The period from autumn 1968 to the opening of the 'contract season' a year later has been described as one of structural crisis for the industrial relations system in Italy, and for the relationship between the unions and the mass of workers. This crisis was most dramatically experienced at the Pirelli rubber factory in Milan, which was torn by disputes from September 1968 to December 1969, and at the Fiat plants in Turin, which were hit by wildcat disputes in April I969. The emergence of the semi- skilled workers of the large factories of the manufacturing sector as a leading protagonist of industrial action, and the generalisation of conflict to groups of workers previously little involved in disputes, like white-collar workers, radically transformed industrial and social conflict in Italy.
This chapter will focus on the conflict at the Pirelli company which became a cause celebre in late 1968, and will be followed by a chapter on white-collar and technicians' struggles. However, it is necessary first to put these developments into a general political and economic context.
In the last quarter of 1968 and throughout 1969 output in the economy continued to increase, and new workers were taken on in large numbers. The multiplication of company agreements signalled an accentuation in the wage drift; at Alfa Romeo the number of agreements tripled in 1968. At Sit Siemens the 130 agreements of 1968 rose to 250 in 1969. In the face of this movement, the Confindustria and the government lacked coherent strategies of containment and control. The Confindustria adopted a line of maximum resistence, particularly with regard to incursions on management prerogatives, and called for government support in outlawing wildcat strikes. A traditional suspicion of unions, particularly of the communist-dominanted CGIL, vitiated attempts to encourage them to discipline their memberships. The government, however, refused to enter the lists on the side of the employers. Throughout the industrial disputes of 1968-9 it tried to avoid partisanship. It tended to intervene in cases of deadlock in the private sector at the behest of the local authorities, or acted 'indirectly' through the managements of partly state-controlled companies. Its pluralist policy was outlined by Donat-Cattin in a debate on the Labour Charter (Statuto dei Lavoratori), which the Socialists in the government keenly supported;
Our assessment of conflict must change. It is a physiological not pathological aspect of an economy undergoing continuous and accelerated change. Conflict must neither be repressed nor checked; rather it is a good thing that it is openly expressed. Although one should not deny the importance of preventing conflict, more emphasis should be given to its regulation by the parties concerned than to state coercion in the resolution of the differences leading to conflict.
This statement of principle contained a recognition of the de facto freedom of collective bargaining won by workers on the shopfloor, and looked forward to an institutionalization of conflict underpinned by the legislative protection of trade unions. Furthermore, the attempts to form governments without Socialist Party support or participation failed, showing the difficulties of the Christian Democrats in obtaining a consensus for more right-wing policies. However, no new reforms were forthcoming from the Centre-Left government. Two general strikes were called by all three union confederations on 14 November 1968, and on 5 February 1969, before the government agreed to index-linked pensions. Without the traditional arm of deflation, government economic policies consisted of riding out the storm.
In the eyes of the majority of the population, the state remained unpopular. The stalemate of the May 1968 elections meant that there was no immediate prospect of new government policies. Then two police attacks on picket lines added to the history of bloodshed that stained labour relations in Italy. At Avola, a town in southern Italy, two farm- workers were killed by police during a demonstration on 2 December; at Battipaglia near Naples in the following April two more people were killed by police during a dispute over a factory closure. The response in the factories in the north was massive and immediate; workers took strike action and held protest meetings. The killings were interpreted as symptomatic of the state's repressive character and of the inherent violence of exploitation. In their aftermath the union confederations adopted the slogan 'Disarm the police'. Importantly, the PCI entered into full opposition to the government and consistently blamed the police for all outbreaks of violence during demonstrations and pickets. Although at ministerial level the aim was to depoliticize labour disputes, at a local level prefects and police acted according to well-established precedents, and managements brought charges that by October 1968 involved a total of ten thousand workers and students. It was in this setting of escalating political and social tension that industrial conflicts focused issues, linking generalized discontents to the particular disaffections of the workplace. The Pirelli rubber company became emblematic in this respect. Years of pent-up hostilities surfaced in a dispute which riveted local and national attention for months.
An Outline of Events
On 13 February 1968 the three union confederations and the Pirelli management signed a national contract for the rubber sector. The agreement, like those to follow in 1968-9, did not have the support of the mass of Pirelli workers and gave rise to further disputes on unresolved issues. The factories consequently became the sites of what came to be called 'permanent conflict' (conflittualita' permanente). The causes of frustration and discontent on the shopfloor were similar in many respects to those that troubled the engineering sector, and the unions were similarly out of touch with shopfloor opinions. However, at the Pirelli works in Milan industrial conflict took new forms which set an important example to the movement of opposition in the workplaces.
Firstly, some workers at Pirelli organized an independent rank-and-file grouping calling itself a CUB (Comitato Unitario di Base - 'unitary base committee'), which was heralded nationally as a model of workers' autonomy; secondly, their 'output-reduction strikes' (sciopero di rendimento and autoriduzione), signalled a breakthrough in the invention of new forms of industrial action. These two phenomena will be looked at separately, but first it is necessary to place them in the context of the chronology of events and specific situation of the Pirelli company.
A key source of disaffection at Pirelli was the piece-rate system; 80 per cent of the eight thousand manual workers of the Bicocca factory in Milan did piece-work, and it was responsible for a large proportion of their wage packet. Incentives, combined with fines for bad work, were an important element in the Pirelli management strategy for controlling the workforce. Relatively high wages linked to productivity paved the way for the drastic reductions in the workforce in the postwar period. The number of employees fell from twenty-one thousand in 1948 to a low point of eight thousand employees in the late 1950s, when the company introduced automated and semi-automated labour processes. During the boom of the 'miracle years' young male semi-skilled workers were taken on to replace older, skilled workers. They were attracted by the wages and were recruited as part of a strategy to undermine what remained of a strong Communist and CGIL presence in the factory at Bicocca. They bore the brunt of the massive increases in workloads following even bigger orders for tyres, cables and rubber products coming from Fiat and the engineering industry.
In the mid 1960s Pirelli had firmly established itself as an international company in the rubber sector, second only to Dunlop in the European market. After a slight fall due to the recession, by mid 1966 production had risen 15 per cent over the previous year. from 1964 increases in workloads, rather than investment in new machinery, was the chief means of raising productivity. One worker in the vulcanization section told a researcher that in 1964 he had had eight machines to tend, but as a result of rationalizations the number had increased to seventeen, and he had to produce 390 tyres instead of 15. From 1964 to 1968 production doubled using the same labour and machines. However, because of a change in the payment system, profits rose but not wages. In 1964 Pirelli severed the link between production bonuses and productivity, and reduced piece-rates, by changing from an individual to a collective payment system. The company saved itself 50 lire an hour through the latter alone, and cut real wages by an overall 20 per cent.
The agreement which sanctioned the changes in the payment system in 1964 was originally signed by the CISL and UIL alone, but the CGIL conceded the next year, in order to gain the benefits of the check-off system whereby the company deducted union dues directly from the wage packets. This formal recognition of the unions was an aspect of Pirelli's much publicized 'enlightened' approach to industrial relations. Yet union membership for 1966-7 did not exceed 30 per cent of the workforce and management refused to allow shopfloor bargaining. For the most part, especially among the younger workers, the gap between the unions and the mass of workers widened rather than narrowed as a result of the contract. For the unions had de facto agreed to worse conditions and pay, and now had less need to keep in touch with the membership through the simple activity of dues collection. They had also agreed to a two-and-a-half year truce, which effectively postponed bargaining activity until the next contract was negotiated. The CISL and UII. welcomed the truce because they openly recognized the company's need to plan ahead on the basis of the maximum 'predetermination of variable factors such as the wage'. A lament in a CGIL factory report reveals the general distrust of the union among workers:
what's worse is that they haven't learnt that they're the union, and that the union isn't a boss to go to only in times of disputes.
An old militant when asked: 'Do you think that the union can grow?' replied: 'Yes, but only on the eve of the Revolution.'
Although the strikes over the renewal of the contract in early 1968 involved almost all the manual workers and 70 per cent of white-collar workers, the contract that was eventually signed did not reflect this militancy. Instead of the requested three hours reduction in the working week, one hour was agreed to, along with a 5 per cent increase on basic wages. The question of piece-rates was left to 'further talks'. Workers were so angry over the piece-rates that they took industrial action spontaneously without reference to the unions. As was typical in the first phase of mobilization, it was a group of skilled workers who initiated action; the typography section struck in May for the re-establishment of the piece- rates they had had in 1952. For them, the primary concern was to increase wages. However, other workers who followed suit began to open up questions about the relation of piece-work to conditions of work as a whole.
The first sections to take industrial action were those with the worst working conditions, like the tyre and vulcanization sections, which also had a high percentage of newly recruited, young, semi-skilled workers. They were exposed to health hazards such as fumes, skin diseases (eczema and others), exhaustion and nervous disorders resulting from the speeds of the production cycle. Although workers demanded the elimination of poisonous fumes and the slowing-down of work speeds, the issue of the piece-rates was originally tackled in terms of improvements in pay. The action taken, however, implicitly undermined the function of piece-rates in regulating productivity. ln the tyre and vulcanization sections before the August break, and then in eighteen sections following the holidays, workers implemented a co-ordinated reduction in output (autoriduzione). Without awaiting management permission, they worked at speeds that were less tiring. Whilst the effect on output and profits was considerable, the loss in earnings was relatively little; a 10 per cent reduction of production was costing the workers a mere 150 lire a day, the price of two cups of coffee. Autoriduzione quickly became the preferred form of action, but it was only an option for those on piece-work. Industrial action therefore included lightning strikes and general stoppages. A report in L'Unita' described how workers decided on action:
They are spontaneous strikes, decided on directly by the workers in each section during improvized meetings; these are held all over the place - in the canteen during meal-breaks, by the slot-machine, while having a smoke, or even in the street outside.
Such spontaneous sectional stoppages had only happened once before at Pirelli in the previous twenty years. On that occasion, the management successfully defeated the workers by locking them out.
ln 1968, however, threats of fines and suspensions, and the attempted lockout in mid December, were counter-productive. The Pirelli management waged a propaganda war on the guerrilla action in the factories through the Assolombarda, the employers' association for Lombardy. A statement in October spoke of the intimidation of white-collar workers and complained more generally that:
this agitation [group of workers in the tyre plant suddenly took industrial action, thereby stopping work in the plant as a whole] . . . is contrary to every trade union practice and is carried out by inadmissible methods.
Yet, far from discouraging workers, such pronouncements were taken as evidence of the effectiveness of their action and were treated as almost welcome publicity.
The Pirelli management took a hard line because it was a test-case in industrial confrontation. The company had an influential voice in the national and regional employers` associations and had a clear policy of maintaining 'management's right to manage'. As a result, the mobilizations at Pirelli took on symbolic significance for the workers movement too. The pickets of the company office block, the so-called 'Pirellone', became scenes of mass solidarity involving the whole of the Milanese working class. The marches of the Pirelli workers created a particularly vivid image because of their distinctive white overalls, which contrasted with the tute blu of the engineering workers. The sheer din coming from the beating of milk cans (a practice started in the struggles of the early sixties), and from the echoing slogans transformed the atmosphere of the city centre. The continuous invasions of streets which had become the preserve of offices and shops, served as a reminder that the wealth was actually produced by some and consumed by others. One account of a march going down the fashionable via Monte Napoleone, which had shopwindows laden with expensive goods, speaks of a worker waving his empty food-box (schiscetta) and shouting: 'This is how Pirelli treats us'. On 2 December 1968 the coincidence of the lockout at Pirelli, the killings of Avola, and the occupation of several schools, created an exceptional mood of tension and anger in Milan. The convergence of struggles around the question of management and state repression represented a moment of general mobilization and solidarity. There were twenty-minute stoppages to remember the dead in all the factories, thousands of posters covered the walls of the city, which became the 'theatre of impassioned demonstrations, marches and meetings, many of them entirely improvised.' The Pirelli workers demonstrating outside the RAI-TV buildings with a banner calling for the disarming of the police, were joined by hundreds of students on strike.
Under immense political pressure, Pirelli withdrew the lockout notices, and on 22 December agreed to raise payments for piece-work and to establish bargaining procedures in the event of disputes. The company recognized union representative responsible for negotiating piece-rates. Although this marked the first step in allowing the unions a continuous presence on the shopfloor, whereas previously severe limits had been placed on their freedom of movement, the management wanted them to control not represent their membership.
Unfortunately for the Pirelli company the unions could no longer be relied on to channel and control rank-and-file discontent. They showed the same weaknesses resulting from hierarchism and inflexibility as their counterparts at Montedison in Porto Marghera. The CISL and UIL, which had been openly anti-Communist and 'collaborationist', experienced revolts against the old Cold War leaderships; while the CGIL had two- thirds of its branch leadership at Bicocca replaced between October and December, mainly by younger militants. Yet the new leaderships did not have a solid basis on the shopfloor. The desire to keep a centralized hold on decisionmaking power sprang from fear of shopfloor spontaneity and independent organization. The CUB, for example, represented a threat when it successfully outflanked the official organizations by promoting autoriduzione. In reply, the unions proposed factory branches to link the shopfloor and the company organization, but by the end of 1969 the CGIL branch only had about forty active members. The fact that it was a purely organizational proposal coming from above, and that it was based on union loyalty rather than on the common identity of the shopfloor made it a nonstarter. The CGM. attacked autoriduzione and warned of the dangers of 'sectionalism' (repartismo) just at the moment that workers were coming together over shopfloor issues, and was forced to adopt this form of action officially.
The agreement of December 1968 therefore provided only a breathing space. Agitation broke out in some sections over grading and health hazards in early 1969. Workers carried out autoriduzione to keep down work speeds, and overtime was banned. ln March Pirelli produced what was labelled 'the mini-decree' (decretone) in an attempt to outmanoeuvre the unions. In return for six days continuous production a week, the company offered an immediate concession of a forty-hour week with staggered rest days. Women were to work on a part-time basis. The proposal, however, was turned down. There was opposition to Saturday night working, which had previously been eliminated by workers who had simply refused to work that shift. A firm stand was taken against part-time working. This is of interest as one of the rare occasions on which the problem of women's work was directly addressed. L'Unita' reported a discussion with women workers. The journalist in question was careful to give their age and parental status, although the paper did not do so in the case of male workers. Antonietta, 'aged thirty-six and the mother of a child of six', was reported as saying:
I don't work for pleasure, but because I have to contribute to the household budget, and to make sure that we don't just eat soup. Maybe 'part-time' work is what Pirelli's wife does.
A CUB pamphlet dealing with the decretone reiterated this position and pointed out:
The bosses present us with the problem upside down. Instead of improving women's conditions by providing full-time education, public canteens and nurseries, thereby enabling women to work without being exploited as they are now, they want them to work less and earn less.
The pamphlet goes on to criticize the part-time working scheme as a halfway house to unemployment, and as a way of increasing exploitation during the four hours that would be worked. In its place, the CUB calls for a reduction in working hours for women, without a reduction in pay. Whilst it is interesting to note that the analysis of women's oppression tentatively acknowledges the double nature of women's work, and the need to lessen their burden, its approach does not differ substantially from that of the trade unions and traditional Left parties. It starts from the premise that women should be responsible for housework rather than men, and says nothing about women's particular problems as waged workers.
Whatever the limitations of the opposition to Pirelli's decretone, it nevertheless succeeded in defeating the management manoeuvre. Industrial conflict continued unabated. In May 1969 the unions launched a new campaign in response to further sectional stoppages, and to the harryings of the CUB, which called for large wage increases, the abolition of piece-work, parity between manual and white-collar workers, and a reduction in the number of grades. The unions' demands were much less radical. Above all they centred on the issue of union recognition on the shopfloor. However, the Pirelli management maintained its intransigent refusal to extend bargaining rights to the unions over questions of production, which were considered management prerogatives. The dispute continued into the Hot Autumn of 1969 when it became a focal point of Milanese mobilizations. However, before that time the experiences of the CUB at Pirelli and the example of the autoriduzione struggles had become part of the patrimony of the workers' movement as a whole.
Autoriduzione - worker-controlled reduction in output - was a form of industrial action that captured the imagination of wide sections of activists on the shopfloor, in the Left, within the trade unions, and in the social movements more generallly. Two contemporary accounts give some indication of the enthusiasm for autoriduzione:
The reduction of work speeds is a masterpiece of consciousness (autocoscienza) and technical ability. It is as if an orchestra had managed to play a difficult symphony harmoniously without the conductor and at a tempo agreed upon and regulated by the players of the single instruments.
This is Aniello Coppola writing an article in Rinascita' entitled 'Pirelli - a victory for workers' inventiveness'. He goes on to say that the feat is even more remarkable given the low educational qualifications and the number of immigrant workers involved. A second account, published a year later in the paper Il Manifesto, recorded how the factory
functioned with the regularity of a clock, but the tick-tock is more spaced out in time; it has a slowness that exasperates the bosses, who protest about the 'irregularities' of this form of struggle. The workers, for their part, acquire consciousness of their power and learn to make the bosses dance to the rhythm of their music.
Initially workers reduced output because it was an effective way of making the company pay without themselves incurring great losses. They turned an iniquitous piece-rate system to their advantage. Autoriduzione began 'spontaneously' in so far as the action was initiated in individual sections and without predefined plans or organization. However, as the above accounts underline, autoriduzione in an enormous plant like Pirelli's at Bicocca required remarkable coordination and discipline. The militants of the CUB acted as a catalyst, but the extensive implementation of autoriduzione was only possible because of the network of unofficial representatives on each shopfloor. Many of these were drawn from the ranks of the CGIL, and PCI. One of the protagonists recalls:
The comrades of the PCI worked day and night to connect one section in dispute with another. There was nothing spontaneous about it, except in the fantasies of distant observers.
Autoriduzione began pragmatically as an effective form of action, but it was quickly invested with more general political and ideological meaning. When workers continued autoriduzione after the formal termination of industrial action, they enacted their demand for more human working conditions. It became an end in itself as well as a means to an end. In the words of the student movement it was an example of 'practising the objective'. The self-organization involved put in question the hierarchy of command in the factory. At Pirelli the foremen had exercised control by discouraging communication between groups of workers (especially between the older and younger workers), and by calculating piece-rates and recommending workers for promotion. When workers assumed direct responsibility for production speeds and built an intricate web of contacts between themselves they undermined the foremen's position. Similarly, this direct democracy with its informal delegate structure undercut the vertical and hierarchical structures of the unions. Direct action, moreover, cut out the need for outside organizational mediation, such as that provided by the union.
The political significance of autoriduzione also owed something to its opponents, who denounced it as 'illegal and un-trade-unionist'. This 'illegality'was seen as a virtue by activists concerned to raise workers' consciousness. An interview with a worker member of the CISL at Pirelli stresses the positive aspects of these struggles against the organization of work in the factory:
In my opinion sabotage always takes place in companies with a scientific organization of work, where they are liberatory acts, whether carried out by individuals or groups. The fact that workers develop harder-hitting forms of action against the bosses is a sign of their anti-legalism, and greater awareness of their situation .... The first serious fight over the speeds of the line was a major event .... Ultimately when the speed of assembly work was changed without the agreement of the workers, they just didn't do part of the work . . . and that became routine.
When autoriduzione was first implemented against Pirelli, there was conflict between its advocates, especially between the CUB and the unions. The latter clung to traditional strike action. During the autumn and winter of 1968 the unions changed their position and consented to autoriduzione, but disagreements remained about how and to what ends it should be carried out. The CUB saw it as a disruptive and 'anti-legalitarian' method of struggle which expressed the workers' total opposition to and estrangement from the capitalist systems. Meanwhile, radicals within the unions underlined the discipline and organization which it demanded of the workers. For left-wingers inside the PCI, and for PSIUP militants in particular, it prefigured workers'control of production in a socialist society. Autoriduzione showed that the workers themselves could do the managing. The use of the vivid imagery of orchestras and clocks to describe the Pirelli action contrasts with the CUB's stress on disruption. The workers' cool, calculated rationalism is counterposed to the confusion and petulance of the bosses.
Which of these interpretations came closest to describing the Pirelli workers' consciousness and aspirations is difficult to say. Each, it seems reflected currents of opinion and attitudes within the workforce, although it should be said that the majority were less politicized than the activists. Participation in general strikes was low and the unions still managed to win majorities for their resolutions during general meetings. The activists were therefore too optimistic in their expectations, but they nonetheless succeeded in making autoriduzione symbolic and significant for the workers' movement as a whole. Their example encouraged not only imitation but widespread reflection on creative and inventive methods of industrial action. In the first months of 1969 organizations of this kind sprang up in most of the cities of northern Italy, and in July 1969 they were able to hold a conference in Turin, which was attended by hundreds of workers and students. They were drawn together by a shared antagonism to the reformist politics of the unions and Left parties, and by the feeling that the time was ripe to create alternative organizations. There were considerable differences between the groupings about their methods of work and their relationships to the official labour movement, which surfaced during the autumn, but during the first heady months when the CUB at Pirelli was making the news, the spirit of unity prevailed.
The Pirelli CUB
The CUB at Pirelli was the best known and most influential experiment in workers' self-organization prior to the Hot Autumn. It has been broadly defined as follows:
The CUBs were informal grassroots groups made up of workers and students. During the crisis of Italy's industrial relations system, when unions and parties were slow to respond to the new spirit of militancy, they took a leadership role in certain factories. They promoted workers' self-activity and gave expression to anti-capitalist feelings.
The CUB at Pirelli was founded in February 1968, directly after the signing of the unsatisfactory national contract for the rubber sector workers. It began as an attack on that agreement. The CUB pressed for industrial action over piece-rates, health hazards and grading, and criticized the unions for their spinelessness. The nucleus of the CUB was composed by militants with considerable experience in the CCTlL and left-wing parties. A report of March 1963 refers to its promoters as 'comrades with considerable influence among the workers. In their sections you can feel the unity among workers... Their meetings, despite the semi-clandestinity, are far more crowded than those held by the unions'.
Prior to the formation of the CUB at Pirelli there had been groupings set up to promote struggles in the workplace, outside and in defiance of the unions, as at Sit Siemens in 1966. However, they had been dissolved after the engineering contract struggles because of lack of support. In early 1968 conditions had changed. Firstly, spontaneous agitation in the factories proved durable rather than sporadic. Secondly, a generation of militants, encouraged by the student movement, saw the possibility of constructing independent organizations on the shopfloor. In Milan a current had formed within the CGIL which promoted 'round-table' discussions and an 'open letter' to militants on the need for action over workers' conditions (condizione operaia). It claimed that the unions were incapable of representing shopfloor opinion. This tendency, which identified with the reviews La Sinistra and Falce e Martello, organized the first meetings of the CUB at Pirelli.
This CUB was very much a child of an orthodox left and trade-union experience. It was at home in a factory with a long political tradition. It came into existence because the unions overlooked the pressing pre-occupations of the mass of workers, whose health as well as wage packets had suffered from the intensification of work. However, the CUB originally saw its function as a pressure group on the union, and rejected ideas of forming an alternative union or of leaving the unions.
The CUB's guiding principle was to 'start directly from the workers' conditions in the factory'. In retrospect, this approach seems rather banal, but it was radical at the time, and reflected the influence of the Quaderni Rossi. Since the unions at Pirelli failed to consult the shopfloor and were more concerned with their ideological differences, basic grievances were left to fester. The CUB's first actions were simply designed to reactivate trade unionism. Its demands of June 1968 for the restoration of production bonuses tied to productivity and for increases in piece-rates, showed a respect for the traditional payment system. However, the CUB rapidly assumed more radical positions which challenged management despotism. It called for the total abolition of health hazards, including piece-work, the elimination of the lowest grades and equal wage increases for all workers. Whilst the unions accepted the existing framework governing workers'conditions in the factory and asked for compensation where health was endangered, the CUB started from the premise that workers' needs should determine how the production process was organized.
At no time during 1968-9 did the CUB counter-proposals win majorities and defeat the unions' motions at general meetings. When it came to formal decision making the workers were diffident about the radical alternatives, but over the two years it was these which dominated agendas. Moreover, workers willingly rebelled against agreements drawn up in their name by the unions, and resorted to forms of industrial action promoted by the CUB, although not always. When in May 1968 it called for workers to follow the example of the Renault occupation in France, the message fell on deaf ears. It was more the product of fantasy, perhaps encouraged by the student participants in the CUB meetings, than a tactic related to the experience at Pirelli. When the CUB propagandized autoriduzione, however, it had greater success. In particular its refusal to timetable stoppages or reductions in output made spontaneity the most democratic and incisive method of destroying the discipline imposed by management. The fame of the Pirelli CUB resulted from its remarkable success in making a science of wildcat actions and in promoting them, rather than in its theoretical or political formulations. The unions were forced to follow the CUB's lead to keep control of the situation in the factory. The Corriere della Sera reported in September 1969:
It seems that the unions have despite everything, mounted the tiger - represented by a mere 200 wild activists out of a total of 12,000 workers - and that now they're trying desperately to check its stride.
The fact that such a small minority could have such influence was a sign of the newfound combativity of workers, but also of its ability to interpret and give expression to the imagination of the shopfloor.
The project of the CUB at Pirelli was to construct a new form of political organization and practice. Although it occupied a vacuum left by the unions, its ambitions went beyond the horizons of unionism. According to the CUB the unions acted 'within the logic of the capitalist system by manipulating worker militancy and compressing it between the beginning and end of negotiations'. In key respects the CUB was conceived as an alternative approach to political activity, which adopted some of the analyses popularized by the student movement. The CUB contained not only workers at Pirelli, but outsiders including students activists, several of whom came from the Catholic University. In the collection of documents published by the CUB in early 1969, the opening paragraph deals with worker-student unity:
The CUB has forged a new kind of link . . . from the purely instrumental one in which the students had a service function as the distributors of leaflets and members of the picket line. In the CUB students no longer have a subordinate role, but participate in the first person in the workers' political activity.
Such continuous participation, it was stated, entailed a rejection of 'workerism'(according to which industrial workers were only revolutionary subjects). It surmounted the separation of the activities of the student and workers' movements, which was encouraged by the Communist Party and CGIL. By combining the students' time (for research, and so on) and mobility, and the workers' knowledge of the concrete situation, the CUB offered new possibilities for breaking down the artificial divisions between the social groups. Another and more fundamental division that the CUB consciously set out to overcome was that between economic and political struggles. A CUB pamphlet stated:
The economic struggle is fruitful only if it is against the general political plan of the bosses in the factory and in society. Political struggles cannot be separated from the economic struggles. It is workers' consciousness of their own interests and rights in the workplace that leads to general struggle in society, and vice versa.
The CUB was seen to be a means of combining the political and economic struggles by focusing attention on the question of power within the factory. The conflict itself was thought to generate greater consciousness of the need to confront the system of exploitation as a whole. The stress put on violent and disruptive forms of industrial action stemmed from this concept of learning through conflict.
However, the political ambition of the majority of the CUB activists, to found a unitary communist practice in the everyday struggles of the shop- floor, was undermined by the appearance of ideological divisions, which it had originally been set up to overcome. Some attributed this development, which had disastrous consequences, to student influences. A group of Pirelli workers wrote retrospectively:
In '68 when the slogan was 'workers' power' and 'the proletariat must rule', it is very strange and symptomatic that the student intervention in the factory, even though useful in some respects to the workers, hid the intention of ruling over the proletariat as soon as possible.
Undoubtedly there is some truth in this assertion that outside intervention was to blame; the split in the CUB in June 1969 resulted directly from decisions taken by outsiders, especially by the political group Avanguardia Operaia, which aimed to make it into a 'school of communism' to train political cadres. However, there were factors that allowed the 'takeover' to take place.
The CUB never linked the general affirmations about the need to combine political and economic struggles to the specific issues in the factory. All its literature concentrated on the latter and no mention was made even of questions of education, despite the student involvement. The CUB's analysis of the unions, according to which they were incapable of renewal, made it unaware of its own role in stimulating that renewal. Above all, the assumption that industrial conflict automatically created revolutionary consciousness, and that the factory was the microcosm of the social order produced unwarranted hopes in swift social change. The CUB like the unions before them ignored many of the preoccupations of the mass of workers.