On any given day, most people would likely agree that in the workplace, the voice of the worker is essential. Oh, of course, there are many widely divergent opinions about what that means, the voice of the worker. But, I’d suggest that everyone knows that the workers’ voice is there whether exercised or not, whether part of decision-making.
The fact is that the worker has a voice which includes experience, hopes, fears, desires, concerns, and interests.
Everyone has that voice.
The story in the NY Times of January 5, 2020 included here is a story from Southern Italy. Yet it is another story that illustrates the current and deepening recognition that the “normal” politics of the post-World War II years are gone, with working class voters in Europe and in the USA turning to candidates and political parties that consistently market their messaging in resentment, betrayal, and define the enemy of workers as “elites”, elites who are associated with the traditional parties and political configurations that they used to support.
Workers are sick and tired of working hard for generations only to see their livelihoods threatened and destroyed by forces in which they literally have no voice!
The case of the Italian steel plant in Taranto struck me as illustrative of our common experience in the USA today, and because it has the familiar sound of many dynamics at play here, I found it stark and a good illustration of what we need to do differently. After all, we like to think that Italian workers and European workers more broadly have more power than American workers, but it appears that is less and less the case. There as here, workers have little power to impact decision-making about the work they are asked to do.
They are placed in the position of making false choices or simply bad choices: jobs vs. environmental or health disasters, poor or outdated quality of products, and whether or not the labor that they expend will create continued value in a marketplace that is constantly shifting based on technology, wage competition, a race to the bottom, or in truth a race to nowhere. They have no voice in any of these strategic considerations. They are shut out of the most important dynamics that would not exist except for their labor in the first place.
The article about ILVA of Taranto, the largest steel mill in all of Europe and a production facility which in and of itself represents more than 1% of Italy’s entire GDP ought to be a case study in what to do with the legacy of such enormous production. And I believe that this example with such enormous potential implications ought to be a place to define a future rather than blame or try to resurrect a past that no longer exists.
The past that people hunger for has its own mythology of creation and sustainability. Terrible bargains were made in the post-war years of prosperity and shared wealth. There was class and political struggle that created how wealth would be shared and social infrastructures built.
Nonetheless, the environment was sacrificed, health was sacrificed and much wealth was created and distributed without long-term vision. The post-colonial world served as a source of less expensive labor and for new and expanding markets. And recent efforts to try to mitigate the impact of industrial development on the environment is being done without enough voice, without much, if any ownership by workers.
We cannot forget the emergence of new centers of economic power in China, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, and India which have created increased competition for markets, and reduced costs. This shifting of centers of economic power drives nationalism and inward- looking desire for some return to “normalcy”.
There is another way: we have models of engagement that have worked well: social dialogue and interest based dialogue. If there are to be new political formations among workers, I would argue for organization based on such dialogue. Such dialogue looks to the future, not the past. Such dialogue is designed to capture the voice of workers, their needs, hopes, desires, concerns, their interests.
Conflict can be replaced through dialogue. Transparency of information, central to such social and interest based dialogue allows people to make reasoned choices.
In the case of ILVA…
- It is possible to broaden the dialogue about past uses of the plant and its corrupt practices to a future-oriented discussion about purpose?
- What do we need steel for in the coming decades? What type of steel?
- Are there innovations possible through research to develop steel products without negative health and environmental consequences?
- Can other metals be produced that are more useful, less toxic, and pave the way for the building of the infrastructure we need for reducing the impact of climate change and other environmental disasters?
- Can issues of governance, decision-making, and strategic planning for the plant be democratized?
Or…will we watch helplessly as resentments and the politics of resentment continue unabated. I’d suggest that such politics are not central to the needs, desires, concerns, and hopes, or interests of workers in southern Italy or anywhere else. We also know from history that the politics of resentment lead to the politics of hate.
We must not sit by and watch. History does not really repeat itself. Rather, history evolves as a record of what has come before and what is to be. History, like people is not passive.
Social dialogue, interest based dialogue must be at the heart of re-vitilization of worker organization. Purpose jointly defined can lead to purpose jointly realized.