Why the Buses Stopped Running: An Interview with a Transportation Worker in Florence

Posted in Student Leaders

by Julia Hubbell (COL ’15)

There are times when you study abroad that find yourself in a foreign country with a bottle of wine and a sunset at your feet. There are times you find yourself swimming in Mediterranean waters so clear it looks like you are suspended in blue glass. Then there are times that you find yourself sitting across the table from a friend of a friend of a friend, neither of you speaking the others’ language but very determinedly attempting a conversation about union organizing in Florence.
This was one of those times.

Julia in Italy

Julia Hubbell (COL ’15) studied abroad in Florence, Italy, in the fall of 2013.

I cannot express to you the extent to which I do not speak Italian. I speak Spanish enthusiastically but badly, and I had never studied Italian before arriving in Florence. The man I was meeting, a public bus driver and union member, spoke English well enough that we exchanged pleasantries, but the nuances of the Italian labor movement proved difficult to convey. Even accounting for my furious nodding, this was going to be a logistically difficult conversation.

Complicating matters further is the sheer difficulty of discussing the Italian unions themselves: they are many and varied, with different ones vying for influence within the same workplace. (The man I was talking to said there were seven unions operating simultaneously within ATAF, the Florentine bus system.) The unions fight and bicker and tumble over one another in an attempt to gain influence and protection for their workers, and this leads to some curiosities.
For example, Americans are often shocked at the European propensity to strike. As far as the Italian system is concerned (and the Italians are notorious for their frequent strikes, second only to the French) it is because whenever one union calls a strike, any unionized member in the workplace, whether they belong to that union or not, may choose to participate. With seven unions fighting for different interests, chances that one of the seven is staging a major campaign at any given time become much higher. And as the driver said, even if it isn’t your union, who wouldn’t want a day off? I nodded furiously.

Beyond that and some other differences inherent in a system where unions still hold considerable political sway, I found that many of his concerns were trans-Atlantic. Unions are more concerned with protecting the interests of the old members and their pensions than organizing or energizing the young population. Full employment comes with protections and benefits, so companies have stopped hiring people for full-time work; there is a burgeoning sub-economy of temporary workers that are unprotected and underpaid and living very uncertain lives. Work hours are long and irregular, work is repetitive, and managers are unsympathetic. ATAF was recently privatized and sold off from the government, which was subsidizing the bus system in years that it didn’t make a profit. Now, “not making a profit” isn’t an option, and this can be seen in higher ticket prices and slashed wages.

It all sounded like Greek to me, but that’s because it was in Italian. Once translated, however (he graciously allowed me to record our conversation) I was impressed and disheartened at the similarities in the struggles across continents. Governments are backing down and companies are stepping in to fill the power void, but they operate under no commitment to protect the rights of their citizens or workers.

What amazed me most, however, is that all we needed to bridge continents and language barriers was two hours and a cappuccino. I didn’t always understand his words during our conversation, but regardless we laughed together about managers’ antics; we were upset about privatization; I could tell when he was angry and frustrated with the union; and I smiled at the pride he took in his work providing a public service for his city. I left the meeting without being able to quote him, yet confident that we were engaged in the same struggles and questions—and also wondering whether all the world needed to solve its problems was a good Italian cappuccino.