Italy: Metalworkers resist FIAT blackmail

Struggle at Pomigliano brings out need for workers’ party

Following the big waves of immigration from the south of Italy to Turin in search of work in the 1950s and 1960s, FIAT Cars – the biggest private company in Italy – realised that it would be profitable to set up its own factories directly in the south. Pomigliano d’Arco, near Naples, was one of a series of plants, the last being Melfi in the 1990s, which in an historic agreement meant that the Turin-based company could take advantage of the southern labour force.

When the company then moved production to Eastern Europe and South America it was in search of cheap labour and new markets for its cars. In fact, FIAT plants have existed in Poland since the 1920s, but it was in the last years of ‘real socialism’ that the Agnellis (the owners of FIAT) began to work with the ‘communist’ government to mass produce cars.

For a period it seemed that the powerful Agnelli family was about to hive off its car production in order to invest in more profitable sectors (the energy sector, for example). But with the arrival of Sergio Marchionne as chief executive in 2004 came the message that the auto sector would remain the group’s core business. The partnership agreement with Chrysler last year was presented as clear proof of that.

During the failed talks with Opel, rumours abounded that two Italian plants were going to close, but Marchionne guaranteed that the company would continue to invest in Italy too. The announcement that production of the Panda car was to be transferred from Poland to Pomigliano, with 700 million euros worth of investment, seemed to underline this promise and partially compensate for the announced closure of another factory in the south, Termini Imerese (Sicily).

A few years ago, Marchionne was presenting himself in the media as a manager prepared to go against the stream, determined to save jobs and even praised by Fausto Bertinotti (former leader of Rifondazione Comunista) saying “We need a Marchionne in Italian politics”. Now, Marchionne is demanding a heavy price in exchange for investing in Pomigliano: not only increased exploitation (18 weekly shifts, a reduction in breaks, compulsory overtime), but challenging the most elementary democratic rights that Italian workers have won since the 1960s. FIAT is demanding significant restrictions on the right to strike, with the possibility of fines for unions which do not comply with these conditions and even sacking workers who take strike action. In addition, it will be possible to not pay sick pay to all workers if the level of ‘absenteeism’ goes above a certain threshold.

Industrial blackmail

Marchionne went into negotiations clearly saying that there was no room for changes to the proposals: either the trade unions signed up to them or there would be no investment, the Panda would stay in Poland and around 10,000 workers directly and indirectly employed by FIAT would lose their jobs. All the unions criticised the company’s stance but, once more, only the FIOM (metalworking section of the CGIL union) was prepared to fight. It said it was prepared to negotiate on shift changes and how work was organised in the factory (putting forward counter-proposals) but that as far as union rights are concerned, national laws and contracts must be respected. And so, when the other unions signed the ‘umpteenth’ separate agreement with management and, together with the company, launched a referendum amongst the workers, FIOM, which has the most members in the factory, announced that it would not take part. They said that the workers would be voting with a gun held to their heads and that constitutional rights of workers cannot be subject to a referendum. (The Italian constitution recognises an individual’s right to strike). However, because workers were facing so much pressure from management, FIOM decided not to boycott the referendum.

The national CGIL leadership took an ambiguous position. On the one hand they did not dare to directly oppose the FIOM, but on the other, the federation’s general secretary, Epifani, said that the FIOM should have consulted with the CGIL leadership before taking a decision, that the referendum was a democratic fact and that the workers would overwhelmingly vote ‘yes’.

Just before the vote, one TV journalist speculated that if the ‘yes’ vote was higher than 85% (which nearly everyone was expecting) the FIOM would be defeated. But in the end only 62% of the workers voted in favour of the agreement in the referendum.

What happened at Pomigliano shows that the idea that, when workers are confronted with a stronger adversary they must accept everything because they are ‘weak’, is just an excuse to mask the union leaders’ own complicity and subordination. In recent years, the FIOM has built up its own identity and strength as a consequence of its ability to clearly say ‘no’, when to have said ‘yes’ would have meant not defending its own members. At Pomigliano, FIOM represents 17% of the workforce, but 36% said ‘no’ to Marchionne in the referendum.

About a week before, when the discussions over Pomigliano were underway, elections took place for union representatives in the Melfi FIAT plant. Here the numbers were also clear: the ‘extremists’ of the FIOM once again became the main union in the factory increasing their votes from 950 in 2007 to 1,377, while the votes for the unions prepared to collaborate with the employers fell ( FIM CISL from 951 to 866, UILM UIL from 1,376 to 1,357 and FISMIC from 803 to 598).

Workers’ political representation

“Where is the political ‘home’? The problem is that today workers don’t vote for the Left anymore because they can’t find any political representation there. The political parties should be saying that what is being fought over at Pomigliano is of much wider interest. That was how things were once”. These seem like phrases from a ControCorrente leaflet. Instead, they are from Maurizio Landini, leader of the FIOM. The fact that he is forcefully raising the question of workers’ political representation is confirmation of the correctness of our campaign for a workers’ party which was launched at the CGIL congress at Rimini in May this year. And this discussion has broadened out.

“Unfortunately in Italy there is a shadow hanging over workers: politics is only concerned with consumers, not producers” (Cofferati, former leader CGIL). These and other similar comments about the weakness of the centre left, indicate which way the wind is blowing. Today, building a Workers’ Left in Italy is not just a ControCorrente dream, it is a possibility that is sinking roots in reality and is being discussed.

On the self-styled Left there has been no ‘strategic’ reflection about events at Pomigliano. Waking up from their hibernation, the left leaders have written resounding declarations against FIAT and hurried down to the factory gates. But as usual, they have done it in an impromptu way: something to get done before they dive back into their favourite occupation – to find a way to return to the ‘corridors of power’. So what if most of their trade union members supported the attempts of Epifani to isolate the FIOM at the CGIL congress? What’s the problem if Nichola Nicolosi, newly elected national secretary of the CGIL and member of Rifondazione Comunista hasn’t said a word about Pomigliano? And why worry if Nichi Vendola (ex Rifondazione) has expressed his lyrical solidarity with the FIOM, and on the day they said no to Marchionne, Emma Marcegalia – head of the bosses’ organisation, Confindustria – defines him as “the best regional governor in the south” and one that her factories in the region are extremely happy with? The important thing they all feel passionately about is that they get themselves back into parliament. So that they can put the workers’ case there…of course!

Political vacuum

In Italy (as elsewhere) there is no real alternative to those who want not only to make workers pay for the crisis but to use it to reshape the relationship of social forces against them. There is no political representation for workers and this is therefore the terrain on which we have to act. The FIOM is inevitably taking on a surrogate role in this respect because it is seen as the only left force both in the trade union field and the political field.

During the ‘symbolic’ general strike which the CGIL called in June, many workers from different sectors marched in the metalworkers’ contingent asking, “Can I join the FIOM?” But the FIOM cannot be left on its own to fill the vacuum.

The angry response of Marchionne, with the sacking of FIOM representatives at two other factories, only confirms the sympathy of workers and the left for the courageous stand that Landini and his people have taken. He has also announced that another 20 workers will lose their jobs because of ‘anomalous sickness’. In Genova, 19 FIOM members, including members of ControCorrente, are under investigation for damaging a metal barrier during an occupation at the Fincantieri shipyard last December.

Today, not just the FIOM but the whole trade union movement needs a political ‘home’, a possible point of reference. This is also true of the anti-capitalist struggles, the anti-Berlusconi intellectuals and the millions of young people who would struggle to change the world if only they were not so disgusted by ‘politics’.

It will not be Bertinotti or the current ‘left’ leaders who will take on this role. The experiences of other countries have shown that the trade unions that can take the initiative. It is to the working class that the anti-capitalist Left in Italy must turn.

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