We translated this article, partly because it lifts the spirits, partly because there is an actual series of struggles going on in ports around the globe. Recently we saw a succesfull strike at the Piraeus port in Greece, which kicked off after a fatal work accident. Shortly after, agency dock workers in Liverpool went on wildcat strike over unpaid wages. One of the bottlenecks in the current supply-chain crunch are global ports – as decribed in an article by Sergio Bologna that we translated a few weeks back.
The autonomous port workers’ collective Calp blocks arms shipments to war zones, using its structural power at a crucial bottleneck of capitalism. What can be learned from this? An exploratory visit.
By Anna Jikhareva
As the first tires burn, it’s just past seven. Smoke rises above the harbour entrance at Ponte Ethiopia, the cold wind blows soot across the street. Behind the gas station, the sun rises on the horizon.
A few dozen men of various ages have gathered in the square on this Monday morning, along with a few women. Their goal: to block one of the port gates. Over the next few hours, more and more workers join in, eventually numbering well over a hundred. Cars that want to leave the extensive grounds force the activists to turn around in a friendly but forceful manner. The police have also been there for a long time, but they remain in the background. This is not the first time that the dockworkers’ collective Collettivo Autonomo Lavoratori Portuali (Calp) has caused a ruckus in Genoa.
José Nivoi, functional black jacket, hood pulled over his forehead and black sunglasses, something like the public face of the group, is going over the final details with one of his comrades-in-arms. In between, Bengal fires light up. Meanwhile, in a small cart, more and more tires are brought in and placed on the road behind plastic barriers to block the way of the already jammed trucks and cars. Maurizio, known as “Mauri”, one of the twenty or so active members of the Calp, pours gasoline over rubber and wooden pallets with such calmness it is as if he were on an early autumn walk. As the flames blaze, a mischievous grin spreads across the face of the man in his mid-fifties, who has worked at the port for more than two decades.
Even though the history of Calp, the heritage to which the collective refers, goes back much further, the group in its current form was born about ten years ago. In the Arab world, protest movements were sweeping away one regime after another; in New York, the activists of Occupy Wall Street were just setting up their camps. In mid-October 2011, people all over the world gave vent to their anger at the power of the banks and the excesses of the financial markets. And in Rome, well over 100,000 people took to the streets against the Berlusconi government’s austerity plans and Brussels’ influence. The demonstration ended with water cannons, tear gas and many injured.
A group of dockworkers had also travelled from Genoa to the capital for the day of protest. “The collective experience was very inspiring, almost epic,” Nivoi says. On the way home, he says, they came up with the idea of reorganizing themselves, because they felt unrepresented by the CGIL, the country’s largest union confederation.
From the beginning, they also wanted to link their struggle for better working conditions in the port with other struggles. That is why they are blocking arms shipments and drawing attention to the situation of refugees at Europe’s borders. The Italian state persecutes the group for their activity, while the Pope invited them to an audience for their commitment. Who are these people, in what historical tradition are they? And can their strategy be a model beyond the port of Genoa?
The legacy of the Partigiani
After a few hours, the blockade at the port gate is over, and the men move on to a nearby square, where hundreds of people have already gathered: it’s October 11th, and the grassroots unions have called for a nationwide general strike – for the “unification of struggles”, against the Draghi government and the “padroni” (’bosses’), as the announcement reads. More than 4,000 people march through Genoa that day: health workers, who deplore the fatal austerity measures; activists, who remember the dead in the Mediterranean; workers, who oppose the Corona crisis being carried out on their backs. Nivoi, who helped organize the strike as a representative of the grassroots union federation USB, will later call the day a “complete success”.
People are particularly annoyed by the Covid certificate, which is called a “green pass” in Italy. It not only restricts access to bars or theatres to those who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested, but is now also supposed to regulate access to the workplace. “The state is responsible for the fact that there are too few beds in hospitals, so honestly it should introduce compulsory vaccination,” says Nivoi. But with compulsory certification and expensive Corona tests, the responsibility is shifted to the individual, he says. “We stand up for freedom, dignity and a good life,” an elderly gentleman shouts into the microphone during one of the speeches, his voice cracking. “Tutti uniti”, all together.
One day before the general strike. José Nivoi’s car winds its way up the road, curve after curve, the cauldron of Genoa growing smaller and smaller behind the rear window. The 36-year-old is in the best of moods, talking about a partisan memorial located near today’s destination: an excursion bar where a few Calp people meet because one of them is getting married soon. The memorial at the Benedicta Monastery recalls a dark chapter in Italian history: in April 1944, units of the Wehrmacht, security police and fascist forces murdered nearly 150 people there on the border between Liguria and Piedmont to take revenge on the Partigiani (‘partisans’).
The reference to the partisans’ resistance struggles is important to Nivoi and his colleagues, as they locate themselves politically in that anti-fascist tradition of which northern Italy has long been and still is the centre. A day in the early summer of 1960 therefore has an almost mystical significance for them, which is also burned into the collective memory of the Genoese. At that time, anger over an upcoming congress of the neo-fascist MSI party brought the entire city onto the streets: trade unionists and communists, female students, dockworkers and former members of the Resistenza. A total of 100,000 people who, after long street battles, finally succeeded in pushing back the heavily armed state forces.
In front of the restaurant, red wine is poured into glasses and a large paper bag full of focaccia is passed around – the flatbread, a Genoese specialty, must not be missing from any Calp action. Afterwards, a sumptuous lunch awaits the troupe: vitello tonnato and celery salad with truffle sauce, deep-fried mushrooms and gorgonzola gnocchi. In between prosecco and wine, later grappa. The mood at the long festive table in the middle of the wood-panelled hall is exuberant. Ricardo Rudino, whom everyone simply calls “Il Vecchio” (The Old Man), proudly presents videos of past actions, in which fireworks and Bengal fires often play a role. The pleasure he takes in setting things on fire is plain to see.
The Calp people also celebrate meeting places like the pub in the mountains or table rounds like today’s as a political practice: for them, class struggle and a good life belong together. “We are friends first and comrades or workers second”, explains Rudino, something of the moral authority of the group, about their cohesion.
The last in the chain
Rosario, who works as a crane driver in the port, shows a photo of a container on his mobile phone during a cigarette break. This one, he says, crashed, almost hitting a colleague. “Safety protocol is often not followed,” he complains. In 2009, a worker was killed, prompting angry protests from many in the port – and ultimately leading to new safety rules. But because everything has to be done faster and faster today, safety is still often not guaranteed. Where a ship used to be loaded in six hours, four would have to suffice today. Accordingly, there are many accidents and injuries, Mauri says. “Every day you know something can happen, you can even die: a constant danger.”
In addition to the struggles the Calp is waging as part of the grassroots union federation USB, the collective is also committed to another goal: striking ships that transport weapons or military equipment to war zones. In this way, they are part of a movement that in recent years has gripped more and more ports around the world.
The “Bibi Bar” is little more than a simple container painted blue and yellow between multi-story cruise ships and port cranes, and something like the actual control center of the Collettivo. On the day after the strike, José Nivoi sits on one of the white plastic chairs and talks about how he and his colleagues are standing up to the powerful arms industry. His two mobile phones vibrate incessantly, someone familiar constantly passes by, and he never takes off his sunglasses, even now. A few years ago, he says, they realized that Genoa was serving as a trans-shipment point for the international arms trade. “We realized that the goods that pass through the port are part of a larger system: It goes from universities to industry to transportation across the sea.”
The port, he said, is the last point in that chain where shipments can still be stopped. “After all, we cannot open our ports to arms exports and then close them to those who later flee the consequences of these weapons”, Nivoi exclaims. “Close the ports for weapons and open them for refugees”: true to their motto, the group has joined forces with sea rescue crews like Sea-Watch to form a network. “I don’t want blood on my hands, it’s also an ethical issue”, summarizes the activist.
Ricardo Rudino, the “old guy”, says, “you’re either for it or against it, there’s no middle ground.” He also sees this commitment as a labour struggle. “The workers must be able to control what they load”, says the 57-year-old, tapping a box of napkins heavily on the table to emphasize the point. After all, he says, it’s also a matter of safety: in Genoa, houses extend close to the port; if a cargo explodes, half the city is in ruins. “There are historically close links between the city and the port; workers and citizens alike need to know whether potatoes or weapons are passing through the port.”
In the maritime universe
The biographies of Calp people are also closely linked to the maritime universe. Nivoi, who comes from a communist workers’ family, started working at the port when he was 21. After his parents separated, his father kept taking him to meetings of his union, which sensitized him to the issue. Ricardo Rudino, on the other hand, has been employed at the port for seventeen years, currently as a traffic coordinator at the ferry terminal.
A symbol of these interconnections is the Compagnia Unica Lavoratori Merci Varie (CULMV), a relatively unique entity that can probably best be described as a mixture of self-government, trade union and guild. The Geneva director Alain Tanner once created a monument to the Compagnia with his film “Les Hommes du port”. In the middle of the 14th century, when the maritime republic of Genoa was flourishing, the workers called “camalli” (load carriers), who were responsible for loading and unloading ships, founded the Compagnia de Caravana, which was to last for centuries. After the Second World War, it gave birth to the CULMV.
Then as now, membership was passed down from father to son – thus preserving the militant tradition. Until the partial privatization of the port, the Compagnia was responsible for its operation: It employed the workers, but also took care of social concerns. A kind of big family, as the protagonists of Tanner’s film put it on record: solidarity in action.
In the 1970s, the once proud workers’ union had up to 8,000 members, but today there are barely 1,000, about half of all dockworkers. Whereas it used to be the only company represented on the site, today more than a dozen companies divide up the work in the port. The “Law No. 84” of 1994 – a privatization offensive that completely turned around the country’s largest port in terms of area – contributed in no small measure to the decline. “In the past, the padroni still had a relationship with their workers; in the event of disputes, they would come to the docks in person. That was paternalistic, but still human. Today, people don’t even know who their boss is”, Rudino says.
In the past, as today, the maritime universe was also a very male-dominated world: there are still only a few women working in the port, which is also reflected in the structure of the Compagnia. Accordingly, the Calp also has no female members.
The first successful blockade of arms shipments takes place in May 2019 – and catapults the small autonomous collective abruptly into the limelight. In those days, a ship of the state-owned Saudi Arabian company Bahri is on its way to Genoa, where it is to load electricity generators and bring them from there to the Middle East. The “Bahri Yanbu” had already picked up munitions in Belgium. According to research by the French investigative collective Disclose, NGOs and dockworkers in Le Havre prevented another arms deal. The ship then suffered a similar fate in Genoa. “We contacted the port authority, who told us the generators were for civilian purposes”, Nivoi recounts, “but the stamp on the containers proved they were military goods.”
The activists suspect that the generators, made by the Italian company Tecnel, are intended for drones and will be used in the war in Yemen, to which Saudi Arabia is a party – and are mobilizing to strike. They cite the constitution, which states that Italy “rejects war”. And to a law that prohibits arms trade with countries at war.
Together, representatives of CGIL and USB blockade the ship’s cargo until the “Bahri Yanbu” has to leave without having loaded or unloaded anything. “We got people talking about the war in Yemen and about Western arms exports to conflict zones”, Nivoi recalls. A few days later, trade unionists in Marseille boycott the cargo of a ship also bound for Saudi Arabia. Similar actions take place again and again: from Spain to the west coast of the USA. In the meantime, the Calp works together with the research centre Weapon Watch, which provides the workers with information about planned deals.
The blockades are not always successful. When the group wants to prevent the loading of a Turkish ship, the CGIL does not go along. Enraged by this, Ricardo Rudino turns his back on the union after years: “The weapons were supposed to go to northern Syria and thus to jihadist groups.”
In the meantime, an international network has emerged that exchanges information – and repeatedly criticizes the arms deliveries to conflict areas. In Hamburg, for example, an alliance is currently collecting signatures for a popular initiative to ban armaments from the port.
The men of Calp, meanwhile, also see their strikes as part of a historical tradition. “We inherited internationalism from our fathers,” says Nivoi. The port of Genoa, he says, has always been “a centre of practical solidarity” – whether during the Vietnam War or when blockading a shipment to the Chilean Pinochet dictatorship.
Sociologist Katy Fox-Hodess researches international solidarity between dockworkers’ unions at the University of Sheffield. The practice of “chasing ships” goes back a long way, she says in the video call. “Over a hundred years ago, dockworkers in England refused to ship arms destined for the civil war in the Soviet Union.” In the 1930s, she says, workers opposed shipments to Japan and fascist Italy, and later Dutch and French arms for Indochina.
Support from the pope
The blockades represent the potentially great power that workers in the logistics industry can wield thanks to their structural position at the bottlenecks of just-in-time capitalism: When they strike, global supply chains quickly grind to a halt. Italian sociologist Sergio Bologna, once a member of the radical leftist group Potere Operaio, had also pointed out this potential in an essay a few years ago: “The strength lies in the fragility of the supply chain.” In turn, sociologist Fox-Hodess says, it is crucial that dockworkers link up with left-wing actors and social movements. Only then, she says, can that power be exercised in real terms. It is equally important to network beyond one’s own port.
In the “Bibi Bar” it has become afternoon. Nivoi recounts the episode of his visit to the Vatican. “More for fun”, he says, the group wrote the pontiff a letter requesting an audience. Ten days later, his confidant actually called – and invited them. The political police had warned the Vatican about Calp, but Francis had not been impressed.
Shortly after, Nivoi was allowed to shake the Pope’s hand and present him with a Calp T-shirt. “What an irony that he of all people supports us, when the Catholic Church is not exactly one of the institutions we love”, he says. But Francis was one of the few who understood the link between the arms trade and refugee movements, he said.
The collective could use the Pope’s support right now. The Italian state has long been a thorn in the side of its practical solidarity. In February, the police searched apartments and meeting places, took away cell phones and documents – and initiated investigations for the blockade of the “Bahri Yanbu” because of the “formation of a criminal organization”. If convicted, the activists face several years in prison.
“The absurd thing is: they are charging us because we insist on compliance with the law”, Nivoi finds. But he is not afraid. He doesn’t have much time to think about the trial, which is expected to take place next year, anyway. In December, some of the men will stand trial for clashes with police and neo-Nazis. And the strikes against the “Green Pass” also continue to occupy the group. At least they have achieved that the companies in the port have to pay their workers the Corona tests. In addition, Rudino, Nivoi and the others are currently planning an international strike day together with French and Greek dockworkers; they have just been to visit colleagues near Marseille. A few weeks after the visit to Genoa, Nivoi sends a good-humored short message: “I think the situation is really good right now.”