Workers and Workerism in Porto Marghera

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 29, 2012

Within the Italian petrochemical sector of the 1960s, technical and white-collar staff constituted a noticeably high proportion of employees (Cacciari 1968: 592). This did not mean, however, that most workers in the major petrochemical plants - whether classified as 'manual workers', 'technicians' or white-collar 'employees' - were any less massified or in possession of greater control over production than their counterparts in manufacturing (Zandegiacomi 1974: 26-7). The traditional craft workers of Porto Marghera had already been forced down the 'technological path to repression' during the 1950s; the relatively higher qualification of those who replaced them was in large part a distorted recognition of the greater technological sophistication of production within the chemical industry. Like their counterparts at FIAT, many of the new chemical workers had come from the countryside; indeed, in a region that epitomised the process of industrialisation in the absence of urbanisation (Patrono 1980: 96), many continued to live in a rural setting. What, if anything, made their workplaces different from Mirafiori was on the contrary the apparent perfection of the tyranny of fixed capital. Here, the very nature of the production process - a highly automated system demanding attention around the clock - guaranteed the subordination of employees even more fully than the car industry's assembly line. Thus in Porto Marghera, no less than in Turin, a mass worker would slowly take shape during the years of the economic miracle.

By 1967, five or six years of workerist intervention at Porto Marghera had begun to bear fruit at Montedison's large Petrolchimico plant. There POv-e could claim as adherents both younger workers fresh from the outlying countryside, and a number of longtime CGIL militants elected to the firm's Commissione Interna (Pasetto and Pupillo 1970: 96; Perna 1980). Frustrated with the regional union's refusal to organise around health and safety - a perennial concern in an industry plagued by a high accident rate and silicosis - in August POv-e members called a stop-work meeting which voted for strike action. Fearful of being outflanked at a plant where its base was already weak, the local union ratified the decision. The brief stoppage which followed saw only 500 employees take part, yet the implications of the episode were disturbing, as one local newspaper reflected:

There remains the (preoccupying) fact that the 'Chinese' were able to impose their objectives on unionists of con sum ate experience. Of the 10 per cent who heeded the strike call, almost all were youths in their twenties, 32-33 years of age at the most. It is a warning which cannot be ignored; it means that there is a cog loose somewhere ... (quoted in POv-e 1968a: 13)

It was the group's first major independent action, one that left it cautiously optimistic about the future. For the following year, none the less, POv-e continued to promulgate Classe Operaia's traditional discourse on the working-class luse' of party and union. Whilst the revisionism of the PCI's leadership was measured for the first time against the performance of Communist parties in other continents (POv-e 1967c: 3), the workerist message remained the same. The labour movement might be integrated into the capitalist system elsewhere in the West, but in Italy the party's rank-and-file - 'its truly revolutionary base' - still blocked this tendency. It was mandatory, then, to join the struggle 'against the reformists in the party' to that 'against the boss in the factory' (pOv-e 1967a: 1; 1967j: 1). In fact, claimed Potere Operaio, the goals of reclaiming the party in the workplace and defeating modern planned capitalism were intertwined, since

[t]oday the political terrain on which the relation of force between workers and capitalist is measured is that of the factory, and the wage-productivity relation is the key to the whole functioning of capitalist society. What yesterday was economic, today is the only real political terrain; what yesterday was political, today has become appearance ... (pOv-e 1968b: 4)

Thus, until events in 1968 shattered the group's belief in any possibility of the official labour movement's renovation, the question of the Communist Party's future remained an open one. True, some articles in the workerist journal called for a new, mass revolutionary party during 1967. Others the following year, though, continued to put the ball firmly in the court of the PCI, 'that great Communist Party' which workers 'have always seen as their own', and which now 'must choose' between social democracy and class struggle (POv-e 1968b: 4; 1968d: 4).

A similar ambivalence then informed POv-e's understanding of the CGIL. As with the Communist Party, the group's view of the union before that point had been deeply contradictory. In this it was marked both by hostility towards the top-down efforts at cooperation between the three major confederations - for whose sake the CGIL seemed prepared to capitulate its few remaining class principles - and the belief that the 'class' union was still susceptible to working-class influence. Thus, while in one article the refusal of CGIL parliamentarians to vote against the Socialist Party's 'five year plan' was seen as confirmation that all unions were within capital's logic, other pieces called for 'true' union autonomy. 'Union bureaucrats are paid by the workers', stated an article of November 1967, 'we must impose the interests of the workers upon them' (POv-e 1967b: 1; 1967f: I, 4; 1967i: 2). In one respect, such differences reflected ongoing differences of opinion amongst workerists as to the unions' long-term worth; as has been seen, the demarcation between 'extremists' and 'entrists' had still by no means clarified itself fully amongst the North-Eastern exponents of operaismo (Bianchini and Pergola 1980). On the other hand, such pronouncements were the product of POv-e's belief that regional specificities also had their part to play in defining the relation between workers and the labour movement. Thus, while the PCI of Emilia-Romagna - the central regulator of the local capitalist economy - was dismissed from the beginning as a lost cause (pOv-e 1967h), the group's assessment of the Veneto party was for a time much more open-ended.

Above all, however, POv-e was acutely conscious that Italian workers, on the defensive after the disappointing contract struggles of 1966, were not yet prepared to venture far beyond the cover of either party or union. During 1967 there were to be no appeals in Potere Operaio for militants to form autonomous committees, even if one article noted the emergence in some workplaces of

forms of autonomous working class organisation and initiative, for now still in an embryonic state, but susceptible to further development (POv-e 1967f: 1).

Instead, if any alternative in the factory to the revisionism of the PCI and CGIL was held up, it was to be the traditional delegate structure of the Commissione Interna, with numerous articles that year advising workers to pressure their workplace representatives into fighting the reorganisation of production. If, as the Petrolchimico dispute of August made clear, even these bodies were not immune to the corrupting influence of reformism (POv-e 1967g: 4), this was not cause for undue despair: what mattered most was not so much the organisational form assumed by workers' struggles as their content. Counselling workers to use 'the wage thematic' belatedly discovered by the unions, the issue of Potere Operaio for July 1967 looked forward to an imminent political struggle within the workplace, one which placed 'everything in discussion: staffing levels, hours, overtime, holidays' (POv-e 1967e: 4).

In Porto Marghera, the opportunity for this 'guerrilla warfare in the factory', as Potere Operaio was to call it in late 1967 (POv-e 1967i: 2), appeared the following summer when production bonuses came up for negotiation. The chemical contract made provision for marginal percentile adjustments, varying from category to category, but the local workerists struck upon the demand of a flat 5000 lire increase for all: an objective both egalitarian and, they felt, one which most workers would deem 'worth fighting for' (POv-e 1968a: 16). It proved to be a shrewd move, with the popularity of the idea forcing the CGIL once again to take up demands advanced by the group. Opening in late June, the dispute saw a dozen stoppages before its climax, in early August, with a demonstration in which thousands of chemical workers converged upon the neighbouring town of Mestre, effectively isolating it from the rest of the Veneto (ibid.: 39). From the beginning of the conflict the question of leadership was hotly disputed. After workers involved in discussions with MS militants were threatened with expulsion by the union bureaucracy, the site of decision-making shifted firmly to the mass meetings (ibid.: 26-9). The strikers' tactics throughout were aggressive, with stoppages on alternate days designed to disrupt production, and mass picketing to intimidate those still prepared to work. The biggest card, however, would be played on 29 July, when strikers threatened to reduce the size of the skeleton staff traditionally left to oversee the plant, prompting a lockout (ibid.: 37-8; Tarrow 1989: 169). This object lesson in the vulnerability of continuous flow processes, along with the effectiveness of rank-and-file organisation, did much for the prestige of POv-e at the plant. Yet the group still found itself pitifully weak outside the workplace, and powerless to prevent a final agreement between management and unions enshrining percentile increases by category. The dispute also shattered once and for all any ambiguity about 'using' the union. If it was 'stupid to talk of "betrayal"', as POv-e argued a few months later, that was because the CGIL, no less than the other union confederations, had become a tool of capital. Henceforth, workers would truly be thrown upon their own resources in fighting the employers and state (POv-e 1968a: 42, 46; 1968g: 1; 1968h: 3).