11. Breaking the ice: spring-summer 1968

The term ’maggio strisciante’ was coined to describe the development of social and industrial conflict in Italy in 1968-9. Literally translated as the ‘Drawn-out May", it points to how the movement in the workplaces was a process stretching over months, rather than a phenomenon identifiable with a major event. Whereas in France a massive general strike followed student insurrection, in Italy the social crisis was more diffused and prolonged; a series of conflicts, from the jacquerie of the Marzotta factories of Valdagno in late March, to the street battles between Fiat workers and police in Turin in July 1969 (episodes which will be dealt with in the following chapters), marked important shifts in the development of industrial and social conflict. The student movement had important consequences for setting the stage and heightening social expectations, but these resulted from the continuous mobilizations rather than any particular confrontation.

The most significant single event in the early stages of the movement was not a spontaneous revolt, but the general strike on 7 March over pension reform organized by the CGIL. It coincided with the parliamentary debate on the subject, and followed the breakdown of the negotiations with the government that had initially justified the postponement of the strike in November 1967. The other confederations withdrew from strike action at last minute, but participation was not limited to CGIL Members. Mobilization in Milan involved three hundred thousand engineering workers alone It signalled a radical change of mood in the work- places; Rina Barbieri recalls:

There was something in the air that encouraged workers to take back what they had lost in the previous few years . . The strike for pensions, that’s what happened in 1968 that really changed things… There was huge participation , far beyond our expectations, including that of the white-collar workers … it was an issue that affected everyone.

The strike had a special significance because it expressed a surge of unity from below, and protest against the Centre-Left government. It was also a sign of general moral outrage at the treatment of pensioners. Despite the recalcitrance of the CISL and the UIL, workers belonging to those confederations joined the action. In Milan the FIM-CISL defiantly called for participation, and, in addition, many non-unionized workers took part. The ideological differences that divided the official organizations were shown to count for less among ordinary workers than they did among their representatives. Disillusionment with the government’s capacity to introduce reforms made strike action the only alternative. At this point, it was still largely conceived of in terms of applying pressure on the state from below, but the scale of mobilization revealed a newfound strength which militants channelled into collective bargaining. The expansion of the welfare sector, which was meagre in Italy by comparison with other Western European countries, remained an objective of the movement. However, industrial action in the workplace had the advantage of giving quick and tangible results, which could not be expected from Italian governments.

Company Collective Bargaining
The early months of 1968 saw the development of collective bargaining to a degree not experienced since 1960-1, reaching the highest level in the post-war period. The phenomenon of ‘wage drift’ - the difference between nationally fixed wages and those won through company and plant bargaining - was a normal feature of most other advanced capitalist economies, but it was new in the Italian situation. Here national contracts for each sector and a highly centralized bargaining apparatus set limits to local agreements. Traditionally, industrial conflict coincided with the calendar of contract renewals, which were usually every three years. The movement of decentralized bargaining, which sprang up mainly in the larger factories of the manufacturing sector on rank-and-file initiatives, therefore had a peculiarly destabilizing impact on industrial relations, causing problems for the unions as well as for managements. In 1968 a conjunction of factors combined to produce the first signs of a movement of shop floor rebellion, which gathered momentum in the course of the year.

The first conflicts developed around traditional issues: the key demand coming from workers was for wage increases. Since 1963 real wages had been in decline. Although no formal incomes policy had been implemented in Italy, governments' deflationary policies had effectively curtailed wages by weakening bargaining power. Firstly, the postponement of the engineering workers' contract (the pace-setter for other sectors) from 1965 to 1966, and then the meagreness of the 5 per cent increase stretched over 3 years (conceded in 1966) lowered living standards. Production rose steadily after 1964 but without proportionally reducing unemployment, and profits recovered dramatically. ln particular, companies were able to raise prices because of favourable international conditions, and to benefit from an inflation which reduced real wages. Then, payment systems within factories were changed to remove or lessen wage-linking to productivity.

Resentment over wages had already shown itself in 1966 during the struggle for the renewal of the engineering workers' contract. In the aftermath, there was considerable bitterness at the way unions had signed the contract prematurely (it was labelled a contratto bidone), a ‘rubbish agreement‘. The disproportion between the scale of mobilization and the paltry results was especially great because of the cost of strikes to the workers themselves. There was no system of strike pay or state benefits for strikers' families in Italy.

In 1967 there was widespread discouragement and loss of confidence, especially among activists on the shop-floor. This was not dispelled until the general strike in March, which showed the growth of a new awareness of bargaining power among workers. Explanations of this change point to two developments: to the consequences of a spurt in production because of a buoyant international market; and to the changed position of workers in relation to the labour market.

Until the beginning of 1968 production increased without significant recourse to additional labour. Then for two years ‘manning' levels rose, especially in the engineering sector. Fears over job security subsided, and workers found themselves in a position to ask for wage increases, taking advantage of changes in the production process to press their case. At Alfa Romeo, which had two car plants in the Milan area, the lively commercial boom began in 1968, in the first nine months sales increased by 36.6 per cent with respect to 1967. The increase was determined by and, in turn, determined a continuous reorganization of the labour process; the intensification of line-speeds and continuous technological innovations provoked stoppages and strikes. But the company, in its concern to maintain continuity of production, was prepared to make concessions to prevent strikes.

Although employment rose in 1968, employment in industry over the year did not increase much above its 1964 level. In other words, explanations linking bargaining directly to employment levels are inadequate. It was not the removal of a ‘reserve army of unemployed' that unleashed industrial militancy, as in 1959-60. Rather, it was the blocking of that mechanism due to the ‘compartmentalization' of the labour market. Industry no longer required raw recruits from the countryside, as it had done in the 1950s. From 1963 Italian capitalism entered a phase of ‘precocious maturity' characterized by the demand for a new type of labour power: Massimo Paci has written:

the workers required are those who possess certain qualities: they must be men, not too young and not too old; preferably they are married, have a certificate from the lower secondary school and have already been socialized into an urban-industrial environment.

Those made redundant in the mid sixties - the young, women and older workers - were not therefore the type of labour needed to sustain the heavier workloads and speed-up of production. Furthermore, the limited movement of labour between the sectors and the tendency to stay on at school in order to escape the prospect of manual work increased the difficulties of the employers in finding the right kind of new employee. In Milan and the industrial triangle the difficulties were especially great.

The change in the market position of semi-skilled workers explains the spread of collective wage bargaining. The unions pursued increases in production bonuses and piece rates. The Milan area had a leading role in clocking up agreements. L'Unita’ reported in late April that in three months sixty engineering companies had been in dispute in the Province of Milan, and that in four to five months one hundred agreements had been signed, covering seventy thousand workers, mainly in the large factories.

L'Unita’ reports in April and May speak regularly of thousands of workers in dispute and of the ‘leapfrog' effect of agreements. They give the impression of a harmonious relationship between workers and unions going forward together; the agreements are the fruit of constant and massive pressure by the workers and exemplary organization and guidance by the unions. The unions did show flexibility, they promoted strike action during negotiations in the wake of workers' spontaneous refusal to abide by the traditional truce for talks. Where the unions were strong (in the Milanese area unionism had survived the worst effects of management repression and the CGIL had kept its majority position), bargaining was orderly, and often did not go beyond the threat of action, as in the case of Alfa Romeo. Moreover, the demand for more money was a traditional demand that could be channelled without difficulty.

However, the most significant industrial conflicts for the future development of the workers' movement took place where unions were weak or unable to articulate the demands of the workers, and where continuities with the paternalist/repressive industrial relations of the 1950s were greatest. In these instances, wider issues concerning management powers and authority were at stake. Nationally, the struggles at Marzotto, at Fiat in Turin, and at Montedison of Porto Marghera were particularly important. Within the Milan area there were no equivalent rebellions, but an examination of particular factories is useful in showing the dynamic of the shop-floor movement.

Rebellion at Marzotto, Fiat and Montedison
On 19 April workers from the textile factories of Valdagno in the Veneto pulled down the statue of Gaetano Marzotto from its pedestal in the town square. Throughout April and May Fiat workers in Turin took industrial action in pursuit of a company agreement for the first time since 1954. At Montedison's Porto Marghera petrochemical plant wildcat strikes in the spring led up to months of confrontations in which workers showed themselves ready to destroy plant by totally withdrawing their labour. Each of these moments of conflict made headline news and were symptomatic of a radicalization among workers that went beyond the demand for wage increases alone.

The insurrection of Valdagno had many of the characteristics of a jacquerie. What started as a series of stoppages over work conditions beginning in late 1967, escalated into a total strike which was followed by a lock-out in April. In the street battles which followed the workers were joined by students from Padua and Trento and police reinforcements had to be called in from Padua. It was an exemplary case of a struggle against a paternalist system in a company town. Resentment over exploitation in the factory rapidly grew into a rebellion against a virtual ‘truck-shop’ system, and against the symbols of the Marzotto family's dynastic rule. Although the particular form of the rebellion was isolated, and had parallels in the assault on municipal buildings in the South rather than in the conflicts of the industrialised North, its significance was more than picturesque and symbolic. Firstly, the paternalism at Marzotto was an extreme case of a type of regime that continued to be more than a residual form of industrial relations in Italy, especially in the ‘white' areas (areas of strong Catholic traditions and support for the Christian Democrat Party). Secondly, the rebellion had also been against the local moderate CISL union, and became a point of reference for radical elements in that union. And finally, the events of Valdagno came a fortnight after the Valle Giulia street fighting between students and police in Rome. They highlighted the repressive intervention of the state in industrial disputes, and underlined the new unity between students and workers. It was the period when the theme of the legitimacy and political value of proletarian violence was much debated.

The strikes at Fiat over piece-rates were not marked by particular innovations in either the demands or forms of action. Their importance lay rather in the fact that a long period of inaction had ended. Events at Fiat had great symbolic importance. In the post-war period, the elections to the internal commissions at Fiat were reported as if they had been general elections, and the clashes of Piazza Statuto in 1962 had been interpreted as the first sign of a new type of working-class insubordination. Sections of the student movement and political groupings in Turin took the strikes in the spring of 1968 as a cue for intervention in support of workers' struggles.

At Porto Marghera, an industrial estate at Mestre where the Montedison petrochemical plants employed fifteen thousand people, disputes over grading in the spring, and then over a production bonus in July, led to exemplary instances of industrial action in the most advanced technological sectors. The high capital intensity and the continuous production process at the plants made them particularly vulnerable to disruption. Against the wishes of the unions, which felt obliged to honour the ‘peace formula' in the 1966 contract, independent mass meetings called strikes on alternate days. In July pickets prevented maintenance men from entering, thereby risking the destruction of the plant by their refusal to identify with the interests of the company. Throughout the disputes decisions were taken by open meetings, which short-circuited the unions. More heed was paid to proposals coming from the political group Potere Operaio and from students than to union officials. In response to a management offer of a 1.5 per cent production bonus increase, workers took up Potere Operaio's call for a 5,000 Lire increase for all. The ideas of workers' autonomy theorized by the operaist groups, seemed to have its practical demonstration. According to these, the struggles exemplified the autonomy of self-organization and the autonomy of workers' forms of action and objectives from the cycle of capital. In other words, workers' action was not thought to be recuperable either by unions or by the company. This version of ‘workers' autonomy' (autonomia operaia), which was first theorized by Mario Tronti and others in the mid sixties, gained credibility and influence. Its promulgators canvassed action that escaped union control and introduced a revolutionary perspective into industrial disputes.

Milan Area
A correlation of the degree of conflict in industrial disputes in twenty-four engineering companies in the Milan area with the presence of the FIOM, shows a correspondence between relatively weak unionization and high levels of conflict. In these cases, the discontent over the erosion of real wages was particularly great because managements had minimized bargaining and cut down piece-rates whilst increasing workloads, thereby taking advantage of the weak organization and division of the workforce. In the more favourable bargaining situation of early 1968 there were outbreaks of often violent action. A brief outline of events in some of the Province of Milan's main engineering factories during the spring of 1968 will give a picture of the early mobilizations.

The Magneti Marelli light engineering factories at Crescenzago had a workforce of four thousand in 1968. A fifth was composed of skilled fitters, checkers and maintenance men, whilst the majority of workers, 40 per cent of whom were women in the lowest two grades, did ‘parcellized' and repetitive jobs on automated and semi-automated machines on production lines. In 1960-62 the workers of Magneti Marelli played a leading role in the strike movement, but the management had used the recession to re-impose hierarchical control from above. A measure of its success was the fact that heavy overtime was being worked at a time when workers were being temporarily laid off (cassa integrazione). Attempts at industrial action were met with lockouts, and wages were held down through failures to honour agreements, aided and abetted by the only recognized union, the UILM.

The end of layoffs, the take-on of workers and the success of the pension reform strike put new heart into both workers and unions, but the radical impetus to the strikes for wages and bilateral assessment of payments came from the newly employed young male workers. This group had no fear of management and was angry over the disparity between their qualifications and the de-skilled nature of the jobs they found themselves in. Moreover they suffered from discrimination; because of their age they received lower wages for the same work as done by older workers. When students at the factory gates called for a march to the city centre, the young workers took up the idea and made the unions accept it at an open meeting. It was the students with their experience of demonstrations rather than the unions who organized the march from Magneti Marelli, which was the first since 1949. However, the formation of an ‘autonomous grouping' outside the unions was too weak to promote alternative initiatives. The twenty days of strikes ending in an agreement in May did not drastically alter the balance of forces in the workplace, though they led to greater bargaining activity, and hence the recognition of the unions.

The Innocenti company at Lambrate was divided into three separate factories; one heavy engineering (with just over 1,000 manual workers and 700 white-collar); the Lambretta motor vehicle plant (with 1,400 workers); and the car factory (with 1,500 workers). Each factory was different in terms of economic situation, labour processes, the composition and traditions of the workforce, and these provided the conditions for the diverse timing and trajectories of mobilizations. In early 1968 it was the heavy engineering factory with its highly skilled male workers, who averaged forty years of age and were of northern origin, who took action rather than the young, semi-skilled southern workers of the car factory. Traditionally the former had not been militant. They had enjoyed some of the benefits of the paternalist/repressive system at Innocenti (such as high overtime rates and ‘merit awards'), because of the relative scarcity of their skills. They were proud of being skilled. The turn to industrial action in 1968 was provoked by attacks on their privileges. Production increases were sought by management through the introduction of night shifts and the employment of additional skilled workers at higher rates. During an episode of drunken bravura a worker told a manager that they wanted 100 lire an hour more, and instantly, ‘like a spark in straw' (una scintilla in un pagliaio), the word spread, bringing the heavy engineering factory to a stop. In the ensuing dispute the workers responded to a breakdown in negotiations with spontaneous acts of violence; internal marches within the factory and offices drove out the white-collar workers, the majority of whom opposed the strike, smashed windows and organized mass pickets. Finally they went on all-out strike (sciopero ad oltranza) until the signing of an agreement. From the beginning to the end, the timing and forms of action and the main demands came about ‘spontaneously', in the sense that the unions followed the decisions which had already been taken. However, the ‘autonomy' shown by the workers of the heavy engineering factory was of a limited kind. Above all it showed a power based on the solidarity bargaining position and sense of independence of the skilled workers. The intervention of political groups from outside (Potere Operaio) met with no response, and the strikes did not break the repressive climate in the car factory where most workers were not skilled.

The Autobianchi car factory at Desio had about 2,600 employees. An unusually low percentage of these were skilled due to the importation of ‘kits' for the Mini from Britain, which meant that there was mainly a requirement for assembly work. The siting of the factory in a ‘white area' was part of a deliberate policy of excluding trade unions from the plants, and in the 1960s a paternalist regime prevailed. The level of conflict remained low and there was little bargaining activity since management preferred to take decisions unilaterally. In 1968 a big expansion of production, intolerable speed-ups of the line and grievances over hours (which were longer than in other companies in the sector and did not include the payment of lunch breaks) fuelled shop-floor discontent.

However, the crucial change in the situation resulted from the takeover of Autobianchi by Fiat, since workers took the opportunity to demand parity of conditions with their other factories.

In mid February 1968, after the refusal of parity with Fiat, the internal commission organized strike action. The workers" response was unprecedented in terms of participation and militancy. In March there were lightning strikes instead of the traditional twenty-four-hour stoppage; mass pickets prevented entry to the factory and the cars of two scabs (crumiri), who climbed over the wall, were set on fire. Anger over the White-collar workers' refusal to join the strike ended in the invasion of the offices and destruction of office equipment. On one occasion, the personnel manager, who had a reputation for terrorizing employees, was dragged into a field. A worker recalls: ‘He stayed in the rain for two hours whilst workers threw insults and punches at him; it was unbelievable.’ Violent incidents followed the breakdown of talks and attempted lockouts but the agitation otherwise remained under union control. The leading activists within the factory were the skilled workers of the fitting shops (reparti di preparazione) and their concern for wages rather than for conditions prevailed in the formulation of demands, which were mostly met in an agreement drawn up in April.

Sit Siemens, a partly state-controlled company, was the biggest Italian enterprise in the telecommunications sector and enjoyed a monopoly position in the market. Unlike most engineering companies, it had been in continuous expansion during the recession of the mid sixties and had almost doubled its output between 1960 and 1968 due to the telephone boom and switch to STD. The number of employees rose by 600 between 1967 and 1968 to reach 7,900. In 1969 there were 8,550 employed at factories in Milan and Castelletto. 51 per cent were women workers who were engaged in mass production and assembly work, 30 per cent were skilled male workers with jobs in fitting maintenance and testing, and there was a section of semi-skilled men engaged in heavier production work. There were technicians in the laboratories at Castelletto, while the majority of clerical workers were in Milan. The workforce was highly stratified according to the organization of the labour process, and this was reflected in its relationship to the unions. Among the women workers there were high turnover rates and low levels of unionization, whilst the core of the union membership and leadership was found among the securely employed skilled men.

Unlike the other engineering factories which experienced outbursts of militancy in the early months of 1968, Sit Siemens management was not known for repressive and paternalistic practices. However, the gap in representation between the union and the shop-floor meant that mobilization took uncontrolled forms, especially through the autonomous action of different shop-floors. Already in 1966 a strike committee had been organized independently of the union during the national contract dispute and had managed to promote an embarrassing demonstration at the Milan Trade Fair. Although this grouping disintegrated after the signing of the contract, it had effectively identified the main grievances, especially those of the women workers; these resulted from speed-ups which provoked exhaustion and even hysteria, and worsening conditions of work. The cuts in the piece-rates (by an average 6 per cent over 1967) aggravated resentment over the poor 1966 agreement, which had allowed productivity increases without doing much to improve wages.

The failure of a strike call over production bonuses in November 1967 showed that the majority of workers were concerned about conditions rather than the question of pay in itself. A member of the internal commission explained: ‘[the workers] told us: what we take with the right hand is taken away from the left by the bosses who cut the time on the piece-rate.' Demands drawn up and presented to management in February 1968 were the first attempt by the unions to confront the different conditions of work in the various sections of the factories. Upgrading for workers in the lowest grades, the elimination of health hazards and bargaining over the fixing of piece-rates were all issues that evoked a crescendo of participation in strikes. These were organised at shop level and included internal marches and invasions of the offices. Particularly surprising was the participation of about 30 per cent of the white-collar workers, despite their exclusions from drafting the demands. Although the agreement reached between management and the unions was considered inadequate (‘extra money from piece-rate changes can only buy another cup of coffee a day'), no effective proposition emerged because the internal commission's bargaining position and prestige among the mass of workers was greatly reinforced.

From developments in Milan and elsewhere it is possible to make some observations on the first phase of workers' mobilizations. These can be grouped in terms of the demands, forms of struggle and organization, and leading protagonists involved.

The main demand in this period was for greater production bonuses and revised piece-rates; demands for union rights and better working conditions remained secondary. In other words, workers sought to improve their situation within the existing pay structures and working arrangements. The only new element was the demand for across-the-board lump sum pay increases. To begin with, it was put forward without any particular gloss, but it quickly acquired anti-capitalist connotations, especially in the eyes of operaist theorists. Its great advantages were seen to be its egalitarian effect of benefiting all workers whilst reducing differentials, and the fact that it was easily understood by everyone, not requiring the mathematical expertise needed to work out percentage wage increases.

The forms of industrial action in this first phase showed a continuity with past practices. Workers left the workplace during stoppages and carried on the dispute from the outside. However, some things had changed: picketing had become more violent; there was an increase in the number of demonstrations, and these often involved student participation; there were no more truces for negotiations. In this period, the workers acted through the unions, the most dramatic exception being the independent mass meetings at Porto Marghera. However, there were straws in the wind which suggested that workers were dissatisfied with their representatives. The feeble implantation of the unions in many factories, and the relative isolation of the internal commissions, meant that they had inadequate channels through which to feel the pulse of the workplace. This was especially debilitating when many union officials were frightened of the risks of defeat, and sceptical about the spirit of militancy.

The leading protagonists in the mobilizations tended to be the skilled workers, who were often also the more politicized and unionized. Certainly, they enjoyed more bargaining power than other groups. In certain instances, as at Innocenti, they used their advantages to benefit themselves alone, but skilled workers were among the radical leaders at Porto Marghera. However, the prominence of these workers was related to the timidity of the semi-skilled, who were less experienced and confident, and whose interests were inadequately represented by the unions. It was not until the autumn and spring of 1968-9 that these workers acted independently in pursuit of their own interests.