Discussing the "Transnational Social Strike"

Author: 

Roberta Ferrari

Transnational Social Strike, a platform of workers, unions, and other organisations from across Europe, many of which are active around questions of immigration and migrant workers' struggles, held a conference in Poznan, Poland on 2-4 October. The final document from the conference is available online here.

Roberta Ferrari, an activist involved in the project and a member of Precarious Disconnections and Coordinamento Migranti in Bologna, Italy, spoke to Workers' Liberty.


What is the Transnational Social Strike project? What are its origins, and what are its aims?

To talk about a transnational strike is to start from the problem, and not to propose a utopian solution. The problem is that, in the present conditions, to think about effective political actions, something that can bring some real change and empower the different subjects of exploitation (from factory workers to care workers, from precarious workers to migrants) has become somehow impossible. And this apparent impossibility also involves the strike, the most powerful instrument of the working class for many, yet an instrument that seems more and more ineffective vis-à-vis the changing power relations, the transnational organisation of capital, and contemporary conditions of labour.

The Transnational Social Strike project aims, therefore, to create a new process of organisation, to build up new alliances among different kinds of workers, and to share a common space for political debate - that is, to work together across borders to open new possibilities. The first step is to create the conditions for the strike to become effective again, to discuss existing struggles and their limits, to produce a common political analysis of the transformations that labour is facing, conscious of their deep relation to broader society. The project is not utopian, since the transnational strike must become a reality.

It is a process of organisation that also implies experimenting with new forms of collective action on a transnational scale - the only possible scale to answer the neoliberal attack: labour reforms, privatisation, welfare cuts. So the “social” refers firstly to the problem of accumulation of power in a situation in which social reforms and immigration policies are also labour reforms.

We try to introduce new concepts in order to grasp this new reality, such as the “regime of wage” and the “government of mobility”. In the first case, we refer to the political centrality of the wage and to the consequences of its dominion beyond wage labour, a condition of employability, or of constant availability to be employed, at any price, at any time. After years of opposition, inside social and labour movements, between issues related to wages and other issues, such as the discussion around basic income, we think is time to complicate the definition of wage and its implications, and to recognise how the wage relation radiates its effects well beyond a specific contractual form. 

In the second case, we refer to the new political centrality of mobility, and the correspondent effort to locate and control the mobility of the workforce, by governments, international institutions, and employers, in relation to profit and organisation of production. We also talk about global chains of exploitation, referring to two dimensions: on the one hand, to the fact that even though the workers are isolated, divided by new hierarchies andprecariousness, the impoverishment and weakening of the workforce is prosecuted today on a global scale. On the other hand, there is a specific modality of organising production and command along global supply chains that is still overlooked by unions and other movements. Along these chains we can observe how different regimes of wage are functional to a deeper exploitation and we can see how mobility is both a force of insubordination and the object of differentiated techniques of government.

The idea of the transnational social strike was born also as a need to politicise the European crisis, and to overcome the apparent incommunicability and separation between labour struggles and social struggles against austerity. We raised the questions about how to organise and which are the points to hit – even more after the Greek experience. Starting from the experience of the Social Strike in Italy and of the Blockupy coalition, the day after the transnational mobilisation in Frankfurt against the ECB in March, about a hundred people met to make a step forward, to open a new discussion on the possibility of a transnational strike, a strike whose aim is first of all to create new forms of organisation and to break global exploitation chains.

One of the many questions that produced this project was indeed how to transfer the conflict from the workplaces into society and how to link social and economic struggles. The transnational social strike, therefore, should express more than a single collective action, a process of organisation and accumulation of power against exploitation, and a way to produce a political centralisation of the conflict.

To meet in Poznan for the first larger meeting, with three days of assemblies and workshops, had a political relevance: it meant to move to the east where de-location of production and re-location of migrants have a precise effect on the process of political centralisation of European constitution. It meant involving groups and organizations active in the struggle against austerity, exploitation and institutional racism, to think from a different perspective, where for example the timeline of neoliberalism or austerity policies is considerably different, and possibly longer than in other European regions. It was in a way a challenge to the usual political geographies of social movements. And that was right, because the idea of transnational strike is to produce something new.

How does it relate, if at all, to mainstream labour organisations and trade unions?

If you are referring to traditional unions, we can say that the transnational strike is completely autonomous from them. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the project is closed off to unions that acknowledge the need to produce something new and are willing to take part and sustain the organisation of the workers across the borders. In Poznan we also discussed the role of the unions as a strategical resource to connect social movements and workers in different sectors of production, starting of course from the consideration that unionism went through a deep crisis that ended the political relevance of collective bargaining and that the union itself is not sufficient to improve and enlarge struggles on a transnational scale.

So the transnational strike is obviously something more than an international network of social unions, and also something more than an organisation of workers across borders. What we want is to go beyond these forms of organisation, to really attack precarity in its several faces, connecting different figures of labour inside and outside the workplaces, in the sphere of reproduction, both formal and informal. The position of women in the labour market, and the new forms of sexual division of labour, show even more how precarity, wage regime, and government of mobility are affecting social and political relationships and require us to rethink the meaning and the goal of organisation and struggle. 

What's your attitude to the question of the EU? In the UK, some on the far left advocate British withdrawal, and the breakup of the EU, on an almost protectionist/nationalist basis ("bosses use freedom of movement and migrant labour to drive down wages and conditions", "the EU threatens our national sovereignty", etc.) - how do you respond to these arguments? What position would you advocate leftists in Britain take in the upcoming referendum on EU membership?

I will put it simply, because I think the debate on this in UK is often conducted in a rhetorical and confusing way.  Migrants from every part of the world are challenging Europe, its material constitution and its institutions. They are expressing a freedom of movement that does not need to be authorised. These movements are effectively intensifying the European crisis, that is first of all a crisis of its states. This means that the so-called “migrant crisis” is showing the weakness of the European Union in terms of a failure of its nationalistic politics. 

At the same time, this weakness becomes the ground for nationalistic revival, whose main feature is opportunism. In reality, what the British left is proposing is nonsense and shows that they do not understand what is happening. National sovereignty is the worst enemy of the workers in this moment because it is used to create hierarchies within the working class, to advocate social rights that the nations, in their actual form, cannot and will not guarantee to citizens. The only thing nations can offer right now it is a perspective of survival. This debate overlooks the obvious interdependence that is not just European, but global, and the problem of building a radical perspective that should not be for or against the global, but must deal with the global. At the moment, nationalistic arguments are empty shells, built on the false assumption that the state can still protect its own citizens or do without migrant labour.

The migrant strike we organised in Italy in 2010 showed, on the contrary, the potential threat, at an economic and political level, of a strike involving migrant workers in the various sectors in which they are employed, together with Italian workers, women and men, precarious and blue collar, that recognised in the migrants' strike their own strike.

Moreover, many of these lies about the role of migrants in local labour markets have by now been revealed, even if they continue to have a strong power: we know for example that in England migrants, internal and external, are producing more than they are actually gaining, and that all the arguments on welfare tourism are lacking any basis; we know that the flux of refugees in Germany is used to reform the labour market.

It is true: bosses are using migrant labour to worsen the conditions of the national working class; it is also true that national sovereignty is challenged; and, finally, that the European answer to this crisis is all but in favour of workers, women and men, migrants and not. This, anyway, does not tell us that the only way to protect workers is to re-nationalise the working class. On the contrary, it tells us that the neoliberal command that is dominating national politics will prosecute ,in any way, the precarisation of the whole working class.

Contemporary capitalism is organising itself by strategically using the economic crisis on a transnational level; production and the labour market are organised on a transnational level. To think that it is possible to protect workers on the national level is to be blind and ignorant, or to intentionally dismiss the consequences of this kind of view on some sectors of the working class in the name of the national space.

This is by now pretty clear, even in the most interesting experiments that used the nation-state in order to resist neoliberalism, namely in Latin America. Of course, we know the state is far from being useless and irrelevant, but what we have seen, also from the Greek experience, is that what we should do is to organise ourselves outside national borders, starting from what divides us to build a common answer at the level of the transnational chains of exploitation, to impose our own agenda on Europe.

Think about wages: do migrants that pull down wages, or is there a competition among different national wages, even inside the European space, that is used to divide workers even when they have the same employer, just because one is in Poland and one is in France? We think that rather than dreaming about a sovereign state to protect us, we should challenge European financial command by claiming a European minimum wage that responds to our needs. 

Finally, let me say that we refuse to decide where people belong and where they are supposed to belong on a national basis. We are with the migrants that everywhere claim their right to move across borders and to live where they think it can be better for them. And this is far more than solidarity: we need to understand once for all the centrality of migrant labour for the organisation of an effective struggle against precarity, exploitation and impoverishment.

In Britain, there have been significant expressions of sympathy with refugees following the sinking of boats, etc. - how can this sympathy, which often manifests itself as charity (donating clothes, etc.) be converted into solidarity? And how can the distinction between "refugees" (who are fleeing war and deserve our sympathy) and "migrants" (who are "coming here to take our jobs, benefits, housing, etc.") be broken down?

The problem of solidarity is very much linked to what I was saying before about workers. The point is to understand that migration is first of all a project for a better life, to claim rights and wealth. When migrants move from a poor place to a rich one, most of the people see only the poor side, and thus see migrants as victims of some injustice. Well, we see in their movements also a very powerful demand that sounds like: we want our share! This also implies the relation with war: it is true that many people are leaving places like Syria because their towns are bombed, but how can't we see that by moving they are also claiming the right to live in peace? It is not only about the wars of today. If we think about Africa we cannot forget that what is happening there, over decades, cannot be kept inside its geographical borders.

Coming to the divisions imposed by the government of mobility, the living conditions of migrants and internal citizens – although migrants are of course subjected to a double exploitation due to immigration policies – are more and more similar: precarity, welfare cuts, what we called the productivity of uncertainty or employability, the attack on wages, are affecting all of us. It is also evident that who today is a refugee, tomorrow will work in conditions of extreme exploitation. In Italy, unpaid work has been offered to refugees as a means to “integrate”.

It’s ironic, because it really is the best way to integrate them into the Italian labour market, through exploitation and precarisation. But this is not all: behind the discussions on so-called “safe” countries, quotas, and the reform of the Dublin agreements, there is also the attempt to select a fresh labour force based on skills and capabilities. We have to remember that the distinction between migrants and refugees is the best way to exploit this so-called “crisis”, to make profit and to normalise austerity.

What are the demands and/or policies that should form the basis of a programme for working-class solidarity across Europe?

For over a year we have discussed, inside the Blockupy coalition and in the Italian network of the social strike, about the need for common demands to mobilise and organise on a European level, connecting workers and social movements around a common political discourse. We are discussing four main tools that should work as political strategies on the European level: as mentioned before, a European minimum wage is for us a powerful claim (but it must be connected with other issues to frame a programme); a European income; a European welfare; and an unconditional European visa for all migrants.

We are aware that the different contexts and peculiarities have to be considered to understand how these common claims could work, but we also know that precarity, exploitation, and government of mobility are following similar lines across borders and our only possible space of struggle is the European one. These claims should work as instruments which producing the conditions for the strike. Finally, Transnational Social Strike itself wants to become a framework for our actions and organisation.

What is clear after Poznan is that we do not aim to be a coordination of groups, but must work in the near future as a political platform whose first goal is to enlarge participation and involvement, to produce political engagement connecting local and transnational struggles, sharing strategies and analysis. In Poznan we discussed the possibility of collective decentralised actions, and the final document of the meeting in Poznan will include first proposals and practical steps in this direction, while reports from the different workshops will show the intensity and concreteness of the discussion. This is of course just the beginning, there is a lot of work to do and we invite all to join and to contribute.