A clear and succinct introduction to the background and events of the mass, militant class struggle in Italy in the 1960s and 70s.
The Italian background - Ernest Dowson
Reconstruction” and “Economic Growth
After the Second World War, the Italian ruling class, aided by the Marshall Plan, began the reconstruction of a capitalist economy. The parties of the Left, including the Communists, co-operated with them. The revolutionary hopes of the workers who had fought against Fascism were traded for a seat in the Government. All over the country anti-fascist groups, who had been armed since the time of the Resistance and were now preparing to combat the presence of the US, were persuaded to lay down their weapons. Once the threat of armed insurrection was out of the way, the bourgeoisie swiftly ousted the Communists from the Government and set about a program of suppressing working-class organizations. The trade unions, particularly the militant metal workers’ union (FIOM) at Fiat, were broken up. Conditions were now ripe for the exceptional growth of Italian industry, which lasted from 1948 to 1962. During this period, with considerable financial backing from the State, massive investment occurred, especially in export based industries and automobile production. Industry was streamlined, and the most modern methods were introduced into the factories. This growth, far from benefiting the workers, was largely paid for by them through the low wages and lousy living conditions they endured. Since the new industry was highly automated it only very slowly created jobs, and unemployment remained high throughout the period.
This industrial growth was concentrated in the northern cities and was based on a policy of keeping the South poor and underdeveloped. Southern Italy’s position in relation to the North is very much like that of the North to the South in the US, or that of Ireland (North and South) to the UK. Predominantly an area of agricultural work, it has a long history of a client system based on large landowners. Jobs, homes, schools, everything depended on the patronage of the local boss. This system was maintained after 1945, with the difference that control was no longer in the hands of the landlords, but was now in the hands of government officials who handled public money. Agriculture was “rationalized” into larger units and mechanized, and millions of people were driven off the land into the cities, especially Naples and Rome. Between 1950 and 1967, some 17,000,000 Italians, more than a third of the population, moved from one district to another. Although a certain amount of small industry and construction work did come to the South, it was not enough to prevent a massive migration to the North. This constant reserve of labor was exactly what the Italian bosses needed. It helped to keep wages down, even when the demand for workers began to grow.
The year 1962 brought the first halt to this murderous progression. The workers at Fiat came out on strike and demonstrated in the streets of Turin. The demand for workers, caused by the boom of 1959, was beginning to push wages up, while unemployment was falling. Italian bosses began to find it more and more difficult to make the massive profits to which the boom years had accustomed them. Investment began to tail off, and more and more money went abroad or into other more lucrative areas such as property speculation. Now, instead of pushing up productivity by the introduction of new machinery, as they had been doing, they began to put the squeeze on workers to work harder. Speeds on the production lines were pushed up and up, to become the highest in Europe. The years during which their organizations had been smashed gave Italian workers no chance, for the time being, of resisting this process.
Conditions in the Cities
The bosses managed to retain the upper hand, and conditions for the workers grew worse. Unemployment rose once more, and the prices of food, housing, and transportation shot up in an ever-growing inflationary spiral. Life in the cities became unbearable. The growth of Italian capitalism had involved a massive influx of people into the towns. From 1951 to 1961, the four largest urban districts (Milan, Rome, Turin, and Naples) and their outlying districts had a population increase of 2,000,000, two-thirds of the total national increase in population. From 1951 to 1969, the population of Turin and its suburbs alone grew from 868,000 to 1,528,000. The bosses and their State did nothing at all to make this forced migration less painful. Public housing was minute. The main State agency, GESCAL, built only 390,000 apartments between 1949 and 1971- the same number that was built privately in one year. In 1971, GESCAL built 3,254 apartments and had a waiting list of 138,931 families. GESCAL gets its money from the workers and the employers. The workers’ contribution is 0.6% of their wages, and the bosses’ is twice that. A good deal of this money disappears through corruption. The rest is invested either in industry or abroad, and will remain there, since it takes years for GESCAL to get planning permission for its projects. More over, GESCAL usually gets outbid for the little land that becomes available by private developers. Thus workers had to find accommodation where they could. People often had to sleep six to eight to a room, and shanty towns spread around the large cities. When apartments could be found, rents consumed up to 40% of a worker’s wages.
Bosses’ Crisis, Workers’ Struggle
By 1968 the workers were beginning to fight back once more. The incidence of strikes and absenteeism grew rapidly, and in the South there were a number of violent riots. At this time the Italian economy was entering another difficult phase. Competition for markets was increasing between Italian firms and rival firms, especially from the US. In many cases there was direct competition between, say, Fiat and Ford, Pirelli and Firestone, or Italian oil companies and their US equivalents. This process was reflected also in an increasing antagonism between different sectors of Italian capital: between large scale industries, Italian owned and heavily subsidized by the State and small scale industry, relying on or even owned by US companies. The small firms were increasingly faced with either liquidation or absorption into one or another of the larger monopolies.
In 1969 many of the important three-year labor contracts in the metal working industry were due to expire, over 50 of them. Many of the large firms were eager to negotiate new terms and to settle with the unions as peacefully as possible, thereby avoiding large scale disruptions of production. For their part the trade unions and the CP, and their parliamentary spokesmen, were ready to make a deal. They were hoping to strengthen their own position and to have their importance recognized officially. The CP had dreams of once more of entering the Government. They were also worried by the existence of several unofficial workers’ committees and “base committees” which had emerged during the previous year. In exchange for industrial peace they would ask for higher wages and the promise of social reforms. But to ensure their bargaining position they had to mobilize the workers, at least enough to show their strength. And this was their big mistake, because the workers had had enough. They weren’t going to play the game of token gestures.
The “Hot Autumn”
Before the unions could sell them out, the workers were on the move. They soon went far beyond the control of the unions. For instance, when workers at Fiat were called out on a one-day token strike protesting the killing of a Southern worker during the rioting at Battipaglia, they refused to leave the factory, and started to take it over instead. Very quickly people began to develop aims, tactics, and organization which had nothing to do with what the unions were after. They didn’t just want a wage increase; they wanted the abolition of the grading system, equal pay raises for all, and a drastic reduction in work speed. Rather than passively coming out on strike, as the unions wanted them to, they began to organize a struggle inside the factories, with mass meetings on the job, rotating strikes in different sections which brought production to a standstill, marches through factories involving a lot of damage to plants, and direct confrontation with management. New organizations began to take control of the struggle, base committees at Pirelli (Milan) and at the chemical works in Porto Marghera, and the worker-student assembly at Fiat Mirafiori (Turin). Factory newspapers began to appear. Links were established with groups of students, and meetings were held regularly at factory gates.
This explosion inside the factories demonstrated decisively that the “economic partnership” which the bosses and the unions were interested in would not happen. The growing use by Italian firms of assembly-line production techniques had drastically changed the nature of work and the work force. The older, skilled workers, with pride in their work, who had been the backbone of the trade unions and the CP, had no place among a newer generation of workers whose individual skills were unimportant and who didn’t give a damn about the “dignity of labor”. Many of these young workers had come from the South, from agricultural communities with a long history of direct and violent struggle, where the burning down of the local town hall and the occupation of land were common happenings. They were part of a militant tradition, but not part of a trade union tradition. So when the militancy of these workers came into the open, the unions were not able to channel the struggle into demands for higher wages and reforms, as the French unions did in 1968. In the hope of buying peace, the bosses desperately made big concessions on wages. Between 1969 and 1970 wages went up by 23.4% compared with an average annual increase of only 9% over the previous 10 years.
The signing of the contracts was conclu what is ded only a few weeks after 16 people were killed by fascist bombings in the center of Milan. The ruling class was developing two tactics for dealing with the militancy of the workers concessions and reforms on one hand, and open repression on the other. The continuation of the struggle inside the factories and its extension into the communities meant that the ruling class increasingly chose the second option. In the factories militants were sacked or moved into other jobs, fascists were planted to spy on militant workers, and many small firms closed down. At the same time, unemployment and prices rose sharply.
1969-1973: Four Years of Struggle
Since the “Hot Autumn” of 1969, the class struggle in Italy has spread from the factories to every area of people’s lives. The working class has fought against their rotten housing conditions with widespread and prolonged rent strikes and mass occupations of empty flats. People have fought against rising food prices, expensive transportation, inadequate schools and nurseries, and lousy medical facilities. They have begun to create within their communities a new way of life, outside the control of the bosses. What’s more, Italian immigrants have taken the germ of this struggle beyond their national frontiers to other major European cities.
Rents: Throughout the country thousands of tenants have been on rent strikes, some lasting for several years. Tenants’ slogans have been “The only fair rent is no rent!” and “Housing is a right. Why pay rent?” Independent organizations like the Milan Tenants Union make sure that control of the struggle stays in the hands of the tenants themselves.
Occupations of buildings: Hundreds of people have been involved in taking over empty buildings. In Milan, during one series of occupations, 30,000 marched in a revolutionary demonstration through the city. In Taranto 182 families occupied a public-housing project In February 1973. The police came to throw the families out, but were forced to leave when the squatters were joined by hundreds of workers from Italsider, the steel plant, some of whom were squatting themselves.
Food prices: Militant women have picketed supermarkets. In Milan there were clashes with police. In Pisa, people organized a Red Market.
Transportation: In Spinea and Mirano (suburbs of Venice) workers and students stopped all busses from running as part of a campaign against high fares and bad service. They took some of them over and drove them all over the area. In Trento, workers commuting to factories refused to pay fares, saying that their wages were low enough.
Schools: There have been strikes and occupations of primary and secondary schools and universities in every major city. Since the autumn of 1969, when worker-student assemblies were formed, there have been many occasions on which workers and students have fought alongside each other. In the schools, the kids have fought for free books, free transportation, an end to exams, an end to the class bias in education, the opening of schools to the community, and so on.
Health: In Rome a Red Health Center was set up to provide free medical treatment. It became a center for organizing struggles around living and working conditions, the real causes of ill health. Throughout the country, Left-wing doctors have become involved in fighting class based medicine. For example they have given evidence in court cases involving workers whose health has been impaired by factory conditions. Their evidence has been essential in combating the evidence of the bosses’ doctors.
Prisons: Prisoners in many Italian jails have been fighting against their conditions. In prisons in Milan and Naples cells have been set on fire and prisoners have gone onto the roofs with banners. A Red Help organization has been formed to support their struggles from the outside.
Originally published in Radical America 7/2, 1973. Text taken from www.prole.info