Militant mood among Italian workers

We are publishing two articles from the Italian Marxist journal Falcemartello which give a clear indication of the level of militancy that is developing among the workers in Italy. Both the FIAT Melfi and the Alitalia disputes highlight the growing contradiction between the will to struggle on the part of the workers and the constant striving to hold down the movement on the part of the union leaders. This cannot last for ever.

FIAT Melfi workers go back to work with heads held high!


In an earlier article (Italy big strike at the FIAT Melfi plant - Only by deepening the struggle can victory be achieved!) we reported on the tremendous struggle of the FIAT Melfi workers. Since then the workers have gone back, having gained some important victories, but nowhere near to what they could have won had the trade union leadership reflected the same level of militancy as the workers.

"I am disappointed by FIAT's choice, which aims to maintain old strategies rather than trying to find new solutions for the problems in Melfi. If FIAT means to keep on in the same old way, we have to do our best not to respond as we did in 1980. I also hope that the FIOM [powerful Italian metalworkers union] and the RSU [factory shop stewards committee] can understand how and when to bring new direction and new methods to this struggle. It is obvious that you cannot continue with a production stoppage forever. Production stoppages are certainly useful to shake things up for a while, but this is surely not the way to lead a struggle with a new character." (Gugliemo Epifani, CGIL General Secretary, Il Sole 24 Ore, April 25, 2004).


Melfi workers' demonstration in Rome, May 4, 2004

At dawn on Sunday May 9, FIAT and union bosses signed an agreement concluding the Melfi FIAT workers' strike. The agreement does not achieve all of the workers' demands and certainly does not reflect the unity and courage shown by the workers. Production was stopped for three weeks, with almost total unity among the workers throughout the course of the struggle. Without doubt, the strike has been an object lesson in how to fight the class struggle, not least for the General Secretary of Italy's most powerful union. But the workers deserved much more.

The agreement cannot be regarded as entirely satisfactory as, despite some important gains, it does not achieve all of the workers' demands. Although it is true that negotiation implies moving from some of your initial positions, we believe that the union leaders moved much further than was needed.

However, we have to give credit to the workers and recognise that their enthusiasm and their massive support for the outcome of the negotiations is absolutely justified. But we should also understand that this is only the first round of a struggle that will in future force Melfi workers to stand up and fight again for real improvements in pay and working conditions. The starting point for future battles will surely be on a higher level, as the workers returned to the factory looking and feeling as though they had won a fight.

The agreement

The agreement provides for pay rises of up to 105 euros per month, paid in three instalments: 50% from this July, a further 25% in July 2005 and the remaining 25% in July 2006. This means that there will be no immediate pay rise. There will be a rise of 52.5 euros in the first year, increasing to 79 euros in 2005 and reaching 105 euros gross in 2006. You can certainly call it a pay rise, but it has not closed the gap between the pay of Melfi workers and workers at other FIAT plants.

The same applies to night shift allowances, which will only have the full increase after 26 months. Of course, it will be pointed out that the notorious "doppia battuta" policy (12 straight days on the same shift, including nights) has been removed, and this is an invaluable result for the workers. Although this is true, (though who was it that signed the agreement for these shifts and salaries back in 1993?) it is nonetheless the case that the agreement allows FIAT to maintain the level of productivity unchanged. So even though the shift system has changed, which is definitely a good thing, the level of exploitation and the pressure to achieve the planned production targets will remain.

The final strand of the negotiations, also very important for the workers, was the issue of disciplinary measures. Here, the agreement did not provide any actual solution. Instead it was decided to turn the issue over to a hypothetical "reconciliation commission". This should have not been agreed to, but rather there should have been an immediate withdrawal of all disciplinary measures and sackings. This could have been achieved, precisely because while the agreement was being reached production was stopped and FIAT was suffering enormous losses as every minute went by.

So, what was missing?

We don't criticise this agreement for the sake of it. Nor are we trying to teach trade unionism to anybody, the workers least of all! But we must call things by their proper names and firmly refuse to misrepresent them. So, while this agreement is a step forward for the workers it is not all that could have been achieved. It was not for lack of determination that the Melfi workers failed to get everything they were fighting for. They have provided a lesson in class struggle. In part, the responsibility lies with the FIOM leaders who led the negotiations. During this struggle and in many others over recent years, the FIOM has clearly shown that it is the union closest to the workers and with the most militant attitude. But it has also been demonstrated that in the different phases of struggle it has not always been able to maintain the necessary firmness and consistency.

On April 26 and 27, following the police attacks on the Melfi workers, huge spontaneous strikes burst out in more than 150 factories. The conditions were present to widen the front so as not to leave the Melfi workers isolated. On April 28, the FIOM correctly called a national 4-hour general strike of metalworkers. Unfortunately however, it appeared that the union leaders did not take the call seriously and in some cases there was the clear feeling that everything possible had been done to calm the workers down. In Turin, they organised a few pickets in front of the Mirafiori FIAT plant. The biggest picket, at the main gates, consisted of barely 200 workers. In truth, the leaders did not want to organise a real demonstration, although the mood of the workers was extremely favourable, as the spontaneous strikes had demonstrated. The same was true of Brescia. Here, the demonstration consisted of just a thousand workers, because the union leaders did not really want it at all. It was no better in Milan, where all the local union bureaucracy could manage was to gather 500 people in front of the gates at Alfa Romeo Arese plant (owned by the FIAT group). The Alfa Romeo COBAS union leaders saved the day as they mobilised their members to turn up, so the FIOM turnout did not look quite so shocking.

Neither at that point nor at any other time during the unfolding strike was there any clear intention to broaden the struggle. This would have been absolutely necessary, not just to assist the Melfi workers to achieve their demands but also to revive the struggle over the national collective bargaining agreement, which still remains unresolved.

In the days following the action, the efforts of the FIOM leaders were focused on dousing the flames and calming the workers, playing the classical role of "pompiere" (firefighter, as Italian workers say). Is it a fact that on Thursday April 29, speaking in front of the Melfi factory gates, FIOM General Secretary Gianni Rinaldini asked the workers to suspend the strike in order to start "real" negotiations with the FIAT bosses? Is it true or not that the workers immediately shouted down this proposal, forcing him to back down and accept that the strike was to go on to the end? And is it not solely because of this determination to continue the strike that FIAT had to change its arrogant attitude? What would have happened if the workers had accepted Rinaldini's proposal and had returned to work that very day? There is no doubt that they would not even have achieved what they got on May 9! And in that case, who would have been responsible?

Also, why were negotiations moved from Melfi to Rome in the days before the agreement was signed? It must be borne in mind that the very fact that negotiations were held in Melfi was a victory for the workers that had boosted their morale and increased the perception that FIAT had its back to the wall. In fact, when negotiations were suspended for the first time to allow the shop stewards to report back on FIAT's proposals, the workers sent their representatives back with this message: "The meeting of the picketing workers, called in a tense climate to consider the company's proposals, has expressed its firm rejection. The meeting has also raised a further demand that two thirds of the wage gap with other FIAT plants be immediately filled and that, though the last third can be made up later, this must be done regardless of the financial health of the company. Then a further 300 euros rise must be implemented next July. Finally, a strict deadline of 2 p.m. today for a response was imposed, otherwise more radical actions would have to be considered." (La Repubblica, Saturday May 8th 2004)

This demonstrates how the pressure of the workers was brought to bear not just on the company but also on the union leaders, and it is pretty obvious that they didn't like it!

For these reasons it is clear that the negotiations have achieved far less than the workers could have hoped for, given their strength and their willingness to struggle.

Nothing will be the same again

The Melfi workers understand that their example represents a turning point. From now on, workers know they will have to follow in the Melfi workers' footsteps if they want to fight to genuinely improve their living and working conditions. But also, the Melfi workers understand they did not achieve all they were fighting for and do not care about the triumphal gloss the union leaders have put on the agreement. Now they are aware of their strength, and know that they put Italy's most important company into serious trouble.

We should also remember that at first FIAT tried to split the workers by signing bogus deals with the FIM-CISL and UILM-UIL unions. Then they tried violence and repression, sending the police to attack the workers. Every attempt to curb the workers' resistance brought out new reserves of strength and determination, the exact opposite of the bosses' aims. Every attempt by the union leaders to calm the rank-and-file provoked a strong reaction, pushing the workers to demand more from their leaders. This is the real victory for the workers. The "open field" in which 9000 disciplinary notices have been sent out over recent years does not exist anymore. The bosses and their accomplices, Agnelli's servants, no longer have the absolute power they used to enjoy.

Prepare for the next battles

But there is still a lot to do. Sooner or later, production trends and processes will force the bosses to try to reimpose "law and order". Therefore, even though there has been a major jump in consciousness and in Melfi nothing will be the same again, unless the workers see the need to take the leadership of their union (FIOM) back into their own hands, the bosses and the reaction will be back. We have seen this many times in the history of the workers' movement.

A positive development is that signatures are now being collected to recall the existing RSU and elect a new one. This is because FIM-CISL has 57% of the delegates on the current RSU and everyone saw their shameful behaviour during the struggle. But this is not enough.

FIAT's financial and production problems are definitely not over, and the same holds for the whole automotive industry. Companies working for FIAT in the Melfi district have declared they will apply the same rules and working conditions that FIAT has accepted. But it is obvious that such promises can be wiped away in an instant. In fact, these companies have serious problems of their own, as over 3000 workers are temporarily laid off and there is a feeling that new redundancies will be announced in the coming months. [In Italy big manufacturing companies can lay workers off temporarily. These workers keep their jobs and are paid at a lower rate by the government. This arrangement is called CIG - Cassa Integrazione Guadagni. It was intended for use in times of intense class struggle, as a means to allow the bosses to lay off huge numbers, as FIAT did with 27,000 workers in 1980, splitting the workers between those who remain in the factory and those who are "suspended" at home. Furthermore, the cost of this is borne entirely by the public purse. It does not cost the bosses a penny!]

Also, it cannot be excluded that after such a defeat FIAT will propose outsourcing, if not moving entire plants, in order to threaten and try to curb the workers.

The interests of the workers in all FIAT plants, in all other companies working for FIAT and in all subsidiaries, are absolutely the same. Working conditions at Melfi and dismissals at Mirafiori or Arese are a matter for the workers in all of the plants, not just Melfi, Mirafiori and Arese, but also Termini Imerese, Pratola Serra, Val di Sangro, Termoli, Cassino and Iveco.

There is no time to lose. Now is the time to start a real debate on how to prepare for the future. The union leaders have endless workshops discussing FIAT's policies from the comfort of their armchairs but none will take the lead in preparing for decisive struggle.

The only way to prepare for the coming battles is to develop a common set of demands, including a shorter working week with no loss of pay, so as to equalise working conditions and workloads across all plants and to create new jobs.

But in order achieve this, to ensure that FIAT uses its resources for the workers and for the country as a whole, it is necessary to demand its nationalisation under workers' control. Only in this way can we solve the problems of FIAT and of other companies'.

At the beginning of this struggle, Gugliemo Epifani remarked on the dangers of bitter disputes such as the Mirafiori FIAT strike in 1980. Then, the workers blocked the plant gates for 35 days in protest at the sacking of 27,000 of their colleagues. The defeat of the strike was a turning point, opening the way for the tide of reaction which has continued to the present day. But Epifani forgot to say who was responsible for the defeat! It was the fault of the leaders of the CGIL, CISL and UIL who signed an unconditional surrender while the struggle was still determined and united. Then they organised a bogus vote on the betrayal they had signed and calmed everything down.

There is a new generation of workers in the factories, involved in their first battles in the class struggle. They are using the natural and traditional methods of the working class, the only methods with which to win over the mass of the workers and inflict defeat on the bosses. We also have an advantage over previous generations. We have seen their history and have understood how have they been betrayed. Join us in building on this rich experience and, starting from Melfi, beginning a new era in the history of the workers movement, closing the chapter of betrayals and defeats once and for all.

May 13, 2004

 

 

 

Alitalia workers' struggle


This article was originally published in the Italian Marxist journal Falcemartello (May 11, 2004) under the title "On 6 May an agreement was signed between the Government and Trade Unions on the future of Alitalia - The agreement is a hoax to end the workers' struggle."

On Thursday, May 6, agreement was reached in the negotiations between unions and the government to ensure Alitalia's survival. "Agreement reached in extremis for Alitalia" and "Alitalia will survive!" were some of the more significant headlines in the national press the following day.

The unions too expressed great enthusiasm for an agreement they consider to be no less than "half a miracle" (Guglielmo Epifani, CGIL Secretary-General). But, is that really the case? Is the agreement a good result for the 22,000 Alitalia workers?

In the last six months, Alitalia workers have clearly shown their ability to mobilise widely and with effect. As in Melfi, they proved determined and united. Flight and airport personnel, pilots and mechanics have moved together in complete unity, proving that nothing can be decided or implemented without them.

The agreement signed on May 6 (see below: Terms of the agreement) does not really serve to defend the workers. Rather, it merely allows the government just days before European and local elections to present itself as having "saved" thousands of jobs. It also gives the union leaders a welcome breathing space following a period when their behaviour has largely destroyed their reputations.

This latter point is graphically demonstrated by the events that took place in the days before the agreement was signed. On April 30 the union leaders were widely criticised by workers at the majority of airports, most notably at Rome Fiumicino. This was because overnight they had accepted the latest in a long series of government diktats without consulting the workers. The government had declared it was available to restart negotiations only if the strikes were suspended.

In fact, picket lines were removed, but not because the union leaders had convinced the workers. On the contrary, these leaders showed that they had no interest in the workers' opinions and simply abandoned the pickets in the very moment the government was sending them "precettazione" orders. [In disputes involving state owned companies, the authorities can order the suspension of strikes by law. If these orders - "precettazione" - are not obeyed, workers can be sacked and even arrested. It is a law that goes back to the Fascist period, a useful law for the bosses that has never been removed from the statute books].

An agreement to postpone the struggle

The agreement signed by the unions is not in the workers' interests. None of the workers' demands have been met. None of the aims of the struggle have been achieved. What is even worse is that while the workers are prepared to continue the struggle to defend their jobs, no one can say whether they have a future.

Bonomi's (Alitalia's former president) project was intended to start with 1100 redundancies and the outsourcing of 2100 jobs, the aim being to achieve savings of 58 million euros. The unions have always regarded that as optimistic. They calculated more that 6000 workers would have to go to save that amount of money. The first version of the plan had proposed to sell many of the support services to other companies. For example, Alitalia Airport was to be sold to a German company, with the loss of a further 1500 jobs. The final objective was the loss of all 10,000 airport workers. The aim of the plan was to develop a "lean" company only employing flight personnel (l'Unità, May 4th 2004).

The industry as a whole is in crisis

The abandonment of Bonomi's plan does not signify a major change in the government's strategy, as the ideas on which the project was based remain the only viable solutions in a free market economy. This is the path the bourgeoisie intends to follow by all necessary means. If we accept the rationale of the marketplace, companies can only survive by lowering costs and raising revenues. This is the position of both the bosses and the union leaders, and it means that the only way forward is downsizing, sacking, privatising and outsourcing.

Most international airlines currently show losses on their balance sheets. Those showing signs of better health, such as of the Dutch company KLM (with which Alitalia was planning to merge a few months back) or the German national airline Lufthansa, are doing so after suffering heavy losses in 2003, which led to unprecedented downsizing and the loss of thousands of jobs.

Life is not much better for the celebrated "low cost" airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet. These companies earn their profits by the exploitation of their small numbers of flight and airport personnel and saving on maintenance costs through outsourcing. But they are having a hard time too. In fact, their share values have plunged by 20% and losses of 40 million euros are forecast for the first six months of the year. So what can they do to become more competitive?

The bosses' plans won't change

Nine different unions signed the May 6 agreement. Only the CUB did not, as it had not been allowed to take part in the negotiations. The aim of the agreement is to make Alitalia more attractive to predatory capital, doing to Alitalia what has been already done to the companies mentioned above. That is what recapitalisation means, to get investment from banks and industrial and financial speculators, allowing them to do whatever they want with Alitalia's state-owned assets and, of course, with the workers and their families.

Investors will only pour money in if they see the chance to earn quick profits. Therefore, the new CEO will have to offer them an opportunity they cannot refuse. So the management will push ahead with their plans whether the unions agree or not, hoping to divide the unions and the workers, as they have managed to do a number of times in the recent past.

The choice of Giancarlo Cimoli as the new CEO is no accident. In his years at Ferrovie dello Stato (the state-owned national railway company), Cimoli fired 50,000 staff and hired 20,000 low-paid temporary workers. Every day we see the consequences of Ferrovie dello Stato's so-called "revival": rocketing ticket prices, poor safety, exploitation of the workers, and a lack of care for the passengers. [The very day we translated this article we read of a train crashing into a house on the Genoa-Turin line. Maintenance had been carried out by contractors just one month earlier.]

The elections will force management to hold back on their plans for a while. Then there will be the summer peak in the number of flights. But by autumn we will be back in the real world and the bosses will be singing the same tune again, though probably played at a different rhythm. This is clearly expressed in the pages of Il Sole 24 Ore (the official newspaper of Confindustria, the bosses' organisation) on May 7: "There is no such a thing as a magic wand, so recapitalisation and social peace, which the unions have signed up to to avoid bankruptcy, are just the first steps in a mission challenging the very limits of what is possible (…) In order to ensure a future for Alitalia, the courage must be found to do what has not been done before: to dramatically cut costs and increase productivity. Pilots, stewards and hostesses have to roll up their sleeves and fly more, and the number of airport personnel must to be reduced, as it is excessive."

There is one point that the agreement is very clear about: the company's property structure needs to be discussed. Private enterprise and capital will have the doors opened wide for them through the break-up of the company, putting an end to the idea of an airline as a public asset.

State owned but under workers' control

Alitalia is a state-owned company where workers do their jobs with a degree of dignity. Mismanagement and waste are not the fault of the workers, but due to managers and union bureaucrats who have done whatever they liked for many years. Every time anything has been done to help the company it has been the workers who have done it. We are constantly told that Alitalia belongs to everyone, but the workers themselves have never had a say in how it is run. Workers' problems cannot be solved by slashing jobs or privatising support services. The problems facing workers at Alitailia (or Fiat, Parmalat or any company, either state-owned or private) can only be solved by the removal of the bosses' control. These enterprises need to be managed not according to the rule of profit but on the basis of the needs of society as a whole, under the direct control of the workers.

Alitailia is 67% state-owned. The outcome of the partial or complete privatisation of other companies is clear for all to see. Service has worsened, prices have soared, safety levels have fallen and mass sackings have taken place. Only the capitalists profit from such a situation, especially those who target bankrupt companies in order to buy them up on the cheap.

In order to defend the jobs of Alitalia workers, working hours must be cut without loss of pay, temporary workers must be given permanent jobs and the company must once again be regarded as a public asset and not as a source of profit for the bosses.

The workers have proved to be brave and determined, and only this has prevented the usual sell-out by the union leaders. But, to achieve what is necessary the workers must take the management and leadership of the negotiations back into their own hands. The union leaders showed themselves to be unreliable when they shamefully accepted the conditions to restart negotiations on April 30, thereby assisting in undermining the workers' struggle. At the press conference after the agreement was signed, Vice-Premier Gianfranco Fini declared there is an "unwritten framework condition" in the agreement to the effect that the unions are committed to guarantee social peace and the suspension of any form of protest. (Il Sole 24 Ore, May 7th 2004).

In order to ensure that there is no repetition of such episodes in future, the workers must elect their own representatives in negotiations and manage every step of the negotiations themselves. Negotiation committees must to be elected in every airport by all the workers, whether unionised or not. These committees should be nationally coordinated and sit alongside the union representatives during negotiations.

In these circumstances, the struggle should also not have to be confined to the Alitalia workers alone, but would include all airline workers and transport workers in general. Working conditions in public transport, the railways, freight lines and so on have suffered severe attacks in recent years. In all cases the objective has been to privatise the services (and their profits) while socialising the losses, with the workers in the industries bearing the cost. Only by combining their forces can the workers fight back effectively against the government and managers, and overcome the cowardice of the union leaders. Only by maintaining their militancy can the workers ensure a real future for Alitalia, an Alitalia which is state-owned, controlled by its workers and managed according to the transport needs of society as a whole.

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The terms of the agreement

Facing the emergency with a perspective of business continuity, by approving the 2003 balance sheets (that is, not allowing Alitalia to go bankrupt).

Defining a new industrial plan with a growth perspective for the Alitalia group according to the business model followed by European competitor companies, thereby coherently reshaping the company structure and organization.

Recapitalisation carried out with market criteria, thus enabling private capital to flow in owing to a new property scheme.

Government ownership (which is crucial in the first steps of the transition) will only be involved, at any level, according to sound economic criteria and full compliance to national and European laws.

In order to obtain the above, the government will dismiss the Board and nominate a new CEO, with full powers, supported by a slimmed-down Board.

The signatories agree to jointly verify the progressive realisation of what has been set out, taking into account crucial sector-specific points. The signatories consider it appropriate that in subsequent discussions between the company and the unions, methods will be found to ensure an active, responsible and affirmative role for the unions and professional associations in the definition of the new business plan and its application.

May 2004