Italy 1969-70: a wave of struggles - Potere Operaio

A supplement to Potere Operaio, No. 27, June 27 – July 3, 1970.

Submitted by vicent on April 13, 2016

Potere Operaio

Potere Operaio is an organization in Italy carrying on activist and theoretical work in factories and universities. Our aim is the construction of a revolutionary organization centered on the factories. Since the new cycle of struggles began to emerge in the late sixties, especially during the "red autumn" of 1969, Potere Operaio has conducted battles against the bosses and against all merely anti-authoritarian ideologies and against self-styled Marxist-Leninisst who simply want to repeat the disastrous policies of the Communist Parties of the Popular Front.

Potter-Operaio supports all the movements of national liberation against colonialism and imperialism, in particular it recognizes the importance of the Vietnamese resistance and the Black movement in the United States.

We feel that in the advanced capitalist nations of Europe whether they be in the American or Soviet orbit, the fundamental struggle will be organization of workers against unions, against revisionists, and against social-democrats.

By means of our newspaper, Potere Operaio has coordinated the action of a large section of the rank and file committees in Italy and organized action groups in the momentous wildcat strikes at Turino Fiat in the summer of 1969.

Potere Operaio holds that unions no longer defend the interest of the working class but actually serve to control struggles and mediate between specific worker interests and the general interest of society. The bourgeois state has changed its method without changing its base. The state plans under-development as well as development, unemployment as well as employment. The "socialist" regimes are capitalist regimes at the stage of social capital and do not differ substantially from western capitalism.

The struggles outside the unions, the unofficial strikes, have generally been around the issue of wages. The Italian workers have now proposed the total rejection of work and the rejection of the idea that wages must be rewards for work. We are asking for equal pay for everyone, a demand which renounces the division of skilled and unskilled workers, unemployed and employed, developed areas and undeveloped areas, employed and pre-employed (students and youth), employed and post-employed (the aged). The workers ask that wages no longer be geared to productivity and that piece work be abolished. In short income should bear no relation to either physical or physic work.

The mass struggles in Italy had aimed at the task of making a new form of social relationship. The rejection of work is directed against the very base of capitalist structure. Violence against things and people has secondary importance to the struggle against the capitalist organization of work with its various rewards and punishments.

Some of the ideas found in Potere Operaio were begun in the journals Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia. Many others have come from the worker-committees in different factories. Francesco Tolin, the editor of Potere Operaio, has been sentenced to 17 months in prison by the Italian state for having "incited workers all over Italy to rebel against the state". Ours is the first publication since fascism to be so prosecuted. With the capitalists now embracing Togliatti's old ideas of increasing productivity and efficiency to sustain Italy's international position, it is clear the struggle has passed to new stage. We reject capitalism by rejecting work. We reject development if development comes in the capitalist framework.

The struggle is against capitalist planning and capitalist control of life. Automation helps to unite blue and white collar workers, because machines do not go on strike but those who assign them do. Bourgeois science serves to make the worker a slave just as bourgeois education makes the student a slave and even bourgeois leisure makes us all commodity slaves. Capitalist dictatorship over bodies and lives is the question. Abolition of that control is our first and totally unnegotiable demand. Everything else follows.

1969/70 in Italy: A Wave of Struggles

The wave of strikes that has intensified since May 1969 in Italy is part of a cycle of struggles that started at the end of 1967, a cycle that is taking place on an international level. Here it is not so important to deal with the origins of this wave as to give a general framework within which the struggles have taken place during the last 12 months and show how their class content has emerged.

The Network of the Struggles

It is probably fruitful, politically, to approach the strikes as the movements of working class activity which form a pattern both at a national and at an international level; and both geographically and industrially.

Geographically, the strikes have not only covered the map of industrial production in Italy (the main centers of concentration of labor-power), spreading their demands to areas that nobody - no party, no group - would have expected to be affected; not only so-called underdeveloped, pre-industrial areas in the South and in the islands, but also, beyond the Italian borders, in Switzerland and in Yugoslavia. Strikes occurred at the shipyard works in Capodistria on the Northern coast of Yugoslavia. For the first time since 1937 unofficial strikes also occurred in Switzerland in Geneva and Lugano. They took place in these last few weeks under the impetus of the Italian events.

Industrially, the strikes have expanded beyond "directly productive labor", as Marx defined the workers "on the lines"; they have reached to auxiliary labor-power, and also pre-workers, that is students, and the industrial reserve army of unemployment.

On the list of the centers of the network that are important on an international level, I limit myself to the leading Italian corporations that have been centers of decision-making in Italy: Fiat, E.N.I., I.R.I., and then Montedison and Pirelli. The brain for decision-making at State level is provided by the coordination policies of the major corporations. The concentration of capital has increased in these last few years in the industries dominated by these corporations. But it is the class struggle that has been the impetus for concentration, not vice versa. A concentration process in Europe - the experience in these last few years has unequivocally proven - has taken place essentially when class struggle has increased the one fundamental variable that cannot be planned: the "cost" of labor-power.

Turin, Milan, and Portomarghera (Venice) - 3 areas in the north - form what amounts to a continuum of factories.

Turin is a one-industry center, the metalmechanic works belonging to the Fiat complex. Both directly and indirectly Fiat employs half a million people. The interpenetration between Fiat and the State is so high that when Fiat was hit by strikes in April 1969, the State's ability to fight back was also hit. The Turin rebellion exploded on July 3rd; on July 4th, the government coalition split, - and one day later the government resigned. The rebellion catalyzed differences on the use of the carrot and the stick within the government coalition. Since 1968, the working class at Fiat has remained permanently mobilized and able to strike at any given time.

The diversified industrial center of Milan has had two million workers on permanent mobilization since 1969.

In the Venice harbor area (Portomarghera), a new chemical concentration was started early in the fifties around older steel factories. With the Italian economic "miracle" in the early sixties, the highest relative exploitation rates in Italian industry were to be found there. The Portomarghera industrial area is the one distinct area where factory organization outside trade unions and parliamentary parties has been spreading constantly for ten years now through Potere Operaio.

By the time of the 1962 contracts strikes, it was already clear that the Center-Left government was going to fail in its experiment in participatory democracy in these areas. The center-left government had a better chance in the outskirts of these three geographical concentrations, that is in central Italy - Emilia, Romagna, Tuscany, and Umbria - where the leading corporations have been running the larger factories and where the Italian CP has been running local government, transport, service industries, small factories and cooperatives. After the defeat of the workers in the CP-dominated areas of Central Italy during the post-war reconstruction period, the CP had ample room for maneuver in the industrialization of the area. In the ideological propaganda against the monopolies, the Party says that big corporations should be considered as an aberrations rather than the rule; small and medium-sized factories are what the CP wants. The Party and the CP-led trade union federation (CGIL) have seen clearly that in order to control workers they have had to avoid large industrial concentrations. They were able to create model areas without any large concentrations of workers.

Of course, during the fifties and early in the sixties the entente between the leading corporations on the one hand and the CP on the other was sealed with the Fiat-Soviet Union deal for the establishment of a mass production auto factory in Togliattigrad. About 2,000 Soviet technicians and white collar workers saw the mass strikes in Turin while they were being trained there in 1969. The CP and the CP-led trade union Federation tried to seal off the Fiat strikes in June. It hurt them to see students and workers distributing leaflets at a Milan rally held for the vice secretary of the CP Berlinguer upon his returning from a visit to the Soviet Union. The leaflet said: "Berlinguer and Brezhnev have a lot of differences, of course, but on one question the Fiat management brought them to a perfect agreement: Turin strikes are bad and the Togliattigrad works are good". In fact, when the speed-up on the assembly-line in Togliattigrad is the same as in Detroit or in Turin, it will be clear if to have a socialist use of a car instead of a capitalist use of a car makes any difference to those who are on an assembly-line.

The prospect of a new government majority in Italy which is based on the CP regulation of the class struggle finds increasing support on the part of the most enlightened section of Italian capitalism. The trends are toward a convergence of CP interests and big corporations' interests in controlling the working class in Italy, on the basis of a model that the CP has experienced in Central Italy, and that should be combined with big capital's reformist initiative in the North and, in some privileged areas in the South.

Naples is a multi-industry center like Milan but not on a smaller scale. The new development area with new complete, integrated car production by Alfa-Romeo, the State-and-Fiat-owned motor company is beginning to be a leading force for the metropolitan area. Besides Naples, the 4 big centers are the state-owned steel-works in Taranto, the chemical set-up in Brindisi, the Sardinian refineries at Porto Torres, and the Sicilian chemical industry around Catania. Today Southern Italy is the area with the highest external and internal population mobility in Europe. The temporary emigration to Germany, Switzerland, France, Holland, etc. has done more than anything else to create proletarians out of peasants. These individuals may take action as farm-workers in a so-called underdeveloped area on the basis of a highly developed political experience gained in years and years of work at Volkswagen or at Hoechst. By being forced labor and "forced return labor "(6 million people have left Italy in 25 years) the returnees have made the South an unreliable area for good and safe investments in an underdeveloped territory.

The Motive Social Forces in the Strikes

The leading social forces in the strikes have been the unionized young workers - to a large extent immigrants from the South, in privately - owned metal-mechanic industry. They are the ones on which the long-run project of a political organization of the working class have been based by the extra-parliamentary groups of Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio.

The Gramscian tradition of the Communist Party was able to organize in the factories on the formula of exchanging political militancy for the other workers' recognition of their skill. In the fifties and sixties, the fall of the CP membership in mass production industry has been directly proportional to the increasing number of assembly-line workers that are bound to repetitive, utterly unskilled work. They must be predominantly young. Even the sociologists have perceived that young labor-power - on an assembly-line is more exploitable than the older one. The young workers do not see and do not experience any old soviet-like pride in their jobs. A job is slavery.

The First Wave of Strikes

The first wave of strikes at Fiat went on from May to July. It could be summed up by the following demands:

- less work, more money now, without waiting for the new contract (to be signed in autumn). 40 hour work week (44 at that time)
- disengaging wages from individual and collective productivity
- same wage increases for all, skilled and unskilled, white collar and blue collar workers
- same work category for all. An immediate upgrading from the third. (lowest, 60% of the Fiat workers are concentrated there) category to the second one. "Everybody is able to do everybody".
- equality in fringe benefits with the which white collar workers.

After continuous work stoppages in the workshops, the final assembly lines at Fiat in Turin were shut down on May 29, bringing the whole Fiat works to a halt. The three-year contract was supposed to last until September 1969. In fact, the halt was raising the issues that the three trade union Confederations (CP-led, Catholic, and Socialdemocrat) did not want to bring up; the union Confederations were willing to narrow the wage differentials, but they were not willing to abolish the category system. They were not prepared to negotiate wage increases on the-basic minimum wage, and above all they were pointing out that in any country in the world it is not possible to accelerate the average rate of wage increases between the dates of renewal of the contracts. In other words, what the workers win in 1970 will compensate for a slowing down of the rate of acceleration in, say, 1971 and 1972. The unions said that accelerating the rate of increase in wages would amount to the breakdown of the Italian economic system. This is true. To take seriously the workers' and the unemployed people's ability to struggle for more social workers today means literally to stop the process of capitalistic accumulation, and to bring the capitalist initiative to crisis. In the trade unions' opinion, it would be possible to achieve an acceleration of the average rate of wage increase only if a different labor market and a different mobility between Italy and other countries could be achieved. This implies a long-term policy that needs stability and containment now at all costs. In the long-run not only will workers be dead, but dead at the discretion of the trade unions' regulation of the "labor market". In the trade unions' opinion, assembly-line delegates should be introduced in major factories in order to regulate both social conflict and social peace at shop floor level. The passivity of the working class to the trade union membership could no longer be overcome with palliatives like an assembly line delegate structure within the factories. "The chain that pulls each one of us in the auto industry pulls all of us together; there is no point in having an assembly-line delegate to take issue. To quarrel with a foreman is nonsense at this stage of industrial integration and productive flow" (at a student-workers meeting in a canteen near Fiat-Mirafiori in Turin on May 23rd, 1969). Today, not even the trade union Confederations dare talk much about the assembly-line delegates because the workers had rejected it by June 1969. If an assembly-line delegate is good, why shouldn't everybody be an assembly-line delegate?" The whole idea of representation - the root of democracy - received a blow from the unions' defeat of their proposal of assembly-line delegates. The dances of democracy being introduced in the factories do not exist in Italy. In shareholders' meetings and parliamentary debates, members can take decisions on a 51% basis. In modern factory, when workers want to walk out, 90% of them must have already made up their minds.

The unions' position has been that an acceleration in the rate of wage increases will hurt the workers, because in no place in the world has it been achieved. This position reflects Lord Keynes's class interests and ideas, but it was certainly not in accordance with the workers' will to get mere social wealth and less work, during the May and June strikes.

On the gap between the trade unions and the CP on the one hand and the militancy of the workers on the assembly lines on the other hand, an increasing number of students - by the hundreds - started to picket and leaflet at the Fiat factories in Turin. It was in front of the Fiat factories that the student activists learned from the workers what some of them had read in James Boggs's book The American Revolution, and in Mario Tronti's book, Operai e Capitale. The utter rejection of work in mass industrial production and the radicality of workers' fight against industrial work at all times is not a myth for the future. The slave, the job, has been a threat to their physical and psychological survival. Being on an assembly-line at twenty-two is just one and the same thing as not seeing a chance to live thirty years more of that life, no matter whether you work for one corporation or for the general interest of a socialist society.

By early July, the workers at Fiat had won over to their side other workers in the rubber and synthetic fiber industries and some hundreds of student activists all over Italy. They reasoned that 1969 was in fact the year of egalitarian move forward just when capital in Italy wanted to widen the wage differentials between different layers of the working class. From the student viewpoint, it was the year marked by the discovery that the workers in mass production industry want to have less and less to do with work and that they want to use the resulting spare time, as far as they can, not as leisure time but as an attempt to organize politically.

The concentration of student activists in Turin partially accounts for the July 3rd sixteen hour battle which took place on an axis of some-sixteen miles in the industrial outskirts of the city. But again, the battle was started and sustained by a march of 3,000 young Fiat workers who wanted to break down the curtain of silence and lies surrounding their continuous strikes.

The end of the Turin revolt was no defeat at all. This is a quotation from a leaflet that was distributed immediately before the march:

"The strike called by the unions on an issue as deeply felt by the workers as rents for July 3rd gives us the chance to break through the curtain of silence... By calling a strike of only one day, the unions are trying to shift the workers' attention from the struggle in the factories, which is the heart of the matter, to the game of petitions and pressure on the government".

And three hours after the revolt had-finished, at the first morning shift on July 4th, the leaflet prepared by the "rioters" read:

"The violent conflict yesterday represents a great victory for the working class. It was 20 years (with the exception in part of 1962) since Fiat workers had faced the police for so long and victoriously; we have proved our strength to fight outside the factory as well as inside".

The sense of this offensive helped to accelerate the responses from other sections of the working class in Italy. The communication of struggles from one industrial center to another intensified during the period, and had a feedback effect on Fiat workers too. By the holiday period, the situation was open to any outlet.

The contracts are signed, the truce is not respected

More wages, less work, and let us disengage wages from productivity were the two most largely spread orders of the day in the network of the struggles in Italy at that time.

In the meantime, the perspective of technological innovation in order to create unemployment was already looming in the most militant sectors pending the signing of the contracts.

At the end of the holiday period, the auto-industry was once more paralyzed starting from the Fiat Mirafiori plant in Turin. The struggle started from the Machine Shop, a shop that had not made a full contribution to the clash with Fiat before the holiday period. Typically enough in other industries as well, a simple reconstruction of this "spontaneity" offers a picture of political class-unification in the auto industry.

After the holiday period, the 700 people working at Workshop 32 at Fiat Mirafiori - most of them in their twenties and early thirties - stopped production. The mass suspensions started hitting those workers that were left inactive because of "lack of parts". There had been a lack of parts but no suspensions between June and early August at Fiat. The suspensions early in September therefore represented a joint decision by the employers and the unions to open the negotiations on the contracts within the terms established by the Italian planners and in a situation of blackmailing the workers.

Because of the increasing gap between the trade unions on the one hand and the workers' interests on the other, it was possible for the extra-parliamentary groups of Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua to change some of the terms of the contracts which were being negotiated in the major industries. These groups were able to become tools for the workers' initiative. They have succeeded in doing so because they have considered themselves not as parties, but as parts of a political project for class organization. Their role at this stage has been clearly one of slowing down accumulation of capital in Italy by all means necessary. The workers' initiative in the Fall of 1969 was still there as in May. But the general demand put up by the workers to the unions was to sign the contracts as soon as possible: not because of a lack of militancy, but because of their conviction that the planning and programming of the struggles by the three union Confederations played into the hands of the bosses. The workers wanted a break in the strikes, because their take home pay was getting thinner and thinner. But to anyone who objected that after signing the contracts strikes would not be fair, the answer in general was that the contracts are just a piece of paper.

In fact the contracts in all major industries (from auto and steel to chemical industry were officially signed at the middle of December. They affected more than 4 million people.

The terms of the contracts were substantially homogenous: same wage increases for all, both white collar and blue collar ( a victory for the extra-parliamentary groups), a workweek reduction of one hour or so per year (so that the workers in Italy will have 40 hours in 1972; a victory for the unions) and a general awareness that the best answer to the necessary following wave of repression that advanced and enlightened capitalism - not fascism - was preparing through an increase in unemployment, inflation, and charges against the militants was a new offensive in order to break the terms of the contracts. The trade unions had had to follow the egalitarian move onward by the workers - to some extent - and this attitude at the bargaining table, which was inspired by their need not to lose too much contact with the rank and file, could prevent capitalist stabilization in 1970.

Stabilization, in fact, has not been brought about in the first months of 1970. "Let us break the contractual truce today" has been an order of the day that has taken different forms in different industries: 36 hour work week at the chemical plants in Portomarghera and elsewhere, the same category for all in metal-mechanic industry, the abolition of piecework in rubber. As long as these demands and the correspondent strikes remain sectional in nature, the trade unions and the Italian planners can contain them. What they cannot contain is a general occasion of struggle connecting all layers of subordinate labor-power: the unemployed, the pre-workers, the workers.

The occasion can be based on the economic instability that the precedent wave of strikes has brought about early this year: inflation will have to be accelerated by Government before the end of this year, together with unemployment.

The mobilization is taking place right now on the question of the wages to the unemployed and the fight against the Keynesian State machine. The question of unemployment cannot be "solved" at a reformist level in Italy and Europe. In fact, the most militant areas in the Italian South;(notably Northern Sardinia around Porto Torres, central Sardinia around the coal mines and the area near Naples) are being hit with mass unemployment. This is done on purpose. Underdevelopment and industrial dismantling are correctly preferable - from a capitalistic viewpoint - to a situation that the strikes and the revolts (especially events like the revolt in Battipaglia, near Naples) have created.


The Italian planners have projected that by 1980 the South will have 3 million unemployed.* Such an increase in unemployment will be parallel to huge investments for the industrialization of the South. But these investments must be safe. In fact, Italian capitalism plans highly automatic plants in the South so that relatively few workers will be needed. The jobless are required to keep the pressure on those who work and threatening their jobs if they do not keep in line.

[* See, Ufficio della programmazione economica, Progetto '80, Roma, 1969.]

Even in the North and in Central Italy unemployment will have to increase. It will probably take more the form of cyclical unemployment, so that a planned injection and expulsion of labor-power according to the trends of the economic cycle can function as intimidation against the employed and as blackmail against the unemployed. In fact, post '29 capitalism in highly industrialized countries has discovered that in order to expand, it has to use the working class struggle as the propelling element of expansion, under the condition that the level of such struggle does not go beyond the boundaries of a defensive posture on jobs and wages. When the struggle goes beyond those boundaries, then capitalism prefers a crisis. Its gravity depends on the power of the unemployed and the employed to take an offensive position on the question of jobs and wages.

If this does not happen, then labor-power demands for jobs and wages are geared to jobs. When labor-power asks for jobs, it does not fight for jobs: it does not fight at all. It begs, it depends on a capitalistic initiative, it subordinates its ability to fight to its chance of remaining or becoming employed labor-power. But this chance depends on the very condition that such ability to fight as employed labor-power slows down. This is the only way capital in crisis can recover. Even more important, this chance depends also on the condition that the unemployed identify their basic material interests with capitalistic expansion.

If capitalism is able to prove that the necessary and sufficient condition for satisfying the unemployed's basic material interests is a slowing down of the employed's ability to fight, then the working class is destroyed as a political force. But the essence of capitalistic power is not the power to destroy the working class as an autonomous force but to destroy it as a conquering power. When capital has to have recourse to such an operation, it has also to regretfully admit that it has proved unable to optimize the intensity of class struggle and to make it function as the propelling element of its own development. The essence of capitalistic power is the total domination on a given terrain of maneuver to keep labor-power in a defensive posture, and on the creation of new lands and new skies of maneuver.

The political economy of this posture is first the gearing of wages to the job and then the gearing of wages to individual and collective productivity. The necessary and sufficient condition for capital's ability to overcome any unplanned struggle by labor-power is that wages be not disengaged from job and from individual and collective productivity.

The road to the organization of the whole labor-power's. struggle against work is just the reversal of capital's road to productivity: disengaging individual wages from individual productivity, and then moving to attack the gearing of wages to collective productivity, up to an offensive in order to break the chain that links wages to employment.

In May 1969, the demand was: "let us disengage wages from productivity". The young workers from the South who started the Fiat strikes when the Battipaglia revolt took place in April 1969 have reminded the student movement that fighting in order to disengage social wealth from work does more than simply unifying the fight against capitalistic expansion and capitalistic underdevelopment. When the price that capitalism has to pay for those that do not work is higher than the price it has to pay for those who do work, then the working class as a political force achieves an offensive posture.

Potere Operaio calls such price POLITICAL WAGES. Political wages is the destruction of capital's ability to keep labor-power in a defensive posture. Political wages is the working and the "unworking" class's ability to have its struggle on more social wealth via less work interact with its struggle to destroy the capitalistic tools of domination in the economic cycle. Political wages is not only an opposite to the capitalist attempt to separate the basic material interests of the unemployed from the interests of the employed. It is also the unemployed's organized ability to get into the factories and strike together with the employed. This would mean capital’s inability to create the unemployed and the employed in order to pit one against the other.

Political wages therefore is not only a quantity of social wealth, it is first of all an ability to struggle against the capitalistic mode of production as a whole at this stage of development of the productive force. The leading force in the destruction of capital is an open and offensive struggle against work by labor-power itself. First comes the working class hatred for work, and then the discovery that at this stage of development of the productive forces mass industrial production is essentially make-work. This hatred has to work as a despotic force over the whole organization of society. It leads to change in the whole conception of what social wealth is only after it proves to be antagonistic to capitalist society's general interest.

The rejection of work by the workers in mass industrial production can be organized along these lines. It is the workers' rejection of the factory system as such, of so-called progressive organization in the plant. It is their answer to the capitalist offer of participation, and to the leftist unionism's ideology of dual power in all its forms. But it is also rejection of both expansion and underdevelopment, and rejection of a State founded on labor: it measures the fact that workers cannot and will not be reduced to the plan of development.

The organization of a new cycle of struggles in which the battle for political wages can be sustained by the employed and the unemployed, by the workers, un-workers, and pre-workers is what Potere Operaio as a group intends to create together with other forces. The enemy is strong, the objective is total. The Pilgrim Fathers will not die unless we kill them, the May-flower will not sink unless we torpedo it. We do not even know if we have got lifeboats, but the reformist alternative is not even the slaves who pull their chains. It is more and more chains that pull slaves.