Posts Tagged ‘Employment Bureaux’

Italian Chambers of Labour – Needed in 21st Century Britain

May 11, 2014

One of the peculiar institutions of the Italian working class movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the Camera Del Lavoro, or ‘Chamber of Labour’. They were based on the French Borse du Travaille (Labour Exchange) set up in France in the late 1880s. They were introduced into Italy by Osvaldo Gnocchi-Viani, a Socialist Milanese lawyer, in his 1889 book, Le Borse del lavoro. This led the leaders of the Milanese printers’ union and the Partito Operaio Italiano – the Italian Worker’s Party to establish the first Chamber of Labour in the city two years later in 1891. By 1904 ninety Chambers of labour, representing the nearly 300,000 workers had been set up throughout Italy.

The Chambers varied in structure, but most consisted of an assembly of representatives from the labour organisations participating in it. These in turn elected a governing body, such as an executive committee or commission, which organised its practical management. The Chambers were theoretically bureaux for employment and labour information. In practice they often had a wide variety of functions. They provided a meeting place for workers, conference and reading rooms, recreational facilities and also education. They organised strikes, boycotts and demonstrations, as well as mediating in industrial disputes. As well as representing the workers in dispute with private industry, they also did so with the local authorities, although many were in fact funded by these. While the trade unions were federated at the national level, the Chambers were autonomous organisations that included and brought together the various workers’ organisations in their local areas, and defended the interests of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers not represented in the skilled labour unions.

The Chambers were intended as purely economic in purpose, but in practice most followed the various working class political parties and organisations – the Socialists, Republicans, Syndicalists and Anarchists. The majority were Socialist. They frequently took the lead in organising demonstrations, strikes and protests against the government at the local level. The Chambers of Labour joined the federated trade unions to form the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro – General Confederation of Labour in 1906. They received their greatest increase in membership after the First World War, but went into rapid decline afterwards due to attacks from the Fascists. They were finally suppressed by Mussolini’s dictatorship in 1926 along with other, autonomous labour organisations.

The Chambers of Labour attracted Fascist hatred and violence because of their role in creating a powerful, autonomous working class. Changes in society since then has made many of their functions obsolete. The massive expansion of state education, for example, has removed some of the necessity for providing specific education courses aimed at workers, and entertainment is far more freely available today than it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the development of cinema, radio and television and the gramophone. Furthermore, many towns in Britain do have employment agencies, thus lessening the need for another of the Chambers’ functions.

However, I think something like the French and Italian Chambers of Labour/ Borses du Travaille/ Camere del Lavoro are still needed. Owen Jones in Chavs describes the destruction of working class culture and its colonisation by the middle classes. Football, which was for a long time the sport of the working classes, has become increasingly middle class. A proportion of the tickets for matches are reserved for parties from corporations as part of corporate hospitality. Ticket prices have become so expensive that many fans feel – and are – priced out of attendance at matches. Despite the government’s urging after the Olympics that more people should become involved in sport, actual sports facilities have been cut, so that the few which survive are oversubscribed.

Similarly, that hub of traditional working class culture, the pub is also under attack. Many are being closed down and redeveloped as flats. This has an effect far beyond simply where people go to drink their beer or alcoholic poison of choice. As well as the place where people traditionally met and relaxed, pubs were also the venues where local bands got their first gigs. Furthermore, a variety of local clubs and groups also meet in pubs and bars. Pub closures also effect the continued existence of these groups by denying them a venue.

As for general cultural activities, Quentin Letts in his book, Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain, contrasts the loutishness and slovenly ignorance of much of today’s popular culture with the attitude of the miners portrayed in the film, The Pitman Painters. These were a real group of mineworkers, who taught themselves to paint over a century ago. They were not unique. One of the functions of the Mechanics’ Institutes, founded in the 19th century across Britain was to spread education and culture amongst the working class as part of the general Victorian attitude of improvement. The intentions behind them were paternalistic. The complaint was made at the time that they were founded by the middle classes, and patronised predominantly by the more skilled, affluent and presumably aspirational workers, while those less fortunate stayed away. They were also intended partly to bring employer and employees together and so create class peace. Nevertheless, they did contribute to improving the conditions and the educational and cultural opportunities available to the workers.

Owen Jones also points out in Chavs that some of the rise in racism and anti-immigrant feeling is a reaction to the way White working class culture has been attacked and discarded as worthless by the middle classes and the major political parties. Their celebration – rightly – of the cultures of Britain’s ethnic minorities and immigrant communities, in the absence of a corresponding celebration of traditional British working class culture has resulted in working class Whites feeling marginalised and resentful in their own country. The result is a rise in support for the BNP – now peaked – and UKIP. He suggests that one way of combatting this racism and xenophobia is simply to stress a common, working class identity stretching across ethnic groups.

Finally, trade unions were attacked and devastated by Thatcher’s onslaught, and the continued attacks by her successors, including those in the Labour party. Tony Blair remembers in the 1990s threatened to cut union ties, and Ed Milliband has also demanded further cuts to union power and states he wishes to reach out to the middle classes. We need new forms of industrial organisation to represent and protect the poorly paid workers in unskilled or semi-skilled work, like the hundreds of thousands now staffing call centres, a point Guy Standing makes in A Precariat Charter. And I believe that an employment bureau, controlled by the workers themselves, might just help to empower the workers and employees themselves against the employers in the jobs market.

The Chambers of Labour were peculiar features of the French and Italian working class movements, but something like them is still desperately needed in 21st century Britain as the Tories try to drag us back to the 19th century.

Advertisements