Part 3: The workers' movement

After a period of relative quiescence in the workplace, the years 1968-9 were turbulent. The scale of industrial conflict during the Hot Autumn of 1969 made it the third largest strike movement recorded in history in terms of lost working time (after, that is, the May 1968 general strike in France, and the British 1926 general strike). However, Italian workers not only withdrew their labour on a massive scale, but challenged the organization of work and the system of authority within the factory. In some cases, workers rebelled against the factory system itself and its hold over their lives. Industrial workers created a movement which overturned many of the rules and assumptions governing everyday behaviour and the regulation of conflict.

The following chapters will attempt to explain why it was that in Italy industrial conflict took on such radical forms; why it was that workers defied managements and rejected negotiation; why questions of pay and conditions turned into sources of a more general attack on social injustices. Some of the answers, as has been seen, lie in the longer history of class conflict in Italy, which made the factory a site of political and social antagonism. However, the social movement itself drew on and interpreted those traditional antagonisms in new ways. It is necessary to see how the movement developed in its early stages to understand its most dramatic manifestations during the Hot Autumn. Although description and analysis will focus on the struggles of autumn 1969, the first chapters will deal with the mobilizations, starting in early 1968.

The movement 's development can be roughly divided into four phases, and the chapters are organized accordingly. In the first phase of mobilizations, which was given a fillip by the turn-out for the general strike over pensions in March 1968, workers took action and made demands along fairly normal lines. In the second phase, which covered the period from autumn 1968 to spring 1969, industrial conflict took an unprecedented turn when workers organized themselves independently of the unions resorted to forms of direct action. However, the conflicts tended to be localized until the Hot Autumn of 1969 when different struggles converged in action over national contracts. After the signing of the agreements, a fourth phase followed. It is more difficult to date, but can be characterized as the period of the movement’s institutionalization.

The chapters are organized chronologically to chart the phases of the movement's development. Thus, chapter 11 deals with the first signs of revolt in the workplaces, whilst chapter 17 outlines the processes of institutionalization. However, they also examine certain exemplary cases of industrial militancy such as the Pirelli company’s disputes in Milan (chapter 12), white collar agitation (chapter 13), and the Turin events (chapter 14). These respectively raise the issues of the development of grassroots organizations, the role of the so-called ‘new working class', and The ‘refusal' of the factory system. While the focus is on Milanese developments, these are put in a national context, and the workers' movement is assessed more generally in terms of its role in representing oppositional forces in society.