Roberta Patellaro 16.01.2016

As a leftist feministX, I have always maintained a specific drive towards workers’ rights and class struggle. I feel like I have duly done all my homework carefully reading anything from Marx to Trotsky, to Rosa Luxemburg, to the highest strategists of Italian communism, from Gramsci to Berlinguer. In coming to terms with the fact that, for the representatives of the working class (Lenin’s elite or Gramsci’s intellectuals as we may call it), women’s rights and needs hold less importance, it also comes as no surprise that many feminists started speaking about ‘Brocialism’.

As the conjunction of Brother + Socialism, Brocialism pinpoints the sexism within the radical left, specifically the belief that once class equality will be achieved, gender equality will also automatically follow into place with no additional measures needed apart from the eradication of the class system. They prove then to be blind to any other form of oppression outside of classism, failing to recognise the existence of other sources of privilege beyond socio-economic status. As such, Brocialists miss the complicated interaction that different forms of oppressions have on a single individual, further weighting down and obstructing specific members of their movement in the workplace (such as discrimination based on race, gender and disability).What remains most striking is that despite the decades that have passed by, ‘Brocialism’ is still intact; the difference is that now, feminists have updated ideological and analytical tools to uncover it.

Let’s then examine the action of Brocialism, as the denial of all complex forms of discrimination based on gender, age, disability and so on by the representatives of the working class, through a concrete example drawn from the main trade unions in Italy. In the last few years, the multinational corporation Unilever, following an impressive global restructuring, decided to relocate its international operations offices based in Rome and Milan to the European headquarters in Rotterdam and the Global headquarters in London. Unilever management supposedly offered the possibility to relocate to all concerned workers, whilst those who were ‘unwilling’ or unable to accept the relocation received a redundancy package. Furthermore, whilst in the process of restructuring, Unilever Italy also seized the opportunity to initiate a collective layoff procedure that further impacted the local Italian operations that were not directly involved in the relocation. Long story short, the result was that 108 workers in the Rome office alone were effectively made redundant.

Having a long proud history of trade unionism in Italy, the Italian unions, Flai CGIL and Fai CISL, intervened right away, first trying to stop the restructuring process altogether, by contesting the justification provided by the company as unsubstantial. In fact, even if the global economic crisis had surely impacted on Unilever, the company’s budgets were not in the red as it continued to yield profits. However, when soon realising that nothing could be done to stop the relocation process itself (because of the lack of contractual power that the local Italian management had towards the global Unilever board that actually ordered the restructuring process), trade unionists adapted their strategies to protect the most vulnerable workers, or at least they should have done so. In fact, unionists had the opportunity to pressure HR to integrate some of the workers from the international division who could not bear the relocation, in the local Italian office that even if reduced in number, was going to be left in Rome. The tricky part is of course recognising who those most vulnerable workers are and especially why they would be worst affected by a process of relocation.

Unfortunately, the assumptions of Brocialism work as a blindfold for unionists to wear when refusing to recognise those differences in the labour force that make some workers more vulnerable to discrimination, and consequently less resilient when relocated abroad. Since rules of labour market are oriented towards the ‘archetypal worker’, as the male white able-bodied unionised-single-young-worker, used to determine ‘regular’ or ‘normal’ work standards, unionists should identify anyone that does not fit this mould as a more vulnerable member of the working class. Starting from the question ‘where is gender’ should be a launch pad to tackle head on a series of following questions to uncover the complex identity of each worker: what is their age? What is the family load? What is the health status? The precondition to all of this is of course for unionists to actually know the workers they are meant to protect.

Sadly enough, in Italy this doesn’t seem to be the case. Together with criticism of collusion with the management, private deals with HR, and lack of trust from the workers, the unions’ representation of the workers body is far from complete and encompassing. The truth is that forcing a superficial veil of ‘equality’ on the whole working body only means hiding those complex differences and needs that make equality impossible from the start. Italian trade unions are therefore not simply gender blind, but in reality blind to any form of differentiation that does not fit the male-unionised-single-young-worker that companies hope to employ and relocate across the globe. The result is that those who don’t fit this mould fall through the system’s cracks, unnoticed by the unions’ far-from-eagle-sight and with a giant target sign on their back for HR’s unforgiving axe.

As this is too often the case, my concern is that the problem is not simply that in the labour movement all workers are equal apart from those who are more privileged than others (or as George Orwell put it in his metaphor from Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’), but truly that it is the pretended forced equality that unionists keep enforcing on the working body as a whole, that ends up obscuring and leaving behind those workers who fall in between the cracks. It may have come to the time for unionists to remove the blindfold of Brocialism and not to shy away from differences, but to open up debate about the different needs that workers may have according to their individual social positioning, aiming firstly at ensuring basic equity and guaranteeing fair and equal treatment to everyone.