13. Technicians and clerical workers awake

On 8 April 1969 L‘Unita’ reported the views of a Philips white-collar worker, one of a thousand who had come out on strike in support of a colleague sacked for attempting to form an Internal Commission:

If they had sacked me before, I wouldn’t have known what to do. The following day I would’ve looked for another job. After the first strikes and the mass meetings I’ve begun to understand that we’ve got rights and they can be defended.

This sense of collective identity was slow to form among the office workers in Italy, but between the winter of 1968 and the spring of 1969 it took dramatic and tangible forms among those employed by the big industrial companies. The participation of white-collar workers in strikes and demonstrations alongside manual workers was itself a new pheno- menon. Their autonomous mobilization and development of innovative forms of action and objectives seemed to signal the formation of a new collective identity.

In Italy discussion among Marxists, and in particular among sociologists of industrial relations, had focused on the semi-skilled worker (operaio comune). The emergence of the white-collar worker as social protagonist provoked a new debate. Leaflets, articles and conference reports on the question proliferated. Their positions can be divided into two groups: there are those that saw the new white-collar workers (in particular the technicians) as the future makers of a socialist society, in the place of the industrial proletariat; and there are those who identified a progressive proletarianization and radicalization of the white-collar strata. The adequacy of these analyses is best judged by looking at the behaviour of the white-collar workers in the field of industrial relations.

Before and After ‘68

Before the mass mobilizations of 1968 the impiegati enjoyed privileges and a style of life which set them apart from manual workers, and which were sanctioned by the social superiority historically attributed to mental labour. Management paternalism flourished in the offices long after it had been challenged in the factory. In return for the privileges of the monthly salary, sick pay and relative job security, white-collar workers tended to conform to management expectations. Traditionally the impiegato turned up for work in times of strikes, thus earning the hatred of other workers. Sometimes this would erupt in violence; a worker at Sit Siemens recalls how in 1967 hundreds of women workers, whistles in their mouths, invaded the offices and literally wheeled out office workers on their chairs. White-collar workers did not think of themselves as members of the working class, nor were they regarded as such by the unions. The CISL encouraged their sense of ‘corporate’ identity, whilst the CGIL spoke of them as middle-class sectors with whom alliances had to be made. Both bargained and made separate agreements on behalf of their white-collar members.

In the 1960s there was a considerable change in the situation of the impiegati. In the engineering sector in the province of Milan they numbered twenty-eight thousand in 1968, and constituted over a quarter of those employed in industry as a whole. The majority were clerical workers in the lowest grades. This change in the employment structure reflected the development of the tertiary sector, and the concentration of management offices in the city and province of Milan. The ‘Pirellone’, the modernist 1960s office-block of the Pirelli company, and the centro direzionale (management centre) near the Central Station, symbolized the changes in progress.

The growth in the number of the white-collar workers is significant in explaining their involvement in the industrial conflict. It is important to bear in mind that the increase in the demand for such employees by private companies and the state was less than the supply. The expansion of the education system and the new aspiration to avoid manual work resulted in the excess supply, which was one of the factors underlying the weakened position of the white-collar worker on the labour market. A survey of the largest firms for the period 1962-70 showed that, whilst skilled blue-collar workers’ wages increased by 108 per cent, those of low grade white-collar workers’ increased by 86.9 per cent. Although the technical institutes had more than made up for the shortage of technicians by the late 1960s, nonetheless a certain stickiness in the market helps explain the relative buoyancy of their wages, in comparison with those of clerical workers.

In general terms, the expansion of the ranks of white-collar workers, especially in the low grades, and the erosion of their privileged economic position undermined some of the bases of the paternalist system of control. The changes created the conditions for a movement among these workers, but the positions of clerical and technical workers remained very different. Clerical workers and technicians had an unequal ‘pull’ on the labour market, and a different relation to the manual workers and to management; technicians had more contact with the shop-floor and more independence from management. Yet both groups lacked a tradition of unionism and a sub-culture of the workplace, like that of manual workers. In the late sixties they looked to manual workers and students for a lead.

White-Collar Workers ‘Prove Themselves’

If white-collar workers were influenced by mass movements, it was not simply a question of imitation. The borrowing was selective, and certain features of their actions were specific to them as a grouping. They first took strike action because of their exclusion from the benefits accruing to workers from the company agreements won in the factory disputes of spring 1968. At Fiat and Pirelli white-collar workers joined strikes. They reacted angrily to an erosion of differentials that in the past had been automatically restored. The first case of an independent strike was in June 1968 at the Falk steel works in the province of Milan. Clerical workers demanded shorter hours, longer holidays, and incentive payments in line with concessions made to the rest of the workers. There was almost total participation and pickets sometimes included two hundred strikers. The substantial wage concession won by the strikers in July set an example to other white-collar workers in the engineering industry.

The exclusion of white-collar workers from agreements made with manual workers had important implications. Firstly, it signalled a shift in management strategy. The refusal to pass on concessions to white-collar workers meant managements were prepared to buy a truce at their expense and to strain traditional loyalties to breaking point. Management surprise in the face of the office rebellion suggests that they were counting on the passivity of these employees, but the resistance to their demands showed a readiness to suspend a long-standing alliance against the rest of the workforce. Secondly, the isolation of white-collar workers, on which management built its divide-and-rule tactics, sprang from their ambiguous and often estranged relations with blue-collar workers. The situation at the Borletti factory in the winter of 1968, when the majority of the shop-floor refused to support the white-collar strike, was typical; the standard answer to the requests for solidarity was: ‘If they’ve never gone on strike for us, why should we do so for them.’ For the white-collar workers, therefore, there was an urgent need to redefine relations with management, with fellow workers, and with the unions.

The breakdown of paternalism was often lived out dramatically, since everyday shows of deference were called in question and managers knew the language of repression and arrogance better than that of conciliation and bargaining. At Borletti an article in the factory paper of the FIM- CISL maintained that differences between white- and blue-collar workers had become insignificant. It denounced the repression of the foremen, but also the haughtiness of management in general. It cited an incident in a lift when a manager waiting for a lift forced a woman secretary, who had said ‘full’, to get out and walk. At Sit Siemens, a delegation of white-collar workers was brushed aside by a manager:

Dr Leone, when he rejected our demands in toto had the manner of one saying: ‘Go ahead anyway, go ahead. I know my hens; after a day or two nobody will remember this fight of yours’.

Such incidents generated antagonism, especially among younger workers, who were angered by the arbitrary disregard shown by management. The call for the publication of merit awards was significant in this respect. In the 1960s there had been a considerable extension of the use of merit awards, which were granted secretly, at management’s discretion, to ‘merit-worthy’ employees. Their function was to encourage cooperation with superiors and promote competitive and individualist behaviour. By subjecting the merit payment to public scrutiny workers thought that the allocation of the awards could be made accountable to themselves. However, the call was not for their abolition, but for the application of ‘objective criteria’ via consultation. In the early stages of mobilization, the enemy was seen to be an old-fashioned and arbitrary despotism rather than the very process whereby people were assessed, labelled and allocated a position in a hierarchy.

One of the common features of the movements of 1968-9 was their opposition to authority-figures: police, foremen, headmasters. In the offices, too, resentments and grievances were focused by acts of petty tyranny which would not have been socially acceptable outside the workplace. Clerical workers were no doubt influenced by the refusal of A students and others to put up with authoritarianism, but they also proposed their own alternative models of democratic organization. In Milan, the most notable examples were at SNAM Progetti and Sit Siemens.

SNAM Progetti, a unit of ENI, a company which specialized in drilling design and design for the construction of oil refineries and chemical plants, was occupied in October 1968 by its 1,200 workers, most of whom were technicians. The occupation became a cause celebre because of its political objectives and its self-organization. A commission for political relations, set up during the occupation, demanded the establish- ment of representative organs in the company with decision-making powers over political and economic questions. The general meeting (assemblea) was made into the basic unit of workplace democracy, by- passing the union. The SNAM workers demanded the right to study and training in order to reverse the process of de-skilling, which especially affected women who were usually in the lowest grade. They aimed to ‘reconstruct workers’ dignity and independence’. The SNAM experiment excited the interest of the radical wing of the CISL which was particularly sensitive to the themes of dehumanization and alienation at work. Moreover, contacts with the students of the technical and science faculty of the State University were regular.

The struggle of the impiegati at Sit Siemens in Milan has been described as the most significant in the company in 1968. The boom in the telecommunications sector had involved a growth of research and development and of administration; from 1960 to 1968 the number of technicians increased from 1,500 to 2,500, thereby making up 30 per cent of the workforce. The demands they made in November were similar to those at SNAM Progetti; they called for a ‘human and anti-authoritarian way of working that enables the valorization of professional capacities’. However, the situation was very different at Sit Siemens in that the relationship between the white- and blue-collar workers was crucial to the balance of forces in the company. Despite eighty to ninety hours of strikes, levels of participation reaching 90 per cent, and a readiness to strike in the interests of other workers, the white-collar workers were defeated in March 1969 because of manual workers’ refusal to support them. The latter accepted a separate deal offered by the management. The unions failed to elaborate a set of demands that unified the different sections of workers, but the major obstacle to unity was the manual workers’ historic suspicion of people who had traditionally scabbed on them. However, the white-collar workers’ struggles at Sit Siemens were important for the way they developed democratic structures independently of the unions.

In the special systems laboratory, workers used their work situation to increase their decision-making role. The technicians of the research team secretly continued with a project leading to a major technological break- through, despite management orders to stop the work. Ida Regalia writes:

This experience made the workers independent in the face of management, because their awareness of their own professionalism made traditional defer- ence untenable.

However, these technicians did not cultivate professional elitism. They organized themselves on the basis of open meetings and linked their work to general questions about how science was used in a capitalist society. Contacts were made with the student movement to discuss these issues.

The idea of democracy that was championed by the most radicalized white-collar workers owed much to the student movement, in its stress on active participation and the creation of grassroots organization. The general open meeting was the key structure of discussion and decision- making at both SNAM Progetti and Sit Siemens. The commissions on specific problems (for example, women’s conditions) and study groups set up by the white-collar workers, were also inspired by student models. At Sit Siemens the use of a questionnaire to find out about the wants and grievances of fellow workers not only prepared the ground for the formulation of demands, but stimulated awareness of problems. For example, the women workers’ study group at Sit Siemens produced a document which discussed grading, the quality of work, wages, and the particular exploitation of women at work. It also pointed out:

At the end of eight hours in the factory, women work at home (washing, ironing, sewing for the husband and children). They are therefore further exploited in the role of housewife and mother, without that being recognized as real work.

Some white-collar workers cooperated closely with the student movement. The founders of the Sit Siemens study group, set up in March 1968, were members of the FIM, which had connections with Catholic student organizations, whose members participated in their discussions. Cultural and social affinity made for easy exchanges between the office/ laboratory and university, while ex-students became Sit Siemens employees. The meeting of two thousand striking white-collar workers in the occupied premises of the Liceo Vittorio Veneto in February 1969, was one of frequent symbolic celebrations of unity.

White-collar workers also looked to the student movement for guidance because of their difficult and critical relationship to the trade unions. Diffidence towards the unions was felt both by those holding on to their ‘staff’ identities, and those disillusioned by the refusal of the shopfloor workers to help them out. The alternative bodies held more attractions than the unions, for the unpolitical as well as for radicals. Furthermore, the leading militants attacked the unions for being bureau- cratic and undemocratic. However, study groups and open meetings renewed and radicalized the unions from below; they did not substitute them.

For a brief period the informal rank-and-file groupings had a lively influence over a wide spectrum of white-collar workers. However, with the decline of the student movement, the example set by the struggles of the semi-skilled workers of the large factories became dominant. Further- more, the unions began to respond positively to the various practical and theoretical criticisms of their work.

The impiegati who refused to join strikes were often the targets of the so-called spazzate (sweepings), when groups of workers invaded the offices and drove out the staff. These multiplied in number in mid 1969 and during the Hot Autumn. The attacks were usually ‘educative’ only in a punitive sense. For the angry young worker it was often ‘a moment of total rebellion, an act of liberation that needed visible and tangible effects - doors knocked down, marches, shouting, clashes with the police .. .’ For the office workers they were terrifying baptisms of fire. However, during the struggles of 1968-9 this form of action was even adopted by some white-collar workers. The mass picket, demonstrations in railway stations, ‘articulated strikes’ - all these actions typically undertaken by the blue-collar workers were learnt by their more ‘respectable’ colleagues.

The intensity of the industrial conflict reached its height in the spring of 1969 when the office-workers of the state sector engineering companies were all in dispute. At Borletti’s the office workers proved themselves in the eyes of the other workers, who came out on strike in protest when one of them was arrested. Sectors of white-collar workers looked to the shopfloor for leadership. For many of them manual labour acquired positive connotations, and was identified with the socialist iconography of working-class heroism. Their adoption of egalitarian wage demands, such as lump sum increases, was another sign of their new attitudes.

The development of trust and cooperation between blue- and white- collar workers was a process fraught with difficulties and by no means irreversible. However, in 1969 there were remarkable steps forward in this direction. The white-collar workers’ failure to extract major concessions from management by themselves, underlined their need for joint action with other workers. The unions, by the autumn of 1969, drew up ‘ demands for a new contract that involved all workers. Union officials and representatives were often more sympathetic towards the white-collar workers than their blue-collar members. The FlM-ClSL was especially open to new forms of organization at the grassroots. The formation of delegate structures, the assertion of unions’ independence from the political parties, and the unions’ consultation of members’ opinions - all these developments made the unions more attractive to white-collar workers. Some of them even took a leading role in the unions and won the support of manual workers. At Borletti’s workers looked to a white-collar activist, who was ‘very good in terms of dialectics’, for leadership; at Sit Siemens militant young workers were drawn by the radical ideas promoted by the study group which later became the ‘manual and white- collar workers’ group’ (Gruppo Operai-Impiegati).

The militancy of the white-collar workers in industry in 1968 was an important moment of recomposition for the Italian working class. Their struggles, along with that of the semi-skilled workers of the large factories, marked a turning point in industrial relations. The older paternalist system was put in crisis. Clerical workers and technicians expressed some demands of an almost utopian kind when they called for the restoration of skilled and participatory work. Yet these struggles remained relatively marginal in Italy - more so than in France where they were central to the movement for self-management (autogestion ).

The SNAM Progetti and the special systems laboratory of Sit Siemens in Milan experienced conflicts which raised some of the issues which Serge Mallet identified with the struggles of the new working class. In both instances there were rebellions against the logic of profitability in the name of a higher scientific rationality. The self-organization of work and the democratization of decision-making prefigured a form of society based on control of the work-situation. However, such struggles were exceptional and limited to the companies in question. Mallet’s prediction that the technicians, because of their key role in the most advanced sectors of the economy, would make the demands for workers’ control a bridge- head in the struggle for socialism was not verified by the events of ‘68-9. The majority of the demands of the white-collar workers did not substantially diverge from those of the semi-skilled manual workers, who also demanded control over the labour process.

Mallet has been criticized for giving exclusive attention to the work situation of technicians and for his deterministic conception of how revolutionary consciousness developed out of their workplace struggles. Pizzorno has shown that the demand for control is not peculiar to this group of workers, and Low-Beer has shown the relevance of factors such as parental background, career-orientation and images of society in explaining the behaviour of white collar workers. Low-Beer’s insistence of the importance of looking beyond the workplace is a salutary corrective in the predominance of operaist ideas in Italian studies. His conclusions do not diverge from the ‘proletarianization thesis’ according to which de- skilling has tended to assimilate most technicians’ jobs to those of other workers. However, he also points to workers’ lack of interest in their jobs, and their concern over problems of decision-making in society, which they tend to visualize in terms of power rather than status or money. This shift in focus to the ‘relationship to the means of decision and control’ and away from the ‘relationship to the means of production’, as Touraine insists, is the key to understanding the struggles which took up the themes first popularized by the student movement.