Italy: Drama over metal mechanics’ national agreement

Deal finally signed after 13 months of negotiation and 60 hours’ of strike action.

The three main unions in Italy’s engineering industry – Fim, Fiom and Uilm – have gone back to signing a national agreement together after a gap of more than six years. This is an important step forward and an indication of the pressure exerted from below in the major factories across the country. Fiom is the organisation of the metal mechanics which is affiliated to the biggest trade union federation, the Cgil. It is known for its militancy and has been to the fore in the industrial and political battles of the last four and a half years of right-wing government under Silvio Berlusconi. Fim and Uilm are affiliated to the notoriously moderate federations of Cisl and Uil respectively, whose leaders have, in recent years, come to separate deals with the bosses. This was in line with their separate agreement with the so-called ‘Pact for Italy’ (known as the ‘Evil Pact’ by most workers) with Berlusconi – the man who has pushed for laws which are harshly punitive against workers.

Raffaele Bonanni, the leader of CISL, after a deal over telecomms, opened the way to trading wages for flexibility. But on December 15, faced with the refusal of the Federmeccanica (engineering employers) to go beyond a €60 increase, Giorgio Caprioli, the secretary of Fim, had to conclude that: “The possibility of negotiating is exhausted…Reopening the negotiations depends on the ability of Fim, Fiom e Uilm to put forward a common claim.”

Nevertheless, the Fim leaders did not hide the efforts they were making to provide the employers’ federation with a way of getting the workers to accept a lower offer than the demands they had agreed. Fiom stood firm.

At the end of December last year, Federmeccanica put forward an offer of between €60 and €76 a month for the different grades and the monetarisation of leave – their latest move in the direction of flexibility. On this basis, Fim and Uilm as well as Fiom and had no alternative but to abandon the talks and declare eight hours of strike action for January.

Mobilisation gets results

The mass mobilisation of workers in these days of action was extremely effective. The mobilisation was unprecedented, including widespread blockades of motorways and railway stations. The 8-hour national strike of 16 January saw many workers extending the action over a second day. Strikes and demonstrations closed the factories; blockades and marches were organised. In the capital of Lombardy, workers carried their protest to the headquarters of Assolombarda – the largest industrial business association in Italy. In Bologna the demonstration converged on the central station and took it over.

Demonstrations and blockades also took place in the industrial zones of the Turin region, in Gallarate (Varese), Monza, Rovereto (Trento), in Veneto (Verona e Treviso), at Pontedera and Ancona, Jesi e Fabriano (Pesaro), Chieti (Vasto e Lanciano), Foggia, Naples (Pomigliano) e Palermo, Sicily. In the province of Florence nine blockades were organised in as many industrial zones.

The turn-out for strikes even on the day after the main action was still extremely high, shutting down production for four hours on every shift. In Brindisi, the workers of Agusta Westland struck work for two hours and organised a procession around the inside of the factory. A similar two hours at Fiat, Termini Imerese. There was a 100% strike of engineers employed by the contractors working on the Petrochemical site of Gela (Syracuse). At Castellammare di Stabia, there was a two hour strike in the engineering works. Also successfully out again were the workers of Alenia Aeronautica of Pomigliano and Arco, those of Magnaghi in Naples and Morbidelli Scm in Pesaro. At Terni, from 10 til 12 all the engineering workshops on the territory stopped and there were blockades in front of the factory buildings. From 12 til 2 pm, workers from Thyssen Krupp went on strike along with those in the sub-contracting firms operating on the same site.

A direct effect of the action was a specially convened meeting of the employers’ federation (Confindustria) which ordered an immediate resumption of the negotiations. The final agreement was arrived at after a marathon session in the offices of the bosses’ association (Confindustria) starting on the Wednesday afternoon and lasting until dawn the next day. A mutual agreement had been reached on the issue of hours and other arrangements, but it took all night to find agreement on the issue of wages. Just one euro divided the bosses and the unions. A ‘last offer’ of a wage increase of €99 was put forward late in the evening, together with a six month extension of the contract and either a one-off payment of €320 for all or an increase of €130 for workers on the minimum wage. Eventually, by morning, the metal mechanics had wrung out of the Engineering Federation the rise of €100 gross in the monthly wage packet, without forfeiting their other demands on a lump-sum payment and the minimum wage.

The firmness of the workers’ representatives paid off in the end. The ‘yes’ from both sides was reached after more than a year’s delay since the last contract ran out and after a total of more than 60 hours’ strike action taken by the engineering workers across Italy.

The national secretary of Fiom-Cgil, Giorgio Cremaschi (also a member of the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC)), commenting on the eventual agreement declared: “Reaching a settlement on the contract has been difficult. It is the result of a long dispute and a very hard struggle. But the fact that the metal mechanics have won the re-establishment of the national contract is very positive… There are aspects over which we have compromised and will have to pay a price. (The shorter period of apprenticeship had not been won, for example). But this is compensated for by the fact that we have reached the €100 per month figure”. The defence of the role of the Rsu (the workers’ committee) in organising working hours had also been an important achievement.

The Fiom-Cgil secretary, Gianni Rinaldini expressed satisfaction with having pushed back some of the demands of the Federmeccanica, like those aimed at reducing annual leave and bringing in flexible work patterns without reference to the workers’ committees. “Our evaluation is positive, even though we still have to see the final text. Then we have to wait for the workers to express their opinions in the ballot.”

What is the perspective?

After a year of strikes and demonstrations, a trade-off between wages and flexibility is not acceptable. A break must be made from allowing the wages issue to be lumped in with the job situation, apprenticeships, flexible working and hours.

Every day the facts demonstrate the need for a unified struggle of all wage workers. Faced with the bosses’ attempts to do away with the role of the national contract and of the Rsu, it is necessary to re-launch and intensify a struggle to the end on the part of workers (regardless of what the union bureaucracies decide). Only in this way can we deal with the arrogance of the bosses.

A unifying platform is needed that renews the demands for:-

  • a substantial wage increase, equal for all
  • the hiring on permanent contracts of young workers at present on temporary contracts
  • the opening of the companies’ accounts to inspection by workers’ elected representatives
  • nationalisation under workers’ control of any factories making redundancies or closing

We must build a working class and socialist answer to capitalist crisis starting with immediate and transitional demands. The task of carrying on this debate in the Cgil, at present preparing for its congress, and in the ‘unions of the base’, falls on the communist activists. The battle of the metalmechanics in defence of the national agreement has, in essence, become the forward trench of the whole class in defence of national contracts and of its interests in general. The other side of this trench stands the programme of Confindustria and of a future government of capitalist parties.

In the months leading up to the general election, all those engaged in industrial battles and who want to see the end of anti-working class policies, should demand of the left and communist organisations a principled struggle against neo-liberalism and capitalism and for a government of workers to end the dictatorship of the bosses and their political representatives.

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February 2006