the centrality that exchange infrastructures assume in this process:

The more production comes to rest on exchange value, hence on exchange, the more important do the physical conditions of exchange – the means of communication and transport – become for the costs of circulation. Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.10

Historically, and differently from what is understood by orthodox Marxist interpretations – the relative importance of the various processes or ‘moments’ of capital circulation, as Marx called them (valorization, realization, consumption, distribution) has changed with the evolution of circumstances.11 Whilst the labour process described by Marx in Volume I of Capital was characterized by the closed spatiality of workers in the factory, where forms of cooperation structured and controlled by capital generated profit and surplus value, in the current phase of capitalist development goods are no longer produced solely in the physical spaces of production; but also, and most importantly, in the ‘logistic space.’12. Production and distribution are organized as a dispersed but coordinated system, where goods are packed and produced over large distances, through multiple national borders, and thanks to complex social and technological infrastructure. In this phase, the process of valorization takes place over global value chains, distributed over a highly unequal political and economic geography.13 For example, the development of e-commerce depends today from the creation and utilization of global logistical infrastructures, that allow the transport of goods through oceans, roads and railways and between cities, states and special economic zones.14

These global value chains work according to a ‘lean’ model of production and distribution, characterized by low warehouse stocks, that are replenished only when necessary – or, as the sector jargon would have it, ‘just in time’. Whilst operating within a clearly more circumscribed geographical scale, platforms that offer services of ‘last mile’ urban delivery for food or other small goods – such as Deliveroo, Foodora or Glovo – follow a similar logic, as they enable fast, digitally mediated exchanges between producers and consumers and rely on their flexible courier workforce to immediately realize the flow of goods between them. In the operation of these platforms, value is created from the very process of distribution; especially from its immediacy and from the intensification of its speed. From these specificities of the contemporary capitalist cycle derives the centrality that the distribution process appears to have acquired; and within it, the sector – here defined in broad terms – of logistics. Hence, if – taking up and recuperating the lesson of Marx in the Grundrisse – the technological and social infrastructures of exchange become crucial in a society increasingly more centered around exchange value, it derives that blockages and sabotages of these same infrastructures might enable the launch of potentially fatal blows against capitalist organization. Keeping these theoretical coordinates in mind, we therefore look to the new struggles which are emerging in the logistics sector, hypothesizing their strategic centrality. At the same time, we are aware that, as Tronti15 or more recently Hardt and Negri16 have pointed out, only the strength and diffusion of conflict determine an actual political potential.

The dawn of a new cycle of struggles?

Since the second half of 2011, a new wave of worker mobilizations in the logistics sector has emerged in Italy. This has involved various firms in the sector, including several multinationals, such as TNT, DHL, GLS, IKEA, Granarolo and Leroy Merlin. Since the end of 2015, in parallel, another cycle of mobilization has sprung up at the European level amongst food delivery workers, involving couriers of various multinationals operating in the sector – amongst which Deliveroo, Foodora, Glovo, JustEat and UberEats. Mobilizations have taken place across several countries – such as Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy itself. What these two cycles of struggle have in common, beyond the fact that they have taken place in the supposedly most advanced segments of contemporary logistics, is the form of organization and the militancy of action that has characterized the mobilizations. This is a political composition that has not been seen in the European context since the cycle of struggle of the 1970s, and that represents a promising prospect for a recuperation of workers’ conflict in one of the most innovative sectors of contemporary capitalism.

The initial situation of all these workers was broadly speaking the same: an almost complete absence of rights and legal protections, and the substantive absence of any intervention on part of traditional confederal trade unions.17 Despite these conditions, considered objectively adverse to workers’ collective organization, the capacity of these subjects to engage in conflictual practices of mobilization and organization has surprised many ‘experts’ and scholars of labor struggles; as well as the leadership of several political and trade union organizations. However, without wanting to idolize the vulnerability facing these workers, it is paradoxically the presence of such adverse conditions that might have enabled the emergence of this kind of mobilizations. On one hand, the absence of a framework of rights to guarantee and regulate forms of collective action and strike has incentivized the development of innovative and radical tactics of struggle. On the other hand, the absence or inactivity of confederal unions has favored the emergence of dynamics of self-organization amongst the workers, and/or the intervention of rank-and-file grassroot unions, traditionally more prone to antagonistic practices of struggle. In Italy, the case of warehouse porters in the Piacenza and Bologna regions and the case of food delivery couriers in several northern Italian cities exemplify clearly the dynamics at play in these new logistic mobilizations.

Mobilizations in the warehouse logistics sector have been particularly interesting, both for the social composition of the labor force, and for the organization and action forms which have been used. The workforce in the sector is predominantly of North African origin – in particular Moroccan, Tunisian, and Egyptian – and for a long time had been subject to managerial strategies that sought to create divisions along ethnic lines within the workforce. However, in several cases over the last few years, these workers have rebelled in mass against the firms, counting on the social networks of solidarity already in place in the various migrant communities. Fundamental in this process of recomposition has been the active role played by rank-and-file unions, such as SI-Cobas, and ADL Cobas, which have encouraged the building of political ties amongst migrant communities, contributing to overcome some of the initial ‘racial’ diffidence stoked up by managerial practices through the adoption of a common language of social struggle. In other words, a condition of weakness – perceived by some as a structural obstacle to mobilization, i.e. the presence of ‘ethnic divisions’ – has been transformed in a source of strength, thanks to the deliberate political strategy put in place by the organized groups which have intervened to support the mobilization.

But the most interesting aspect of these struggle concerns the forms of action that have been adopted. These have expressed a level of radicalism that had not been seen in labor struggles in Italy for decades - at least since the years preceding the start of the ‘social partnership’ period in the mid-1980s.18 Differently from the few strikes in the logistics sector conducted in these years by confederal unions,19 the specificity of these grassroots mobilizations has been the political will and capacity to create concrete disruption; i.e. to hit the firm at the core of its economic interests and of its capacity to generate profit by putting in practice the total blockage of goods circulation. By building well-attended and determined pickets in front of the gates of the warehouses, the workers aim not only to stop the few strikebreakers, but, above all, to block the flow of circulation of goods through the complete paralysis of loading and unloading trucks. In this way, the porters exercise their full ‘structural power’, or more precisely their workplace bargaining power.20 That means that they exploit their strategic centrality in the process of goods circulation, to cause significant economic damage to the firm, thus increasing the political strength of their action. It is indeed not by chance that, wherever porters have managed to organize these forms of wildcat strikes, they have been able to extract significant concessions from the firms (the latest example is the case of Leroy Merlin workers in Piacenza in October 2018). Beyond rank-and-file unions, these struggles have been amplified and supported by the crucial intervention of several solidarity groups – especially activists of local self-organized political groups, such as local student collectives or social centers. Many activists from these groups have actively participated in the pickets, putting their experience and their bodies at the service of the workers.

Despite some differences that arise from the distinct nature of work organization, the mobilization of food delivery couriers in the Northern Italian cities of Turin, Milan and Bologna have shown similar features, both in terms of organization and forms of action. Similarly to the struggles of logistics porters, these mobilizations have indeed been characterized by the complete absence of traditional unions.21 Even more so than in warehouse logistics, the self-organization of workers in their own autonomous collectives has been central. This has been significantly supported by solidarity groups that have contributed not only to the practical realization of the strikes, but also to their organization and to the invention of repertoires of struggle. Amongst the various forms of struggle, it is worth mentioning a key tactic that these groups have adopted – i.e. the realization of ‘digital’ strikes, whereby workers log out en masse from the firm’s app that allocates work shifts and deliveries in order to boycott and block the delivery service.22 More generally, the presence of a ‘militant urban environment’ – for example, autonomous collectives or self-organized political spaces – in the cities where the cycle couriers have taken action has been fundamental for their political and organizational growth, as well as for their ability to innovate their repertoire of action.

In this regard, the most important lesson that we can learn from the struggles of the Italian cycle couriers is associated to a specific strategy they have adopted, which represents – in our view – the most innovative characteristic of this militant labor struggle. Cycle couriers are aware of their limited workplace bargaining power23: differently from logistics warehouse workers, they are not able to successfully blockade the entirety of the delivery service of the firms which they work for. On this basis, they have therefore brought forward forms of disruptive action aimed at damaging firms profit at the ‘point of realization’, i.e. in the relationship between the delivery platforms and their client base. To do this, cycle couriers have consciously adopted a strategy of ‘brand shaming’ to mobilize public opinion in their favor, and consequently, to economically damage the platform. The novelty arises not from the use of the tactic in itself, which has already been practiced extensively since the 1990s by many sectors of the alter-globalization movement to leverage economic damage against multinationals; but from the fact that this practice of struggle has been ‘recuperated’ from the sphere of ‘alternative consumer’ activism and repurposed as a disruptive strategy in the workplace.

In this respect, the strong symbolic component of food delivery platforms, which is one of the key planks of the business model through which they realize profit, has given couriers a strong weapon they could use in their favor. Indeed, food delivery multinationals such as Deliveroo, Foodora and Glovo seek to make profit also by projecting an image of fresh, ‘nice’ and environmentally-friendly business practices, thanks to the fact that their workers operate on bikes (although in many countries, this image actually hides a more complex reality where motorcycle couriers are just as central to the business). Considering this, the ability of recent mobilizations to unmask this image through disruptive communicative strategies can potentially make the firms much more vulnerable, both in an economic and in a political sense. As it has been recently suggested, in times of digital capitalism leveraging an attack on a seemingly ‘symbolic’ component of a business – such as the platform’s public image – can indeed become a key element to hit the value chain where it hurts.24

Overall, the several instances of militant mobilization which have taken place in different segments of the Italian logistics sector – from hinterland warehouses to city streets - constitute an important source of political inspiration and reflection. Against the many strands of technological determinism – either naively positive or overtly dystopian – that dominate current mainstream debates over the technological transformation of work, the struggles of Italian logistics workers point to the centrality of workers’ own agency and initiative in challenging capital on its own terrain, subverting its logics of operation and overcoming supposedly ‘structural’ obstacles to mobilization and organized conflict even under adverse conditions. It is our hope that these experiences can act as a reference point for the development of radical union practices willing to confront technological change and restructuring not as a fait accomplit, but rather as a political and conflictual process to be forged, shaped and challenged in and through struggle.


  1. See: https://www.globalproject.info/it/in_movimento/sulle-lotte-nella-logistica-appunti-per-un-sindacalismo-conflittuale/21753 

  2. Srnicek, N. (2017). Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

  3. Srnicek, N. (2017), The challenges of platform capitalism. Understanding the logic of a new business model.
    https://rampages.us/goldstein2017capitalism/wp-content/uploads/sites/24780/2017/08/Srnicek-2017-Juncture.pdf 

  4. See, for instance, a recent political document released by the main Italian trade union CGIL, Conferenza di Programma CGIL 2018. http://www.rassegna.it/tag/conferenza-di-programma-cgil-2018 

  5. Braverman, H. (1974). Labor and Monopoly Capital. The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York & London: Monthly Review Press. 

  6. Baccaro, L. (2011). Labor, Globalizaton, and Inequality: Are Trade Unions Still Redistributive? Research in the Sociology of Work 22 (1): 213–285. 

  7. Marx, K. (1973) [1857]. Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin: 543. 

  8. Cini, L., B. Goldmann (2018). From control over workers to worker resistance in platform capitalism. Some insights from the logistics sector in Italy. Paper delivered at the Conference “Historical Materialism,” London, UK. 

  9. Harvey, D. (2017). Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason. London: Profile Books: 74. 

  10. Marx 1973: 536. 

  11. On this, see Harvey 2017. 

  12. Cowen, D. (2014a). The deadly life of logistics: Mapping violence in global trade. Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press. 

  13. Cowen, D. (2014b). Disrupting distribution: Subversion, the social factory, and the ‘state’ of supply chains. Viewpoint Magazine. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2014/10/29/disrupting-distribution-subversion-the-social-factory-and-the-state-of-supply-chains/ 

  14. Cowen 2014a. 

  15. Tronti, M. (2013) [1966]. Operai e Capitale. Roma: DeriveApprodi. 

  16. Hardt, M., A. Negri (2002). Impero. Il Nuovo Ordine della Globalizzazione. Milano: Rizzoli. 

  17. Jones, M. and T.A. (2017), Abd Elsalam Died to Keep Global Capital on the Move. https://novaramedia.com/2017/10/15/abd-elsalam-died-to-keep-global-capital-on-the-move/ 

  18. Social partnership (also known as ‘concertation’ in the Italian context) refers to the practice of macro-level cooperation in policy-making between unions, employers’ organisation and governments. It was used extensively in the 1990s in Italy to implement policies of wage moderation and structural reforms of labour market regulation and the pension system. 

  19. As an example, we can consider the ‘Black Friday’ strike organised by the three confederal unions CGIL, CISL and UIL at the Amazon distribution centre of Castel San Giovanni (Piacenza). This was carried out through a symbolic presence in front of the warehouse gates with the support of some workers, without blockading the warehouse. 

  20. Silver, B. (2003). Forces of Labor. Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

  21. Tassinari, A. and Maccarrone, V. (2018), The mobilisation of gig economy couriers in Italy: some lessons for the trade union movement. Transfer, 23(3), 353-357. 

  22. Tassinari, A. and Maccarrone, V. (2017). Striking the Startups. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/01/foodora-strike-turin-gig-economy-startups-uber 

  23. Silver, B. (2003). Forces of Labor. Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

  24. Zamponi, L. (2018). Bargaining with the Algorithm. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/06/deliveroo-riders-strike-italy-labor-organizing 


authors

Lorenzo Cini

Lorenzo Cini is a research fellow at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa and a member of COSMOS (Center on Social Movement Studies). He is also a militant of an Italian social center ([email protected])

Arianna Tassinari (@Ari_Tassinari)

Arianna is a PhD student in Industrial Relations at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on political economy, work & labour, unions & the gig economy in Southern Europe & beyond.