Organising at Fiat, 1969

Fiat workers strike in the hot autumn of 1969

The speech of a worker from the Fiat Mirafiori plant outlining workers' organising efforts and lessons they had learned in the militant struggles running up to the hot autumn of 1969.

“In statements to the Bologna newspaper Resto del Carlino today the heads of Italy’s two largest industrial groups, Sig. Gianni Agnelli of FIAT and Sig. Giuseppe Petrilli of IRI expressed their anxiety over the situation in industry, which is grinding to a halt because of the strikes. In describing the situation within the plants, Sig. Petrilli said bluntly that it amounted to anarchy.” - Financial Times 8th July 1970

This is a speech made by a FIAT worker National Conference of Workers’ Base Committees in Turin July 26th-27th, 1969 describing the build-up to the struggles of the Hot Autumn in Italy, reprinted from La Classe #13-14, August 1969. The speech deals with the period from Battipaglia, (a massive riot by tobacco workers in response to layoffs), when FIAT along with many other Italian factories struck in sympathy with the dead worker, to the battle in Corso Traiano. It explains how the workers organized inside the factory, the demands they were putting up, and how they planned the struggle over the renewal of the contracts in the autumn of ‘69.


I speak to you as a worker from FIAT Mirafiori. I want to explain how our struggles started there, how they developed, and the lessons we feel they hold for all Italian workers.

Nobody could say that our fight at Mirafiori developed out of the blue. It was the product of everything that the working class had learned by their struggles of 1968-69, and at Mirafiori the way in which all these experiences came together marked an important step forward in our political growth and understanding.

In April 1968 the union called us out on yet another routine strike concerning hours, piecework, and speed-up. And this was where it all started. We realized immediately that our unity and militancy on the strike were much higher than we had expected, and that if we acted on our own strength we could really make something of the strike. But right away the union jumped in to keep us in check by calling for referendums, secret ballots, and the like. Everybody understood what the union was up to, but at the same time we weren’t able to put this understanding into practice. We knew that it was time for us to take the leadership of the struggles into our own hands, and that this was something we would soon be in a position to do.

It was during the strike in sympathy with the two workers killed in Battipaglia (April’69) that we took our next step in this direction. We are workers who come from the South, and we carry on our shoulders the full weight of the exploitation that capitalism allows in the South so that it can increase its profits in the North. We were angry, and instead of just going home as we would have done on a normal strike, we stayed inside. Just downed tools and ambled off the job, right under the noses of the foremen, to a mass meeting in the canteen. This was our first step toward internal struggle keeping the struggle inside the factory and the workers at Mirafiori were beginning to discover their own strength. It was a good experience. After the strike, not surprisingly, many comrades thought that we should begin to push harder. But for the time being this was difficult, because there was nowhere they could turn for organizational support. The unions were out of the question, and the students hadn’t yet arrived on the scene.

The strike for Battipaglia was a political strike. A factory in the North responds to and concentrates the immense drive of a city that revolts in the South. The revolt was against planned underdevelopment that drives young, able-bodied men and women from the South to seek work at FIAT and other factories in the North. But we can say that the struggles that began almost immediately after the Battipaglia strike were political too. They began in the Auxiliary Plant, and spread like lightning to the crane drivers, the trolley drivers, and the press shops, and in every case were dominated by the militancy and the drive of the immigrant workers. Immigrants from the South, showing their anger against the boss class, against the whole planning policy of capitalism, its government, its police, et cetera. They arrive in Turin, hunting the big wage packets they have heard so much about, but find instead that FIAT is a slave camp. Naturally they rebel. They refuse to work. Passively at first (with thousands of workers a day going off sick), but then more actively. They force the unions to call strikes, and really begin to make their presence felt.

The labor unions had 1969 all planned out as far as strikes were concerned. They wanted a whole series of strikes just involving a few people at a time, so that production would never be blocked completely, and so as to prevent large numbers of workers getting together. But we took the initiative and speeded things up, which meant an almost total stoppage of production, involving the great majority of workers. When the union called a two-hour stoppage, the men made it four, and later stepped it up to eight. And different shops would stop work at different times, so causing maximum havoc. The presses weren’t producing a thing, the crane men and the trolley drivers had nothing to transport, and thus the production lines were virtually at a standstill.

This was dangerous for the unions. They had lost control, and they had to try to stem the tide of the workers’ struggles. So they tried the same arguments that the foremen and the supervisors use: that every hour that the workers struck autonomously (that is, unofficially) should be penalized. But the threats didn’t work, and the strike carried on. The very fact that the line was not running sparked off meetings and discussions among the men: first of all inside the factory, next to the stationary assembly lines, and then outside, together with the groups of students who had gathered at the gates. The strike spread down the line, and political discussion followed it. Everyone was arguing and talking, and it was suggested that the demands of the Press Shop could be taken up by the assembly lines. The strike had begun in protest against the speed of the line. But work speeds are decided from above in the factory, and are based on the whole way that capitalism organizes work, that is, gradings and wages. So our initial limited protest soon spread to all aspects of the work relationship.

For the moment, though, it was important to pass from words to action. There was one line still running, and we had to stop it, even though it was our weakest point in the factory. And this is where the Snake came in. For three days there were stoppages up and down the line, and we would all get together in big groups and march round the factory, pulling out anybody who was still working. This was how we stopped the “500” line. And we added demands for big wage increases to our initial protest. At this point the union really tried to throttle our struggle. It reached into its box of tricks and pulled out a new disguise for itself: the line delegate. They said that the delegates would represent us, but in actual practice the delegates’ only role is to negotiate with the boss the extent of our exploitation and just as we say NO to exploitation, we say NO to the delegate. If we really need anything like a delegate, then our attitude is that WE ARE ALL DELEGATES. When they try to speed up the line, we’ll just stop working.

That’s the way we organize internally, and naturally the union’s game did not succeed. After two days of official union stoppages, and four days of truce for the negotiations, the unions mistakenly thought they had the situation back under control. But on the very day they informed us that they had signed the agreement about the delegates, the strike restarted, and once again all the lines were stopped. The unions had called four days of truce, but we had used those four days to prepare our struggle, to clarify our demands, and during those days, in some shops, our thrust began to take on the forms of a real autonomous organization. This time there were hundreds and hundreds of us marching round the factory in the Snake, and we marched till we came to the big office block that houses the administration. We weren’t going to avoid a confrontation with the management and the unions, in fact we went looking for it, determined to hit them where it hurts. By this time things were no longer running on an ad hoc day-to-day basis. In Shop 54 we knew we would be able to last out about a week. So we organized with other shops so that they would relieve us when we’d had enough. And sure enough, at the end of a week, the strike is taken up by Shops 52 and 53 and once again the lines are at a standstill.

All this has needed, and will need, organization. We have begun to build organization at two levels, both inside and outside the factory. There are groups of workers who get together on the job, and they organize with the students into intervention groups outside the factory gates. Then there are the worker-student assemblies that we have been holding every day in a warehouse near the factory, where we come together to exchange and share news and information from all the different plants and factories in the FIAT complex.

But these assemblies don’t just work at the level of co-ordination. On one hand we began producing leaflets to tell workers in other parts of the complex how our struggles were going, and we also began to take initiative in deciding what course the struggles would take. In fact it was in one of these oh-so-many assemblies that the workers and students decided to organize the demonstration for July 3rd of this year, which, as everybody must know, exploded into a great workers battle. At this point (July ‘69) we are now faced with the coming clash over the renewal of the contracts, and in the light of this, over the past few weeks, we have been restoring a strong degree of autonomy to the worker-student intervention groups at the gates. The aim of this has been to widen political discussion at a shop-floor level, and to put us all in a better position to begin to consolidate the organization of all workers at all points in all of Fiat’s factories. When the official union strikes begin this is going to be crucial.

There are some things that ought to be said about our relations, as workers, with the students, and about the relationship of the factory as a whole to the external political groups. Our reason for deciding to work with the students was, and is, political. The students with whom we work are people who fight, and who are ready to fight with us, and like us, against the common boss, right to the end. The unions and the political parties will not fight the boss to the bitter end: they stop halfway at compromises that only end up reinforcing the control that our employers have over us. This means that they’re always fouling up the works, trying to put the brakes on our struggle, trying to slow us down. It’s clear to us that if you’re going to fight the employers right to the last ditch; you need organization and a clear political understanding of what you are going to do. It is a struggle that’s going to last a long time, and you can’t just improvise it from day to day. But we do not accept that we should be fed this organization and this understanding ready-made by groupuscules that come round advertising themselves and who are far more interested in strengthening their organization than in helping us in our fight. In the last few months, we have seen many of these groups coming round, particularly when the struggle’s all over. But we have had nothing to do with them. It’s for us to create our own organization and our own political understanding based on our own experiences of struggle continuously discussed and examined among ourselves. The contact with the students is also useful in other respects, because we can pool experiences of struggles in other places, as the first step toward our unification with the struggles of all working people; farm laborers, peasants, white collar workers, technicians.

And inevitably, the organization that we have created will have to come to terms with not only the problems inside the factory, but also the problems of the workers’ life in the city of our relationship with this dormitory city, this robber city of Turin. We have understood that FIAT controls this town, and that therefore it is not good enough to fight just inside the factory. We must also fight outside. The struggle must become generalized, massive, and social and this is precisely what happened a few weeks ago, when the struggle spread outside, and we had the street fighting in Corso Traiano. By now everyone knows the story of Corso Traiano. After the battle we went back into the factory with our heads held high. We have not been defeated. We are not defeated. Anybody who says that the struggle has died down since Corso Traiano is forgetting two elementary facts: First, that Agnelli (head of FIAT) has not managed to regain control over the speed of the line, over timings, over the whole way production supposed to run. Second, that he has not been able to do this because our organization is getting stronger and stronger inside the factory.

We say this so as to highlight a tendency: that is not to say that Agnelli finds himself unable to speed up the line, to state categorically that from now on he is going to find it less and less possible. The workers of Mirafiori are no longer going to be trodden on. We have organization now, and not the sort of organization that is only strong during high points of struggle. The proof of this is Agnelli has been forced to take back various people that he had sacked or transferred, because of the organization response from the workers in Shops 53 and 54 and in the Auxiliaries. But this is not enough. We must go further. The next stage will be the renewal of the contracts. In September, the majority of Italian workers (metal workers, chemical workers, building workers, and others) are going to find themselves called on strike, all together, by their union.

We know what the contracts mean for the unions and the employers. They are their way of ensuring that workers only fight once every three years, and that after that they sit still and behave like good children, the contracts are a sort of cage, in which the worker is locked up, and the unions given the keys and told to make sure that the cage stays shut. But in the last year, in hundreds of factories all over Italy, it has become clear that workers don’t accept orders from bosses or from unions. The employers would have liked to come to the renewal of the contracts after a long period of social peace and with a working class that was divided and weak. But the battles that workers have been fighting over the last year have smashed that plan one factory after another.

Now, the first thing to be said is that we refuse to tie ourselves to the contracts. The employers and the unions have already planned out the strikes for the contracts, but we refuse to fight by their timetable. However we realize that we shall be able to use the renewal of the contracts for developing our own struggle. It will enable us to use the strength that we have developed, and unite the factories that have been in the vanguard of the struggle with those that have so far remained outside it. The employers and the unions use the contracts as a means to keep us down, but we shall transform them into weapons with which the working class will be able to organize and fight. We shall use them to develop the revolutionary political organization of the workers and all working people. We shall do this by consolidating and generalizing the lessons that we have learned from the struggles of the past year. The workers have virtually expelled the union from the factory, and have begun to formulate their own demands, and carry them forward in a fight that is led entirely by themselves. During contract struggles we shall have to make this a permanent conquest of the working class, in every Italian factory, in every productive sector, exploding all the ways in which the contracts and the unions are designed to divide and weaken us.

During the struggles of the last year certain demands have cropped up repeatedly. We must take these and use them as our first priority to unify workers throughout Italy. They are: equal wage raises for all, not linked to productivity or any other employer’s standard (like time and motion, incentives, plus payments, conditions payments, et cetera), an immediate reduction in working hours, without loss of wages, abolition of compulsory overtime, abolition of the lower gradings as the first step toward abolition of all grading divisions and complete parity with the white collar workers. We are organizing political discussion on these points by circulating a discussion document inside the factories. But it is not enough for us to know what we’re fighting for, because we also have to know how we’re going to fight. The age of passivity is dead. The old days are past in which we would wait for the union to call a strike from the outside, and then take a day’s holiday at home. It is possible, in fact probable, that as the autumn progresses wildcat actions are going to start happening in the same way in other factories. And if, in any place, the union does call an official strike, then it will be used by the workers as a chance to move, united, into the fight.

The sort of strikes that the union intends to call for the autumn are the sort that cost us the most and cost the employers the least, the sort where the employer has plenty of warning of the strike, and can organize himself so as not to be hit too hard and the sort that gives us precious little help to get together and organize ourselves. But in the strikes at Mirafiori, and previously at the PIRELLI rubber factory in Milan, as well as in many other advanced struggles recently, we have been able to organize in new ways. We have understood that if the factory is the heart of the employer’s power, then it can and must become the center of our power. We have understood that organizing and fighting inside the factory allows us to come together to discuss and organize much more than was the case when we all just used to go home for the day. And we have understood that if we use this sort of organization arranging to relieve each other in our strikes, taking it in turns to strike, we shall hit the employers more effectively, and pay less of the cost of strikes ourselves. This kind of autonomous organization already exists in many shops at FIAT, and during the strikes for the contracts this autumn we are going to have to spread it both to other parts of the plant, and to other factories that it has not yet reached. For us the password is FIGHT INSIDE THE FACTORY, because it is only through fighting inside the factory that we shall be in a position to outlast a prolonged clash with the bosses and the State. We must put them in the weakest position, where they will have to pay the highest price, and not us.

I need hardly say that all this does not mean that we should confine our struggle to the shop floor. But we must use the factory to build the strength that will mean we can move outside of the factory in a way that is not totally disorganized and in such time as we ourselves may choose. This also means that when employers try launching particularly hard attacks on us inside the factory, like lockouts and reprisal sackings, we shall be in a position to respond equally hard with an intensification of the struggle inside the factory, to the point of actually occupying it if need be. Now, the struggles in the autumn are going to be hard. Nobody is saying that we shall see the final frontal clash of the proletariat with the armed forces of capitalism for the conquest of State power. But in the last year, Italian workers have revealed a certain revolutionary awareness that their problems are class problems, and that the only way to solve them is to mount an attack on the system that perpetuates them, with the aim of destroying capitalism and abolishing all classes. Our problem now must be to use the struggles over the contracts this autumn to translate this general awareness into organization the general autonomous organization of the Italian working class.

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