Analysis. By building circles of recognition, collective action builds solidarity, transforming the particular goal into a general one.

Rebirth of the workers’ movement and the return of the class struggle

For some time now, it has been said that the labor movement was dying and no one was talking about class struggle anymore. The pandemic seemed to have further weakened the position of workers relative to businesses.

However, from GKN in Florence to the automotive sector in the United States and the service workers (from riders to Mondo Convenienza), there have been massive and lasting mobilizations at many businesses, often capable of achieving unexpected victories. After all, a revival of workers’ protests had already been noted during the financial crisis at the beginning of the last decade, especially in some countries, partly in defense against austerity policies, but also – and to an even greater extent – going on the offensive, showing themselves able to innovate in terms of tool available and forms of action.

In the sociological research on the labor movement, and on social movements in general, these waves of protest seem to be characterized by the emergence of new social subjects as collective actors, with forms of action and claims that recall, at least in part, those that defined the cycle of worker protests in Europe at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s.

To analyze the potential similarities between these mobilizations, it seems particularly useful to revisit Alessandro Pizzorno’s contribution to the sociological analysis of the labor movement.

Reflecting on the foundations of social action, Pizzorno focused on the uncertainties of actors in relating to complex circumstances. While the analysis of class structure has focused on social stratification, reflecting on waves of intense conflict has been important for identifying how organizational resources and processes of identification can actually develop into collective action, starting with the mobilization itself, rather than being a precondition for it. While much of the research on social stratification seems to have forgotten the complexity of conceptualizing class, Alessandro Pizzorno’s work helps refocus our attention on the ways in which class solidarity emerges during workers’ struggles. In this sense, that analysis intersects with recent reflections on a return, not only of workers’ action, but also of classes as engines of history.

Indeed, as Mike Savage has noted, “Within the heroic pedigree of socialist politics and Marxist analysis, social class was assigned a preeminent role, not simply as a technical measurement tool but in shaping the course of history itself … Class is clearly not some old, industrial relic … but is alive and kicking, generating anger and resentment, and symptomatic of a host of dystopian problems.”

Originally applied to the labor movement in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pizzorno’s analysis of the emergence and re-emergence of struggles for recognition can contribute to an understanding of what has been called a “renaissance” of the labor movement. The struggles for recognition of emerging social groups were seen by Pizzorno as a preliminary step to struggles over specific interests, since these can only be evaluated once collective identities are formed, without which any definition of interest is impossible. Recognition is therefore considered a central goal of the struggles of emerging groups.

Recognition struggles express the need to build a collective identity around which future gains can be evaluated. By building circles of recognition, collective action builds solidarity, transforming the particular goal into a general one. In this way, social movement organizations enable the formation of a collective identity that allows individuals to integrate into communities.

The periodic reemergence of recognition struggles leads one to a guarded stance regarding visions of the appeasement of labor conflict and the “extinction” of strikes as a supposedly-inevitable trend, emphasizing instead the cyclical nature of the history of strikes. When theorizing on the changes over time related to the emergence of new social groups, forms of struggle and class consciousness, Pizzorno suggested that “one must pay attention to the periodic variations of certain phenomena. Otherwise, with each new outbreak of a wave of conflict we will be led to think that we are on the verge of a revolution; and whenever a downturn occurs we will predict the end of class conflict.”

Fifty years after the so-called “hot autumn” of 1969, marking the most intense period of worker mobilization in Italy, Alessandro Pizzorno’s theoretical and empirical contributions to the research on labor conflict (and other topics) help us understand the periodic rise, peak and decline of labor conflicts and class conflicts.

These topics will be discussed at a conference in Florence on Thursday and Friday, organized by myself and Guglielmo Meardi at the Scuola Normale Superiore’s Faculty of Political and Social Sciences.

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