Italy: women in the Fiat factory

The following article was written by a Turin collective working on the problems of women employed by Fiat. It was published in Lotta Continua, February 1970.

Submitted by klas batalo on August 8, 2010

Underlying this article is the idea that the significance of a fight in one department within a factory, for instance, or strata within the working class, in this case women, can only be understood in terms of the relationship between this particular point of struggle and others.

The importance of such an analysis is particularly visible in the case of a town like Turin, in which every aspect of social life is determined by the strategy of Fiat. An overwhelming majority of the labor force is employed directly by Fiat, or by companies like Alfa-Romeo, which are Fiat-owned. The public transportation system is run by The Company, in whose hands is a decisive part if not most of the town's real estate. The hospitals are owned by Fiat; the newspapers are under its thumb. Turin is Fiat. One might even say that the North of Italy as a whole is under the dictatorship of the automobile, with industries and huge corporations like Pirelli (tires, rubber) strictly correlated with the auto industry, or the chemical plants at Porto Marghera (near Venice) controlled by the Fiat group. This dictatorship extends, moreover, to the South of Italy, by its control of the level of immigration to the "rich" industrial North.

In these circumstances, in which capital can attempt to coordinate its domination of the totality of life in a whole area, it is clearly necessary to understand and diffuse information about the interrelation not only between different sectors of production and even between the apparently separate but in fact connected workplace and "private" aspects of the worker's life. But the same task imposes itself in social/economic situations of greater complexity, and/or ones in which the capitalists are less able or willing to coordinate their attempts to make profits, than the one just described. The significance of recent Teamster wildcats, for instance, cannot be understood without reference to the relations between different and competing transportation industries; the role of transportation in the present-day economy; not to mention the general conditions of the American economy. Consideration of the struggles of blacks in a Northern city demands an understanding of the mechanization of agriculture in the South, the extent and types of employment of blacks in the North, etc., etc. The document which follows is an attempt to apply this kind of analysis to the struggles of women workers in Turin.

It starts by showing how Fiat tries to use the women to break the fight that workers - mostly men - have been carrying on in the factories, especially since 1968. It then describes the growing importance of women within the fight of the working class as a whole, both in the shops and in social life generally (family, housing, health, transportation, school, etc.).

This way of looking at the situation derives from and leads to a definite viewpoint on the way in which the militants of Lotta Continua wish to help the struggle develop: By showing how within the specific interests of men and women, old and young, skilled and unskilled, employed and jobless, the same common interest can be found, the basis for a class unity which does not suppress but which expresses the particular situations of different groups in the class which can be understood and acted upon.

Double Exploitation

At the present time, women are being hired in great numbers in the Fiat factories at Mirafiori, Giggotto and Rivolta. They work together with men on the assembly lines, in the preparation department and stock rooms, executing tasks which had previously been done by men.

These women are used by Fiat as a reserve army of labor in extreme need of work at a time when workers coming from the South are beginning to refuse to work at Fiat. Since January, 1969, 11,000 men have quit work there, and the supply of labor from the South has decreased considerably.

Moreover, the owner does not want to run the risk of repeating the mistakes of Spring 1969 when he counted on the supposed passivity of the Southern workers. Now he knows that these workers, arriving with an experience of fights in the South, will no longer stand for his domination. In the struggles at the factory, they are often the most willing to fight and the most decided. Moreover the importing of new labor power from the South aggravates the social contradictions in Turin such as housing and schools whose explosive character contributed in a high degree to lead the Fiat workers to an understanding that they are exploited as workers both inside and outside the factory.

At this time, the owners and government cannot afford to institute badly needed social reforms although they must do so as soon as possible to proceed to the technological restructuring of the productive apparatus. The women who work at Fiat are, from the owners' point of view, technically and physically less efficient than male workers, but the owner does not expect maximum productive efficiency from them. What he is looking for at this time is an extremely docile labor force needing work very badly and therefore disposed to undergo physical and economical over-exploitation without revolt; a sure and loyal working force, who will break the unity and the solidarity of the Fiat working class which has been reinforced by the experience of autonomous struggle in May and June 1969.

Are the Women More Docile?

There are many reasons which cause the owner to think he can use the women for these purposes. Most of the women are recently hired and many are still in a trial period. As with most recently hired people, they are afraid to be fired and feel themselves to be in a very precarious position. Only a restricted minority among them went through the struggles of Summer and Autumn 1969, and they therefore generally lack experience, unity, and organization in opposition to the boss. However, the reasons that make them less disposed to fight derive ultimately from their condition as women.

The women who work at Fiat are a small number out of many women who are willing to work there. Those who want to work in Fiat plants include not only the women who are now working in other smaller factories, where they are in situations even worse than that of Fiat, and where they are very often hired without contract; but also the housewives, workers' wives who are disposed to submit to a double work, in the factory as well as in the home, to supplement the continually less adequate wage of their husbands. Those women who succeeded in obtaining jobs tend, then, to consider themselves to be privileged and are afraid to fight because of the enormous quantity of women who will take their jobs if they are fired. This fear is easy to understand because the women are working not to get for themselves and their families superfluous things, as the bosses pretend. Starting from the assumption, in total contradiction with reality, that women work not out of absolute necessity but simply to get out of the routine and round out the already sufficient wages of their husbands, Pirelli, for example, proposed a four-hour day - but for four hours' wages - since "this way the women have time to do the housework." This means that they want to institutionalize the unpaid work of women in the home, to exploit to the limit all the energies of the women workers with extreme speed-up in the factory, and then to discharge themselves of the social responsibility for social services like daycare, hospitals, etc. In reality, the women work because the father's and husband's wage is not even enough to satisfy the fundamental needs of the family.

Besides the objective pressures, the owner relies above all on the general subjective submissiveness of women towards work, which has its origin in their education and the role imposed on them in the family. The women continue to think of themselves as daughters, as fiances, and as wives rather than as workers. They feel destined to affirm themselves and to develop something which one might call their congenital goals, not in the workplace but in the family. The strictly familial framework in which they see themselves makes them accept every condition of exploitation, factory work, as a parenthesis, its violence and exploitation a sacrifice to which they must submit in order to resolve the problems of the family. The women go on in the hope that they will be able to stop working as soon as possible: a wish in contradiction with the reality of the men's insufficient wages. In addition, they have lived from childhood on within the familial structure in which they are brought up on an individualistic basis (rather than the collective experience of the factory). When they escape from this to the factory they assume in their relationships with their fellow workers - men and women - the suspicious and closed off attitude they were taught to have towards the exterior world. It's much more difficult for them to unite with other workers and to feel solidarity with them than it is for men who have been raised since childhood with much wider contacts with the world outside the family.

Women in Factory Struggles

In the framework of the family the woman directly feels the effect of the struggles that her husband fights in the factory. At home, it is she who makes ends meet when the money is less and less.

But she was taught to think that the struggle in the factory, the direct struggle against the bosses and the decision about when and how these struggles are to be led, belongs to the man. During the struggle over the contracts in Autumn '69, the women workers of Fiat in general were very conscious of the responsibility not to break the solidarity of the workers and were convinced that they were fighting also in their own interest. But decisions about the struggles were always left to the men. This practice derives not so much from an illusion that politics is a masculine activity; but rather from the whole material condition of the woman. For instance, the husbands can meet together, discuss, organize the struggle, but the women, because of the role in which they are enclosed must run to take care of the house and kids. In fact, a very strong obstacle to the political emancipation of women is constituted in the internal division of labor in the proletarian family itself.

Another aspect distinguishing the political attitude and practice of women from that of men workers is their relationship with the union. They have nothing at all to do with it as a political and organizational reality; they feel it to be completely foreign to them, an institution which is, like the government and the political parties, totally unintelligible. This is both because women don't have the experience in general of work within the unions and because of the constant tendency of parties and unions to exclude the women from the tasks of organization and political direction.

During the last struggles at Fiat, the union called a meeting for the women who work on the drill presses, inviting them to accept the unions as representing them before the boss for the solution of some problems specific to women, such as classifications and excessive speed-up, (something which the unions can no longer get away with with men). Nevertheless, in the last few days in the place where car interiors are made in the Fivolta plant, a department with a large majority of women, the women stopped work in a protest against speed-up, demonstrating their full capacity to fight in their own name.

The political goal of the boss in hiring women is to divide the workers. At this point the men workers reproach the women with taking their jobs away. In fact it is not by chance that the boss substitutes women for men in many jobs, putting the latter into jobs still more difficult than they had before. For example, moving women from small and medium sized presses to the big ones, or from Mirafiori (which is in the town) to plants which, being outside of Turin, pose greater transportation problems. But all the workers reproach the women with being too hesitant in confrontations with their bosses and less capable of fighting. Where the women are mixed with men in many cases it has happened that they break the unity of workers by submitting to the rhythms and conditions of work without participating in the struggles against these conditions initiated by their brothers.

The present contradictions between men and women workers can be solved in a way that damages the owner.

In the factory the women escape the control of their fathers and their husbands and are becoming able to fight the problems of their working conditions in their own name, in equality with their brother workers.

The factory can be to the women the first place of her socialization, the place where she identifies the problems of the others as identical with hers, and acquires the knowledge necessary to fight beside her brothers for the same objectives.

Women do work which is ever more identical to that done by men. Men and women workers now recognize that it is absurd that the women can be paid less than men since they do the same work. The men workers know that the women are less capable of doing certain types of work, yet they see these women working to the limits of their physical ability. So they understand that both sexes are equally exploited. The discussion that now develops among men workers about the problem of the low wages for women brings to the fore the necessity of fighting for the suppression of all types of job classifications.

Finally, the women - precisely because it is on their shoulders that the weight of the problem of children, housework, etc. mainly falls - still more than men are led to introduce the themes of the social condition of the proletariat into political discussions.

Root & Branch No. 2 (1971), pp. 19-21