The second strike of the Italian gig economy

After a couple of weeks of silence I am back with a post on the “gig economy” , focusing in particular on the food delivery sector. If you can read Italian you can skip this post and read directly the article which I published together with my co-author Arianna Tassinari on the Sunday edition of “Il Manifesto”.

On May 1st the food couriers of Deliveroo in Torino staged the second strike (to my knowledge) of the Italian gig economy, after the protest of Foodora’s rider in October 2016. Many of them “logged-out” from the app at the same time, and the company was unable to perform the delivery of food for some hours. In the past I wrote extensively about struggle of the riders of Foodora, a competitor of Deliveroo in this expanding market (see my post on Jacobin with Arianna).


(this image is from the Manifesto’s article)

This second strike is quite interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it shows that the fight of the hyperprecarious workers of the gig economy in Italy is still on, despite the limited outcomes of the Foodora’s strike (more on this will follow). Secondly, the grievances which triggered the protest shows that despite the innovative look that this start-ups try to maintain, they often use “old” work practices. In fact, the workers were contesting the system for assigning shifts which Deliveroo put in practice in Torino, which was very rigid and far from the mythology of “algorithmic management” (if you understand Italian you can read the workers’ demand here). Here is what the workers say. In the first week of work, they were asked to indicate their availability for the different shifts. After the first week, the table with their shifts have been simply copied-and-pasted also for the following weeks. As a result, if for whatever reason a worker could not fill her shift, she would most likely loose it and it would have been very hard for her to get it back. So much for the flexibility of the gig economy! If anything, this rather paradoxical result shows once again that the claim that food couriers are independent contractors (they are hired as parasubordinate workers in the Italian system) might be soon challenged in the labour courts.


The rise and the fall or Irish social partnership (1)

The rise and decline of Irish social partnership – 1st part

I continue to deal with Irish social partnership, after I described its roots in a previous post.

As you might recall, the 1980s were a decade of decentralized bargaining. Yet, in 1986 the tripartite body National Economic and Social Council (NESC),  published a report entitled “A strategy for development”, which was setting some proposal to deal with the deep recession in which the country was. This would have become the basis for the first social partnership agreement, the Programme for National Recovery (PNR) of 1987. To give an idea of the poor status of the economy, the unemployment rate reached 17.3 per cent in 1985. In the document, wage moderation was deemed essential to improve the country competitive position[1].

But what were the interests in developing social partnership of the different actors on the field? The newly established minority government led by the conservative party Fianna Fail needed to implement austerity policies in a situation of profound economic crisis, while attempting to avoid a direct confrontation with trade unions[2]. On the other hands, the unions had their problems, too. Union density during the 1980s fell to historically low levels, inequality was on the rise thanks to decentralized bargaining and trade union leaders were scared of a possible shift towards Thatcherism, given the developments in UK and the electoral rise of the neoliberal party Progressive Democrats. Hence, the Fianna Fail was able to coopt the unions into the agreement, also thanks to its historical connections with them[3]. Yet, why did the employers shift from a deregulated economy to a form of social concertation? After all, the balance of power was clearly in their favor. Well, employers were concerned for the sorrow state of the Irish economy, and saw Irish social partnership as a chance to see implemented the reforms they deemed to be necessary for the country linked with the wage moderation[4].

With respect to the National Understandings, the PNR led the Irish corporatism to an higher level. It was a triennial agreement which set that wage growth should not be higher than 2.5 per cent yearly in the period 1988-1990, with a special clause for lower wages. In what would become one of the defining characteristics  of the Irish fiscal policy, the government introduced a package of tax cuts in exchange of the wage moderation. Meanwhile, it also enacted a policy of reduction of public spending, which the trade unions found difficult to oppose as they were part of the PNR agreement[5].

The Plan for National Recovery was just the first of seven agreements. I will deal with the evolution and the fall of social partnership in the next posts.

[1] Hardiman, N. (2002a), From Conflict to Co-ordination: Economic Governance and Political

Innovation in Ireland, West European Politics, 25:4, 1-24.

[2] Roche, W. K. (2007), Social Partnership in Ireland and New Social Pacts , Industrial

Relation, Vol. 46, No. 3 , 395-425.

[3] Ferriter, D. (2004), The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, London: Profile Books

[4] Roche, W. K. (2007), ibidem.

[5] Von Prondzynski, F. (1998), Ireland: Corporatism Revived, in Ferner, A. e Hyman, R. (eds), Changing Industrial Relations in Europe, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Understanding the process of process tracing?

In the last weeks I worked quite intensively on qualitative research methods and in particular on  process tracing (PT).  The latter is a powerful instrument of within-case study analysis.  Social scientists can use it to formulate hypothesis , to develop a theory or to test an hypothesis.

Borrowing from Aidan Regan’s blog on social research, a good approach to process-tracing should go along the following steps

  1. Step 1: the investigator begins by formulating a set of theories that identify the principal causal variables that are said to conduce a specific type of outcome to be explained. The object is to test one theory against another. It is a three-cornered fight among a theory, a rival theory, and a set of empirical investigations.
  2. Step 2: for each of the theories to be considered the investigator then derives a set of predictions about the patterns that will appear if the theory is valid or false. This is a process of deriving predictions that are consistent with one theory but not another. In the course of the research these predictions will be often specified as hypotheses to be examined.
  3. Step 3: observations relevant to these predictions are then made. An observation consists of a piece of data drawn from, or observed, in the case, using whatever technology is appropriate: documentary research, field work, interviews or computation. The observations are designed to assess whether the process is present in the cases being investigated. Observations are ‘clues’ about events expected to occur if the theory is valid; the sequence of those events; the specific type of actions taken by various actors; and  statements by those actors about why they took those actions.
  4. Step 4: observations are drawn from the cases to compare predictions from theories, to reach a judgement about the relative merits of each theory. It is about comparing the plausibility of the theory with the validity of the observations. Effective theory building is as important as gathering empirical data.

Even before its recent formalization, process tracing was used implicitly by many scholars (Theda Skocpol being the most famous example). When it is coupled with rational choice theory & methodological individualism, then it is not really my cup of tea.

However, it can be applied with success also to macro-cases. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Stefano Sacchi in his article “Conditionality by other means: EU involvement in Italy’s structural reforms in the sovereign debt crisis” uses process-tracing to disclose that even Italy – which never entered in financial help programmes such as Greece or Ireland – enacted significant pensions and labour markets reform during the crisis under the implicit conditionality that the ECB could stop the purchase of its sovereign bonds.
  • Caroline de La Porte and David Natali in their paper “Altered Europeanisation of Pension Reform in the Context of the Great Recession: Denmark and Italy Compared” also make use of process-tracing to show the EU’s role in pension reform implemented during the crisis through a “two-level game” bargaining process with national actors.

This is the spirit with which I will try to use process-tracing to analyze labour market reforms in Italy and Ireland. Combining process-tracing with comparative analysis might be a win-win strategy. Indeed, this seems to be the road suggested by Peter Hall: If process tracing reveals important causal mechanisms within the cases, for instance, we should be using comparison across the cases, not only to look for covariance in dependent and explanatory variables, but to look also for cross-case variation in how those mechanisms work. Findings from the comparative enquiry could then be used to assess some key components of the causal theory and, where discrepancies across cases are found, the adequacy of the theory and of the process analysis conducted in specific cases scrutinised.


Europe’s Changing Workplaces

Today I’ve been for the first time in Maynooth University (impressive paintings!) for the international conference “Europe’s Changing Workplaces”. The conference had the arguably hard task to try to answers to questions such as:

  • What are the patterns of work in Europe today?
  • Where is work changing, and how?
  • Are there the seeds of a new ‘European model’ of work and employment?
  • If so, what are its contradictions, challenges, conditions and prospects?

There have been many interesting presentations (which will be posted online) as well as interventions from the public.

I have been particularly impressed by the presentation of a paper by Valeria Pulignano and other colleagues on how trade unions and multinational companies bargains over issues of flexibility and security. While the literature on the flexicurity in multinationals following the Varieties of Capitalisms tend to emphasize the role of national institutions as main explanatory factors for the outcomes of bargaining on flexibility and security, these authors focus the structural power of workers and unions. Following the american marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright, structural power “stems from workers’ strategic positions and locations within occupational, industrial, and local labor market structures”. This does not mean that national institutions (such as the the type of industrial relations) do not play a role. Indeed they do, but mostly as a mediating effect: “bargaining arrangements affect the content but not the outcomes of local negotiations, mediating but not determining the power-related effects on flexicurity outcomes” (p. 628). Although I am going to pursue my thesis on a totally different topic, I will try not to forget these findings. (As an aside note, the Smurfit School also hosted a seminar on these topics, where Valentina Paolucci presented some of the findings of her PhD thesis)

I found also intriguing the presentation by Steen Navrbjerg on Rynair and its impact on Danish industrial relations. Guess what? It’s not been positive. For an Irish audience this is hardly surprising, here it suffices to mention the 2007 supreme court ruling.

In the final discussion Micheal Doherty has mentioned one of the growing sectors of the European economy: the “gig” economy. As you might now, I have been writing quite intensively with my colleague Arianna Tassinari on this: here, here and here some examples.

Theory of the elites and fractions of the ruling class

Today at a seminar hosted by the critical political economy cluster we discussed about theory of elites.

I definitely have to read more about this, but at the end of the seminar I felt still unclear about the difference between the concept of elites and that of the existence of different fractions of the ruling class.

I have probably been influenced by the reading of the excellent book by Grant Amyot: Business, The State and Economic Policy: The Case of Italy. There, Amyot present the case of Italy (chosen as the “most unlikely case”, given the peculiar development of Italian capitalism) to corroborate the theory of autonomous state (inspired by the late Greek political scientist Nicos Poulantzas). That is, the state can have a high degree of potential autonomy vis-a-vis the ruling class.

In his book (and in a paper entitled “the relative autonomous state: the case of Italy) Amyot shows that the particular Italian economic trajectory and the fragmentation of its capitalist class (which historically shows a divide between big conglomerates and SMEs) allowed for relative autonomous actions of the Italian government.

This autonomy was however constrained: the state elites did not have absolute freedom to act, but they had to act so to satisfy the most important element of the electoral base of the ruling Christian Democrats: the petty bourgeoisie.

The book of Amyot is enlightening because it shows that the structural economic conditions of a country (in this case the peculiar economic Italian development) tend to shape the power of different fractions of capital, as well as leave a certain degree of freedom to state elites. Which implications could this have for my research? I still have to reason about this.

The roots of Irish social partnerhsip

Irish social partnership, the long tradition of engagement of the social partners (government, trade unions and employers organizations) in centralized neo-corporatist agreements terminated quite abruptly in 2009. When it started, it surprised many international commentators, given the fact that Ireland was (rightly) considered a liberal-market economy. However, already in the past there had been attempts of centralised bargaining between the state, trade unions and employers. Today’s seminar of Bill Roche dealt with the ancestors of social partnership: the series of “pay rounds” between 1940s and 1960s and  the centralized pay bargaining in the 1960s during the 1970s.

I then went back to the pages I wrote for my bachelor thesis (part of which later became an article in Italian with Roland Erne) on these pay fixing mechanism. Much of the information I gathered at the time came from a very interesting book from the labor historian Emmet O’Connor: A Labour History of Ireland: 1824-2000. Ireland: Corporatism Revived by F. Von Prondzynski (1998) was also very helpful. Pay rounds started in the 1940s and were conducted at a firm and at a sector level. There were pay rounds in sector such as electrical contracting, construction or retail. Some of them (as in the case of retail) were differentiated on a local basis (so that different local entities would have had different rates). I have to study further the subject, but I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the only sectorial wage setting institutions which were still present in Ireland during the 2000s, the Registered Employment Agreements and the Employment Regulation Orders, were exactly in sectors such as construction and electrical contracting and retail. A nice example of path dependency?

Tripartitism (i.e. the active involvement of the state in the bargaining process  between trade unions and employers, not only for being the public employer) had a first start in the 1960s, with the creation in 1961 of the “Committee on Industrial Organisation”, of which were part members of the Confederation of Irish Industry, state officials and member of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). To this followed the birth of the “National Industrial Economic Council” in 1963, with the goal of discussing the main features of national economic policy.

But the 1960s were a turbulent period for Irish industrial relations, and the process of centralization restarted only in the 1970s. As the government threatened to exercise a statutory control over wages and prices, trade unions and employers negotiated the first of seven “National Wage Agreements” (NWAs), which would set the wages growth rates for the whole workforce in all sectors (differently for former agreements, which would set just some guidelines). The pacts were originally bipartite, but they became tripartite when the government, under pressure for the declining conditions of the economy, offered a deal to employers and trade unions: fiscal concessions in exchanges of wage moderation and low industrial conflict. The “National Industrial Economic Council” was replaced in 1973 by the “National Economic and Social Council” (NESC), which would have been one of the key institution of the future social partnership.

Yet, neither the trade unions nor the employers were satisfied with the NWAs. Employers maintained that the NWAs were not enough flexible in situation of economic distress. Some trade unions were unhappy because they thought they could have obtained more than the wage rates set under the NWAs. The reaction of the government was to give life to the first “National Understanding for Economic and Social Development (1979), which had a broader scope of NWAs as it was including aspects such as taxation, housing, welfare. It has to be noted that also the future social partnership agreements would have progressively included broader aspect with respect to wage.

According to Von Prondzynski, this was the first time in which “the government became directly involved in national negotiations with the social partners in its own right, rather than simply in its capacity as employer represented in the Employer-Labour Conference”.

The National Understandings did not last long. With the economic recession of the 1980s the government did not respect the promises made and instead implemented austerity policies. Employers were unhappy as they wanted decentralized bargaining. As O’Connor stresses, in the end no one was happy with the results of National Understandings, as they did not bring neither lower inflation, nor lower industrial conflict, nor lower fiscal pressure. The 1980s were a decade of firm-level bargained which weakened significantly trade unions. This (and the fear of the rising Thatcherism) would have help to explain their commitment to social partnership in the following decade. More on this will follow.

The unconscious and its implications for research

I have to admit that I have always been skeptical about psychoanalysis. However, today’s seminar with Professor Sebastian Green was very interesting. The seminar was entitled “The Unconscious at Work: Implications for Research. A Systemic Psychodynamic Perspective”. 

I gained two insights from the seminar. One is the importance of being self-reflexive about my own experience as PhD. The class was composed only by first year PhD students and the seminar was structured so that there were moments and spaces to share thoughts and feelings about our experience as PhDs. I found this very helpful as most of the time when people ask me about my doctoral experience I tend to give a kind of automatic reply of the like “not so bad, struggling with research design, etc”. This time instead we had the chance to speak about issues such as our relationship with supervisors, with our relatives and so on. I think in general Doctoral School should think carefully about this issues, given the scary stats about the number of students suffering mental illnesses.

Secondly, this lecture was a chance to think about issues which might arise during the process of interviewing, which is fundamental for qualitative research. We often tend to underestimate the fact that interviewees are “reactive” to our questions and that they unconsciously could end up giving the answer that they expect we want to hear from them. Hence, reflecting on the role of the unconscious helps also to think how to prepare correctly the ground for obtaining less unbiased answers. This also made me think to a paper I downloaded recently which advocates for a “slow” approach for comparative research on work and employment. Indeed, sometimes with the very formalized and standardized research design (which have of course several advantages) one might loose precious insights. More on this will follow.

Towards the europeanisation of employment relations?

In this very first blog post, I want to present the topic of my PhD dissertation: labour market reforms in Italy and Ireland during the last recession.

During the current economic crisis, several EU countries implemented significant labour market and pension reforms which led to further deregulation and decentralisation of their economies.

There might be different explanations for these reforms:

  • During period of recession, the balance of power tends to shift in favour of employers vis-a-vis their employees. This might lead to decentralising reforms which favor capital.
  • Crisis management could strengthen the power of national executives with respect to national parliaments and national social partners. In the case of Ireland and Italy there are already academic contributions which show the important role played by prime ministerial executive autonomy in shaping reforms.
  • Last but not least, the new European economic governance might have played a role.

But what the hell is the “new European economic governance”? The answer is two-fold. On the one hand, I refer to the set of reforms at the EU-level which led to the creations  of institutions such as the Euro Plus Pact, the Fiscal Compact and the European Semester.  These had significant effect on national labour markets, by constraining the fiscal autonomy of EU member states  and by introducing a mechanism of coordination of national policies. As Erne effectively summarised, this governance structure resembles much more the functioning of a multinational corporation than a federal state.

Then there are the “structural reforms” implemented by countries in financial troubles in exchange of help from the infamous Troika (Cyprus, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain) or by the EU and IMF only (Romania). Reforms would generally impact on labour markets, fiscal policies, and so on, with the idea of incrementing each country’s “competitiveness”. Even Italy – which never entered formally in such lending programmes – enacted significant pensions and labour markets reform under the implicit conditionality that the ECB could stop the purchase of its sovereign bonds.

(1. Continues)