Summary and thoughts: The Magneti Marelli Workers Committee – The ‘Red Guard’ tells its story

Summary and thoughts: The Magneti Marelli Workers Committee – The ‘Red Guard’ tells its story

The book [1] portrays in detailed fashion the background and activity of the Workers’ Committee at Magneti Marelli in Crescenzago in Italy, a manufacturing plant of around 4,000 workers during the mid to late 1970s. In many ways the Workers’ Committee was the most developed expression of ‘workers’ political autonomy’ during this period. For us the committees are still a crucial political reference-point and compass and we invite comrades to debate how this historical experience can help us to re-orient our political practice in the here and now. If you want to take part in this debate, please get in touch.

We think the experiences detailed in the book can help us to sharpen our debate around various contemporary issues:

* The phase of ‘workers’ autonomy’ is usually associated with the offensive wage struggles at the end of the boom years of the 1960s. In contrast, the Workers’ Committee emerged after the crisis blow of 1973, which means that the main question at the time was how to turn a defensive struggle against restructuring into an offensive one. One of the main targets of these struggles was the attempt of the bosses to send parts of the workforce into Cassa Integrazione, a state-sponsored furlough system that was used to undermine workers’ collectivity.

* The book depicts in detail the contradictory relation between workers’ self-activity and the old and new forms of official representation (trade unions) and systems of delegation (factory council). While it becomes clear that during the peak moments of class combat these institutions use the excuse of ‘workers’ unity’ in order to undermine workers’ militancy, the book also shows that workers’ autonomy developed not independently from the system of delegation. Many of the protagonists of the organised workers’ autonomy were at some point factory delegates, while often refusing to take part in the structures of ‘representation’ of the official trade unions.

* The book traces the moment where collective mass violence against the repressive system inside and outside of the factory detaches itself in the form of the armed groups, such as the Red Brigades and Prima Linea. We can clearly see that violent struggle as a collective behaviour of workers, rather than by specialised groups, is not an ideologically motivated decision, but a material necessity that results out of struggle against the day-to-day attacks of restructuring and inflation itself. We can also see that in Italy in particular, given the history of armed mass resistance of the partisan years, the detachment of this organised working class violence from wider class struggle is not an overnight event. We think these questions have relevance, given the debate on anti-fascism and ‘civil war’, which is currently most pronounced in the US.

* The book questions the common assumption that the experience of autonomy in Italy can be divided into two distinct phases, a ‘factory based’ period during the late 1960s and a ‘territory based’ phase during the mid- to late 1970s. We can learn that many of the actions in the so-called ‘territory’, such as squatting, reducing prices of utilities and groceries, were dependent on organised cores of workers who had their base in the bigger workplaces. Rather than dealing with two distinct movements we can see how the factory struggle organically links to the wider struggle, while giving it a focus and power base.

* The book confirms the role of organised political cores within the working class. While a neoliberal reading of the experience of ‘autonomy’ emphasises the horizontal nature, the lack of formal organisation and of obvious leadership we can see that organised elements – which themselves didn’t emerge out of thin air, but out of struggle – were essential for the development of a self-organised class movement. To use the example of the Magneti Marelli factory with around 4,000 workers we can see that a group of 40 comrades can organise themselves with 300 to 400 militant co-workers who in turn can develop a big enough dynamic in order to encourage 1,000 to 2,000 workers to take part in unofficial and militant actions.

* The book helps to destroy some of the myth about both the PCI and the ‘workers’ autonomy’ peddled by defendants of democratic socialism and the parliamentarian road towards social change. [2] One of the myth is that ‘autonomy’ was some kind of political pet of figures such as Negri without a mass influence amongst the working class. The Workers’ Committee emerged several years after Negri decided to turn away from the factories towards ‘political struggle’ in 1973 and after Lotta Continua disbanded. The Committee was able to lead mass strikes and working class demonstrations, while the PCI’s ‘historic compromise’ in 1976 not only led to further detachment from the workers’ base, but also to an electoral defeat.

* The experiences of the Workers’ Committees can help us to clarify our thoughts on revolutionary transition. We can see on one side that the actual practice of the Committees was in a certain way a ‘revolutionary transition’. Rather than just putting up general demands the actual struggle managed to allow workers to work less inside the factory, to have more time for political organising, to lower prices and enforce free services – leading automatically to the question of militant self-defence against state repression. We can see the efforts to expand this experience to other workplaces and areas. We can also see that there was a clear lack of discussion about a wider take-over of the means of production and what a ‘communist mode of production’ would look like. The debate remained on a level of ‘refusal’ and attack against capital and a peculiar ‘re-appropriation’ from within: let’s take back the time at work against work, let’s take the abundance of goods in late capitalism. Despite various efforts to discuss with comrades in countries such as the US and links to organisations in France and Germany, the general focus of the groups was very regional – perhaps not even reaching a national perspective.

* We can see that this lack of political scope resulted in gaps which were then filled by Maoist inspired visions that the intensification of armed attacks on the bosses and state machinery was the next step forward. In this sense we can see the limitation of the explanation of ‘why 68 failed’ that is put forward by some proponents of ‘communisation theory’. While we think that ‘workers’ autonomy’ failed to address the significance of the core working class to develop a productive alternative, these schools argue for the opposite: that 1968 failed because of an ‘implicit pact’, a kind of refusal of workers to ‘self-organise’ their struggles and a future society. Others argue that workers still remained too attached to their ‘identity’ as workers, in a world that supposedly had already become ‘post-industrial’. These seem like superficial explanations to us. [3] Rather than a ‘pact’ we have to understand why the material figuration of industries and of national political frameworks within a globalised production system posed such a challenge even for the most advanced struggles to develop a ‘positive’ internationalist communist program.

Comrades recently subtitled an interview with one of the leading figures of the Committee, you can watch it here: https://en.labournet.tv/enrico-baglioni

A general overview of the developments

The strength of the book is its weakness, in the sense that the enormous amount of detail makes it difficult to keep track of the main shifts. If you want a broad overview of the book, read the following paragraphs. If you want to understand the actual development and fusion of the ‘economic and political struggle’, we encourage you to plough through the rest of the summary.

We can summarise the general situation at Magneti Marelli Crescenzago in the mid-1970s as follows:The factory employed around 4,000 workers in 20 different departments, some of them were women-only assembly departments. Many of the workers were in the lower-skilled pay grades. The plant employed many younger workers from vocational schools and workers who have migrated from southern Italy. Around 10% of the workforce were higher-skilled maintenance and engineering workers. The factory manufactured various electrical parts, partly for FIAT and the automotive industry. There were various other Magneti Marelli plants in Italy and management shifted production units between these locations. The early generation of PCI militants who were influenced by the resistance against fascism had been removed from the factory during the crisis slump in the mid-1950s and a 40-days factory occupation. The offensive wage struggles in 1962 and 1969 rejuvenated the trade unions and the Statute of Labourers provided the legal basis for the establishment of a factory council in 1970. By that time groups of the extra-parliamentarian left and students were in touch with workers and some members of the groups were voted into the factory council as delegates.

To summarise the general developments of the class movement and its relation to the Workers’ Committees we quote from the French introduction to the book:

“This cycle is remarkable for the following reasons:

— its duration: it began with the foundation of the Unitary Base Committee at Pirelli in Milan, in February 1968, and ended in Turin, on 14 October 1980, when the “demonstration of 40,000” managers and white-collar employees of FIAT went out to support their employer in the face of the strike against redundancies. That makes it more than twelve years;

— the forms of organisation that the workers created for themselves, which enabled them to push forward and lead strikes and, for a long time, to be as influential as the Italian Communist Party (PCI);

— its “class composition”. The movement affected all industries (first of all the big factories), from chemicals and electronics, to metalworking, engineering, and, most definitely, car manufacturing. It mobilised all categories of workers, from the least skilled to the most skilled, from technicians (in the case of Montedison in Porto Marghera or Sit Siemens in Milan) to engineers (such as at IBM in Vimercate, close to Milan);

— its reaffirmation of the centrality of the factory. Starting from the concrete reality of exploitation, the movement opposed itself not only to the despotism of the factory but called into question the wage hierarchy and the differences in treatment between blue- and white-collar workers. It imposed control over the pace of work and went as far as questioning wage labour itself;

— its political centralisation built up from the shop floor, founded on the refusal of delegation and the active participation of the greatest number;

— its propagation outside the factory. Very quickly it took on questions of housing, transport, energy and means of subsistence by organising the self-reduction of prices and the seizure of housing. The workers’ groups coordinated themselves and centralised themselves by local area and then on a regional level as happened for the last time in Milan in 1977.” (P.11/11)

“The third period (1975-77) was marked by the end of the political groups, the revival of workers’ committees and the entry into struggle of workers from small and medium-sized workplaces in the most important industrial areas of northern Italy.” (…) “The political groups became a break on workers’ autonomy. Incapable of embodying and organising the political centralisation of the movement, they dissolved themselves or changed their nature. So, once again, starting from the terrain of base organisation, the worker left took up the red thread of its struggle. The centre of gravity of this was the Milan region, the industrial capital of Italy where there already existed the Autonomous Assembly of Alfa Romeo, the CUB (Unitary Base Committee) at Pirelli, the committee of SIT-Siemens, along with many other autonomous workers’ organs. But it was the Workers’ Committee of Magneti Marelli in the Crescenzago factory which would be the most advanced expression of the committees in the Milan region and thus in the whole country.” (P.13)

“Nevertheless, the great moments of the life of the Committee are (very) precisely described: the strikes for wages and against the pace of work, supported by marches through the factory; strikes aimed at supporting the canteen workers and the cleaners; the street battles during the hot days of April 1975; the determination to allow sacked members of the Committee to enter the factory every day, starting from 10 September 1975, and continuing for ten months; the confrontations around the court in Milan; the “workers’ patrols” organised to support the workers in small workplaces; the self-reduction of prices in the shops; and finally, the demonstration on 18 March 1977 called by the Coordination of Workers’ Committees which united 20,000 proletarians in Milan, as many as were on the official union demonstration on the same day.” (P.14)

The Committees and the question of delegation between 1968 and 1973

It is difficult to follow the thread of the relation between trade unions, factory council and autonomous committees through the course of time. The author provides a large amount of historical detail, but his own assessment only mirrors the contradictory nature of this development. We guess the position of the factory delegate can be compared to the role of the shop stewards in the UK in the mass strikes of the 1970s. At Magneti Marelli the factory council was a buffer between union apparatus and shop-floor workers, sometimes pulled in the direction of rank-and-file action, but more often than not a tool for the trade union officials to transmit their decisions. Still, the most active members of the Workers’ Committee were delegates of the factory council and decided to get re-elected even after they were expelled from the union. There are only a few hints in the book why these political militants, who were otherwise critical of the system of representation, chose to become and remain delegates.

“Starting in 1968 the first Unitary Base Committees (Comitati unitari di base) were created. Then it was the turn of the Autonomous Assemblies, which sometimes participated, sometimes not, in the elections to the official Factory Councils. ” (…) “This “workers’ power” found its highest expression in the figure of the workshop delegate, a real change in post-war Italy’s industrial relations system. At the beginning, this representation was felt only on the factory level, and did not intervene in external issues.” (P.34)

“The Statute of Labourers (1970) and the parallel rise of Factory Councils constituted without doubt the conquest of dignity and power by the working class. However, those workers closest to the extra-parliamentary organisations implanted in the factories believed that these two achievements could adversely affect the power of the delegates within the larger factories, and that this power would be absorbed by the unions.” (…) “The establishment of the Factory Councils allowed the unions to “territorialise” its interventions, preventing more general demands, while the electoral system in the factories was gradually changed to make it harder to elect delegates who were misaligned, or belonged to extra-parliamentary groups. The risk for “dissident” delegates was, obviously, that of falling into corporatism.” (P.35)

In order to understand the origins and development of the Workers’ Committee we thought it would be good to summarise the main events. We can see how various crisis slumps impacted on (union) struggles and how the relation between unions and workers shifted over time. Let’s first look at the actual constitution of the factory council at Magneti Marelli:

“In May 1970, the first Factory Council was elected by secret ballot, and with the possibility of casting a blank vote. The candidates were elected (one for every 75 workers for assembly lines with at least 25 employees) without a formal candidature and without the need for a majority of votes, by the highest number of votes obtained by each candidate. In that way, politicised minorities were favoured and even workers not representative of the reality of the department or line. The Factory Council was made up of 63 elected members plus eleven more from the Internal Commission and three representatives appointed by each union branch and the RSA (Company Union Representatives).” (P.61)

The Factory Council was then thrown into the first dispute, caught between workers’ initiative on the ground and the union directive:

“In reality, among the workers, the discussion on piece work had been going on for some time, so on the first day of July [1970], the go-slow happened without the approval of the unions – the first time ever at Marelli. The initiative started in two workshops where young workers were in the majority and had now been at the forefront of factory struggles since 1968. The strike spread rapidly, so that by the end of the day it already involved half the factory. The Factory Council could not do anything but ratify the action, and in the evening it officially extended the go-slow to all departments where there was piece work. Up to that moment it had seemed that FIOM and Fim controlled the evolution of the strike, but afterwards the situation was taken out of their hands as many assembly lines went well beyond the union recommendation of slowing production from 133% to 100%. Many workers slowed down to 50% and even to 30% in individual tasks, where it was not easy to control the real reduction in pace and where the most militant workers worked.” (P.62)

But there was no clear dividing line between ‘workers’ on one side and factory council on the other, as it becomes clear in following paragraph:

“The strike went on for twenty days (1-21 July) and success was guaranteed by the fact that delegates could go around the various workshops safely. The Statute of Labourers established the absence of guards in the workshops, for example, allowing women to overcome their traditional deference to the corporate hierarchy. The final result was the collapse of production and of company authority in the factory. The participation in the struggle was total and saw women return to active participation." (P.63)

The trade unions tried to re-gain control and centralised certain processes of decision making when it came to disputes. This in turn created further discontent:

“This policy, characterised by the greater uniformity of its actions and the stiffening of its structures after having opened up to workers’ spontaneity in 1969-70, produced strong criticism within the union itself and within the PCI, resulting in the haemorrhaging from its ranks of a good number of activists whose dissent had radicalised.” (P.67)

Out of this discontent grew yet another ‘autonomous’ organisation, which was still closely attached to the delegates and Factory Council:

“In the autumn of 1970 some union activists, who had been in contact for some time with left-wing extra-parliamentary groups, got together outside the union structures. Some of them had been members of the old autonomous group that had fallen apart before the contract struggles. The debate was of interest also to members of the PCI and FIOM at Magneti Marelli critical of the conduct of the union in the company. By the end of the year, all the members of the new “Circolo operaio” (“Workers’ Circle”) were sympathisers of the extra-parliamentary left, and as such they began intervening with leaflets and taking a stance on the Factory Council. In fact, at the beginning their opposition to the FIOM union guidelines was rather bland, particularly considering that three of the seven Magneti delegates that went to the July 1970 FIOM provincial congress “were supporters of the new autonomous Circolo, and within the Factory Council ten delegates took part in the Circolo. The differences became more bitter when the members of the Circolo did not respect the discipline of the trade union or Factory Council, criticising their conduct.” (P.67)

The number of informal actions on the shopfloor increased, in particular amongst the so-called unskilled workers. The company reacted by targeting these departments of unrest, with partial backing from the trade union.

“Also during this period, the Factory Council and the unions approved a restructuring that hit the most militant workshop in the factory, where there was a large concentration of young workers. Many assembly lines were transferred to a Magneti factory in the south of Italy, while the workers themselves were moved to other workshops. The union approval depended on the fact that this restructuring would guarantee greater employment in the south as well as offer security of wages, production norms and overtime authorisation.” (P.69)

An egalitarian attack on divisive skill-grades, which are defended by the trade unions

1971 was characterised by the first collective contract dispute that involved all Magneti Marelli factories (apart from one non-unionised factory in southern Italy) involving 10,000 workers. The process was very much in the hand of the national union headquarters. The first step was a meeting of all Factory Councils at Magneti Marelli in March 1971. A conflict emerged between a union platform, which proposed pay increases according to skill rates, and workers’ militants who questioned the skill grades and demanded automatic transfers from the lowest to higher pay grades. The union supported ‘professionalism’: the bosses should allow us to get skilled and should pay us for our skills. The more radical wing maintained that first of all the assembly line workers and ‘unskilled’ should get a pay increase, also as a step towards the abolition of piece rate work. At Magneti Marelli in Milano:

“The proposal was approved at the assembly, but the workers’ decision was blocked by an external union organiser who threatened to call into question the entire platform, so that in a second vote the proposal was rejected.” (P.70)

The tension between workers’ militants amongst the younger workers, women workers in the production department and the official structure increased. In 1972 the factory witnessed some direct actions from various groups of workers, raising there particular issues. It also becomes apparent that the factory council tried to contain these disputes. For example:

“Meanwhile, thirty workers stopped work spontaneously, demanding immediate promotion to the first category without having to sit the examination. The strike became very determined and went on for 4 months. The strikers’ delegate was part of an extra-parliamentary group that was able to kick off the struggle without resorting to an all-out strike. The Factory Council’s Executive urged the workers to accept the offers made by the Management at a meeting that ended this struggle.” (P.74)

By 1973 management makes clearer efforts to re-gain control. The rate of unionisation is at its peak. Management tries to involve the main union delegates into a dialogue that would result in a growing distance between union and shop-floor:

“In 1972-73 the rate of unionisation of the plant in Crescenzago consolidated at more than 60%. If we add to this the full recognition by management, good control over the working-class base and a decent level of union activism, we can say that, despite the presence of the “groups”, the trade union structures of the factory were at the height of their success.” (…) “The negotiations no longer involved the direct intervention from the shop floor. The delegate was fully recognised without support from worker initiative. The era of mass delegations to the management offices seemed to be really over. But this only really applied where the delegates were in line with the union, not where there were delegates belonging to extra-parliamentary groups. Delegates close to the union were given management functions in the departments that were previously assigned to “capetti” (low-level foremen). For a time, workshop delegates and managers made partial deals directly with each other, bypassing management and union, which did not disturb the company but it did annoy the union” (P.77)

The tension within the factory council grow larger:

“The assemblies became a site of conflict between the Executive and the extra-parliamentary groups, such as during the 1972-73 contract struggle when the delegates of the “groups” were trying to override the decisions of the Executive but they were defeated first in the Factory Council and then in the assembly. Or, in April 1973, when the Factory Council blocked the doors of the offices of the security guards, and the “groups” proposed blocking the gates as well. The attitude of the delegates of the “groups” was regarded as unfair by the other members of the Factory Council, because even when their positions were defeated in the Factory Council they re-proposed them again in the assemblies, creating, according to the other delegates, confusion among the workers.”

This was the moment when the precursors of the Workers’ Committees entered the scene. Chapter Three of the book is dedicated to their development. We can see how there was a close link between the Committees and the extra-parliamentarian political organisations and we get an idea of the relatively small numbers of the organised core.

“When, on 17 May 1973, Enrico Baglioni, future leader of the Committee, was taken on at Magneti Marelli, the extra-parliamentary presence in the factory was very strong, at up to 20% of the delegates.” (…) “Inside the Crescenzago factory there were Lotta Continua and Circolo Lenin of Sesto San Giovanni, a small local group with a strong union orientation that shortly afterwards went into Lotta Continua. The internal section of Lotta Continua could call strikes on its own; the membership of the factory cell was 35; the newspaper sold 30 copies a day and was distributed in every department of the factory. Baglioni was immediately elected delegate for the department.” (P.82)

Their main backbone in the factory were the assembly departments with largely ‘unskilled’ workers. In the coming wage struggles the main dividing line between the Committees and the main unions would be the question of ‘skilled-based pay grades’:

“The Circolo operaio Karl Marx pointed out in a leaflet that almost all the women in the factory were in the third category: “but does this category make sense? We say no, we say that it is an unjustified division that the bosses put on us – on the basis of a different wage – to set us against each other, to break what they most fear: our unity of struggle.” The Circle attacked the Qualifications Commission that supported the proposals for “rotation” and “professionality”, which in reality served to push through bosses’ decisions such as the reintroduction of shifts in the fifth section…” (P.83)

The demands and attitude of the ‘unskilled’ workers aggravated the traditional workers’ representatives, who based their politics on the idea of ‘the merit of skilled labour’, rather than ‘more money for all’. On top of this came the political differences between the PCI and the ‘political groups’. The book continues to detail the various offensive struggles for ‘egalitarian wage increases’ that the Committee and the assemblies of workers were able to lead during the 1973 – 1974 period.

“The assembly actually decided against the gradation of the increases and for the continuation of the blockade of the factory and the goods. On 22 November, during the worker march through Sesto San Giovanni, “guided in a militant way by Magneti Marelli workers”, skirmishes broke out between members of the PCI and Socialist Party and the Circolo operaio Karl Marx.”
(P.88)

Soon afterwards, the management of Magneti Marelli reduce the piece rates for female staff monitoring the line, and 800 workers march to ‘force the payment owed’. The action ended in a success. A similar march was repeated later on by canteen staff:

“The management of the plant did not intend to solve the long standing problem of the canteen staff. (…) The demonstration thus passed through all departments, with the managers in front and we explained how things were with a megaphone. The demonstration was constantly growing so we arrived at the canteen with more than 1,000 workers. A delegation of workers went to the Factory Council Executive who in the meantime had gathered in the “smoking” room (the union room) to discuss what to do. We invited them to participate in the meeting to share with them the things that would happen. The negotiations resumed and after a quarter of an hour the manager at the microphone in the cafeteria accepted all of our requests.” (P.101)

We can also see that the ‘egalitarian’ spirit also pervaded the non-manual departments, where young and more qualified workers were employed:

“Shortly afterwards the following staff of Crescenzago went on strike spontaneously: mechanised processing in “A”, the Equipment “N” division, technicians and typists, Accounting and Planning. This was after months of the Crescenzago unions singing the praises of the “framework” and supporting individual advances in category. At the “Design office, there had been only 5 advancements to the sixth category out of 130 employees on the fifth, which effectively contradicts the contracts of employment for “designers” for whom the sixth category was expected.” (P.94)

Up to this point the crisis had not hit Magneti Marelli in a severe manner. The position of the trade unions will change drastically under management’s threat of restructuring and a general shift of the government towards austerity.

The onset of the crisis and the impact on the political groups: the break with Lotta Continua

The offensive wage struggles demonstrate that the combination of militants from extra-parliamentary groups, radical delegates and workers’ assemblies and initiative was able to involve hundreds of workers. We can see a shift after the oil shock 1973 from wage struggles to defensive struggles against redundancies and restructuring. With the crisis and the limited scope for ‘redistribution’ (productivity increase / higher wages) the trade unions had to fulfil their co-management position more blatantly. In 1974 the PCI leader Berlinguer announced the ‘Historic Compromise’, which meant that also in terms of parliamentarian representation the official labour movement opted for co-management. This would further increase the tension with the political groups. The end of offensive wage struggle also undermined the political foundation of the groups themselves, e.g. by 1975 Lotta Continua entered a final crisis. The Workers’ Committee at Magneti Marelli was a product of this, as was the emergence of organised proletarian violence and armed groups. We quote this part more extensively as it shows the political focus of the Workers’ Committees. We think the author should have taken more space to explain the actual disagreements with Lotta Continua’s strategy – the political disputes get too little attention in the book in general.

“In this period Lotta Continua began to take a position in favour of trade union ‘“entryism” and to structure itself like a party, sparking controversy from its worker members because of its organizational roots, which claimed “we are all delegates” as the unifying slogan and that unions were enemies of the workers.” (P.104)

“During the Lotta Continua National Congress in 1975, the Workers’ Committees of Sesto San Giovanni (Falck, Breda), of Magneti Marelli Crescenzago, of Telettra of Vimercate and the Committee of the Casoretto quarter of Milan all left the organisation. Together with another group, the product of the slow dissolution of Potere operaio, they would create Senza tregua (“Without truce”), perhaps the most traditionally “operaist” of the Autonomia experiences, very concerned with the topic of the “workers’ decree” and prone to discourse on the “centrality of the factory”.”

They summarised how they saw the current moment and the current tasks:

“The principles and the practice of workers’ power in the territory will be extended based on the already practiced initiatives in autumn (against overtime, closed and occupied factories, external expansion of the fight against restructuring) and already seen in this new powerful tool of the masses and the vanguard that is the ‘workers’ patrol’. Territorial patrols and squads, external demonstrations, mass picketing, will expand and organise themselves, but the territory will be the ground for new experiences of struggle and new levels of political organisation. Anti-fascist militancy and the prevention of state attacks, the attack against the centres of provocation, the unification of the weak sectors under the political hegemony of the class, new goals such as political prices, new “matters of urgency such as those posed by the school and neighbourhood struggles. Factory platform, workshop platform, territorial platform. “Mobilisation against “the state, the fascists, the laws on public order, internationalist mobilisation, all these struggles are part of the same programme that defines struggles for wages, for categories, against restructuring and against the suspension of workers” (P.105)

The Workers’ Committee and the struggle against restructuring

Although the Committees positioned themselves more clearly in regards to issues outside the factory (housing, inflation, repression etc.) the struggle inside the factory continued. It was now more tightly linked to struggles beyond the factory wall, e.g. due to the fact that Magneti Marelli tried to re-locate parts of production to other plants of the group or to sub-contract work to smaller companies in the area. The Committee blockaded trucks that were supposed to remove machinery from the plant and organised pickets at smaller local workshops, in order to prevent overtime and weekend work. We can also see how the most militant sections of the working class are not only ‘the first victims’ of restructuring, but that, at least initially, their militancy might save them from a frontal attack by the bosses. During the first round of restructuring attacks management of Magneti Marelli sent workers in various plants into short-time work, due to lack of orders. At this point management didn’t dare to apply these measures in the most militant plant in Crescenzago:

“By contrast, in the Crescenzago plant technical unemployment was not applied, even though some departments often lacked work. When the first suspensions began, the workers’ reaction was immediate: meetings in all plants, indefinite overtime ban and a go-slow; (…) management office was occupied and internal demonstrations “sweep up” employees and unskilled workers caught doing overtime, while foremen and the higher grades are thrown out of the departments.” (P.73)

Towards the end of 1974 the struggle against the Cassa Integrazione started to intensify. To send workers home, even on relatively high pay, was interpreted as a frontal attack against workers’ collective power. The Committee struggled to allow workers to remain inside the factory, while the national coordination of factory councils accepted the CI as a necessary measure.

“On 15 December, a demonstration took place inside the second section against the Cassa integrazione. The Workers’ Committee decided to put forward workshop platforms for “humanisation of work” that offered: reduced pace of work, more breaks, category promotions for women and the fight against toxic working conditions. In January initiatives in this area began: the female workers on the lines took breaks, all departments decreased performance, workers carried out an extensive analysis of dangerous machinery.” (P.110)

The Committees had to enforce these struggles against the factory council and it led to a clear break with the trade unions.

“While the Crescenzago workshops had been fighting for a week, the Factory Council remained in the Assolombarda office to negotiate with management instead of appearing on the assembly lines and in the workshops: “What are we dealing with? On Cassa integrazione there can be no discussion! Drive out delegates from the “bosses’ palace”! Out of the Assolombarda and inside the factory to address the workers’ debate!” The Communist Committee organised a demonstration on 7 February inside the factory and prepared a general assembly. The provincial trade union organisation accepted the proposal from the management, but worker opposition was total, and for the Communist Committee “whoever supports the boss’s discourse of dismantling struggles and dividing the workers is exposed as fully opposed to the very growth of the struggle itself.” (P.113)

“The fight got tough, and for the first time women organised themselves to get re-entry into the factory (management had suspended a thousand of the 1,800 women who worked in Magneti), and their demos snaked around the factory. The first “day of Cassa integrazione, 900 suspended women organised themselves without union leaders and delegates and, at 8 a.m., entered the factory. “The joy of overcoming their fear and the bosses’ threats was written on their faces. They walked around the factory in procession, a hundred or so workers who had not been suspended joined the others. 2,000-strong they invade the offices: the managers (pigs and cowards) had fled.” The first assembly without the union took place inside the factory.” (P.114)

“On 13 March, three hundred workers (men and women) of the fourth and fifth departments enter the factory despite being put on Cassa integrazione. As had happened the previous week, a march of 500 workers went into the streets of Crescenzago and nearby neighbourhoods, taking their demands “beyond the factory gates.” (P.115)

From the factory, beyond the factory: the involvement of the Committee in self-reduction of prices

In the meantime inflation sky-rocketed and was not compensated by wage increases. The Committee supported struggles of direct re-appropriation and ‘self-reduction’ of prices:

“In the early months of 1975 the work of consolidation of the Communist Committees for Workers’ Power (a group coming out of Potere Operaio founded in 1975) aimed at a “proletarian expropriation” of the UPIM (a department store) in Cologno Monzese (“we invited people there to leave with goods without paying, we also brought out our shopping cart to show that some people were openly taking goods so that the people following would take stuff without paying”).”

“At the same time a nationwide struggle around the self-reduction of transport tickets achieved a notable success, and even the support of the union, which activated a series of territorial networks for “collecting self-reduced tickets. This form of struggle created a broad debate about the meaning of legality within mass struggles, on how to determine which behaviours are necessary and desirable to obtain concrete results. At the same time “patrols” against overtime were organised in the factories in Milan.” (P.116)

“On 20 May the Magneti Marelli Workers Committee called for a strike against the high cost of living which mobilised 60% of the workers. On 21 May, at around 6.45 p.m., about fifteen young people entered the Esselunga supermarket on Via Pellegrino Rossi, in the working class neighbourhood of Bovisa in Milan, and expropriated various goods from the shelves, while one of them cut the telephone wires and spoke into a megaphone about the high cost of living. Outside, members of the Workers Committee held a rally against rising prices and urged people not to pay.” (P.144)

The Committee supported occupied factories protesting against redundancies in the vicinity and opened the Magneti Marelli factory for delegates from these companies, to hold meetings and collect donations.

The question of repression and self-defence

All these actions crossed the lines of legality and the question of self-defence became more pressing, in particular as corporate management made more frequent use of private security forces that actively sabotaged workers’ organising. Workers responded:

“So at 8 a.m. when the day shift came in, almost all of the two hundred workers present in that workshop, along with two hundred others from various workshops, went in demonstration to the office of the captain of the guards (Palmieri). He replied that he knew nothing about it. But, at the same time, the workers there found hidden bundles of posters, leaflets, banners, the fruit of years of spying on the workers.” The blacklist files were burnt in the street. The workers, after warning that this would no longer be tolerated, returned to the department. The management submitted complaints to the police against ten workers, for assault, kidnapping, verbal threats and criminal damage.” (two members of the PCI) (P.127)

This incident would turn out to be a catalyst for both legal and armed struggle. During early 1975 the area witnessed the first armed attacks against management:

“On 13 February, several revolver shots were fired at the garage and the car of the director of the Crescenzago plant, engineer Franco Tacchini. The attack was claimed by the Red Brigades.”

“On 4 June, the car of the chief of personnel of the Crescenzago plant was set on fire. The action was claimed by the Red Brigades.”

This confrontation on factory level was magnified on the social level by the struggle against the fascist MSI during the so-called ‘April Days’ in 1975, which saw widespread violent protests in Milano and beyond. The experience of the street-fights and the increased attacks on the factory level led to closer cooperation between different Committees and groups on the far left. The question of ‘legality’ and repression entered the centre stage. In one of their publication, ‘Comunismo’ the coordination around Senza Tregua wrote more explicitly about their perspective:

“the working class must regain the offensive: real wages, working hours, prices, are the immediate objectives which imply the slogans of guaranteed income for all workers, organized self-reduction of working hours, the imposition of political prices, decided by the workers. To do this it is necessary to find appropriate forms of organisation: ‘the construction of a fighting party of workers for communism, an organisation capable of anticipating the determined and decisive path of disintegration, of breaking the machinery of the state and affirming the proletarian dictatorship’ (…) “In line with this hypothesis, some factories were building and strengthening organisational forms (workers’ patrols, worker teams to maintain order, offensive marches) that “were “able to challenge the control of the boss in the factory and the political and military control of the State over territory.” It’s now, they said, the time to build the ‘communist committees of worker and proletarian power in the factories, in the neighbourhoods.’” (P.122)

The trade unions and the PCI collaborate with the bosses

In the meantime the struggle on the factory level intensified. While management tried to use the action against the security guards and an alleged ‘kidnapping’ of managers during negotiations as an excuse to sack the most militant workers they announced a next wave of CI measures in order to clear the shop-floor. This was clearly a two pronged attack.

“In September 1975, the company decided on a new tactic to downsize the Crescenzago plant. They re-proposed the transfer programme already rejected by the workers and the use of total Cassa integrazione for 800 workers, with the aim of preparing the ground.” (P.129)

A significant group of workers reacted to the sacking of the militant colleagues by escorting them into the factory. This would continue on a daily level for nearly a year:

“On 10 September at 7.45 a.m. the gate was occupied by around a hundred workers. A procession with the two sacked workers at its head came into the factory helped by a team of workers from the “day shift who had watched the gate since 7.30. The factory stopped work, three hundred workers marched through it, the others did not work and warned the union.”

The PCI and the unions in contrast signed the dismissal letters in order to get rid of the ‘terrorist trouble-makers’. When the legal case started first 400, then 600 workers accompanied the sacked work-mates into the court room. In the end the court reversed the dismissals, but workers had to fetch the local police chief in order to enforce against management that the dismissed would be allowed to re-enter the factory. The state also mobilised the professional association of lawyers in order to repress the legal representatives of the workers. The whole confrontation cannot be reduced to a dispute between ‘violent extremists’ on one side and ‘democratic forces’ on the other. The trade union and the PCI actively collaborated with the bosses and government to get the Italian economy ‘back on track’. This is the main difference:

“Meanwhile in Rome, the Ministry of Labour and the trade unions signed an agreement on Magneti Marelli, the negotiations having gone on for ten months, initially held in Assolombarda Milan, but then shifted to Rome. The main points of the negotiations concerned turnover, transfers of work and staff, and the defence of jobs, following the resort to Cassa integrazione in the Potenza, Pavia and Turin plants. The union’s demands were almost completely disregarded: during 1976 100 new jobs would be created (60 at Crescenzago, 40 in the rest of the group), but this did not conform to any workers’ requirements. Some manufacturing at Crescenzago would be transferred to Potenza, dismantling the Third section, the most combative section in which the revolutionary left was most implanted.” (P.136)

But we can also see that ‘compromise’ was not just an issue of the official organisations. Many workers themselves felt that the balance of forces had tilted against them and were ready to accept restructuring measures:

“On 10 December, meetings were held to evaluate the agreement in various sections of the plant in Crescenzago. There was a lot of disagreement and grumbling, but the agreement was approved. In the afternoon there was a meeting of the Third section which called for the 200 workers affected by transfers to meet all together and deny the right of other assemblies to decide the fate of the other sections.” (P.137)

Tensions continued in early 1976 and although some of the departments had succumbed to the restructuring agreement, the division was put into question during a wildcat strike, which also proved that the committee still had considerable influence:

“On 12 February management announced that, following a strike of the employees, they could not pay all of the wages for February, but only 50,000 lire to each worker. ‘A management provocation to test the ground and the union reaction – it is a traditional tactic of the bosses that we’ve seen several times at Breda siderurgica.’ Three hundred workers spontaneously went on strike. On 13 February the union called for a symbolic demonstration under the windows of the management office in Sesto. There 1,500 workers broke through the union lines and, led by the comrades of the Committee, occupied the office and imposed direct negotiation, which, after two hours ended with the payment of 150,000 lire for all, even though a member of the executive of the Factory Council, a member of the PCI, proposed asking for 100,000 lire. For many, this was more than their salary” (P.139)

The trade union reacted by expelling the three leading members of the committee from the union.

The question of armed counter-attacks

In April 1976 two men who claimed to be lawyers entered the factory compound and shot Palmieri, the head of the company security force into his leg. Shortly after…

“On the night of 4 April 1976 individuals armed with rifles fired at the windows of the Magneti warehouse in via Clerici. On the spot the police found copies of a leaflet in which a “communist armed commando” claimed responsibility for injuring Palmieri. The purpose of the action, the flyer said, was “to strike Palmieri, who is directly responsible for the systematic work of denunciation of workers’ struggles and in particular the communist vanguard. The working class and its communist armed vanguards are developing a systematic work of counter-information and surveillance against the anti-worker role of the armed factory guards and we know how to impose this first warning by force of arms. Against the armed vigilantes, organised by the bosses to impose militarily the laws of profit, we impose the revolutionary law of the armed workers vanguards.” The text ends by calling for the building of “the armed power of the working class. (…) The union declared a strike of solidarity for the wounded, but the Workers Committee proposed a separate demonstration and assembly “for worker objectives.”. (…) “The union official and PCI member Egeo Mantovani, in an interview with the newspaper Corriere della sera appealed to the management and the state to intervene directly, complaining about the presence of an excessive number of subversives among the workers.” (P.142)

The PCI was able to use these ‘terrorist acts’ as an excuse to condemn workers’ militancy in general. For the PCI the extreme left acted as agent provocateurs that threatened workers’ unity. A quote from a PCI communique:

“The grave economic situation and the hard contractual confrontations are elements of the bosses’ strategy which is trying to ensnare the union and the labour movement. The objective of the strategy of tension, which is part of such a design, is to target the factories, considered as a decisive element for a conservative and reactionary political change in the country. Faced with this, maximum unity, firmness and discipline is necessary to isolate the provocateurs and those who theorise these types of action, at the same time as implementing the decisions of the Union to win contractual objectives and reforms.” (P.143)

It was far from true that the PCI and the unions represented ‘workers’ unity’ at this point in time. They rather represented the compromise with the status quo. The committee wrote in response:

“But “the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and their supporters have done more: from now on they are recruiting from the scabs, the kind that we all went to throw out from the workshops during the strikes. They are recruiting from the foremen, the operators of the fifth level, on the basis of anti-communism, on the basis that the crisis is the ‘ruin of the workers’, the resumption of mass exploitation and unemployment for most of the workers, will bring to them, the scabs, foremen, fifth level people, new advantages.” (…) “As for the Reale Law, the PSI voted for it and the Communist Party let it pass.” (P.143)

The Reale Law gave the police more freedom to carry fire arms, to search houses and to exile political activists. Another fact that proved that the ‘extremists’ were not isolated was although the leading members of the Committee had been expelled from the union, they managed to be re-elected to the factory council:

“The new phase of the conflict with the guards continued in October with the re-election of delegates, in which Baglioni got twice as many votes as previously [179], according to the numbers he is in first place in his department, and second throughout the factory.” This highlighted the mass influence that the Workers Committee had achieved in the factory.” (P.152)

The tension between the state and the militant section increased. In November the police accused all workers who took part in internal factory marches between May and September 1975 of participating in an armed group. Soon after it came to a fatal shootout between the police and Walter Alasia, a young local worker and member of the Red Brigades.

The struggle against the Cassa Integrazione continues and the regional coordination of Workers’ Committees is formed

The focus is still on the events at Crescenzago factory, where management tries to send more workers into the Cassa Integrazione. The Workers Committee manages to organise various actions to resist the breaking up of the workforce:

“The first day of technical unemployment, the women workers of the Regulators department re-enter en masse with the comrades of the Workers Committee who have launched an autonomous strike and are marching around the factory with 400 workers. The union tries to divide them by making a strike of its own lackeys ‘independently’, especially those in the PCI, and offers the suspended women a demo outside the factory with distribution of leaflets in the neighbourhood. With the 10 suspended women and 60 lackeys, the union leaves the factory, while 300 workers demonstrate inside.” (P.162)

Shortly after there was another successful unofficial strike of 300 workers which forced management to take 40 workers, who they had previously declared as ‘superfluous’, back on to work. Meanwhile various committees and political groups discuss how to create a coordination on a regional level:

“On 20 October in Milan a provincial general strike was called by the unions. According to Autonomia Operaia’s analysis, this was a means for the union to recuperate workers’ struggles against the government measures that had developed independently. The previous week’ strikes and road blockades had shown that the situation in the factories had not normalised. In Milan the perspective of building a workers’ coordination, promoted by the various components of Workers Autonomy – the Workers’ Political Collectives, the Communist Committees for Workers Power, the Communist Committee (marxist-leninist) of Unity and Struggle and the Italian Communist Party (marxist-leninist) – was discussed.”

The authors mentions the different political positions within the coordination, but we don’t really get a clear picture of the debates. (A similarly unclear picture is painted when the book depicts the break-up of the Senza Tregua coordination earlier on. We only hear about disputes within Senza Tregua between the ‘intellectuals’, ‘the workerists’ and those comrades who thought the priority was the intensification of armed struggle.) The important aspect is that most of the committees are based in bigger local companies, such as Siemens, Montedison and others. The outcome of the first meeting is a list of general demands:

“1) “100,000 lire [276% increase, to around $US120272] per month, to be able to survive and reproduce as a class”,

2) 35 hours paid as 40 hours as the maximum working week (“free time to organise ourselves politically and to be able to live better”),

3) because exploitation now affects the whole of society, it is necessary from now on to demand a “social wage” (“Why does the woman who stays at home not get paid when she works every day and suffers to reproduce labour power? Why does the student who works to gain the capacity to be exploited in the factory not receive a wage? Why should the unemployed, who have certainly not lost their jobs voluntarily and haven’t found another one, not be paid?”),

4) social benefits are indirect wages so they must increase, and social services must be free.” (P.165)

We don’t hear how these demands are put forward, how workers react to them or who they are actually addressing. This is a short-coming of the book, as we have to assume that these demands remained a rather artificial attempt to further generalise the struggle. Similarly, at this point the book mentions only briefly the wider strategy of Magneti Marelli management to shift production to other sites, but we don’t hear whether workers’ militants took this development serious or tried to do something about it:

“With the divisions created, the Crescenzago factory was ready for “worker decimation.” Marelli also started producing abroad (in Nigeria, Venezuela, Brazil, Taiwan). The transition to a multinational structure was supported by all the trade unions, as workers realised the implications for employment and the inability to conduct struggles that had an impact on production.” (P.162)

We know that the Workers’ Committee militants organised a solidarity strike against the coup in Chile and various other ‘internationalist’ events, but we don’t know much whether they tried to connect Marelli workers on an international level.

At a national level the Andreotti government implemented the first “big decrees”, basically austerity measures. The government planned to increase prices for public services, to block the Scala mobile (automatic inflation compensation) and a reduction in public holidays. The first opportunity to verify the possibility of coordination of the different autonomous groups in Milan was the city demonstration on 5 February 1977 “openly in opposition to the union-government-Confindustria social pact”.

“In the Milan factories the mobilisation grew and workers demanded the calling of a provincial strike of the engineering sector, which took place on 11 February. In Sesto San Giovanni there was a march of 10,000 people in which the “lion’s share” was made up of Magneti Marelli workers, around 1500, but there was also strong participation by Breda Siderurgica and Falck, “with an almost total absence of the union and the PCI.” (P.163)

A month later groups of the workers’ autonomy mobilised 20,000 people to a demonstration in Milano, which resulted in militant attacks against various institutions. Shortly after some of the leading figures of the committee at Magneti Marelli were arrested and charged with possession of arms. In many ways this was the high-point and the end of the movement. At this point it is recommended to re-read Sergio Bologna’s assessment of the 1977 urban revolt ‘Tribe of Moles’ [5].

The end

In June 1977 the armed group Prima Linea attacked the buildings of Magneti Marelli and Siemens in response to the suspension of workers’ militants. The suspensions were withdrawn afterwards. The armed group left following declaration:

“Disrupting the command, disrupting production and sabotaging the overall functioning of the capitalist machine are mandatory tasks for combative communist organisations. (…) The working class therefore faces an alternative: either to blow to pieces the new power of command, the new operation of the machine of production, oppose the acceleration of its rhythm and the stratification of the workforce, or to make live in their own struggles in their own political initiative the ability to break the command, attack the opposed social bloc, sabotage production.” (…) “It is in this organisation, in a process of prolonged civil war, that it expresses its political subjectivity and its capacity for a new social cooperation.” (P.175)

While parts of the radical left ran into a spiral of violence and repression, which ended with the arrests of several tens of thousands of militants during 1979/80, the mainstream left and the official representatives of the labour movement deepened their engagement in the co-management of crisis. The boss of the CGIL Lama made a clear first step:

“This thesis, according to which wage claims must take into account their “compatibility” with economic performance, was presented at the 24 February 1978 meeting of the General Councils and delegates of the CGIL in the EUR district of Rome. The motion was adopted by a large majority and would go down in history as “the EUR turning point” for its immediate impact on Italian society. It was the first time since 1947 that employers, government and unions had agreed to save the Italian economy from final collapse.” (P.180)

The ‘historic compromise’ didn’t help the PCI, as the defeat during the general elections demonstrated. The demonstration of thousands of FIAT employees in 1980, which opposed the strike of their colleagues against redundancies, marked the end of this cycle of struggle.

Footnotes:

[1]
Read it online here:
http://libcom.org/library/magneti-marelli-workers-committee-red-guard-te...

[2]
“By 1973, Negri and his comrades had turned their backs on “factoryism” in favor of a search for other signs of upheaval. Informing some of the extra-parliamentary left of this period, operaismo was more a form of theorizing these struggles than an organized force unto itself. Yet its mythical status as the idea behind the struggles of the 1960s, and indeed the challenge to the Communist Party, has granted it a lasting historiographical centrality.”
https://catalyst-journal.com/vol3/no4/the-autumn-and-fall-of-italian-wor...

[3]
“Knowledge of this “implicit pact,” knowledge of the fact that 1968 had not been betrayed by unions, or defeated by the state, or weakened by reactionaries, but hollowed out from within, was a difficult weight to bear, especially when everyone else insisted on seeing things as being on the upswing, imagining themselves swept up toward the horizon by the wind from the east.”
https://cominsitu.wordpress.com/2020/12/28/some-stories-about-communizat...

[4]
“The Statute of Labourers (Statuto dei lavoratori), established by Law 300 of 20 May 1970, was the state and the unions’ reply to the struggles of the Hot Autumn of 1969. It provided certain benefits for workers but not as many as for the unions. (…) This law was brought in by Carlo Donat-Cattin (1919-1991), the Christian Democrat minister of labour of the time, a former leader of the CISL union.” (Footnote 32)

[5]
https://libcom.org/library/tribe-of-moles-sergio-bologna

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AngryWorkersWorld
Mar 30 2021 06:49

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  • The book helps to destroy some of the myth about both the PCI and the ‘workers’ autonomy’ peddled by defendants of democratic socialism and the parliamentarian road towards social change.

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