The Workerists and the unions in Italy's 'Hot Autumn'

Potere Operaio

A brief history of the Italian Workerists in the 'Hot Autumn' of 1969, when unions succeeded in recuperating radical working class demands - leaving the Workerists to pursue the doomed road of all-or-nothing armed struggle

Extract from Steve Wright’s book 'Storming Heaven'

'We Are All Delegates!'
Even as POv-e and other workerist groups came together to form Potere Operaio, unrest again began to circulate in factories with the struggle to renew industry contracts. In Porto Marghera checker-board strikes broke out, organised for alternate days; in FIAT, where a fresh wave of young Southern workers had arrived over the summer to work at Mirafiori and FIAT's new Rivalta plant, similar stoppages occurred on alternate hours, throwing the productive cycle once more into chaos. In such circumstances, the workerists' pessimistic assessment of the limits of autonomous workplace organisation would be momentarily put aside. 'It is difficult to believe', enthused one writer in Potere Operaio, 'that the working-class struggles now taking place can be brought back within the established order of things' (Potere Operaio n.d: 18, 29). Their traditional emphasis upon the large factories was being confirmed, the workerists claimed, by the lead provided by these 'great epicentres of workers' autonomy' (ibib.: 16). Likewise the 'rejection of work', which was no longer merely the property of a 'small minority of "vanguard" left-wingers', but had become the expression of a mass movement (ibid.: 46). It would be enough to have the existing union contract demands immediately ratified, the group argued, for the struggle to consolidate itself and prepare to move forward with the 'process of political unification and organisation' (Potere Operaio 1969b). Rather than a merely Italian phenomenon, the workplace upheavals made the project of a 'Red Europe', capable of defeating capitalism East and West, a viable one.

When the struggles of autumn resumed in 1970, as workers sought to improve upon industry-wide contracts through plant-level agreements intended to further enshrine the new egalitarian demands, the workerists were forced to face the most disconcerting aspect of the creeping May: the resurgence of the union movement. That a temporary revival of the confederations was Possible had not been ruled out by Potere Operaio, which had argued in October 1969 that the workers in struggle will not drop the trade union as an instrument of unification until political class-recomposition has fully achieved the leap to full autonomous organisation. (Potere Operaio n.d.: 17)

Far from abandoning such bodies, however, large numbers of militant workers moved closer to the most radical of the unions during 1970, particularly in factories bereft of unofficial committees. Apart from their accommodation of the new egalitarian demands the chief reason for the changing fortune of Italy's metal and chemical unions lay in their adoption of the movement of workplace delegates then spreading through much of industry. A chaotic mixture of initiatives arising from both the shopfloor and without, the movement bore different connotations from one instance to the next. In some workshops, the delegates were seen as nothing more than watchdogs over the industrial contract. In others, where their primary source of loyalty lay with workmates rather than union, delegates took a much more aggressive role in challenging the factory hierarchy. Similarly, in some factories delegates were simply appointed from above, or else elected from a list recommended by officials; in others any worker, union member or not, was eligible to stand. Whatever the specific circumstances, however, the delegates' councils, with their roots planted in individual work groups, came to be embraced by workers in more and more factories after 1970, supplanting or subsuming the older and smaller Commissioni Interne drawn from plant-wide elections (D'Agostini 1974; Romagnoli 1975).

The strategy of co-opting the delegates - 'riding the tiger', as it was then popularly known - was abhorrent for many union officials, who saw in the new movement yet another challenge to their declining influence. As their more astute colleagues realised, however, accepting the delegates as the bottom rung of a reunited union movement promised to recapture much of the ground lost since the war. The endorsement of this new approach by the bureaucracy would not be long in coming: by December 1970 the CGIL, through a mixture of self-criticism, mass pressure and opportunism had formally adopted the delegates and their factory councils as 'the rank-and-file structure of the new unitary union'. When in the following year the CISL (Conferazione Italiana dei Sindacati Uberi the Italian Confederation of Free Unions) assumed a similar stance, talk of unification proceeded apace, although ultimately only the metal unions of each confederation would step beyond the new mood of cooperation to seek organisational fusion (Grisoni and portelli 1977: 189).

From its beginnings in 1968, the majority of workerists were to s urn the delegates' movement outright. The original PSIUP call for the election of negotiators of piecework rates was dismissed as a form of self-exploitation. Many in Potere Operaio (n.d.: 30) also followed Lotta Continua in rejecting any approach that did not concentrate leadership functions within the mass of workers as a whole. The chief reason for Potere Operaio's refusal of the delegates' movement, however, stemmed from the workerists' fear that it might become a Trojan Horse through which the confederations could reconquer the factory (Grisoni and Portelli 1977: 187-8). Along with the tendency's conviction that the union-form was now incapable of challenging the capital relation, such intransigence drew sustenance from the links which Potere Operaio and similar groups had come to establish with a militant fringe of workers completely opposed to the confederations (Bobbio 1978: 59). As with Lotta Continua, Pot ere Operaio's tragedy would lie in its inability to combine support for such militants at FIAT or Petrolchimico with a battle to defeat union officialdom's designs upon the delegates' movement elsewhere. In other words, most of the group's leading members were unable to see that the processes of class composition and recomposition might be quite different outside the most 'advanced' poles of capitalist accumulation. That at least some workerists recognised what was at stake is clear from an issue of Potere Operaio of November 1969, where one anonymous writer posed the group's options in stark terms:

If we do not absolutely maintain a continuous relation between new forms of organisation and mass struggles, we can safely say that the rank-and-file committees will end up as nothing more than one of the many articulations of the union in the factory... There is a precise battle to be conducted in the mid-term over what we have called the average level of autonomy, the terrain of the objective proliferation of rank-and-file committees in the individual moments of the post-contract struggles. If, through sectarianism or illusion, we continue to consider the work team or shop delegates as definitively destined to constitute the transmission belt of union control over struggles, then it will be much more probable that the rank-and-file committees will be reabsorbed into the articulation of the democratic union than visa versa. (Potere Operaio 1969c: 4) Ignoring such warnings, the majority of workerists chose in effect to abandon to the confederations those militant workers still unconvinced by the tendency's critique of unionism. In doing so, they would help to make their fears of union recuperation a self-fulfilling prophecy (Bobbio 1978: 66). As a consequence, Potere Operaio would encounter great difficulties in building a factory presence outside established strongholds like Petrolchimico; there as elsewhere, a number of its activists would choose to participate in the new councils of delegates (Scalzone 1988: 121).

The newly legislated Statuto dei Lavoratori would institutionalise many of the gains made in larger workplaces, and lend certain legal rights to the unions. Coupled with their patronage of the delegates and the egalitarian demands of the mass worker, the unions would soon prove successful in overtaking most of the radical rank-and-file factory groups of the creeping May (Pasetto and Pupillo 1970: 108-18; Bologna 1980a: 29; Perna 1980; Giugni 1987: 240). While Lotta Continua remained influential at FIAT, and the CUBs sponsored by Avanguardia Operaia continued to spread through Lombardy, the unions' resurgence was to have direct consequences for workerism's political ambitions. In the crucial years of the early 1970s, the tendency's major organisational expression would turn away from the problem of class composition, towards the all-or-nothing gamble of 'militarising' the new revolutionary movement.

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Oct 31 2006 09:13

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