Italy: Workers’ resistance at Turin FIAT plant

Although we have seen massive general strikes and huge protest demonstrations in Italy in recent years, the overall level of strikes dropped significantly, in some years hitting all time lows. But now we are witnessing a reawakening of working class militancy, starting with the metalworkers and in particular the FIAT car workers.

Introductory Note

This article was originally published in Italian on January 18, 2011 on the website of the Italian Marxists of Falcemaretllo, shortly after the result of the ballot that took place at the Turin FIAT Mirafiori plant. FIAT bosses have been trying to impose drastic changes in working conditions. Marchionne, FIAT’s CEO, has been on the offensive against the workers, threatening to close factories and move them abroad, or to drastically cut jobs, if the workers did not accept the proposed changes.

Marchionne understood that to push through the proposals he would need to win the ballots with a large majority. Instead at the Pomigliano plant in the South and a few weeks late at the Mirafiori plant in Turin, although he got his desired majority for a Yes vote, it proved not to be a landslide. On the contrary a sizeable, minority voted NO. Particularly among the production workers there were sections where the majority voted No. All this poses serious problems before the FIAT bosses. They will have now to push through changes in the production process where in most cases the majority of workers are against.

This situation is extremely significant for the developing class struggle in Italy. Historically the FIAT workers have either been in the vanguard of struggle or have been completely crushed. The FIAT bosses have always fought their battles to the bitter end. Since the famous 1980 defeat of the FIAT workers, the level of militancy, particularly in the Turin plant, has been very low.

Now all this is changing. At the recent ballot held at the FIAT Mirafiori plant in Turin, 46% of the workforce voted No. The Yes vote won, but only with the help of white collar workers and managerial staff. This came after an equally high vote of the FIAT workers at the Pomigliano plant in the south.

The radicalisation of the FIAT workers and metalworkers in general is being expressed through the FIOM, the main metalworkers’ union and part of the CGIL confederation. Under the hammer blows of the bosses and the resistance being put up by the workers, the leadership of the FIOM has been pushed more and more to the left, coming into conflict with the national leadership of the CGIL itself, and it has now become a focal point for all militant workers and youth. (By Fred Weston)

From all points of view, the ballot at the FIAT Mirafiori plant in Turin, held on 13-14 January, 2011, represents a turning point in the class struggle and shows to what extent we have entered a new political and social period in Italy.

The shadow of the 1980 defeat when workers at FIAT Mirafiori thanks to the role played by their own trade union leadership, suffered the humiliating shame of not reacting to the so-called “March of the 40,000” [white-collar strike-breakers organised by FIAT management], has been removed by this clear and unequivocal “No” expressed by the Mirafiori workers.

As was expected the Yes to the proposed agreement presented by the FIAT bosses won with 54% of the votes, but this was only thanks to the votes of the managerial and white-collar staff (more than 400 of whom overwhelmingly voted Yes) and of the night shift workers, who have been “rewarded” by the company with the “privilege” of working at night for “thirty pieces of silver”.

However, if one breaks down the vote and analyses that of the assembly line and body shop workers, i.e. those who will really suffer the physical effects of this agreement, the No vote had a clear majority.

This outcome was not a foregone conclusion, since the alternative posed by Marchionne [FIAT’s CEO] was “either you vote Yes or you lose your jobs” – and this in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. As a matter of fact, the workers voted with a gun aimed at their heads.

We heard many workers at the factory gates who said: “We are with the FIOM [the militant metal workers’ union], but we have to vote Yes, we have the mortgage to pay, children to support, we fear for our future...”

This was far from being a simple straightforward situation, and this is why when the first results of the ballot came through many had tears in their eyes. But unlike in autumn 1980 these were not tears of despair at the betrayal, but tears of joy and pride, after having refused to yield to the blackmail, after having resisted, together with the FIOM and thanks to the FIOM, against everything and everyone, even against the national leadership of the CGIL, which formally speaking supported the FIOM but with the shameful attitude of its General Secretary Camusso who, even before the struggle had started, had already advised the workers they should take the road of surrender, suggesting that the FIOM should “formally” sign the agreement presented by Marchionne. Somebody should tell Madame Camusso that serious trade unionists first put up a fight before being forced to sign any surrender, and the FIOM held its ground on the battlefield, from its General Secretary down to the last shop steward and activist.

And just like their comrades at the FIAT plant in Pomigliano [near Naples], and even more than their comrades in Pomigliano, the Mirafiori workers had the courage to say No.

Workers’ courage

We heard this word “courage” uttered many times outside Gate 2 in the two days of the ballot, by so many workers who were not prepared to bend to the coercion, brutality and arrogance of Marchionne. “It takes courage, we must vote with courage, we are not slaves, we want to work with dignity, comrades, courage...”

A courage that is not the courage of heroes but the courage of people made of flesh and blood who pay dearly for the slightest sign of rebellion with exhausting shifts under the watchful eye of 300   we repeat 300   individuals who daily oppress 5,000 workers demanding more sacrifices under the command of a man who earns an unimaginable amount of money.

“Il Manifesto” [a left-wing daily newspaper] published the following figures:

“In 2009, the year of crisis, in which the FIAT Group lost about 800 million euro, the CEO Sergio Marchionne was given as the fixed part of his salary about €3,430,000, and €1,350,000 as a bonus, making a total of €4,780,000... Thus Marchionne earned about 222 times what an assembly line worker earns (if one takes the period 2004-2010 it would be 292 times).”

However, the story does not end here. Since Marchionne took over the running of the FIAT group in 2004 he has received free shares for a total value of €69.8 million and stock options with a net value of €143,800,000 (according to current share prices), which he can redeem from the end of 2012. A quick calculation of the proportion of his income to that of a worker thus reveals that the ratio is 1940 to 1. He alone earns almost the same amount as the whole workforce in the Mirafiori body shop.

Marchionne had been pushing for a plebiscite, (and in this he was supported by some imprudent trade unionists of the FIM and UILM, the other more “moderate” metalworkers’ unions) and he stated publicly that he was expecting an 80% Yes vote, but the reality is that he hardly got a majority among the workers directly affected by the “agreement”.

We are confident that, even though he was brought up in Canada, Mr Marchionne will understand that this agreement is in fact unfeasible and unworkable in the factory and the game is still open. The Mirafiori workers did not succumb to the pressures   and this in itself is already good news – but there is more to it than that. As Rosa, an assembly line worker, told us: “Whatever the result of the ballot, nothing in the factory and the trade unions will remain as before.” We are absolutely convinced of that, dear Rosa. Interesting times lie ahead.

Abandoned by the politicians

FIAT launched a relentless media campaign, which had the backing of all the parties in parliament, as they did in the case of Pomigliano. Those supporting the campaign for a Yes vote included the government and the Confindustria [the employers’ association], as well as the entire parliamentary opposition. The statements of Fassino [the Democratic Party candidate for mayor of Turin] and Chiamparino [the current Democratic Party mayor of Turin] were clearly in support of a Yes vote, while Bersani [the leader of the Democratic Party] and D’Alema [formerly of the old Communist Party and subsequently of the Democratic Left and now a leader of the Democratic Party] expressed only some minor differences on issues of secondary importance.

What is most significant, however, is the fact that inside the factory all the unions, with the exception of the FIOM and COBAS [the smaller militant union], campaigned for a Yes vote. The sum total of the votes won by the pro-Yes unions in the most recent Mirafiori shop stewards’ election was 71%, compared to the 22% for the FIOM and 7% for the COBAS. This was the initial base of support for those unions calling for a Yes vote.

The initial conditions were not the most favourable. Moreover, unlike Pomigliano that has the youngest workforce in the FIAT group (with an average age of 33 years), at the Mirafiori plant the average age is 46 years. Many were in fact asking themselves how the 20% of workers (about 1,100 in all) who are close to retiring would vote.

Most importantly, the workers at the Mirafiori plant had not expressed a very high level of militancy in the recent period. The level of participation in strikes had been low for some time. This was evident on the demonstration during the strike at FIAT, held on May 16, 2009 in Turin.

The most optimistic forecasts were that a 38% No vote, the level reached at Pomigliano, was the maximum that could be achieved, but many would have been happy with 30%, which was at least the base of support for the pro-No unions in the factory. As one shop steward at the gates put it to us, “If we get 30% then it leaves some hope for the future.”

The Pomigliano comrades and the mood at the gates

On Thursday, January 13, a delegation from Pomigliano arrived at the gate, welcomed by a general mood of enthusiasm. In addition to the FIOM’s leaflet, that of the comrades of the FIAT Pomigliano branch of the Communist Refoundation Party was also distributed.

The workers were taking the leaflets and holding on to them carefully, clearly intending to read them later. Rarely has the author of this article seen an audience so attentive to the arguments of those who had showed up at the gates. They were willing to ask questions, to find out more not only about the FIAT ballot, but the political material available was also received with great interest.

They were rather annoyed at the presence of large numbers of television reporters outside Gate 2, who as every shift went in insistently asked the workers how they would vote. On the other hand, they were very pleased to see activists and retired FIAT workers who had returned to their former workplace to express their solidarity, as well as students who had turned up to support them.

The pressure was really big and finally one worker just lost her temper. What she said was picked up by RAI News [the state TV channel]. Initially she had not wanted to be interviewed but, being repeatedly questioned by the reporter who asked her how she was going to vote, she suddenly became very angry and shouted right in the journalist’s face, “I will vote No, No with pride.” When the journalist replied, “But if you vote No, he will move the factory abroad”, here response was “Well he can go, and go f*** himself.” The look on her face as she pronounced these words sent a shiver down the spines of many who witnessed the scene.

I would describe the mood as electrifying, with endless discussions that continued in the cafe’ opposite Gate 2. It is run by a former Fiat worker who welcomed everybody as a brother, put leaflets calling for a No vote on display in his cafe’ and kept bringing us coffee outside the gates.

If the Pomigliano workers paved the way, the result of the Mirafiori ballot is undoubtedly a further qualitative step forward in the rising consciousness of the workers in this country.

Throughout Turin there was not a café where workers, shopkeepers, housewives were not talking about this question. I saw with my own eyes gentlemen in suits and ties expressing all their disappointment with Marchionne and their support for the FIOM. I heard one of these saying: “If good old Giovanni Agnelli were still here all this would not be happening...” [Note: Giovanni Agnelli was the old boss of FIAT, and main shareholder, who died in 2003]. This is an idea that I do not personally subscribe to. I quote it to show how even the bourgeois of Turin is uneasy about the whole way Marchionne is running things. They are afraid of the consequences of his policies – it is sufficient to read the main bourgeois newspaper of Turin, La Stampa, to see this   as is most of the Confindustria, because they realise that to push the FIOM out of the factories is madness and it threatens simply to radicalise trade union conflicts even further.

On Friday 14,a group of Ferrari workers also turned up to express their solidarity with the workers at FIAT Mirafiori, and like their comrades from Pomigliano they also distributed a solidarity leaflet.

The mood among the comrades on the picket lines   once the few campaigners for a Yes vote had left   was one of a strong feeling of solidarity, and desire to win back what has been lost in the past. Rarely had we seen such a fraternal and friendly atmosphere and of a desire for unity among activists from different unions (FIOM, USB, COBAS, SLAI) who not too long ago were in bitter opposition to each other. This is a clear demonstration of how the struggle unites and creates the conditions for overcoming conflicts between different trade unions, who have now come together in the campaign for a No vote. The recent decision of several [minor militant] unions to take part in the January 28 strike called by the FIOM is the clearest demonstration of this process.

The assemblies in the factory

Those campaigning for a Yes vote did not take part in the shop floor assemblies in the factory, as they did not want to have to face the FIOM directly. Thus, the FIOM was left to put its case to large numbers of workers, as there was a massive turnout for these meetings. According to Ugo Bolognesi, a former shop steward at FIAT, and currently a FIOM official, such a mood had not been seen for a long time, with the workers paying careful attention to what was being said and also participating in the debate. This was particularly the case during the morning assembly. The afternoon assembly was a bit more controversial but was nonetheless excellent, with over 700 workers attending, and Landini [FIOM General Secretary] being interrupted by 5 or 6 standing ovations.

The unions calling for a Yes vote invited their activists to gather in the church in front of the Mirafiori plant but their meetings were deserted, and honestly I did not expect anything different.

Some workers after the assembly organised by the FIOM were enthusiastic. I noticed that when they spoke of Landini, their eyes lit up. One has not seen such a look of admiration towards a union leader in a factory for many, many years.

Maurizio Landini the day after the ballot was greeted with a standing ovation   possibly less genuine this time – also at the meeting of the National Executive of the CGIL. And it was at this meeting that Camusso suffered a defeat, and had to abandon her position that the FIOM should put a formal signature to the agreement.

What the left wing, “La Cgil che vogliamo” [“The CGIL We Want”, as it is known], failed to win was support from the CGIL national leadership for a general strike. That is why it rejected the final draft of the document that was put to the vote at the end of the meeting.

As Landini himself explained at the Congress of the Federation of the Left, if it had not been for the FIAT workers at Pomigliano and Melfi [near Potenza, in Southern Italy] with their sizeable No vote, the FIOM probably would never have organised the national demonstration of October 16 when hundreds of thousands marched in Rome and this is precisely the point on which we must insist.

The FIOM is turning to the left under the combined pressure of the movement from below on the one side and of Marchionne on the other, who is trying to smash it and forcing the union into a corner. But it is not an easy task to destroy a union that has existed for 110 years and has been at the heart of the history of the labour movement in this country, even under the blows of the worst economic crisis. Possibly, Marchionne may have learnt this lesson now.

The FIOM is still standing on its feet, alive and kicking, fighting harder than ever and everyone in the movement today looks to it for leadership, not only among the blue-collar workers, but also casual workers, students, immigrants who have all been mobilising in the recent months in every corner of the country. The FIOM, whether it likes it or not, is no longer playing merely a trade union role, but it has assumed a political role as well. It merely needs to become aware of this fact.

The movement at a crossroad

The strike called for January 28 and the National Assembly of the FIOM of February 3 and 4 are two key dates. We have no doubt that on these dates trade unions of other sections of workers, grassroots trade unions, students, casual workers, and immigrants will mobilise.

The key difference with previous movements (remember the 2001 anti-G8 protests in Genoa) is that today the central role of the working class is no longer questioned, neither is the role of the FIOM or the crucial role that the large factories (starting with FIAT workers) can play in this process.

The leadership of the CGIL will soon be raising again the idea of a “productivity pact” with the bosses’ associations and there will be enormous pressure on the leadership of the FIOM and the left wing of the unions to accept the logic of compatibility [with capitalism].

If the FIOM does not want to step back in the coming months it can only do so by moving forward along the road it has taken so far. The primary aim must be to unify the different mass movements. Many activities are being organised nationwide in this regard. The platform called United Against the Crisis, with all its limitations, is an expression of this process, but what matters the most are the joint actions that that are spreading at rank and file level, such as FIOM meetings open to students, FIOM shop stewards being called to speak at schools and universities. The FIOM is adding to its platform of demands those of the immigrants, the question of welfare, protection for casual workers and so on.

Around these activities new links can be created between different groups. At present there is no political force on the left   of which there is more need than ever   that is capable of uniting all these groups around a working-class point of reference, that can offer defence against the onslaught of the bosses in this time of crisis.

Rinaldini (leader of “The CGIL We Want”) and Landini cannot afford to ignore the hopes that have been placed in them or pretend simply that all this is of no concern to them, nor can they behave as if providing answers to this question would be wrong tactically or that it has nothing to do with the internal debates going on inside the CGIL.

Important as the debate within the largest Italian trade union confederation may be, today there is much more at stake. It is about the survival of the very idea of an organised labour movement, of a movement that is under the vicious attack of a decaying capitalism that is attempting to unload its crisis onto the lower classes.

In this context there is no political leader with magic solutions who can help the workers. It is the workers who must count on their own forces and rescue and transform their own organisations in order to save the future of the working class and with it the whole of society.

The future of militant trade unionism and the Left in this country can only be guaranteed by showing the same level of courage expressed by the workers at FIAT Mirafiori in the recent days, and before them by the Pomigliano workers.

January 18, 2011