Strike at ThyssenKrupp in Terni, Italy, 2004-5

Detailed article about a strike in Italy from 2004 to 2005 against closure of a steel plant.

Submitted by Steven. on November 23, 2006

There are plenty of conflicts and strikes in Italy these days. Many workers are fighting against the continuing attacks on and the deterioration in their conditions. Like the struggle of the bus drivers, who since late 2003 have also organized wildcat-strikes, workers regularly turn against the unions, too, which help organize and manage the deterioration. The struggles are sparked by low wages and flexible work contracts, like for instance, the mobilization of social service workers right now in Rome. Other struggles resist the tearing-down and re-locating of (parts of) enterprises, like the struggle at the ThyssenKrupp-plant in Terni/Umbria. But despite the high number of struggles on the company level - and the mobilization against “precarity” [precariousness] - the struggles rarely grow beyond the individual company or sector. To better understand the background and development of the struggle in Terni a comrade went and interviewed a group of workers there. This is the report:

Released into freedom

On February 27th, 2005 the struggle of the ThyssenKrupp workers in Terni ended. It all started in January 2004 when the multinational trust announced the re-location of the factory’s production of electrical steel to Germany. The workers reacted with week-long strikes and blockades of the company gates. After 22 days a preliminary contract was signed. ThyssenKrupp promised to keep producing electrical steel there. In return for continued investment, the company asked the regional government for cheap electricity and infrastructure improvements. Without an explicit industrial plan it would not sign any final contract. Different plans were presented, but no contract was signed. So in December 2004 the workers found themselves in the same situation as at the beginning of the year. ThyssenKrupp stayed away from the negotiations and announced: “The production of electrical steel will be re-located, the 360 workers in the department will be put on the Cassa Integrazione[1] - no more negotiations.”

After ThyssenKrupp refused any further negotiations with the union, on February 2nd, the 360 workers from the electrical steel-department went on indefinite strike. They blocked not only the railroad and highway but also the company gates, thus preventing the delivery of products for more than two weeks. ThyssenKrupp talked about combined losses of around 25 million Euros that workers had inflicted on the company since the start of the year. Co-workers from other departments started a solidarity strike and were sent on mandatory vacation or “released into freedom” - as it is euphemistically called when workers are locked out without pay. One worker told me that in the course of the conflict the number of lay-offs and lock outs grew to about 1300.

Terni is an industrial city in Umbria, one hundred kilometres north of Rome. Here is Italy’s oldest steel mill, founded 1885 as the country’s munitions plant. The men worked in the steel mill, the women in the textile factories. Later the fascist state also built factories for electrical and chemical goods.

Those employed by ThyssenKrupp nowadays are fourth generation metal workers. Previously their great-grandfathers had worked in the mill. For over a century there have been workers’ struggles in Terni. In 1953, with the start of a wave of lay-offs, the workers brought out weapons hidden in their basements from Resistance days and visited the bosses at home. In 1974 they occupied the factories. Sixty years ago 40000 people worked in steel production in Terni; now there are only about 4000 steelworkers. Until 1993 the steel mills were state-owned. The state then sold the mills to three Italian companies which later sold them to ThyssenKrupp for twice the price. Since 1994 ThyssenKrupp has been the biggest employer in Terni. Eight to nine thousand workers work for smaller companies in the whole region that supply ThyssenKrupp with services and spare parts. The ThyssenKrupp-plant produces stainless and electrical steels in different departments and supplies the automobile industry among others.

The Trip to Terni
On February 21st, 2005 other comrades and I drive to a demonstration in Terni so we can talk to striking workers. Ten thousand people are in the street protesting the closure of the electrical steel department, among them many students and workers from other factories in the region.

The mayor and other dignitaries from the city are present, so the slogans are not aimed against the “padroni” (bosses) but against “the Germans”. Many feel thrown back to the times of partisan struggle and make those kind of allusions. The most shouted slogan is: “The mother of the Germans is a whore!” Asked why these (racist) slogans have replaced the class struggle ones, the workers point to the arrogance the German management has shown during their operations here. Besides leaving the negotiating table without responding to the union’s propositions, the management distributed leaflets in English and German asking the workers to stop the strike because it would harm the company, provoking further lay-offs. For years the company has published similar requests in their company-bulletin “Focus”. “It’s as if we were under military occupation,” says Tiziano, a representative of the Fiom[2] union who has been working for ThyssenKrupp since 1997. Simone, member of Cisl[3] tells us: “During the negotiations Herr Henning from the company’s management assured us: ‘Believe me, I have already laid off 80.000 workers in my life.’” The nicest banner on the demo says: “Now you just need to release the people from Sabiona into freedom too!” (Sabiona is the local prison.)

Many young people work for ThyssenKrupp, all with precarious or training contracts[4] or through temporary work agencies. Until two weeks ago, Manuele also had a training contract in producing electrical steel. He started off working through a temporary work agency, then had short-term labor contracts, for one, two, sometimes four months. His supervisors used that against him: “Pay attention what you are doing! You don’t have a fixed labor contract, you can be sacked any time...!” With last year’s struggles, the workers won the right for limited contracts to change into unlimited ones. Manuele had never intended to work in the factory, but three years ago he couldn’t find a job as an architectural draftsman. The steel industry seemed to offer the only possibility for a regular, secure job in Terni. Already his grandfather had told him: “Nobody will sack you from the steel mill!” At first he couldn’t make his way around the factory: “It is like a city inside. My cousin and other colleagues helped me. At first, I wasn’t interested in politics and union activity and many other young people weren’t either, but now we are among the most active. The struggles over the last few weeks have changed us a lot.” He traveled to Strassburg with his small group of ThyssenKrupp-workers to protest in front of the European parliament. They call themselves “Movimento spontaneo operaio” (spontaneous workers’ movement), organizing themselves independently from the union. The money for the trip was collected during the demonstration and the soccer team provided the bus. He is active in the Fiom but thinks it’s important to have an independent organization outside the union.

His buddy Simone works in the bar instead. He is the only one at the table who has a fixed labor contract. He is pissed off with the workers from ThyssenKrupp: “You’re always struggling as if you were employed by a state-owned company. You allow the mayor to lull you in his paternalistic way by saying: ‘We will deal with that for you!’ You think it’s enough to have a union membership card to protect yourself against lay-offs. When will you understand that you’re working for a multinational company and that you need to change your strategy of struggle?! Globalization, that is a powerful factor. Come on, Manuele, you still haven’t caught on?!” Manuele shrugs his shoulders: “So what? Now I should struggle against globalization, or what?” I ask him if during the blockades he had the impression that the workers have power and can change things, or instead whether he had hoped that in the end the government would deal with the conflict. “Yes, I felt that we have power. By blocking the delivery of goods we really hurt Thyssen, but in the end the government will have the decisive role.” He hopes that the conflicts at ThyssenKrupp might be the beginning of a regulation of the multinationals.

We drive to the pipe mill. The workers there have been blocking deliveries since 200 colleagues got a letter saying that their work wasn’t needed because of the blockades and strikes. ThyssenKrupp tried playing the workers off against each other by treating them differently. Some were locked out, others forced into vacation or put on the Cassa Integrazione. It didn’t work out. The pipe mill workers block the gates while solidarity strikes take place in other departments. The atmosphere outside the strike tent is tense: “This year nobody is interested in our struggle. What is happening here in Terni is an expression of the crisis of industry all over Italy. The government stays quiet because it doesn’t know how to get the situation under control.” “We have occupied the highway, the railway line. What else shall we do? Kidnap someone?” a worker shouts.

They talk about last year’s storming of a collective bargaining meeting by some Thyssen-workers in which the cops only in the last moment prevented the workers from beating up the managing directors. “The struggle has its good side,” says Tiziano, “we finally have a class consciousness again. Or maybe I should call it a workers’ consciousness because not all in here are comrades. We are conscious of the fact that we keep the country running and that we should be treated with respect.” He and his colleagues don’t agree that they would be nothing but a drop in the ocean. “We aren’t powerless. Our company supplies 35 percent of the exhaust pipes for the European car industry.” He thinks that in the end ThyssenKrupp will shift the whole production from Terni to China[5] and India.

Already ThyssenKrupp has some plants, for instance, in Nashik (India) with a production of 200.000 tons of steel per year, three quarters of which is electrical steel.[6] Asked what they will do next they answer, laughing: “Drop our lovers. We don’t have any money anymore!” One tells us that he is really worried: “I have two kids, my wife doesn’t work... in these weeks on strike alone, I’ve lost a whole months wage.”

ThyssenKrupp isn’t the only company re-locating its production. A young worker working in the chemical department of the Alcantara textile factory, (a Japanese multinational) comes and talks to us. For many months, he and his colleagues have already on the Cassa Integrazione. Nobody talks about that. One reason is that there were no reactions from the side of his colleagues after the lay-offs. “That is the shocking thing: Nobody protested!” Half of the workers in his company are young people, the others have already worked there for twenty to thirty years. They often had problems. “The old ones told us youngsters we wouldn’t have any say because we had no experience. Many had this scab-mentality...” He isn’t in the union. He thinks there should be a base union in Terni. In the manufacturing industry the Cobas[7] aren’t that strong; in Terni they’re non-existent. The fact that he isn’t a union-member has often brought him disadvantages. “When you start an argument with them the union gives you a hard time.”

Two days later, on February 23rd, during a big assembly outside the company-gates the workers decide to keep the blockades up. The union leadership stands behind the striking workers; the government expresses its sympathy for ThyssenKrupp. Four days later ThyssenKrupp and the unions negotiate a contract saying that the production of electrical steel will definitely be shifted from Terni to Germany and France. The 360 workers will be sent to different other departments; employment levels will be kept the same till 2009. Manuele now works in the department where the steel is shipped. His colleagues are all over the place. It seems that in the end the company wanted to exercise its power by deliberately sending people to departments where they didn’t want to work.

During an assembly, thirty percent of the workers vote against the contract. Some weeks later, Manuele tells me about the last days of the conflict. “I ask myself: Where have these 690 workers been who voted against the contract during the last few days? Sometimes we had to keep up the blockade with five people during the night, and, while the negotiations went on, there were just 350 outside protesting. And after several hours only ten people were left.” During the vote he abstained: “I could see that we weren’t strong enough anymore. If we had continued we would have lost anyway. In the end the workers were exhausted. ThyssenKrupp had counted on that. Even now most workers shrug their shoulders.” But the whole conflict has completely changed him. “When it became clear that ThyssenKrupp would close the electrical steel department I expected an outbreak of protest. I expected the workers would realize that this was only the opening shot, that soon maybe everything would close here. But my colleagues didn’t look ahead that far. They were afraid that through the strike they would loose even more money. They wanted a deal.” There haven’t been any strikes at ThyssenKrupp in Terni for ten years and many had counted on the support of the government. But there was no such support, nor from the (Social Democratic) opposition either. Manuele still doubts that if majority of his co-workers have really understood that the times have changed and that they are dealing with a multinational company now.

“They union has made mistakes too,” says Manuele, “because there were moments when hundreds of workers came together to occupy the railway lines. And the union blocked that saying strategically that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.” Much energy was wasted. The small group of workers from the “Movimento spontaneo operaio” are drawing the lessons from these experiences. They are discussing how in the future they - as an independent group - can confront the expected further attacks by ThyssenKrupp, together with their work mates. For they know that the company’s promises to maintain current employment levels till 2009 can’t be trusted and more attempts to aggravate conditions can be expected. And in the Centro Sociale[8] in Terni they are talking with workers from other sectors and work places about how they can stay active despite threats by union officials.

[1] Cassa Integrazione: A state-run program that compensates for the wage payments; big companies can ask for short-time work with zero hours and the state pays for a limited time a part of the wage.

[2] FIOM: Federazione impiegati operai metallurgici, metal workers union, part of the biggest union federation CGIL, Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, that stands near the social democrats.

[3] CISL: Confederazione Italiana Sindacati dei Lavo-ratori, another smaller social democratic union federation.

[4] Training contracts: CFL, Contratti di Formazione Lavoro, allow the temporary hiring of young workers for low wages. In most cases the “training” just happens on paper. Some workers have worked with successive CFLs for the same company for up to 10 years.

[5] The plant in Shanghai is still in construction, with the participation of workers from Terni. Allegedly in one and a half years it will produce 320.000 tons of steel per year.

[6] An article in the Italian newspaper “Il Manifesto” from March, 22nd, 2005 describes the conditions in the ThyssenKrupp-plant in the district of Nashik in the state of Maharashtra/India. There is only a comparably small steel mill with just one computerized and automated production line. The plant was built in the mid-nineties and produces about 200.000 tons of steel, two thirds of which is electrical steel. It employs 720 people, 320 production workers and 280 technicians. Ninety per cent of the workforce are from the region. The average wage is about 9500 Rupies (about 175 Euros). Most workers come from peasant families and still have their lot for growing food. Many workers have working in the plant for years because the wage is relatively high for the region and they have the chance to get a pension when they are old.

[7] Cobas: Confederazione dei Comitati di Base, one of the associations of the Italian base unions.

[8] Centro Sociale: In Italy the name for independent centers, where groups from the left hold meetings, organize events etc.

From prol-position news #2, 5/2005