Italy: The struggles at Fiat '69 - Vittorio Rieser

Interview on the class struggle in Fiat plants translated into English for Issue #2 of Root & Branch, a 1970s libertarian socialist publication out of the U.S.
Introduction by Steven Sapolsky.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on January 30, 2022

The following article is the first of a series to be published in Root & Branch on the labor struggles in Italy. For the past two years, Italy has seen an explosion of unrest among workers and peasants. Far from having abated, the movement has spread and deepened, enveloping more and more of the country in sustained agitation. The series will focus on inside accounts and analyses of worker struggles by participants or militants with close ties to rank-and-file groups. Besides providing hard-to-obtain coverage of this great upsurge and its meaning for Western Europe, the articles also will be of practical importance for American readers. The dynamics governing waves of unrest are sufficiently similar for all capitalist industrialized countries to allow many insights and lessons to be drawn from the Italian experience for application here.

This article is about the beginning of the struggles in the Fiat plants in Turin in the Spring of 1969. It is part of a taped interview with Vittorio Rieser, a labor organizer who participated in the 1968-1969 struggles at Fiat, and one of the key figures of the extra-parliamentary Italian left, associated with the groups of Lotta Continua at Turin. The interview was conducted in June, 1969, after the first round of work stoppages at Fait, and it first appeared in Quaderni Piacentini in July, 1969.

Fiat is rapidly becoming the General Motors of Western Europe, outselling Volkswagen in the West European market. With a recent merger with the French Citroen and a major investment in the Soviet Union, a model factory city called Togliattigrad (the Russians’ and Fiat’s homage to the memory of the Italian Communist Party boss), Fiat is moving beyond its parochial but dominant role in the Italian economy to a commanding position in all of Europe. A crucial ingredient in its success was the skillful manipulation of its 140,000 man work force. Since the early 50's, the Fiat workers were passive, isolated and atomized, largely es die result of a two-pronged strategy of management: the weeding out of militants and the massive recruitment of cheap, unskilled labor from the South, uprooted and atomized by their new life in the North.

In 1969, this pattern of labor relations was shattered irrevocably. The explosion was brought on by many factors: inflation that aggravated the already miserable living conditions in a city overcrowded by Southem immigrants; speed-up along the assembly lines that insured Fiat’s ability to fill the expanding market; freshly arrived immigrants seasoned by struggles in the South; the example of the student movement. No longer could Fiat exercise control as the social crisis deepened in Italy. After years of dealing with a quiet, disciplined labor force—there were only 34 strike days between 1962 and 1968—the storm-clouds burst. Due to a continuous series of strikes and slowdowns, Fiat was producing 50,000 less cars per month by the summer of 1969.

As the workers became less intimidated and more hostile and openly assertive, the traditional paternalistic approach of management lost all effect and meaning. The central problem for Fiat became how to control and channel the workers’ militancy in order to defuse the explosive situation. Concretely, this meant that the company, in violation of its traditional policy, had to accept the existence of a workers' movement, at least for the time being, and deal with it as an independent force. To crush it or ignore it would have exacerbated the situation because the workers were too strong and defiant. Instead, the choice was to foster an institutionalized labor movement that would harness, dissolve, and dissipate the elan and enthusiasm of the workers through a drawn-out process of negotiations.

The trade unions were made to order for this purpose. The main theme of this article is how the unions tried to muscle themselves into a position of authority and strength among the workers so as to have a strong bargaining position vis-a-vis the company. As late as the beginning of 1969, Fiat had kept union membership down to 6000, but under the impact of the workers’ insurgence, the company hastened to recognize and negotiate with the unions.

This pattern happens over and over again. As workers pull together and begin to challenge the boss, the unions appear from without seeking to mediate. Today, in Western Europe and in the U.S., the unions, regardless of their political stripe, are centralized national bureaucracies that step into the worker-capitalist conflict as a third party. In earlier times, this was not true: the unions were often genuine rank-and-file organizations that were only as strong as the workers’ sense of solidarity. It is an important question whether such unions naturally evolve bureaucratic structures, but it is a question that only relates to new organizations that workers may create now. The existing unions, as a matter of fact, have reached that stage when they enter a nonunion workplace, they think foremost of their own interests as mediators; they do not operate as the voice or representative of the workers. They inject themselves as buffers between the workers and their employers, offering benefits to each to justify their role. For the company, they guarantee smooth labor relations by removing the locus of conflict from the oppressive workplace–the arena of “unruly" mass direct action–to the more pleasant and manageable bargaining table and the slowly grinding grievance-setting machinery. They offer themselves to the workers as instruments that win concessions from the capitalists. Their appeal centers on the claim that only they have the ability, organization, and influence to win. The workers should hire the unions to be their agents, and the unions will accept dues as payment for valuable services rendered. All over Western Europe and the U.S. this cynical attitude is quite common; the gap between the rank-and-file and the union has become so great that one rarely hears of talk of “our unions” by the workers.

Any self-respecting hired agent will try to limit the constraints placed on his or her initiative in order to freely exercise his or her judgment, even when carrying out someone else's purpose or intention. Not being so honorable, the unions invariably dermnd a monopoly of initiative and authority from the workers. These hired agents are really threatened by the active agency of the workers: it denies their usefulness to the capitalists if they don't have control over the workers and there is no need for their presence if the workers rely on themselves. Hence the invariable efforts of the unions to sabotage and destroy the confidence and initiative of the workers. This article discusses in very concrete terms how the unions actively fought the emerging solidarity of me workers by attempting to limit the strikes to certain shops and time periods, how they attempted to set in motion controlled strikes that weaken and ebb naturally, showing the workers, when the excitement has died down, that the unions are me only available weapons they have.

The company and the unions have failed to bring a trade union regime to Fiat. The situation was never in their hands to control. The struggles began under worker initiative and swept past the limits set by the unions. Since the beginning of 1969, the Fiat workers have broadened the struggle involving all of Turin. How the workers structured and organized themselves and the struggles, how these experiences have been assimilated, digested, and analyzed, what lessons have been drawn, and how the struggle is generalizing and spreading will be topics for future articles.

Steven Sapolsky

What was the situation at Fait about two months ago before this cycle of struggles began? What were the major internal tensions? How were they different from a yeer ago? What was the reaction of the trade unions? What was different about the composition of the Fiat working class with respect to the past?

It is perhaps necessary to begin this chronicle with an account of last year’s struggles. They centered on two principal demands: an annual distribution of the work week with alternating Saturdays off and the regulation of assembly-line speeds. In fact, this conflict marked a new moment, a step ahead both for the Fiat working class and obviously for the trade union line–actually the line of the trade unions since the three trade unions conducted this battle together1 . From the workers’ point of view, this conflict saw a compactness of participation, a level of political discussion, a capacity for organization, and an organizational solidarity, which in themselves were important elements with respect to preceding experiences at Fiat. From the trade union point of view, this was to be the first important struggle in which the trade unions concretely tried to assert themselves In a unified manner in the factory, both within the workers’ organizations and as the recognized bargaining agent with respect to the pedrone (boss). Trade union unity was attained for the first time on an important question by all four of the trade unions (including the SIDA2 . As such it was the first step toward the formation of a trade union regime at Fiat divided into two parts: a large powerful trade union (even if formally divided in four) and a management sector recognizing the latter's importance. This respect was confirmed quite clearly by the spokesmen of Fiat’s: management (various interviews with Agnelli, etc.).

However, this struggle pointed to an unresolved contradiction, and one that is still unresolved concerning the entente between trade union and management. In order to effectively root itself in the factory and obtain a certain hold on their workus, the trade unions would have to carry the struggle much further than they were willing to do, both in terms of tactics and demands, and ultimately the results obtained. But this was not acceptable to Fiat’s management and therefore not to the time unions either. Once again the trade unions had to launch an apparently radical struggle, prepared on the basis of genuine consultations with the workers and built on issues they strongly felt. The outcome was three days of strikes distributed over a three week period and then followed up by long negotiations so that things could cool off again. The trade union organization then had to content itself with an unsatisfactory work week compromise, a twenty lire (3 cents) piece work raise, and purely formal concessions with regard to speed-up, i.e., communication of assembly line speed by means of cards and bulletin boards. And the whole thing is still in unresolved problem in the sense that the trade union for political reasons, in order not to break the rules of the “democratic political game” with Fiat, always had to begin genuine struggles and then break them off before they can actually reestablish an effective and organized relationship in the factory between the trade union and the workers.

For some time this struggle did not have an important following. The situation of the workers inside the factory degenerated, the productive growth of Fiat, above all in its export market, required increasing assembly-line speed-up. And here in fact, the trade unions lost face; the fact that the assembly line speeds were handed out on cards and posted on bulletin boards (the big victory of the year before) was useless.

In fact, often on the cards and bulletin boards were written speeds that were even faster than the ones the workers were doing. If the workers complained about excessive speeds and asked the foreman to check the cards, he would simply note that it would be better to keep quiet. If he were to go by the card, they would have to do ten-twenty-fifty cars an hour more. This, then was the first tangible trace of the trade union in the factory. The struggle had finished leaving deep traces of disillusionment in the workers instead of building the new support which the trade unions had hoped for. Even if the FIOMS3 is making some progress right now at the level of the internal commission elections, it's only because at that level other solutions just don't exist. In the meantime, other things changed at Fiat. The steady worsening internal conditions worked together with the struggle experience (during which the workers on the whole had acquired a certain confidence in their own initiative) to frustrate the workers intensely, but stimulating them to action as well.

The other important phenomenon, in addition to the growth of productivity and the tensions thus created within the factory, was the inflow of new manpower and above all of the large number of immigrants from the south. This was a particularly important fact, I believe, since this new wave of immigration could be paralleled to that of 1960-2 which seemed to have a decisive effect in determining the agitation of 1962, the occurrences such as Piazza Statuto and so on. In certain respects that experience repeats itself for the present immigrants: the arrival in a factory situation where the work is much harder than they had been led to expect; settling in an urban situation where both social and economic conditions are miserable; where the rent (if one can find a place) carries away a good part of the salary. In this sense their condition is exactly similar to that of previous immigrants. There is an enormous difference, however: the political conditions, both in the situations from which they have come as well as those they are entering are much more advanced. The new immigrants have behind them a series of recent struggles in the South with a genuinely radical political content. At Turin, they’ve found not simply an organizationally atomized situation which could erupt as in ‘62 into spontaneous outbursts (which quickly returned to an atomized situation) but a situation of much greater ferment within the factory itself.

Contact with the student struggles also contributed, if only in a general way, to the growth of the struggles of this year. This in part through direct contact with the students, but perhaps more importantly through an awareness, sometimes a bit mythicized, of the tactics and style of the student struggles. Both the uses of the assembly organization and violent and/or illegal tactics were important. With regard to the capacity for social penetration, the struggles of the high school students were very important because they touched directly a wide range of working class families. However, as far as direct contact with mass movements in terms of the direct impact of the student movement on the working class during its struggles, in the first year of the student struggle (1967-8) had perhaps a more important effect.

Two significant demonstrations were of primary importance: First, following the February general strike for higher pensions, which in reality was accepted and planned by the ruling class itself, came the strike protesting the deaths during the Battipaglia insurrection 4 which had a particularly strong impact. The latter was obviously a political strike, the first outright rupture of the barrier which purportedly existed between the Fiat workers and politics. The isolation and the resistance against trade union organizing on the part of the Fiat workers had, at least on the surface, elements of apathy and disinterest in politics which many took literally as an indication that the Fiat workers were interested only In their own problems5 . And when the political significance of a conflict at Fiat was seen, it was thought that any reference to general political struggles was useless, and that if relevant at all, political issues would develop as a result of, not as a premise for, Fiat strikes.

Instead, the Battipaglia protest strike demonstrates above all that the Fiat workers felt these general problems and they were ready to move. And here, I think, the presence of workers from Southern Italy played the decisive role. Faced with the Battipaglia events, the trade unions merely declared a three hour strike. But, this stroke of treachery and opportunism turned into a positive event. For it meant going to work for five hours and then leaving, not simply standing outside the factory gates. In sum, it meant challenging the internal factory mechanisms of control and repression for the first time. The strike had varying degrees of success and
was not in fact a massive and homogeneous walkout. But where it succeeded it was an extremely important experience. As could be seen from in front of the gates and, above all, at the end of the second shift, there was immense confusion and agitation in the factory. The workers were excited with a sense of liberation, and of having acquired a new kind of battle experience.

The other important strike which passed almost unnoticed, occurred earlier, at the beginning of the year (1969) when Fiat's management tried to eliminate a regular Saturday afternoon off. On that occasion the true unions, on the spur of the moment, proclaimed a strike, and practically all of the Fiat workers stayed outside the gates with unusual solidarity. It was not a well-organized strike and it involved a rather delicate issue, since the factory would have paid overtime for the Saturday work. It brought a strange reaction from the Fiat management which immediately closed the factory gates fearing perhaps an occupation of the factory. In this way, stealthily, the strike forces grew. In reality, it demonstrated a surprising potential explosiveness among the workers.

These were the two most important events before this last wave of strikes. We must not forget that, if this first wave was and is dominated by worker initiative, it was formally launched by an official trade union strike declaration.

These struggles correspond therefore to a plan decided on by the trade unions’ upper echelons, a plan which has back-fired because of the combativity of the workers. The trade union plan was relaunched on the same path that had been left half-way in the contract struggles of last Spring because of the political conflicts within the trade unions.The plan is to attempt to establish for the first time organization and power within the factory by means of a series of negotiations on secondary although important themes relative to economic and everyday issues. This was to be done through a series of intemel strikes which, it was justly thought, would have heavily affected Fiat's production and would have been able therefore to produce rapid negotiations and settlements of these issues. The issues were typical of integrative bargaining: the regulation of the advancement from one category to the next, the recognition of assembly line delegates, with, in reality, only consultative powers on assembly line speeds and work-squad grievances. These latter two were the most typical demands, together with certain work shift regulations, and were therefore demands which at the level of the national contract negotiations could be met only in very general terms. At Fiat, the trade union wanted to face them immediately for several reasons: first, because it was the most favorable occasion for rapidly obtaining modest demands; secondly, because these demands could be negotiated only at the individual company level in a sufficiently precise way; thirdly, because getting these things at Fiat would have already given a certain direction to the national contract and would have made it possible there to codify as general rights what already had been won at Fiat and was being won at various other factories.

In summary, the trade unions’ plan appeared to be quite rational. They hoped to put into motion between May, June and July a series of confrontations with relatively controlled instances of struggle that would heavily influence Fiat’s production output. But at the same time, they hoped to rapidly arrive at negotiations and important concessions. The trade unions were also disposed to carry out, provided it was under control and confined to a carefully limited area, relatively radical tactics: that is, they were ready to use a more militant style than before precisely because it was sure that the trade unions could, in fact, obtain these new concessions. At the political level, Fiat management had already decided to make them, although these ‘privileges’ could not be taken for granted at the outset, in part because of the resistance of lower echelons of the Fiat management who would have to deal daily with these new gains in the factory. Therefore, it was assumed that a certain dialectical game between union and management would be necessary.

In reality, right from the start of the conflict, the trade unions appeared to be thrust aside. Fitting in with the trade union plans, the first phase began, not accidentally with the maintenance and repairs shops. These are shops of relatively, skilled workers–for the most part natives of the Turin region (Piedmont) and fairly highly unionized–and the issues were limited to questions of job qualifications. But even here the agitation began In a way that the trade unions had not foreseen, i.e., directly on a political level. On the day of the Battipaglia protest, a strike assembly was held in the factory. One worker had spoken out with considerable energy. Soon after the worker was transferred. Shortly thereafter the workers spontaneously organized another assembly. They demanded that the worker be returned to his old place or they would strike. Fiat was forced to concede, and the worker won back to his old job. This kind of ferment was present in the shops when the trade union entered to call a strike. These were the premises.

Before moving to an examination of the political responses a week by week chronology of the struggle would seem helpful.

The first men to go out on strike were the workers in the maintenance and repair shops which constitute a large complex of workshops: in all there are some six or eight thousand workers assigned to the construction and maintenance of the presses, the machines, etc. Shortly after that strike had begun, the workers at the large presses, also under the instigation of the trade unions, began to strike. Here we find a new element. Together with those on the large presses, the workers on the small and middle-sized presses began to strike. In addition, after a little while, shop 13, the lastroferratura operation right after the lavorazioni di stampaggio lamiere walked out. These workers walked out on their own, without any orders from the trade unions, and apparently without formulating any demands. In reality, it is quite likely that they had formulated demands but that none of the traditional trade union channels were opened up to them. And therefore the strike of the press workers was, for most of its duration, accompanied by strikes of workshops close by and completely out off from the trade unions. They had also had little contact with our own political work.

This strike which cut off the basic process had practically blocked the terminal operations at the Fiat plant, i.e., along the assembly lines. For in addition there was a strike of the carrellisti (responsible for the transportation of materials) a category limited in numbers but essential to the internal linkage of the operations. In a majority of cases, the strikes were not for eight hours per shift but were rather articulated inside the factory. In general, the trade unions tended to call for two-hour strikes and the workers tended to do more, four and sometimes even eight. Sometimes they cut back production during the hours when they did work. Basically they tended to extend the length and intensity of the confusion. The situation in the maintenance and repair shops was more regular since the strike calendar of the trade unions was more or less respected. All in all the stoppages paralyze production on the assembly lines giving way to a curious situation: there was a great deal of political ferment but active struggle seemed held up with the halt in production, as internal struggle was correlated with time on the job. In addition, if the political tension was increasing, above all in the vanguards, the immediate dissatisfaction wasn't too high because for the first time life was relatively easy. The trade union plan was clearly intended to cut off agitation in the maintenance and repair shops and on the presses before initiating the struggle at the assembly line where the tension was high. In fact, the trade unions were able to stop the action despite the opposition and difficulties. They were able to prevent any new sectors at Fiat, and particularly Fiat Mirafiori from entering the struggle soon enough and compactly enough to provide support for the battle at the maintenance and repair shops and the presses. The mechanics shop tried to strike but the trade unionists were able to dissuade them.

With strong disagreements among the workers, the agitation of the maintenance and repair shops came to a close with the concession of some rather paltry pay raises. There was an interesting aspect, however, in that there was a base raise which was differentiated by category (although within the categories merit raises tended to maintain the divisions created by the padrone): those with lower minimum salaries got higher raises, and those with higher minimums, lower raises. The agreement at the auxiliary presses was on the wage theme rather than on any advancement of category. At the presses, the results of the negotiations were genuinely paltry, with 9 lire (1.5 cents) obtained on the piece work rate and the night shift requirement reduced from every third week to every fifth week. In addition, l think there was a 7 lire raise on the base pay. At this point the trade unions issued a ridiculous propaganda leaflet, which attempted to make the increase look much larger than it was. This statement was immediately and totally rejected by the workers. And in both cases, the decision was then approved by worker assemblies, in the midst of great confusion and a certain fatigue, with very precarious majorities. In fact, however, the union action helped curb the struggles in these situations and, obviously, in others where the struggles were completely spontaneous. The same thing happened in the carrellisti. From the trade unionists point of view, this action was aimed at re-establishing a certain production normalcy, and therefore preventing the Fiat management line from hardening and posing general political problems. Thus, new negotiations could be initiated calmly. The most important of these were the assembly line negotiations. Here the trade unions hoped to have accepted in principle the establishment of line delegates with certain consultative powers, power to open negotiations, and knowledge of certain aspects of the productive process–this principle could be generalized to the rest of Fiat and then outside of Fiat. However, the assembly line began to strike before the trade unions wanted them to, two Thursdays ago at the end of May. That Thursday afternoon and then Friday and Saturday there was a series of work stoppages and internal ferment which forced me trade unions to intervene on Monday with the declaration of an official two hour strike. This was the beginning: after the trade unionists had succeeded in controlling the presses, both maintenance and repairs and the arrellisti began to slip out of their control.

The trade union intervention at this point was quite timely, helped by the fact that since there was little production, the situation was not immediately explosive. Therefore, the trade unions did manage more or less to bring the situation under control with a call for two hour strikes along the assembly lines. The strikes were called for both on those lines which were already blocked and for those that weren’t. They were called generally with no attention to whether there was production during those hours or not. Finally, they were based on demands which were of little interest to the workers such as the line delegates, when the workers were more interested in economic issues, that is “more money”, and with the speed-up. Therefore, the two days of strikes proclaimed by the trade unions actually say a rather partial, somewhat sluggish participation on the part of the workers. They assumed a certain passivity saying: O.K., let’s see what the trade unions are up to.

Unfortunately, this passivity lasted even when the trade unions stopped calling strikes in order to negotiate. Finally a leaflet was issued which explained some of the initial results of the negotiations. Now there was a notable discontent on the lines, a certain distrust among the workers. The production continues to be extremely low except on the Fiat 500 line, which, in any case, has always been a peculiarly composed line, difficult to involve in the conflict, or at least so the other workers say. Therefore at this moment the situation on the lines, even if it could re-explode at any minute, is somewhat in decline. However, the fact that the trade unions have got this situation under control, at least within certain limits, does not mean that once more they have got effective control of the whole situation. Because in the meantime a strike has exploded in the foundries.

This strike at the foundry, I would say, is the most clamorous yet. lt is a strike of which L’Unita 6 had never spoken, and the veil of silence has been particularly heavy on the part of the trade unions. Even la Stamps has talked about it more than the official left, first announcing and then denying that an agreement had been reached. The strike exploded with great violence. After a work stoppage of two hours two Fridays ago, it passed directly to eight hour and has continued like that, at least until yesterday. The strike began at shop 2, North forge, and then rapidly spread to the shops of the South forge. Next it spread to shops 3 and 4 of the foundries. It was an extremely compact strike, with little politicization and internal organization–in the sense of any articulated issue, discussed in depth, around which specific preparations are made. The demands are very simple and clear: either a 260 lire (32 cents) increase of the base pay or promotion to the metal-workers classification which would bring a series of advantages in terms of both wages and work hours, and so on.

This strike developed completely outside of the trade unions and is taking place eight hours per shift. After a couple of days, the trade unions themselves went to the management with their own proposals. This was an extremely opportunistic act, not only because these proposals asked for differentiated raises (ranging from 0 to 67 lire) in order to break up the worker solidarity, but also from the very viewpoint of the unions themselves. The raises were to be linked to the working conditions on the jobs: higher raises for workers with the poorest working conditions. The FIOM (Federazione italiana operai metallurgici–the CP metalworkers union) had boasted that it was the first to have framed health problems in a political contest, the first to have refused any buying off of health problems. Actually, in the moment in which a workers struggle must be halted, any means is good including the division and buying off of health problems with money offered by the Fiat management. This time the Fiat management’s move was quite skillful, at least in comparison with previous moves, precisely because of the amount of money it offered to the several groups of workers.

When the Fiat management had offered differential wage raises from 3 to 2 lire, they were immediately told where to go by the workers. The fact that some groups of workers who actually do work under worse conditions (the magli for example) would receive raises of about 6 lire an hour has created problems. In fact, yesterday the magli didn't strike. This fact produced extreme tension. The magli continued working, surrounded by a protective ring of plant guards, who in turn were surrounded by the other workers. In fact the tense situation and long discussions with the other workers may bring the magli today to join the struggle again. The magli have already refused an earlier management offer, together with the other workers, but now, there is a certain weariness, a certain possibility of giving in. The struggle at the foundries at any rate is still on its feet and I don't think that it's about to collapse from one day to the next.

In the meantime, there is also enormous tension in the mechanics shops which is the only large section of Fiat Miarafiori which is as yet untouched by this wave of agitation. There the trade unions have used a delaying tactic. They had promised to come yesterday with a specific response to the mechanical workers demands and they didn’t do it. There is considerable anger and I think that it’s bound to grow since the trade union response does in fact arrive, it will no doubt propose the trade union demands and not the workers’. Here there are important differences: the trade unions as usual want the line delegates and the workers want a category promotion for everybody. As you can see, the situation is anything but under control.

What meaning does this type of struggle have from a more general political perspective with regard to management and the trade unions?

Already for more than a month, the Fiat production at Mirafiori has been reduced to below normal. These articulated strikes, by alternating the various phases of the productive cycle that are shut down, provoke an enormous drop in production and a general mix-up in the production phases. When there is a 24 hour or even much longer continuous strike some production is lost. But when the strike is over you can begin again and everything is coordinated like before the strike began. Here instead, the articulated sirike means that you are left with enormous unusable reserves of certain automobile parts and a complete lack of others. Thus, it will take a lot of effort to restore production normalcy. This, we can already see now: the end of the strike at the presses has not signaled yet the return to normal production on the assembly lines.

This strike had put Fiat in hot water, and its management must come up with a rapid solution. It constitutes an extremely worrisome political phenomenon since it demonstrates conclusively that the internal tension which the management knew existed has gotten out of control. They had been counting on the fact that it would be channeled into an organised struggle, and have hastened to accept strong trade unions as the bargaining agents precisely so they would channel and control these internal tensions. But the internal strains are no longer repressed and atomized as they were before, nor are they gathered up and controlled by the trade unions. The Fiat workers have found the organizational capacity to struggle inside the factory, in some cases formally to gather with the trade unionists, but in reality by themselves through their own initiative. From the Fiat management’s point of view, it is difficult to predict the end of this conflict. Even if it ceases physically at a determined moment, it can re-explode at any other. Fiat's political and disciplinary control over its working class has been suddenly reduced. And the apparent political alternative of a strong trade union organization now seems to be an extremely unreliable alternative. The tactics of the Fiat management up to now have reflected this uncertainty on the course of action. By committing itself politically to a solution based on a strong trade union organization in the factory, Fiat has followed, at least for the moment, the trade union dynamic of the struggle and what the trade unions have demanded. It has bargained quickly, and is continually more willing to negotiate as soon as a confrontation arises, hoping to conclude the whole affair with a fixed agreement.

At this point Fiat obviously had to begin to consider more radical solutions. Some of these would require going over the head of the trade unions. This is a rather frightening prospect to Fiat. One set of solutions would aim at conceding directly to the workers and passing over the trade unions by choosing the UIL or SIDA as bargaining agents. For example, they might concede wage raises as a down payment on the contract, to make an advance agreement without the trade unions in order to halt worker agitation. However, it would be difficult to know how the workers would react. But in any case, it would constitute a large political problem since it would mean returning to the old Fiat trade union policy in order to forge a step ahead in controlling the workers. The other possibility is even riskier: moving to more militant tactics, laying off the workers and calling a partial or total lockout of the factory. This threat has constantly been used by Fiat land the trade unions as a scarecrow, but it has never been put into action since it would mean risking a general social uprising in which a whole series of tensions, which the Fiat management knows full well are in the city, would be released in uncontrolled forms. This would have enormous and immediate political repercussions, at the national as well as the local level.

Fiat has therefore played another, preferable card: to unite all these partial confrontations into a large, comprehensive contract-type agreement in advance of the regular contract, but subject to the acceptance of the trade unions.

And the relation of the trade unions?

Up to now, there have been many uncertainties and divisions within the FlM 6 and in the FlOM, as well as in the play between the national and local organizations. There were those who were ready to repeat the experience of 1962, although in a new phase–to make an advance agreement with Fiat. But for the moment, the trade unionists have been negative. At least for the moment, Fiat is not in a position to produce a large package-deal with trade union agreement, in order to put the lid on the conflict. And the situation remains completely uncertain. It is therefore probable that Fiat is intently examining the situation to see if, at this point, certain signs of the easing off permit them to keep the situation under control without having resort to more desperate solutions which could have serious political repercussions. Otherwise the Fiat management might try main for an advance settlement with the trade unions, perhaps in a more suitable industry-wide form which would involve other companies and include the whole auto industry. Right now this is rather difficult to foresee.

From the trade union point of view the problems are somewhat the same. The trade unions helped revitalize a mechanism which has gotten out of their control. Now struggles begin where the unions don’t want them to. And even where the struggle arise as a result of trade union initiative, they actually contribute little to re-enforcing them organizationally and increasing their hold on the workers. Often the struggles signal a new breaking away and even deeper laceration. On the other hand the actual goal toward which the trade unions have been moving with some success (though it is necessary to see the deeper meaning of this) is the establishment of certain new institutions in the factory.They now hope for the struggle to ebb so that these institutions will appear to the workers as the only instruments they can utilize. The unions are banking on the fact that they are passing through an episode of acute struggle which signals the maximum break with the working class but which can be used to establish such new institutions.

But here already several further contradictions are manifesting themselves because Fiat's response to the line delegate question has been particularly embarrassing for the trade unions. Fundamentally what Fiat is willing to concede is not very different from what the trade unions are asking. In substance the unions want worker representatives who have full rights at the information level and time off from their jobs to regularly obtain that information. But in fact they would have no decision making power and instead would serve to mediate worker response to speed-up (passing discontent on to the level of bureaucratic negotiation). This is in fact what was contained in both the union requests and the Fiat response. But the Fiat response has been made in such a way to remove all ambiguity from this situation. In the union proposal every work squat would elect its delegate inside the factory and there would be a delegate for every 70 workers with, in addition, a vague hint at the possibility of delegate recall. There was a pretence to worker democracy fed above all by PSIUP7 , which stated: These delegates–who would not be useful to us in the trade union negotiation mechanism–in fact are, or could be, the representatives of the workers; therefore the best workers must be chosen, they must be subject to recall at any time and so on. The very tangible ambiguity has had the effect–as one can notice with regard to many good on the spot militants–of creating in some a certain belief, certain illusions that this structure can be used by the workers. The way Fiat is conceding it, however, makes clear instead that such use will not be possible. This in the sense that Fiat is willing to accept a committee of four persons, which further would be composed of four members of the Internal Commission–one for each trade union; in addition there would be a complete trade union style separation: the four are paid by Fiat to do the work fulltime. Therefore, among other things, they wouldn’t work any more on the assembly line and would be comfortably detached from the production process. This then is the central organism to which would be furnished all the data that the trade unions would have had made available to the line delegates. Supplementing these there would be 48 people who would not be called line delegates, but rather “experts”-one for every 250 workers. These “experts” would be nominated by the trade union who afterward could consult the workers. In this way one is not dealing with worker representatives but rather experts or consultants who could be blamed by the line committee whenever there were problems that involved the sector where those workers worked. In this case Fiat management would give these experts permission to take the time necessary (paid) to get certain information, to make certain contacts, and to participate in certain meetings.

It is therefore clear that this is a mechanism which, in addition to having only consultative power, is highly centralized and controlled by the trade unions with absolutely no possibility of even formal control by the workers. Above all it's rather difficult to understand why Fiat responded in this way: in terms of the trade unions’ goal to develop a strong base, Fiat has done them a disservice. The most plausible explanation is that inside Fiat there exists fairly strong resistance to full concession to the institution of line delegates, above all at the low and lower middle management levels; even if in the long run in terms of Fiat’s fundamental political plans it would be quite useful to Fiat, in the short run for the individual foreman it would be quite inconvenient. If the trade unions were able to show themselves to be strong, skillful and able to control the workers’ struggles, the political advantages of these concessions would have been so evident that they would have put the higher levels of Fiat’s management in the position of being able to impose these proposals in their most radical form.

The other possibility is that this is the first warning to the trade unions; either you show yourselves able to effectively serve as an instrument of control over the workers or Fiat will simply begin to ignore you. At this point the fundamental trade union strategy is to successfully overcome this extremely difficult phase of worker tension (which has fled out of their control) using it to obtain certain institutions.

The unions are at present trying a delaying tactic: attempting over a period of time to dilute the response through a long series of negotiations so that in the meantime the tension of the struggle has a chance to dissolve. This in addition to another tactic commonly used throughout the struggles of these weeks: direct repressive intervention of the trade unionists wherever a struggle broke out without trade union permission or went beyond the limits imposed by them. They went as far as actual threats: “We won’t worry ourselves anymore with you; management will make reprisals and if you propose demands we won't support them anymore” and so on.

One could even note the following: at the level of physical presence in front of the factory gates, there has been a certain differentiation between the intervention of the Communist Party (CP) and that of the trade unions: this seems to me to correspond to a more fundamental differentiation, not strategic but tactical, between the CP and the trade unions. The CP at this point has a great need for intense struggles as do the trade unions; but for the CP the problem is that these struggles constitute an instrument of political pressure toward its long term insertion into the official power structure while for the trade unions they are the instrument for obtaining certain instruments and certain forms of insertion immediately. Because of this the CP can permit the struggles to go beyond certain limits because this serves it as additional pressure. The trade unions cannot permit it. This explains why, for example, in front of the gates the youth of the FGCI have a line that is somewhat different and more “to the left” of that of the trade unions. However, this kind of dialectic is quite difficult to pull off even for the CP: for this reason L’Unita8 after having for a while participated in the conspiracy of silence, has tried to give more prominence to the Fiat struggles. But it has revealed an extreme uncertainty as to what political line to follow: that is, the CP officially can't exploit very far this tactical space to the left of the trade unions.

Vittorio Rieser
Translated by Vicky DeGrazia and
John Sollenberger

  • 1These include the CGlL, Communist dominated, the CISL, Christian-democrat (left wing) and UlL, an independent union.
  • 2SIDA–company union of the Fiat
  • 3FIOM–Cornmunist union of metalworkers.
  • 4Bettipeglia insurrection–insurrection of working class in southern town–south of Naples, suppressed by Carabinieri with several killed and wounded.
  • 5Fiat workers have a low rate of unionization.
  • 6FlM–Christian democrat union of metalworkers.
  • 7PSlUP–Pertito socialists di units proletarie– Maximalist Socialist party–split off from Socialists (PSI) in 1956 over position to adopt on Hungary. Usually works with PCI in Parliament, although independent at grass-roots level.
  • 8L'Unita–a national daily of the Italian Communist Party.