Scioperi, “strikes” in Italian, are a fact of life here, but they are quite different from strikes in the US, maddeningly so, at times.

When we read about workers going on strike in the states, it’s usually a fairly big deal, at whatever level, whether it’s the local teachers’ union going on strike for better conditions in schools, or Federal Express employees striking for better conditions for part-time workers. We’ve usually read about the build-up and know it’s coming. Newspapers have had articles about the negotiations, the last ditch, late-night bargaining sessions, and the posturing by both sides, so we’re familiar with what’s going on, and have probably formed an opinion. We might agree with the teachers, or disagree with the millionaire baseball stars, but at least things are clear and we can see the clash coming. When it does, it’s usually after lengthly negotiations where no common ground could be found. So one option remains: strike! Picket lines, protests, more news coverage, replacement workers, lockouts. No matter who you support, it’s certainly a contest of wills that is out in the open, that often goes on until a compromise is finally reached, or one side’s will is bent. Workers do not get paid during the strike, and risk losing their jobs. Employers’ businesses are crippled. There is certainly passion and anger involved… at times, unfortunately, even violence. It’s usually a memorable event, in any case. Thinking back, I remember when the teachers of the 4J school district, in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon went on strike for several weeks when I was in middle school, or a few years back when Federal Express more or less ground to a halt because of a dispute with workers. This was a huge pain in the neck for the company that I worked for, and while there was some grumbling, people also understood what was going on and why, and weren’t really that upset with the people on strike.

Italy’s strikes are of a different breed. Lasting at most a day, or on and off for a few days, they tend to garner less visibility, and seem to pop up out of nowhere, because they don’t occur after weeks of tension. They aren’t a last resort, but rather a form of protest against some or other perceived injustice. The crucial difference though, is that the strike happens and then it’s over with – everyone knows how long it’s going to last and usually exactly which trains or planes or buses it’s going to affect. It does not continue until the issue is resolved. So to the casual observer, or irate traveler, what’s seen is not workers putting down their tools in an attempt to fight for what they see as a just cause, but rather, a brief, annoying work stoppage that will disappear from the news as quickly as it cropped up, with maybe a few photos of angry passengers in an airport accompanied by headlines like “chaos in the airports” or “trains in tilt!”. The workers’ grievances are usually not prominently aired, because they are soon back at work in any case, and the issue quickly loses all visibility. Even more dubious is the fact that in many cases, there are no picket lines – the workers simply stay home. Many Italians have sneaking suspicions about strikes that fortuitously happen on a Friday or Monday, making for a relaxing three day weekend. Whatever the situation is, the strikers rarely seem to attract much sympathy. Perhaps their demands are seen as just, but the whole thing ends up as more of a nuisance than anything.

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