Italy – big strike at the FIAT Melfi plant: Only by deepening the struggle can victory be achieved!

A very important dispute has been going on for nearly three weeks now at the FIAT plant in the southern Italian town of Melfi. Once used as an example of a "difficult factory to organise" it is now in the vanguard of the struggle of the Italian workers, with a display of militancy and determination to win. The strike has provoked hundreds of spontaneous solidarity strikes up and down the country.

In the past FIAT had a policy of building new car plants in the South of Italy. This was because unemployment has always been higher there. The FIAT bosses thought they could use this to worsen working conditions free of trade union interference. The idea was that the workers of the south would not want to risk losing their jobs by joining a union or taking strike action. But as always, the conditions of factory work bring with them a collective consciousness. In other plants in the south the FIAT workers built their trade union organisations and fought for better conditions. However the case of the Melfi plant was a special one. The plant was built on the basis of a special agreement that allowed for lower wages than other FIAT workers. The excuse was that in the south the cost of living is supposed to be lower. Thus initially Melfi was seen as a plant where it was difficult to organise the unions.

Now it is in the vanguard of the struggle. For more than two weeks they have been in dispute, and they are proving to be a point of reference for workers all over Italy, with spontaneous solidarity strikes breaking out in hundreds of factories – north and south.

What has to be understood is that the strike action actually started in the smaller factories that supply the main FIAT plant with parts. There the working conditions are even worse than at FIAT. The FIAT bosses responded by saying that they had to send FIAT workers home due to the lack of parts. This had the opposite effect to what the bosses were expecting: all the FIAT Melfi workers came out on strike. Now the whole town is in struggle and is supporting the strike.

Last year in the autumn there was a struggle of the metalworkers nationally for a decent collective bargaining agreement. The workers were very militant and determined but the trade union leaders had the brilliant idea of splitting up the movement, factory by factory. This led to a stalemate, and in spite of the courageous stand of the workers their demands were not met. The struggle at Melfi therefore could reopen the dispute at a national level. [Editor's note, May 5, 2004]

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After 18 days, the Melfi FIAT workers' struggle is still continuing (in the Basilicata region in the deep South of Italy). Last Thursday (April 29) the workers gathered in an assembly in front of the factory gates and decided to withdraw the picket lines and to call an all-out strike of all the shifts. Day in, day out, the Melfi workers are showing determination and courage. They did not fall into the trap of accepting false deals put forward by the FIAT bosses (with the complicity of the CISL, UIL and FISMIC union leaders) during the night between April 23 and 24. They did not give in after the truncheon attacks of the police units sent by the government. On the contrary those attack have merely served to further deepen the struggle and have led to spontaneous solidarity strikes taking place in many cities around Italy.

The assembly in front of the factory gates

On Thursday, April 29, the workers' determination was graphically demonstrated as the FIOM [metal workers' section of the CGIL] general secretary, Gianni Rinaldini, made a proposal to the workers that they should accept the conditions put forward by FIAT management: that the workers should remove the mass pickets from the factory gates if negotiations were to start. Rinaldini's initial proposal had been that they should go back to work during the negotiations, and be ready to strike again if that were needed. The workers immediately reacted against this by shouting and booing the proposal down. Thus the proposal was withdrawn and the idea of removing the pickets while at the same time staying out on strike and holding a permanent assembly in front of the plant was accepted.


Police charge workers - Melfi - April 26, 2004

This strike has demonstrated once again the unity and determination of all the workers. In the last few days, out of a total of 8000 workers (if we consider Fiat and its suppliers) no more than 60 to 100 (mostly foremen) actually went to work. FIAT in fact was forced to send these home as they were in such a tiny number that nothing productive could have been done.

On Friday 30th, although the pickets had been removed, FIAT thanks to the faithful and timely contribution from the FIM-CISL bureaucracy ‑ invented another trick to halt negotiations once again. They fabricated a story about an alleged aggression against a female shop steward member of FIM-CISL that wanted to break the strike, and used this as an a excuse to withdraw from the negotiations. The story was so fantastical that even the police officers were sceptical about it.

In spite of this, this vile manoeuvring has brought negotiations to a halt once more. They remain suspended and nobody knows when they are going to resume.

The blocking of production must be maintained

The workers have clearly demonstrated their fighting spirit. After the first attempts of the FIOM leaders to give in and accept the FIAT diktats the workers had refused to give in two weeks ago. Now they are forcing their trade union leaders to continue the struggle.

What the events of these past few days prove is that appeals to the bosses' reasonableness, responsibility and so on are utterly useless. In fact, FIAT has had to openly admit that the fake agreement it had previously reached separately – with the other unions excluding the FIOM ‑ was now a worthless piece of scrap paper and it has had to commit itself to reopening new negotiations. This is due to the production loss of 30,000 cars (that is 200 million euros of lost revenue – about £130 million).

The only way of getting speedy negotiations with a favourable outcome for the workers is by forcing FIAT to choose either further profit losses or capitulation to the workers' demands. The continued blocking of production is the best way for the workers to condition the results of the negotiations.

Deepening the struggle

The strength of the Melfi workers is not merely due to their numbers and unity. They are also proving to be an example for the whole labour movement and their victory will be a very important point of reference for the Italian working class as a whole, starting with the workers of the other FIAT plants. That is why in this critical moment the Melfi workers cannot be left to fight on alone. On Monday 26, after the police attacks, spontaneous strikes took place throughout the country. In the Turin province alone, more than 100 factories came out on strike, and more or less the same number came out in Brescia province. Also, the four hour metalworkers' general strike called on Wednesday 28 has clearly shown that there is huge supportive among all metalworkers for the struggle of the Melfi FIAT workers. But this mood of support must be transformed into a mass mobilization that deepens the struggle and gives it a nationwide dimension.


Workers Fight back - Melfi - April 26, 2004

However, even such a strike cannot be the only form of support. Much more needs to be done and can be done. What is needed is to organise a mass mobilization that brings together the Melfi workers' demands with those of all the workers throughout Italy.

What the Melfi workers are fighting for are the same demands of all workers throughout Italy: for decent salaries and working conditions! We need to remember why it is that in the last three years the FIOM leaders have been forced to refuse to sign two collective bargaining agreements and to try and win a better deal through strike action struggles. Thus the dispute at FIAT Melfi can become the starting point for a general workers' offensive, for decent salaries and working conditions for all – for all FIAT workers and all metalworkers in general.

Spreading the struggle to a nationwide level is the only way for the Melfi workers to win and it would also serve to radically change the workers' struggles in general in this country. But this cannot be left solely to the national union leaders, of the FIOM in this case. In fact, although they have supported the struggle since the beginning and have also called a general metalworkers' strike, it is quite clear that they do not think that the struggle needs to be deepened. They limit themselves to simply keeping the negotiations going. But, as we explained above, the Fiat bosses have a lot to lose, and they will do everything they can (also thanks to the help of the other unions) to play for time, to tire out and divide the workers…

What is needed now is a “Resistance fund” and a general list of demands

The FIOM must immediately set up a genuine Fighting Fund so as to prevent economic difficulties forcing the workers to return to work. The FIAT workers at the Termini Imerese plant [in Central Italy] have provided a wonderful example by donating 25000 euros [about £16,000].

A genuine campaign to unite the Melfi struggle with that of all metalworkers is now possible, if we understand that a general mobilization is needed, that all the workers must be made aware of what is at stake. The first thing that needs to be done is to send delegations of workers from Melfi to all the other FIAT plants and the other big factories in order to promote and organise meetings explaining what is going on there. This would help the Melfi workers to build stronger links and go beyond the level of mere solidarity and thus build the conditions for a genuine national coordination of workers in struggle.

This would be the most effective way of working towards a nationwide general strike that would not limit itself to mere solidarity action, but would be the starting point for a more generalised struggle to get a new and better collective agreement. It would also give this struggle a greater impetus and renewed energy. This struggle had already started one year ago. And last November the 100,000 strong demonstration of metalworkers in Rome, together with a very high participation in the strike on the same day, showed that there is big support for this struggle among the workers. The dispute at Melfi can give this struggle a new beginning…

What we need is a workers' reawakening and a general offensive on wages, workers' rights and working hours – a struggle that can no longer be put off. We must defend the workers' dignity and also the future of new generation!