The antivaccine movement and the trade unions

17 October, 2021

antivaccine movement

Since last Monday in Italy one can only work with a “Covid passport” (“green pass”). Although 85% of the population is vaccinated there remain some pockets of workers yet to be vaccinated victims of the anti-vax discourse. The “combative” unions like Cobas took a position similar to the one rehearsed by the Sud union and some branches of CGT in France, pitting workers against each other and against everyone’s needs in the name of a supposed “individual freedom” to put co-workers at risk. Unsuccessfully, for this time. But… How do we confront the anti-social alliance of the antivax and the trade unions

Table of Contents

Antivax and trade unions in Italy

COBAS union section at the port of Trieste. Antivax activists and trade unions designated this port as their main target in their battle against the "green pass"
COBAS union section at the port of Trieste. Antivax activists and trade unions designated this port as their main target in their battle against the “green pass”

Last week a demonstration of 30,000 anti-vaccine denialists, organized by the neo-fascist group Fuorza Nova, stormed the headquarters of the majority trade union, CGIL, in Rome and tried, unsuccessfully, to do the same with the seat of government. It is one of the greatest successes of the “fusion” pushed by Bannonism during the pandemic of ultras, conspiracists and anti-vaccinationists. And despite condemnations and threats of repression, it seemed that the wave would spread to universities and to some workplaces like the port of Trieste.

But it was not the most delusional neo-fascists and denialists who pushed for strikes against the de facto compulsory vaccination in companies and ports. The ultras have no base among the workers to be able to even consider doing so.

At the forefront of the anti-“green pass” strike attempts was COBAS, the “militant” and “grassroots” union. It argued that the requirement divided the workforce into vaccinated and unvaccinated workers. In other words, COBAS called for a strike to guarantee the “right” of antivaccinationists to increase the risk of contagion of their co-workers.

The fusion between “squadristi” (gangs or gangs of anti-worker thugs), groups of the angry petty bourgeoisie and “revolutionary” unions is not new, in fact it is the original formula of Italian fascism. So the opinion-making apparatus soon saw the opportunity to legitimize the big trade unions and the government with a layer of anti-fascism.

In practice, the mobilizations and strikes called by the alliance of anti-vaccine and unions came to nothing and few templates have been broken in the discord.

The alliance of antivaccine and “combative” unions has tried, unsuccessfully, to replicate what we had already seen in France among nurses, non-medical hospital workers and paramedics. As there, the question here is the same: what brings unions together with antivaccine activists and how are these movements able to mobilize certain groups of workers against their most basic interests.

The anti-vaccine drift of the petty bourgeoisie…

Neofascists and antivaccine demonstration in Rome.
Neofascists and antivaccine demonstration in Rome.

Before the pandemic, when the global revolt of the petty bourgeoisie against the effects of the crisis on themselves began to spread, the growing discursive prominence of a reactionary anti-capitalism was already noticeable.

The petty bourgeoisie’s rejection of capitalism creates delusional ideologies which deny science and mass production without thinking for a moment that the universalization [of their own model] would amount to little less than genocide. We live in a world in which capitalism’s inability to develop the productive forces – and labor, we workers are the foremost productive force – condemns hundreds of millions of people to undernourishment, misery and hunger.

Add to that picture the end of child vaccination, the reduction of mass production (degrowth), the end of cheap vegetables (organic farming) and affordable animal proteins (veganism) and guess what would happen. If the crisis has brought misery just by stopping the growth in GDP, let’s imagine what would happen in a continued decline. That is the “step backwards” that the petty bourgeoisie demands from capitalism.

Reactionary anti-capitalism. 19/11/2017

As it could not be otherwise, these messages calling for a “return to a glorious past” were accompanied by a rampant individualism and a veritable exaltation of bourgeois morality and its commodification of human relations, from sex and reproduction to affective relationships. An individualism and exacerbated subjectivism that Bannonism could only amplify among the most delusional sectors of the petty bourgeoisie, but which were not naturally accepted among the workers at first.

This is where unions come in.

…find the union petty bourgeoisie…

Spanish Cobas Congress
Spanish Cobas Congress

We must not forget the class nature of professional trade unionists.

It is not their business to help develop struggles. Their business is to mediate the sale of labor power aspiring to turn the organization of which they are professional cadres into one more monopolist within the great game of capital determining prices and wages.

To be paid for organizing labor power in production is the same thing that a manager of any company does. The salaried manager is the characteristic form of the corporate bourgeoisie in the state capitalism under which we live.

What is to be expected from the corporate… union bourgeoisie?

Thus, unions actually abort the organization of workers by corporatizing them in order to channel the will and need to fight into an arena that in reality merely reorganizes the labor market, but does not drive the struggle for the universal needs of workers. As in the marketplace, in the union the entire set of possibilities boils down to the outcome of supply and demand in a rigged game.

Labor “shortages,” unions, and worker’s morality, 9/28/2021

The lower cadres of the big unions and the professionalized cadres of the “militant unions” form, in this framework, a “union petty bourgeoisie” which naturally identifies itself with the corporate and university petty bourgeoisie. Hence the tendencies of trade unionism to pick up and embrace interclassist identitarianisms such as feminism, racialism or all kinds of “alternative” and “popular” nationalisms.

The approach to organizing and decision-making on strikes since the 1990s is also significant. Most union strikes today are not decided by the workers’ assembly.

The collective nature of the strike is denied and rendered invisible. It is no longer a collective decision taken in assembly and binding on those who vote the opposite of the majority vote.

Unions, at most, hold an “informative assembly” where voting is done as a poll. The strike is sold as a “democratic right”, i.e., an individual right to respond to a call.

Was it going to be any different with vaccination? The antivaccine movement and the unions have more in common than meets the eye.

To vaccinate or not, to work or not, they come to say, is an individual matter, the result of a cost-benefit calculation made by each individual. The social nature of vaccination -and it has no other nature- is completely invisibilized.

The unions’ naturality in mimicking the Bannonite arguments is easily understood here. For the last three decades they have used a similar argument to degrade and denaturalize strikes. These would no longer be a collective decision taken in assembly, but the result of the aggregation of individual decisions before a union call, a kind of ballot in which the ballot is replaced by staying home.

Mandatory vaccination: where does the opposition come from?, 8/8/2021

…and is nourished by the transition from precarization to atomization

Demonstration in Paris against the Covid Passport and compulsory vaccination of healthcare workers and other groups in contact with particularly vulnerable people.
Demonstration in Paris against the Covid Passport and compulsory vaccination of healthcare workers and other groups in contact with particularly vulnerable people.

But if the rapprochement between the antivaccine movement and “militant” unions is understandable, whether that translates into “antivax” influence among workers or fails as in Italy requires even more elements.

First of all let’s note which groups of workers have fallen for the anti-vaccine barbarism discourse. Medical and hospital workers in France, some groups of workers in nursing homes in Spain, dockers’ groups in Genoa and Trieste in Italy… One does not need to do much research to realize that these are pockets of workers in which precarization has been developing for so long and is so extreme that it turns atomization into a way of life.

It is on that ground of isolation and social and emotional exhaustion that the anti-social, anti-human, delusional individualism of the union of antivax and unions strikes. And yet, as we have seen in Italy and France, more often than not workers do not follow the anti-vaccine siren songs of Sud, Cobas and even CGT.

But even if the anti-vaccine and union onslaught does not bear fruit now, we cannot stand idly by. The fact that unions are a destructive force, integrated – even in their most “combative” versions – in the logic of the state does not mean that we do not need to organize in the workplace, that we do not need to confront atomization and precariousness from the companies and the neighborhoods. And start as soon as possible.

Read also: ¿Sindicalistas o revolucionarios? (Spanish), 19/3/2019