The Mass Worker Takes Form

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 29, 2012

Within the workerism that followed Classe Operaia's demise, mass worker and the wage became inseparable themes. If until the Padua conference this class figure remained somewhat indistinct, a 'social mass', now the mass worker began to assume flesh and blood. It possessed three decisive attributes: it was massified, it performed simple labour, and it was located at the heart of the immediate process of production. Individually interchangable but collectively indispensable, lacking the bonds which had tied skilled workers to production, the mass worker personified the subsumption of concrete to abstract labour characteristic of modern capitalist society (Bologna 1972: 13,23). It was a 'crude, pagan race' (Tronti 1968: 46), bent on destroying not only that factory regime which, to Engels' (1959) mind would always be with us, but any force which subordinated the fulfillment of its needs to the dictates of dead labour.

With its organisational presence restricted to the North-East of Italy for most of 1967 and 1968, it was only natural that operaismo's political work and discussion of class composition would at first focus upon Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto. The North was then in the grip of a widespread industrial restructuring, based for the most part upon the intensification of labour rather than any significant investment in new plant (Graziani 1979: 86-7). As elsewhere in the North, the recession in these two regions also offered employers a perfect opportunity not only to attack pockets of dead time in production, but also to pursue what Massimo Paci (1973: 89-92, 133) was to call the 'masculinisation of employment'. According to Franco Donaggio (1977: 20-1), only one factory in Porto Marghera continued to hire workers in the mid-1960s, recruiting predominantly amongst males in their twenties or thirties. Elsewhere in the North-East, owners achieved the same result simply by laying off women and the oldest and youngest of the men (POv-e 1967d: 2).

The growing homogenisation of labour by age and gender within many of Italy's large and medium-sized industrial concerns during the late 1960s acted to reinforce that compactness encouraged by the spread of mass production techniques (Paci 1973: 161-2). One crude indicator of this declining weight of skilled manual labour amongst workers as a whole was the changing fortune of apprentices. As fewer and fewer positions required prolonged periods of preparation in school or factory, the percentage of industrial employees holding apprenticeships dropped dramatically, from 12.8 per cent in 1961 to 4.6 per cent in 1970 (ibid.: 223). The traditional system of grading pay by skill also began to assume new connotations: having once served in part to defend the wages and conditions of skilled workers, its original rationale had been increasingly undermined from the 1950s onwards by the fragmentation of work tasks intrinsic to mechanisation. Under such circumstances, the grading system proved a flexible tool with which Italian managers could redefine job roles without resorting to more sophisticated methods such as 'job evaluation' (Regini and Reyneri 1971: 112). The same semi-skilled task frequently fell under quite different pay classifications from one firm to the next, rendering any material distinction between many 'qualified' and 'common' workers increasingly blurred (Paci 1973: 153). Promotions, too, reflected this transformation, coming to signify less the acquisition of new skills than an acknowledgment of seniority (Regini and Reyneri 1971: 105).

That gradings had become a problem was already a widely-held belief at the beginning of the 1960s, and the struggles of that time had registered a muted push against the existing division of the workforce into four categories (Paci 1973: 163). The solution agreed to by unions and employers in 1963, however, had simply been to divide the second-lowest category further into two levels of 'common workers'. This trend was continued by the metalworkers' contract of 1966, which also split the top category of 'specialised worker' in two (Regini and Reyneri 1971: 72, 107). That employers would seek the further stratification of their workforce is not difficult to comprehend, but the fact that support for the new categories was no less widespread amongst union officials perhaps requires explanation. For the CGIL in particular, with its faith in technical progress still formally intact, the increase in the number of gradings - and with it, a growing spread in pay - was of great importance, a mark of the further specialisation and skill demanded by economic development. If some of its functionaries were critical of the existing system, this was due not to any doubts as to the rationality of its division of labour, but only capital's ability to administer it fairly (ibid.: 108). The worth and dignity of skills was a faith held dear not only by the more conservative sections of the FlaM, but also by champions of workplace democracy like Bruno Trentin, who would confess at the height of the mass challenge to gradings:

I believe that professional qualifications are still a goal and a patrimony of workers ... It is not a weapon of the boss, and I don't see, therefore, why the boss should not pay for it ... (ibid.: 76)

If such an attitude does much to explain the distance between many workers and the CGIL in 1968 and 1969, the irony of the restructuring of the mid-1960s was that ultimately it acted to strengthen the forces of labour whilst greatly restricting capital's manoeuvrability. By selecting young adult males as those supposedly best suited to the rigours of mass production, employers effectively ruled out the use of other components of the labour market as an industrial reserve army. When added to the--growing absorption of young people by mass education, and the declining rate of migration northwards, this handicap served to strengthen the rigidity of an industrial workforce already partly homogenised by the des killing of mass production techniques. For the first time since the war, the relations of force within Italy's urban labour market were no longer stacked in capital's favour. When workers began to perceive this shift, they would set out to bring enormous pressure to bear upon the Italian industrial relations system precisely at its weakest point: the categories of 'skill' which until then had furnished its cornerstone (Paci 1973: 168).