On Friday, May 6, 2011 there was a general strike in Italy. Strike days are a hell for commuters who use public transport. I curse Italy a lot on strike days.
Before living here, my own notion of labor strikes could be summed up with memories of honking at sidewalk picketers and the movie ‘Norma Rae.’ A strike is a spontaneous movement, or so I thought, usually the result of a grievous act–of neglectful or unsafe work environments, injury or death on the job. Layoffs sometimes provoke strikes, as do factory fires and child labor. The fact that in America we make movies about specific strikes suggests that to us they are exceptional, historic events, no? A decidedly simplistic take on things, I can now admit. I also admit I’ve never had reason to strike and have never known anyone (in America) who participated in one. It’s not a subject I ever bothered to study.
My ignorance notwithstanding, I can testify to the thoroughly different strike philosophy, if you will, in Italy. Here strikes are frequent, first of all. Planned in advance and carried out with an impressive degree of organization–often at the national level, mind you–Italian strikes come off in a manner at odds with the country’s reputation. (Italy still cannot figure out how to dispose of one of its largest city’s trash). There’s even a kind of independent oversight committee that publishes a calendar–yes, a calendar!–of strikes. Have a look here.
The calendar reveals, among other things, that–
- Strike days are known in advance, but to a limited extent. This calendar goes through early June, 2011;
- Strikes are happening everywhere, in towns and villages, public squares, shopping malls, and so on;
- Using the site’s search engine, one can locate strikes by date, union, sector, company name, town, region, etc;
- The Italian Red Cross is striking this year.
Then there is the abundance to consider. Granted, many of these are minor, non-national strikes, yet surely such a routine, almost regimented approach to striking must diminish some of their power to sway public opinion, to bring about change? Don’t we become immune or desensitized or what-have-you to that which we are over-exposed? More to the point, can a strike made public in advance, thereby allowing commuters, employees in every sector, students, retirees, et al to plan accordingly, really evoke the kind of response that I associate with the (perhaps mythical) spontaneous strikes? I don’t know. I welcome feedback on this from folks who know better.
I suspect the Italian way is more along these lines: Inconvenience thousands of people numerous times over the year and sooner or later something will change…
The problem is nothing changes–part of the nation’s allure to outsiders, no doubt–and in the meantime resentment grows among the rest of us. I resent them, strikes and strikers, for the upheaval and stress they cause for non-striking commuters, who after all share their working-class status and likely cannot afford to give up a day’s pay. Some of us might be as troubled about the future as strikers are (if my interpretation of the most recent campaign can be trusted, last Friday’s strike had to do somewhat with worry about the current government’s plans for the Italian pension system). And let’s face it–it’s not your senator or your union president who’ll be stranded for hours at a chaotic train station, or forced to stand, cramped like sardines with other passengers, for the duration of their commute when trains finally start running again. So when rail and bus personnel strike, sometimes I question how participants expect to muster sympathy for whatever it is they hope to achieve.
Back to last Friday. I didn’t strike, as you’ve probably guessed. I was away from home for seven hours in order to work less than three. A good deal of my personal and professional time having been duly wasted, I made my way to the 17 and took the 12:40 towards home, about an hour before the railroad personnel were to join the strike. I was just starting to draft this post then. We hadn’t yet departed; I was near the head of the train, and a discussion among railroad personnel and a passenger caught my attention.
The subject was nothing new to me. The passenger wanted to know why train tickets cost an extra five euro if purchased on board, and why can’t one pay with a credit card? He got the usual slew of pat responses (non è mica colpa mia and siamo in Italia, signore). Yet the overall tone of the discussion was markedly unfamiliar to my ear: it lacked the ususal condescension, the requisite surliness on the part of the ticket collector. No, instead this collector, a woman of about twenty-five I’d guess, looking rather smart in her forest green ferrovia uniform, was actually taking the time to explain why these policies exist. And smiling! The passenger walked away appeased. Maybe he appreciated those snug slacks of hers.
The nubile collector returned to her older male colleagues. “Ragazzi, strike at two o’clock, right?” she said brightly. “Where shall we go to lunch?”
I looked on a moment longer, and it occurred to me that the truth about Italian strikes must hover somewhere between a legitimate expression of workers’ rights and a kind of societal ‘inside joke’ day, one that sees half the nation protesting in piazzas, a quarter (suckers like me) at work, and the remaining quarter–those with cars, that is–spending the day at the beach.