Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How many strikes before you're out?

Dear Readers,

Today was another of the many, many strike days in here in Florence. Buses don't run, teachers are absent, public offices are closed, etc. I am convinced that Italian workers love to go on strike more than they like to eat white truffles or drink barolo. They certainly seem to spend more energy protesting than actually working.

I just don't understand all the fuss. Call me naive, brainwashed by protestant-work-ethic-capitalist-customer satisfaction thinking, but to me, Italians don't have it so bad. For one thing, they barely work at all. Public offices are generally only open for a few hours in the morning, with maybe one afternoon a week in which they open for another couple hours after the interminably long lunch break (typically 2-3 hours). Many shops also close for a good chunk of the midday, presumably so the staff can go home and stuff themselves with a three-course lunch. And banks! They're the worst: open for a few hours in the morning, and then only 45 minutes to an hour again in the afternoon--and for this stellar, 21st century service you pay ridiculously high monthly account fees (and each ATM card linked to your account is an extra charge, too, thank you very much).

The funny thing is that even when Italians are at work, many are not actually working. They are smoking, chatting on their cells, having their 12th espresso, or shuffling papers sternly and looking pissed off. Or they put forth the absolute bare minimum of effort to execute their duties, to the point that a smile, kind word or any kind of problem-solving, trouble-shooting skills proves far too fatiguing to attempt.

Often, however, they are simply absent.

Take the recent scandal in Portici, near Naples, for example. In one of the city's administrative offices, 36 out of 70 employees were arrested for chronic absenteeism. A lengthy investigation, complete with hidden cameras, revealed that the employees were using their I.D. cards to sign in (or having cohorts sign in for them), then leaving: they simply went home, or went shopping, or went to other jobs. Apparently, this was going on for years, and is a practice endemic to the area--another 58 city employees are currently under investigation. Indeed, officials in the prosecuter's office say that this is an Italy-wide phenomenon. Portici's mayor, Enzo Cuomo, under harsh criticism for his bald refusal to acknowledge any wrong-doing or admit his own incompetency, had the coglioni to accuse his accusers of "faziosità"--fatuousness.

Again, I think Italian workers have it pretty good: at least a month's vacation per year, and the endless feste religiose and feste nazionali add up to another good week or two off. When you marry, you are entitled by law to an additional two weeks' vacation for neo-conjugal purposes. If you have a baby (the inevitable result of those post-matrimonial two weeks, I suppose), you get up to a years' maternity leave, with reduced hours to accommodate breast-feeding when you do go back to work. It is nearly impossible to get fired, the intricate web of labor laws always favoring the employee--if your boss wants to get rid of you he'd be better off lacing your espresso with strychnine. Sick days? As many as you need as long as you have a doctors' note (and these are handed out in wanton abundance, like Jehovah's Witness pamphlets). In addition, everyone has umpteen ore di permesso, or hours of "personal time," which you can take at will for things like doctors' appointments, bureaucratic errands, or wild-boar hunting.

So who's complaining?!

Apparently, everybody. In about a weeks' time, we have another scheduled general strike day to look forward to in Florence. Workers have the god-given right to not show up, to protest--although most simply treat these days as a holiday--and to generally disrupt the lives of everyone else. (My husband scoffs at this practice, saying that interminable striking serves no real purpose: it's like the boy who cried wolf. No one pays attention anymore. It's overkill).

But what can you do? Italians are fed the concept of workers' rights from birth, like formula or breast milk. It's an Us vs. Them mentality that is rooted, I'm convinced, in ancient provincial prejudices of Family vs. Outsiders. They believe with every fiber of their being that they have the right to a secured job and all the perks therein, and that once they attain it, no one can touch them. (The idea of actual merit gathers dust on some forgotten shelf of collective conscience).

Dear Readers, I submit to you the Constitution of the Republic of Italy (a copy of which was given me at my new citizen's induction ceremony, and which I am in the habit of perusing while in the loo), whose opening line illustrates my point:

FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES: Article 1:  "L'Italia √® una Repubblica democratica, fondata sul lavoro." "Italy is a democratic republic, founded on work."

There's a typo in there. The correct text ought to read: "Italy is a democratic republic, founded on the theory of work."

Yours in industrious labor,


Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Dear Readers,

What would you tell your children to pass the time on a long journey? Perhaps you would tell them about other journeys, journeys that took place a long time ago....

"In 1901 Leonardo Campobello, a stone mason from Palermo, set sail from Genoa for the green, brazen shore of the New World. He was headed for the wild, steaming hills of West Virginia, where he would peddle his craft. With compact body, rough hands, flinty eyes and energy to burn--this was a man who could cleave stone and carve out a life for himself. He sighted New York Harbor and a chill of anticipation raced up his spine. It was winter, bitterly cold, a gray pall obscured the famous skyline, and the fragrant lemon groves and springtime orange blossoms of his native Sicily were but a strange memory. Like so many others before and after him, he passed through the portals of Ellis Island, and was transformed. He emerged, a phoenix risen from the ashes, an almost-American, your ancestor--Leonard Campbell."

This is what I might tell mine.

My Best Regards,