16. The new rules of the game: the unions and industrial relations

During the Hot Autumn a workers’ movement developed, especially in the engineering industry which was distinct from the union organizations. Its priorities were not to build formal membership of the unions and to win recognition from management, but to win greater freedom and power in the workplace through organized disruption. It created its own demands, forms of action and organization from below. The unions tended to follow the movement and not vice-versa - ‘riding the tiger’ as it was called at the time. Nonetheless, the unions did risk the ride and in important respects set objectives and guided the movement. In contrast to the behaviour of the French CGT in the wake of the May events in France, the Italian CGIL and other unions did not try to stem the development of the movement (perhaps in the circumstances of a year and a half of radicalization it would not have been feasible anyway). Instead, they opened themselves to criticism and debate in the light of events. In fact, during the Hot Autumn the unions recouped some of the prestige they had lost in previous months. This enabled them to monopolize negotiations over the contracts and to re-establish control over shopfloor organization. The subject of this chapter is the process whereby the unions used the movement to gain not only a favourable agreement but recognition at both national and local levels.

Renewal of the Unions

The events at Fiat immediately preceding the Hot Autumn marked the nadir of Italian unionism in 1968-9. The movement was not only autonomous of the unions, but hostile to them. Their failure to represent the rank-and-file had many causes which were by no means exclusive to the Turinese situation; unions were identified with particular political parties and their rivalries. Above all, they seemed to have little to do with the everyday problems of the shopfloor, where they were weakly organized and ineffectual. This situation was one of a ‘structural crisis’ of representation; the unions nationally and locally tended to represent the interests of the better organized, skilled members more than those of the un-skilled and semi-skilled. In the Hot Autumn, the unions aspired to overcome this crisis.

Since 1948, when groups of workers broke away from the CGIL to form rival organizations, the unions had become closely associated with political parties. The CGIL was dominated by the PCI and PSI, and its officials held high party posts, and seats in Parliament; the predominantly Catholic CISL had close links with the Church and Christian Democratic Party; and the UIL had connections with the Republicans and Social Democrats. However, in 1969 the situation began to change dramatically. In the congresses of June-July 1969, ACLI, the influential association of Catholic workers, decided to end its special relationship with the Christian Democrats; the CGIL decided to separate party and union functions, which were thenceforth defined as ‘incompatible’; while the CISL was divided, with the industrial delegates most involved in the contract disputes favouring hard-line opposition to the government. The tide of votes in favour of a trade unionism freed of party constraints opened the prospect of reunifying the confederations.

This idea was strongest in the engineering sections, which were especially interested in being free of pressures from both the confederations and the parties. (In Turin, the F1OM-CGIL was especially open to these ideas. In Milan, where the FIOM was more tightly controlled by older PCI members, it was the FIM-CISL that was the more radical.) An article in Dibattito Sindacale, the journal of the Milanese FIM, in the previous year stressed the need for a positive interpretation of the ‘incompatibility’ notion. It claimed to identify a new orientation to the union among workers:

joining the union is less than ever a reflection of an ideological and party choice, and increasingly activists and members participate in society through the union .... The workers are deserting the branches and cells of the parties, because they see that they count for nothing in them

A questionnaire of the membership in February 1969 found that 72 per cent thought that the union should take on issues usually dealt with by the parties.

The case of the Milanese FIM is an especially interesting example of union renewal; at the time, it was referred to as exemplary. Although it was half the size of the FIOM in the province, it almost doubled its membership in 1967-70, and showed itself open and responsive to the social movements. The dramatic radicalization within the Catholic world found expression and a focus for commitment within the union. There was a shared rejection of the Christian Democratic Party and of a Catholicism which supported the status quo. In a speech to the ACLI conference of Milan province in July 1968 (which, according to Rinascita, represented an ‘imposing mass organization of some 45-50,000 members, mostly manual workers’), Bruno Manghi referred to the ‘strong spiritual force’ at work within the ACLI. This was expressed through denunciation of ‘intolerable working conditions . . . and of the oppression of the personality and humanity of the worker’. Rinuscita noted:

no shortage of moral condemnation of those Catholics who are the first to contribute to charity, and yet remain hateful exploiters of men in the factories.

The FIM-CISL, like other sectors of Italian unions, was overtaken by the social movements, but it was quick to adapt to the new climate. There was a desire to get away from the compromises of the past, and to create a new identity for the union. But the legacy of Catholic unionism provided raw materials for this change of direction. For example, the FIM’s antipathy to ‘ideology’ previously bound-up with anti-communism, was developed into a radical pragmatism, which readily borrowed from the student movement and learnt from grassroots opinion. The Catholic humanism of the FIM-CISL opened the way to critiques of the Taylorist organization of work. The pages of Dibattito Sindacale in 1968-9 are alive with discussions involving a fundamental rethinking of a tradition.5 Especially active participants were Milanese Catholic intellectuals, who were engaged in teaching at the Catholic University and in editing the review Collegamenti. Yet non-Catholics were also drawn into the ambiance of the FIM, which became a melting pot for ideas coming from the New Left. It became a cultural bridgehead between sections of the Milanese intelligentsia and workers in the factories.

The FIM was capable of rising quickly to the challenge presented by the social movements because of its cultural openness. The early editions of Dibattito Sindacale continuously reiterate the theme of ‘rebirth’ and ‘renewal’; for example, Giorgio Tiboni, a member of the secretariat, wrote: ‘The union was born in the factory and it is to the factory that it must return’; Bruno Manghi referred to ‘spontaneous worker protest’ as the ‘nodal point for any attempt to construct a new union’. ‘The union’, he wrote:

has to carry spontaneous action into the organization . . . in the sense that it must accept criticism it entails . . . it must discover within itself a ‘wildcat’ attitude to negotiation

The FIM followed this approach by adopting the demand for egalitarian lump-sum wage increases, despite the resistance of the CISL confederation and of other unions. Similarly, it took up the calls for parity with white- collar workers, and for the reduction of the number of grades. The election of the first delegates was greeted as the sign of a new democracy in the workplace.

The flexibility of the FIM on these issues was partly the result of its traditional rivalry with the FIOM, and this, in turn, was related to differences in their constituencies. The FIOM had a much more clearly defined identity and tradition, with a core membership of skilled workers with . strong ties to the Left parties. In 1968-9, the FIOM in Milan, and nationally, opposed egalitarian demands, such as those on wages and grades, because they were thought to undermine differentials based on skill ( professionalita’).’The defence of skill was seen as part of the struggle against the imposition of job evaluation, and hill capitalist control of the system of pay and promotion. Moreover, the FIOM had a greater stake in the existing structures of workers’ representation, especially in the internal commissions, and set a premium on leadership and discipline. Through- out the Hot Autumn, the union hierarchy, though not the ordinary members, supported the renewal of this internal commission, and opposed their replacement by new delegate representation.

The FIM, on the other hand, drew its membership mainly from groups of semi- and unskilled workers and clerical workers, who had had little to do with union organization, let alone political parties. In promoting the struggles of these ‘outsiders’ the FIM had little to lose and a lot to gain in organizational strength and influence. It was strategically well-placed to take advantage of the structural crisis of representation which overtook the unions in late 1968-early 1969. The membership of the FIM had no interest in defending the hierarchies of pay and grading, and, therefore, shared unambiguously in the egalitarian spirit of the movement. The union’s publications openly championed the most radical demands, and even went as far as printing documents of Potere Operaio and the CUB, which actually attacked the unions. In Dibattito Sindacale, the FIM intellectuals mounted systematic critiques of the notion of skill, and theorized the role of the operaio comune as the spearhead of the attack on the Taylorist organization of work. They wrote of grading, differentials and piece-rates as managerial instruments of social control. The FIM thereby made itself an interpreter of the newest and most radical struggles along the ‘frontier of control.’

The Milanese FIM represented a limit-case of union renewal. Union activism involved immense investments of energy and intensive debate, not only in the workplace, but at summer camps. The technical- professional training of militants and officials came second to their theoretical-cultural preparation. Dreams of revolution and a new society were glimpsed in the themes of ‘self-management’ ‘autonomous culture’ and ‘workers’ creativity’ which recurred in FIM literature. Not surprisingly, it was labelled ‘pan-syndicalist’. However, many of the FIM’s proposals were subsequently taken up by the FIOM and by the confederations under the pressure of the rank and file. All the unions stood to gain from the radicalization of the industrial action.

The unions as a whole had an organizational interest in entering the factories from which they had been effectively excluded since 1948. The movement provided the means of entry, and strengthened the hand of left- wing currents within the FIOM and CGIL. At the national congress of the CGIL in 1969, delegates heaped criticism on the leadership for what Rinaldo Scheda called

the error of holding out against spontaneity at all costs . . . episodes like the formation of CUB are a severe criticism of our own deficiencies.

Vittorio Foa, the PSIUP member of the CGIL secretariat, insisted on the centrality of workers’ control:

a wage gain, even though it is considerable, is vulnerable to the demands of profitability from the word ‘go’ unless it is accompanied by greater control over the use of labour.

Yet it took a longer period than the Hot Autumn for the union confederations to come to terms with the transformations of representational structures in the factories.

Nonetheless, throughout this period the unions gave a free rein to the movement and won back their leadership role by democratizing the running of the strikes. Although workers’ sense of identification with the unions was marginal to the feeling of being a part of a movement, nonetheless the legitimacy of the unions’ leadership was never seriously in doubt. The almost unanimous vote in favour of the unions’ final recommendation of acceptance of the contract offers in December 1969 and January 1970, was also a vote of confidence in their leadership. The increase in unionization, which in the province of Milan rose from 30 per cent to 44 per cent of the workforce in 1968-70, was a sign of greater interest in and identification with the unions.

A Plural Society

On 9 January 1970 L’Unita’ reported that Costa, president of the Confindustria, had called for

the restoration of normality in the workplaces and the infliction of penalties on those found guilty of crimes carried out in the contract dispute of the previous year.

The same day some five hundred cases were due to be heard in Milan. According to the Chamber of Labour (Camera del Lavoro), about eight thousand workers had been charged over the previous three years in connection with industrial disputes. What exactly constituted ‘normality’ was open to interpretation, since the social movements of 1968-9 had destroyed an earlier consensus and interrupted the usual channels of negotiation.

The restoration of the status quo, understood as the management’s right to manage without reference to the workforce, was hardly realistic, unless parliamentary democracy was replaced by a military dictatorship. This option was not entirely discounted in some quarters, as evidenced by the launching of the ‘strategy of tension’ and the attempted coup d’Etat of December 1970. However, it was a bloody and dangerous course of action, which held little appeal for the dominant multinational groups. The report of the Pirelli Commission on changes in the Confindustria, which was initiated in March 1969 and completed in January 1970, welcomed the new spirit of pluralism and modernization within Italian society:

To pretend that tensions do not exist, or, worse, to know of their existence and to try to suppress them, entails taking a step towards the removal of fundamental freedoms. Order is not the suppression of tensions, even though acute; order is the observation of the rules of civil society.

The principal problem, therefore, was the construction of new rules and norms. The ‘explosion of tensions’ in the previous months, resulting from ‘accumulated social, territorial and sectoral disequilibria’ was ‘not a reason for industrialists to refuse to recognize the social and political function of responsible and efficient unions’.

The search for formulas for social equilibrium was at the top of the agendas of both the government and the Confindustria. There was an awareness that the status quo could not be restored, but also a desire to put an end to the social movements. The continuous reiteration of the theme of law and order, which reached a crescendo in the wake of the Piazza Fontana bombings, ran through all the talk of change and reform. Above all, the Hot Autumn and other struggles were defined as an exceptional moment to be bracketed off and superseded. This was the case in the pronouncements of the Corriere della Sera, in which the events were treated as a form of temporary national derangement, and in the Pirelli report, in which they figured as manifestations of Italian backwardness and uneven development on the road to modern pluralism. The strategies evolved to deal with the movements, therefore, invoked measures of discipline and coercion, as well as concessions.

A consideration of the engineering contracts and of the labour legislation, which was passed at the end of the Hot Autumn, provides a way of looking at the attempt to construct a new set of rules in industrial relations as part of wider capitalist strategies for bringing the social movements to heel. At the same time, it is necessary to examine the dynamics of the workers’ movement itself in relation to the concessions and reforms. Given that they could not be coerced, workers had to be persuaded to abide by new rules.

The Contracts

The engineering contracts were signed on 9 December between the unions and the Intersind, and on 21 December between the unions and the Confindustria. The union platform of demands was largely accepted. The wage increase, which was the same for all, was considerable; it outstripped price rises, enabling workers to buy consumer durables previously made for middle-class or foreign purchasers. (In fact, the share of the National Income going to wage workers increased, while the proportion going in profits declined). Hours were to be reduced to forty a week over a three-year period, and contractual limits were placed on overtime working. The principle of parity between manual and white- collar workers was recognized along with an agreement to implement it by stages, starting with sickness benefits. It gave unions the right to hold ten meetings a year in the workplace, in work time. In addition the unions were to have official notice-boards and the right to issue information.

The new contract was generally seen as a major victory for the workers, and as a blow for the employers. However, its effects on the social movement, which had seen a good contract as a common goal likely to benefit all workers, were complex. The signing of the agreements under- mined and contained mobilization. For many workers it was time to recuperate the wages lost through stoppages. The groups of the extreme Left, for example, argued against acceptance of the agreement, not because they thought it a bad one, but because they knew it would reduce the chances of a political showdown. Yet the contract had been wrested from the employers, taken, not given. The timing of the concessions related to the degree of pressure and disruption brought by the movement. It was clear that the government had all but forced the private sector to give way. There was no question of gratitude, or of concern for the financial situation of the companies. Rather, the lengthy dispute left a legacy of bitterness and recrimination. In January 1970 charges rained down on the heads of workers, whilst The unions published a report outlining cases of management repression in the factories, and organized defence campaigns.

The contract concessions did terminate a particular phase of the movement, but had nothing like the demobilizing effects of the Grenelle agreements in France following the 1968 general strike. Workers fought to implement the contract at a local level: at Fiat they immediately started working a 42-hour week, thereby speeding up implementation. And the movement on the shopfloor continued to press for the abolition of piece- work, for mass regrading, for plant-level wage increases and for the recognition of delegates - none of which had been subject to negotiation in the contract. The contract victory, in other words, proved that collective action was the most effective way of achieving both the material gains and decision-making powers from which workers had been so long excluded. The gains made through the struggles of the Hot Autumn were the gains of the social movements, for it was the surge of rebellion from below that had forced the lntersind and Confindustria to concede so generously.

However, as has been seen, the unions won back influence during the Hot Autumn, and sealed it with the renewal of the contract. Although there were enormous disparities between the demands, forms of action and organization of the movement and those promoted by the national unions, the contract opened the way for the unions to regulate, and then incorporate, the informal structures of representation created in the previous months. The recognition of the rights of unions (and no one else) to hold meetings was unwillingly conceded by the employers, but it was the necessary precondition to the establishment of defined procedures, lines of communication and set roles in which the union was management’s sole interlocutor. The Labour Charter, which was voted through parliament on 11 December 1969 - that is, exactly between the signing of the two contracts - made this aspect of the contract the founding principle of a reorganization of the system of industrial relations in Italy.

The Labour Charter and the General Amnesty

In May 1970 the Labour Charter (Statuto dei Lavoratori) became law and, furthermore, parliament gave a general amnesty to those charged with offences connected with labour disputes prior to passage of the new bill. These two measures were the most significant cases of action designed to favour the institutionalization of protest.

The Labour Charter put into law certain rights concerning meetings, recruitment and union activity in general, which had been in the engineering workers’ contract. In addition, it contained clauses which made it illegal for employers to discriminate in any way against workers engaged in union activity, and banned company-unionism. Unfair dismissals now resulted in the reinstatement of the worker concerned. Basically, the law sanctioned the recognition of unions in workplaces, and aimed to eliminate repression and the unilateral rights of the employer. The new rights related directly to the conditions of work and union representation rather than to the position of the worker as an ordinary citizen in the factory, which was the case before.

The Labour Charter was a historic piece of legislation. Not since the Constitution had there been such a wholesale redefinition of the rights of labour. The granting of the general amnesty wiped the slate clean, while the new law provided mechanisms for the redress of grievances which were tilted in favour of the employee.

The legislation offered a means of bringing the social movement to an end. Firstly, it aimed to remove one of the causes of the workers’ movement - namely, the exclusion of workers’ organizations (and workers as individuals) from the benefits of citizenship. Secondly, it aimed to eliminate conflict over fundamental issues (union recognition, above all), and to encourage recourse to the law as the preferred means of resolving conflicts. Respect for the law would, in turn, it was hoped, reduce levels of conflict in society as a whole. The Labour Charter, in other words, was designed to prevent a repetition of the Hot Autumn. The effects of the Labour Charter and amnesty on the social movements were, however, ambiguous and contradictory. It has been argued, for example, that the general amnesty gave de facto legitimization to the use of violence in industrial disputes by absolving the perpetrators of responsibility for their actions. This opened the way for unions and magistrates to interpret the Charter in ways which legitimated or depenalized violent actions. But even if it is accepted that the legislation was used like this, it is misleading to attribute responsibility for violence and terrorism in the factory to judicial leniency.

The question can be put in another way: what would have happened had there been no amnesty? The conflicts of 1968-9, as has been seen, revealed deep-seated and intense feelings of moral outrage on the part of literally millions of Italians. Recourse to violent methods pointed to the fact that people regarded legal methods as inadequate for redressing grievances. It was employers, headmasters and others who had recourse to the law. Therefore, for the state to have sanctioned thousands of trials on charges arising from the social conflicts would have been to risk turning the law courts into the tribunals of popular agitators. The decision to hold an amnesty was a political decision to save the law from becoming too politicized.

The amnesty meant turning over a new page in the law to prevent the blots from previous pages coming through. One of the consequences was that the use of ‘reformist violence’ (to use Bocca’s words) was no longer a sufficient ground for employers to sack workers. The threshold of what was considered acceptable violence was lowered in response to changes in the balance of power inside the workplace, which, in turn, the Labour Charter underwrote. But, without such measures, it would have been extremely difficult to have established new rules to regulate industrial conflicts since they would not have seemed impartial.

In the case of the Labour Charter, however, legislation was never demanded by the social movement. It was drafted by Communist and Socialist Party parliamentarians with the support of the unions, who used the leverage provided by the mass mobilizations to push through the bill. As far as movement activists were concerned, it was through direct action, not in the law courts, that real concessions were wrung from employers and the state. For them, the threat of escalating the actions, not legal niceties, forced through the general amnesty. In Piven and Cloward’s perspective, the Charter was an example of legislation designed to strengthen the hand of union organizers over the hotheads of the movement. The problem, in this instance, is that the effects were more contradictory. As Federico Mancini has noted, this was partly because of the amnesty. But, a distinction needs also to be made between reforms which facilitate and encourage mobilization, and reforms which limit or block it. The Labour Charter did not concede the right to unionize while simultaneously stipulating compulsory mediation, cooling-off periods before strikes and so on. On the contrary, it offered workers protection against sackings which meant that they could take industrial action without fear of management reprisals. (The advantages it gave to workers can be seen by contrasting the position of the garantiti and the non-garantiti - the ‘protected’ and the ‘unprotected’.) Militancy was invited, especially when it seemed the only way to win concessions. This was the case in the 1970s when Italian governments proved largely incapable of constructing social contracts in which workers gained benefits through state policies in return for their quiescence.

The Pirelli report recommended a package of measures, which included social reforms as well as legal protection. But, between 1969 and 1971, reforms totalled:

a change in the pension system, a general and not particularly progressive new housing law, and certain promises about the health service.

The state’s efforts to reform the health service were as lamentable as its attempts to reform the education system. The number of hospital beds per thousand of the population was the lowest in Western Europe, and the private insurance schemes, pharmaceutical industry and medical profession grew fat off the contributions deducted from wage packets. Giorgi Ruffolo describes the situation:

The health sector is largely immersed in that vast parasitic area of Italian society that makes up the squalid hinterland of an unevenly industrialized economy; it is the area of rent, middle-men, speculation and clientelistic under- growth.

In the mid and late 1970s the trade unions were increasingly consulted by governments and were represented in local and national state institutions. But, in the wake of the Hot Autumn, the failure to carry through social reforms from above created some of the conditions for popular mobilizations from below. The workers’ movement extended its struggles beyond the factory to support tenants’ mobilizations and campaigns of civil disobedience. The strategies of the political elites to reintegrate the movement into normal political channels did not succeed in creating an image of the state as powerful and paternalistic. The Italian state was divided within itself and held in low esteem by its citizens.