Fiat Dispute reveals angry mood of the Italian working class

During the past few months a bitter struggle has unfolded at most of Fiat's plants in Italy. Roberto Sarti of the Editorial Board of FalceMartello outlines events as they have unfolded.

The Fiat crisis is a clear example of the general crisis of Italian capitalism. In the world car industry there is an overcapacity of more than 20 million cars per year. This means a struggle to the death for world markets, where Fiat has clearly lost. After having made huge profits in the second half of the 1990s, the bosses, as usual, want to make the workers pay for the present crisis.

In fact, the plan of the Fiat management, put forward in October, amounted to an all-out attack on the workers. The plan involved more than eight thousand workers being laid off for a year, the closure of two plants, one near Milan (the old Alfa-Romeo factory) and the other in Termini Imerese (Sicily), and the possible closure of another two plants.

All this led to an immediate mobilisation by the Fiat workers. The most militant section of the Fiat workers were those in Sicily. Sicily is one of the less developed regions of Italy where jobs are scarce. That explains why in Sicily, this was not purely a strike to defend jobs. It was really about the future of the whole island. In a situation where unemployment has reached the figure of 30% of the working population, the loss of 2000 jobs means creating thousands of new potential recruits for the Mafia, as this would be the only "expanding industry" in the area. Some of the Sicilian Fiat workers actually commented that if their plant were to close then what future would there be for them and their children.

Sicily in revolt

Right from the beginning of the struggle the workers of the Termini Imerese plant revealed a great willingness to take up the struggle. They also aroused the support of the entire population of the area. The women (wives and daughters of the Fiat workers) were the most militant section and they set up a support committee that proved to be very useful on the picket lines and in all the actions that the workers organised all over the island.

The workers waged a two-month strike, during which, on several occasions, they paralysed Palermo airport, the motorway and the railway. On one occasion they brought the city of Messina to a standstill, blocking all the ferries to and from the Italian mainland for the whole day. They stopped 2000 cars that were ready to be sold from being taken out of the plant throughout the whole period of the strike.

The most interesting thing was that the overwhelming majority of the population of Sicily completely supported the Fiat workers. We have to remember that in the 2001 parliamentary elections all the constituencies in Sicily were won by the right wing. That explains why the bosses had calculated that if they launched an attack in the region there would be no response. In fact, a lot of Fiat workers and families had voted for Berlusconi. But, as the government had come out in support of the Fiat bosses, the workers felt disillusioned and betrayed. They shouted slogans and made placards against Berlusconi and the right wing regional government. This is a clear demonstration of how consciousness can change very rapidly, once the working class begins to move. In all the other Fiat plants the workers fought with all their might. On November 27, 20,000 Fiat workers marched through the streets of Rome.

However, what they lacked was a trade union leadership that could match the militancy of the workers themselves. These "leaders" failed to organise a general strike (which was clearly possible) in support of the Fiat workers’ struggle. The alternative of the trade union leaders was to propose "a change of the industrial plan". The CGIL (the biggest and the most left wing of the three trade union federations), together with Bertinotti, the leader of Rifondazione Comunista, called for the state to intervene. But this was a far cry from outright nationalisation. In reality what they were proposing was only a Keynesian measure of state funding, and did not put into question the real problem: the ownership and control of the firm. It was, and still is, a complete illusion to imagine that the Agnelli family (the owners of Fiat) could change their plans. Fiat’s auto sector is no longer making profits for them. It is also an outrageous scandal that after decades of receiving state subsidies, and the Agnellis never paying back a single lira, the State is again being called on to intervene to save their profits.

The only alternative still remains the nationalisation of Fiat under workers' control with no compensation to the fat cats. What should have been done was to set up a co-ordinating committee of newly elected shop stewards from all the Fiat plants, and this committee should have been the body to decide on all the actions that were needed.

This was the proposal that we, the supporters of Falce Martello, put forward throughout the Italian labour movement and, most importantly, at the gates of the Fiat plants. In Milan, we stood side by side with the workers throughout the whole dispute. At the Milan State University (the Statale) on December 5, the students gathered around the "collettivo Pantera" (Panther Collective, a student committee launched under the initiative of the supporters of FalceMartello in the university), organised a meeting with more than 200 students and workers in support of the strike. Our programme was put forward by the main speakers on the platform and there was complete agreement on the part of the audience. This was followed by a demonstration on December 12 in Milan of around 10,000. The local press highlighted the fact that people had been mobilised to take part in this demonstration by the "Collettivo Pantera" in conjunction with the Alfa-Romeo shop stewards’ committee.

Alliance between the government and the Fiat bosses

In early December, when the layoffs were planned to go ahead, an agreement was reached between the government and the Fiat bosses, that in practice confirmed the original plan. The most significant thing about this was that, for the first time since the Second World War, the trade unions were excluded from the agreement!

In Termini Imerese a meeting with more than a thousand people present took place outside the gates of the factory the day after the "agreement" had been announced. The mood was very tense. The anger of those present became even greater after the first speeches of the trade union leaders had been made. They were speaking against the agreement but they were offering no way out for the struggle. As Rinaldini, the national secretary of the FIOM (the CGIL's metal workers union) was winding up his speech with an appeal for "Unity and struggle" (without saying how or when this was to be organised), some hundreds of workers and women forced their way through the factory gates.

The occupation of the plant, a demand that we had been proposing for weeks as the only way out, would have been entirely possible at that moment. The ordinary rank and file workers were open to the idea and were ready to move if only their leaders had given the go ahead. But, apart from us, no trade union leader, no shop steward, no left organisation was raising it. Thus the workers remained leaderless. Thanks to this the trade union bureaucrats were able to persuade the workers to go back home.

On December 6, an opportunity was undoubtedly lost. The occupation of the Termini Imerese plant could have easily spread to other plants, thus bringing about a qualitative change in the class struggle in Italy. That one key step could have ignited the movement and a new "Hot Autumn" would have been possible. The huge demonstrations (3 million in Rome on March 23, one million in Florence in November) and two general strikes are a clear indication that this is the case.

Now the first phase of the Fiat dispute has been closed, but this is not the end of the story. Various sections of the working class have their collective bargaining agreements up for renegotiation in the coming months (for example the metal workers and the public sector). New bitter struggles will ensue from this. Also, although the government has emerged weakened from the recent period, it is nevertheless considering attacking the pension system once again (the last time pensions came under attack was back in 1995). They are considering this not because they have all gone mad. It is the economic crisis that dictates these measures.

Therefore with the new mood of militancy and determination to struggle of the Italian working class, the year 2003 is going to be one of deeper and more bitter class struggles throughout the country.