Cultural revolution - Lotta Continua

Workers in Italy's hot autumn of 1969
Workers in Italy's hot autumn of 1969

This article gives a brief overview of some of the social changes that took place in the mass struggles in the late 60’s.

Submitted by Steven. on December 24, 2009

From Lotta Continua #18, November 1970.

At this moment there are five million workers fighting in factories all over Italy. The struggle is becoming harder, and something important starts to happen in the minds of the workers, in their ways of seeing themselves and seeing the world. They are slowly beginning to free themselves. They are destroying constituted authority in the factory. They are taking apart the mechanisms that the bosses use to divide and control them, and are freeing themselves from the taboos that till now have kept them slaves. People are discovering that the power of their bosses is based on their own complicity, on the fact that, from fear or ignorance, or from lack of interest, the workers have up till now accepted as normal and necessary something which, in fact, they as workers have the power and the ability to destroy.

The Struggle Against Hierarchy in the Factory
One means of control is the respect people have for their superiors, but now it’s the foremen and the higher-ups who are beginning to be afraid of the workers. This began when we started what we call the internal struggles. Traditionally workers have been kept isolated in the face of their superiors. But now that we are fighting inside the factory, it’s the foremen who find themselves isolated in the face of a mass of workers who are strong and confident in their own strength and the strength of an anger that has been nurtured for years. The workers are losing their fear. There are thousands of stories that bear this out. Workers are beginning to feel confident enough to tell their foremen what they think of them, to refuse orders, to challenge foremen to carry out threats that they make. But they are going even further than this. At Mirafiori the foremen came out on strike demanding bodyguards during working hours! Some of them have been forced to walk at the head of internal marches, carrying red flags, and sometimes they’re forced to stand up and make revolutionary speeches. In a lot of the shops, when a bit of tension brews the foremen don’t dare start up the line, but run off to hide, saying that they have something else to do. In such a situation, the possibility of giving people harder work as a punishment, of transferring people to other parts of the factory speed-ups on the line and the whole system of fines and penalties have all become impossible to operate.

The Struggle Against the Factory Managers
But the workers’ anger has exploded with greatest ferocity against the factory managers. At PIRELLI in Milan the decision to strike has usually gone hand in hand with a none-too-polite invitation to managers to leave their offices. They are not usually too willing, but in the event of hesitation the decision is often helped by judicious application of the boot, one form of struggle that Mr. Donat Cattin does not approve of. In FIAT the managers took a long time to learn obedience, and were several times forced to run the gauntlet between two lines of furious workers. Onto their bald heads, beaded with sweat and spattered with gobs of spit, the workers showered five lire coins, which sparkled like confetti in the sun. At the end of this cycle of struggle it would be hard to count the managers who ended up in hospital (even if they only went there so as to have their injuries examined with a view to reporting workers to the police, as happened at FIAT Lingotto in Turin).

At INNOCENTI of Milan the workers don’t soil their hands. Instead they pulled up a birch tree from one of the factory avenues, and used the trunk as a battering ram to smash one of the glass doors of the administrative offices in which managers had barricaded themselves. They sent in the Works Committee as a legal pretext, and then chased one senior manager out of the factory, ramming him up the ass with the tree-trunk as he went.

At BREDA in Milan the managers live on the “qui vive”, literally with one ear to the wind. When the workers stage a walkout, they do it by surprise, marching through the various shops ringing a bell. For the managers this bell is the sign that it’s time for them to run. But they can never tell in advance just when the bell is going to ring.

To fight managers is to fight the whole way the capitalist factory functions and workers know this. Managers are part and parcel of the factory system, the means that link up the machines, the shops, the different sectors of the productive process. To chase them out means bringing production to a standstill and intimidating them means reducing efficiency. Slowly, as the struggle grows, the factory system ceases to be an alien and mysterious force in the eyes of the worker. Its mechanisms are uncovered, attacked, and hindered in their internal workings. Workers discover that they are only slaves to their machines insofar as they are bound to their managers.

Refusal of Wage Differentials and Material Incentives
The first way that workers express their autonomy is in recognizing and attacking the means the bosses use to divide workers, to oppose the interests of one section to those of another so as to maintain their control over all. The workers, having freed themselves from the control of the unions, are refusing to be divided into organizational categories, refusing wage differentials, refusing incentives and every other attempt to involve them jointly in production.

Relations Between Workers and White Collar Staff
The workers want equality. Not because they are good Christians and see themselves as “all God’s creatures” but because they know that the differences that divide them can be of use to the bosses. So they are trying to establish relations with white collar workers, not on the basis of a vague solidarity, but against the differences in the way they are treated, and against the idea that the staff is somehow more “valuable’ than workers. Encounters between workers and staff have not always been peaceful affairs, but where there has been a clear perspective; initial misunderstandings have been easily overcome. On the day that the scab tires were brought in from Greece, the workers at PIRELLI wreaked havoc in the salaried staff canteen (to the extent of using a pneumatic drill to break down a door that was in their way), attacking what they saw as a symbol of divisive prestige.

FIAT was the same. At first there was violence. The white collar staff who were scabbing (all of them) were forced to run the gauntlet between lines of furious workers, just like the managers before them. The FIAT staff, at the mere mention that there were 5,000 workers in boiler suits approaching the offices, could be seen running like rabbits through a little hole between lines of four guards, scooting down the slope and out of the gates. They ran down the street in total panic for hundreds of yards. This really is emancipation. This is the capacity to re-establish a correct scale of values between social categories. But following this we began to see white collar staff coming to the Internal Assemblies of their own accord, joining in the marches that went round the factory hunting for scabs, attending workers’ meetings and so on.

Throughout FIAT, as well as at PETROLCHIMICA (Porto Marghera), PIRELLI, and many other factories, the unions have manipulated white collar staff in Assemblies, trying to play them off against the intention of the workers to intensify the struggle. But in places where workers have come to understand their own position as regards the crucial matter of wage differentials, this manoeuvre has totally failed. There was one white collar worker, who came to a meeting at FIAT and tried to justify wage differentials between the staff on the grounds that he had spent more than 250 pounds a year on his studies, and thus entitled to some benefit from his investment, but the workers said NO. He was already once privileged because he had a chance to study, the sort of chance that workers don’t get and therefore it was not right that he should be privileged twice over by earning more money than a worker, who has the same, if not greater, needs as an white collar worker. The problem of parity in wages and fringe benefits with white collar workers and the refusal of categories and “merit” bonuses are beginning to be faced as a fundamental political fact They bring the whole factory hierarchy into question and challenge the ideas of career, promotion, and merit which employers have always played on to tie their own employees to the wheels of exploitation.

Relations Between Workers and Students
Armed with the confidence they have gained from their own struggles the workers have begun an attack on the education system. The unions and Communist Party have been driven by the course of the struggle into proposing mass meetings of students and workers, and suggesting that workers march or send delegations to invade universities and schools. But there’s no hope of lasting political links being made at these encounters, because the Party controls everything. They are usually reduced to exchanges of information: the workers talk about the latest union platform, and the students about the problems of their education. Then everybody goes home, and the only people who really profit from these get-togethers are the Party and the unions, outside of any control from the mass of the people. However things are different when workers do such things of their own initiative, as they’ have done in Turin, Trento, Venice, and other places. Here the workers have attacked the school system directly, as the root of the divisions that weaken the working class, that divide workers from white collar staff, and that fragment the staff among themselves. In this way the workers’ struggle has bound itself to the students’ struggle, against a system of class selection and education, and the workers’ point of view has helped give a better orientation to the student struggles.

The Struggle Against Production
Nowadays a worker is just an appendage of a machine or production line: The only way people relate is via the flow of production. So that important indication of the relative strength reached by the workers and the weakness of their employers is the extent to which workers have been re-establishing real links of solidarity. In the course of the recent struggles the factory has changed from being a place where the isolation and the weakness of the workers are at their strongest, and instead is becoming a place where the strength of the working class is being reconstituted, and where the links that are established can be used directly to organize and fight. This is the main meaning of the internal struggle, as the situation in which the workers can use their numbers as a source of strength, to isolate their foremen and overcome the fear of their superiors. And this goes, above all, for the internal marches, the assemblies, and the informal meetings and discussions both inside the factory and outside at the gates. As long as they’re not dominated or taken over by the unions. Capitalist production is based on the silence of its workers, on the systematic repression of their creativity and of their need to express themselves. When this silence is broken, workers begin to liberate themselves from their own chains and discover that the center of the factory is them and their own needs: their interest, and not the interests of the boss (machines, production...). This discovery has been at the root of forms of struggle that have been developing with a view to reducing production, like the go-slow. These tactics have been very successful in some cases, as at PIRELLI, where in some shops the workers have reduced unit output to such an extent as to bring the production almost to a standstill. This form of struggle sometimes costs the workers a lot, but it represents a fundamental conquest since it hits directly at ‘productivity’ and can be practiced right where people work.

The Struggle Against “Things”
Another way in which this is expressed is in innumerable episodes of violence against machines and production, from the destruction of the scab Greek tires at PIRELLI to the systematic way in which the FIAT workers have been damaging productive machinery. The workers have transformed mute sabotage at an everyday level into a liberatory act performed collectively and consciously by all the workers against that production that keeps them everyday screwed under the rule of the boss. The same is happening with the leaflets, posters, and graffiti that are beginning to cover the walls of Italian factories; these are beginning to spread from the toilets to the cloakrooms, and from there onto the shop floor, where they are put up right under the foremen’s noses. The workers of PIRELLI do not forget that the truncheons the police use against the Italian people are made by them, and that they can always make them for their own use. In many factories the internal telephones that the foremen use to transmit orders between different parts of the factory are being used by workers to organize and communicate the struggle to the different shops.

The Struggle Against the Unions
The unions were born a hundred years ago, and claim to be free associations of the workers to defend themselves against the bosses. But today, in every country in the world, they have become one of the main instruments that the bosses have to maintain their control over the working class, to keep workers in a state of mutual isolation and disorganization in a subordinate position which finds a voice only through union delegates. They have become the principal obstacle to the emancipation and the autonomy of the working class. For this reason, whatever factory you may care to choose, you can say with certainty that the unions are strong when the workers are weak, and that they are weak when the workers are strong. The more isolated the workers are, the more they are divided and impotent, the more they have to take a stand against bodies which put themselves forward, or at least function in real life, as their collective representatives, the “guardians of their interests.” As the workers gradually begin to emancipate themselves, getting together and overcoming their isolation, any attempt to define their interests from outside the development of the struggle comes to be seen for what it really is: an obstacle to the development of their own autonomy, a means of oppression in the hands of the bourgeoisie

The Struggle Against Authority
The stories about the ways people have been fighting the unions in factories all over Italy are too numerous to mention. They go from people trying to grab the union megaphone at factory-gate meetings (as at FIAT Rivalta) to full-scale punch-ups. At mass meetings inside factories the union leaders have been booed and jeered at, and often refused the right to speak. Once at FIAT Mirafiori the entire Central Committee of FIM, the Catholic metalworkers’ union, was isolated and attacked verbally and physically by workers who were coming out of the gates after one shift, and who demolished every argument they put up. The tactics that these gentlemen usually come up with consist of agreeing with everyone and never taking up fixed positions on anything. They are consistently attacked for this. In other factories, the main obstacle that the workers have come up against is the argument “We are all the union.” As one worker from PIRELLI put it; “That’s well and good, we might all be the union. But when it comes to it, all the decisions are really made in Rome.”

The Struggle Against Delegation
The unions, however, have tried to make a comeback, and it’s not yet clear how this will turn out, particularly the attempt to introduce line delegates and delegates’ committees into the factory. When delegates were proposed to FIAT workers, they replied “we are all delegates.” By this they meant two things: First, they refused to accept the unions’ position on piecework, on rates and transferals, et cetera, and the instrument (the delegates) by which the unions were trying to impose their position, because the workers’ position on these things is radically different from that of the union. Workers say these things are non-negotiable. Second, the discovery that the only point of strength that workers have in their dealings with employers or unions is when they don’t have representatives, but rely on their own strength exclusively, on their own numbers, their own unity, and their own ingenuity. The workers have always refused to speak of the formal and abstract “need for organization”, counter posing the content of organization, the reasons why they feel they need organization, is to decide the form and objectives of struggle. The unions say that we need delegates. Why? All formal discussions about delegates are, and have proved to be, blank checks to be signed by the union. A worker from one of the most militant plants at PIRELLI said at a national meeting: “I would like all the workers of Italy to be on their guard against this trap of the Delegates’ Committee. With these committees they’re trying to turn vanguard militants into union activists, and when they’re not doing that they are turning what could be an instrument of shop-floor co-ordination into a little parliament where the workers, instead of coming to say what their comrades on the shop floor feel, merely stay to hear what the union has to say, then report back to their comrades. Here the representatives of the more militant shops are drowned in the swamp of the more indecisive (or passive) delegates. And situations that could well develop into hard struggles all too often peter out into useless argument.”

The New Organization
The union bureaucrats and the spontaneists are going round saying that all we are describing represents a total refusal of organization. But this is not true. It is a refusal of the unions which is by definition the organizer of the particular interests of workers, in the factory, in their category, in their sector. In other words it is the organization of those interests through which workers are isolated, divided, and kept as slaves. But workers in Italy today are demanding a new organization, a general and political organization which will link every aspect of social life.

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