Florence’s GKN factory occupation longest in Italy’s history

Demonstration against closure of the GKN Driveline plant in Campi Bisenzio, Italy, on July 24, 2021. (Valentina Ceccatelli / Flickr)

Since 9 July 2021, a remarkable story of a working-class fightback has developed in Campi Bisenzio, on the industrial outskirts of Florence, Italy. On that day, the entire 500-strong workforce of GKN Driveline Firenze, a thriving state-of-the-art plant producing drive shafts for car manufacturers across Europe, was laid off with a single email.  The hurlers of this thunderbolt, destroying the livelihoods of several hundreds of workers’ families, were British owners, investment firm Melrose PLC, already engaged in the closure of the sister company, GKN Driveline Erdington (Birmingham, UK) – an operation brought to a conclusion in November 2021, resulting in 519 redundancies.

The apparently nonsensical decision to close point-blank a factory with the latest 4IR technology and a healthy order book should of course not cause any surprise.  The owners openly advertise they specialise in acquiring underperforming businesses, ‘improving’ them, and selling them on, with the end goal of returning the proceeds to their shareholders.

Nor should we be amazed by the brutal and illegal manner – intended to ‘stun’ workers into passive submission – in which the decision was carried out.  The case of GKN Firenze is simply one among numerous similar cases throughout Italy in recent years and of many hundreds more across Europe and the developed countries globally.

In the pursuit of maximum profit at whatever human cost, multinationals like Melrose improve the performance of their businesses through a variety of strategies.  In this instance, GKN management argued that as part of their drive to convert production entirely to the Electric Vehicle industry, they were compelled to ‘restructure’ operations and relocate the manufacture of components for the new industry to other sites in Italy and Europe.  This was, as GKN workers were quick to point out, despite the fact the drive shafts made in Campi Bisenzio were already perfectly compatible with electric vehicles, so why take their production elsewhere?

What Melrose really meant was that to ‘improve’ the performance of GKN Automotive (parent company of the Florence and Erdington plants) before selling it on, it found it expedient to scrap as many of its ‘redundant’ subsidiaries as practically possible.  This would boost the company’s profitability, and hence also the value of its shares on the London Stock Exchange.

   Workers’ response

On receiving their dismissal notices with immediate effect and orders to vacate the factory, the whole workforce of GKN Firenze refused to budge and began a sit-in that is still going on today. “This is our home, and nothing will force us to leave it!” exclaims an opening statement of their collective diary (‘Insorgiamo’, March 2022).  A state of ‘permanent assembly’ was declared with the goal of organising the workers’ fightback and preventing “even a single screw” from leaving the premises. “We are the latest addition to a long series of lay-offs, relocations, and acts of abuse,” continues the same statement angrily, “… we are adopting the slogan ‘Insorgiamo insieme!’, let’s all rise up together!”, it is then brought to a climax.

Leading the workers’ decision-making from the very start was GKN’s ‘factory collective’ (Collettivo di Fabbrica GKN) – a workers’ council existing informally alongside the official workplace trade union branch (FIOM-CGIL – the Italian federation of metalworkers).  Militant and close-knit, this factory-based organisation had in previous times successfully extracted its own bargaining agreement framework from the employers, and was historically more effective in obtaining concessions from them than their national union.

An appeal to the courts by FIOM was won, arguing that GKN had liquidated its business without due regard to normal procedures of trade union consultation and had therefore acted illegally.  Payment of salaries was resumed, but production was not.  Mistrusting the bosses’ next move and sensing their situation remained treacherously vulnerable, the GKN workers stayed put. There is a long list of other Italian factories previously put to a slow death in similar circumstances and this was enough to put them on their guard.

Melrose was indeed up to the despicable machinations characteristic of the capitalist class.  In February 2022, realising a swift and cost-efficient winding-up of the business involving the annulment of 500 contracts would be problematic by a legal route, they found a front man to buy GKN Firenze for the nominal sum of €1 and do the dirty work for them. Under exactly what agreement this was done is not known.

With great fanfare, the new owner, Francesco Borgomeo, announced he was taking on the factory with the determined intention of fully reindustrialising it in one form or another and went through the motions of publicly inviting innovative projects for this.  At the same time, he applied to put his new workforce on a government-funded furlough scheme (Cassa Integrazione) whilst QF (‘Quattro F’ – Borgomeo’s new name for GKN) was, he claimed, being ‘restructured’.  When this application still had not been accepted by September, he simply and quite illegally stopped paying out salaries – a situation that remains unchanged at the time of writing.

   Confronting the ‘enemies’

The period since Borgomeo’s takeover has been one characterised by the presence of sincerely wanting to preserve a working factory and 500 jobs and by repeated convocations of round-table meetings between QF management, government ministers, and local administrators. These are invariably scuppered either by Borgomeo’s failure to attend them or his failure to produce any concrete proposals.  Dario Salvetti, one of the union representatives at GKN and its foremost spokesperson in the dispute, has described dealing with Borgomeo as maddening and compared it to trying to play chess with a “hopping pigeon”!

The dirty truth of the matter has become apparent to even the most ingenious. Borgomeo – with Melrose in the background pulling the strings – is following a strategy of the slow kill, attempting every trick possible to wear down the workers psychologically and persuade them to take voluntary redundancy.  The workers compare themselves to the boiled frog of the well-known fable in which, to pre-empt the frog’s jumping in agony out of the pan of boiling water (its act of ‘protest’), the cook places it in water that is merely tepid to induce a placid doze, then slowly raises the heat!

However, it is not just the strategies of the capitalist bosses that are relevant for a full understanding of the enemy confronting the GKN workers.  All along the way in this dispute, the Italian government – first in the shape of banker Mario Draghi’s ‘technocratic’ coalition, then of Giorgia Meloni’s far-right alliance with Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini – has remained on the sidelines, unwilling to intervene.

The main agency for economic development and the promotion of Italian industry – the patriotically renamed ‘Ministry for Business and Made in Italy’ (MISE) – has watched the dispute develop to the point it has reached without any attempt to find a solution for GKN Firenze (now QF).  It has ignored completely calls for the government to nationalise the plant or at least enter a co-partnership with the private sector if only to help prevent the further hemorrhaging abroad of the ‘fatherland’s’ once flourishing automotive industry.

Nor have the next tiers of government with any real decision-making powers in the sphere of economic planning and development be any more proactive in coming to the rescue – Tuscany’s regional government and the municipality of Florence, both run by councils with center-left, Democratic Party (PD) majorities. For some months now, a fully articulated business project presented by the workers’ Collettivo itself – for the conversion of their site into an eco-friendly plant producing photovoltaic panels and cargo bike batteries, run as a worker-managed cooperative – has sat on regional and municipal councillors’ desks. It has been crying out for some sort of response but, scandalously, none has been forthcoming.

However unclear the proposals may be in detail, the reasons for this passivity on the part of the political bodies are of course not hard to guess in their general outline. They are powerless before the decisions of big capital, or rather they are in collusion with them, ever ready as capital is to take investment to other pastures. Word also has it that the huge shopping mall (I Gigli) that sits incongruously in the middle of an industrial wasteland in Campi Bisenzio opposite the former GKN factory’s gates, is waiting for residential high-rises to spring up around it. It is mind-boggling to see all of the ultimate beneficiaries of the loss of 500 jobs waiting in the wings.

   Impressive workers’ fightback

Only a day after their lay-off on 9 July 2021, the workers’ ‘Collettivo’ sent out an appeal for support to a whole network of trade union branches, campaign groups, and workers’ associations in the Florence area that it had developed over the years and with which it already had close ties of mutual solidarity.  A new campaign/solidarity group was set up with the slogan ‘Insorgiamo con i lavoratori GKN!’ (‘Rise up with the GKN workers!’) as its name.

On July 24, a rally of 8,000 protesters took place outside the factory’s gates.  By the third week in September, with Insorgiamo’s social media channels in full swing, the GKN affair had already achieved considerable national visibility, and a major demonstration was staged in Florence on Sunday 18th September.  A massive 40,000 protesters and activists attended from all over Italy, choking the streets of the small historic city.

Since then, the strategy of Insorgiamo has been focused on multiplying relationships of mutual solidarity that the GKN workers have always considered vital for survival in a world under constant attack by bosses.  It has joined hands in protesting not just with workers in other industrial disputes across Italy but also with local and national pressure groups of all kinds – anti-war, environmental, for jobs, and so on.

The driving objective has been to present a united ‘ideological’ front with these diverse groups in many nationwide rallies, linking together the issues of war, climate catastrophe, and layoffs and pointing a powerful finger of blame at the same enemy in each case – the rotten capitalist system.

On November 5, 2022, to give just one of many examples, Insorgiamo joined a mass demonstration in Naples together with ‘Fridays For the Future – Italia’, the ‘Fight for jobs’ campaign – ‘Movimento Di Lotta: Disoccupati’ and the campaign to renationalise Italy’s airline, Alitalia – ‘Tutti A Bordo: No Al Piano Ita’.

Thanks to a combination of factors – the Collettivo’s active leadership, the instant response of hundreds of activists, and the public’s inflammable mood after decades of austerity measures – the campaign’s promotion, including the publication of a collective diary that toured public meetings venues round Italy, was so effective it quickly gained considerable prominence in the press and national consciousness generally.

Since then, the vast bright red banner of ‘Insorgiamo’ has become a regular part of big demonstrations in Italy, and its logo, featuring a cog and four drive shafts, is now something of an icon. They have both acquired symbolic potency, signifying working-class revolt, solidarity with the oppressed, and resilience.

   Fighting for a future

But the army of left-wing activists, associations, and professionals – lawyers, academics, experts in sustainable technologies, and more – that has mobilised behind the GKN workers has not just had the effect of raising the public profile of the dispute.  It has increasingly become the material foundation upon which the fightback rests.

Almost two years of physical occupation of the factory and of sustained campaigning have involved running 24/7 shifts, canteen rotas, a non-stop schedule of official meetings, demos and PR commitments. All this would not have been possible without the support of the ‘people’ – the local community of Florence, the universities of the region of Tuscany (Pisa in particular), and the diverse movements for change around Italy.  Nor would the fighting fund have materialised and been substantial enough to keep the unpaid workers from being starved into voluntary redundancy. (See below for donations).

Furthermore, it has only been the unpaid contributions of a team of professionals, ideologically sympathetic to Collettivo’s vision of an environmentally sustainable factory under workers’ control and management, that have enabled the drawing up of the project that now sits provocatively waiting for official support, challenging politicians to prove the worth of their election promises for both the environment and employment.

Finally, the latest expression of the public’s participation in determining the fate of the GKN workers has been the launching of a crowd-funding campaign in two stages:  the first, ending on May 8, 2023, was to raise €75,000 for the start-up costs of the new company;  the second, starting this autumn if the project finally gains the backing of officialdom, is an equity crowd-funding project inviting investment in the new cooperative from the general public – https://insorgiamo.org/crowdfunding/

   Outcome?

What the outcome of the GKN dispute will be is still anybody’s guess, given the stalemate position the two sides seem to have been in since the start. On the one hand, are the bosses, whose determination to liquidate the factory has the tacit complicity of local and national governments. On the other, is a remaining core group of GKN workers (after many have thrown the towel in over the months), whose community-friendly industrial project and dispute over 500 illegal sackings have gained massive popular support across Italy.

In the middle is the passivity of Italy’s three major trade union confederations -CGIL, CISL, and UIL – who overall have failed to provide any substantial assistance.  And in the background, lastly, is a parliament led by a far-right coalition whose commitment to curtailing liberties as much as is necessary is already apparent. (For example, it has outlawed any unauthorised gathering of over 50 people, with the pretext of targeting rave parties specifically.)

Is there the specter – even the faintest for now – of brute force being used eventually to evict the workers?  Maybe not. Most would still argue Meloni’s ‘post-fascist’ government would not dare, given the case’s high public profile. But it cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, they might continue with a ‘sit-it out’ strategy in the hope that the workers will become exhausted and demoralised and give up the fight.

Victory

A victory for the GKN workers would be a victory not just for themselves but for workers and socialists everywhere.  It would be a beacon of light with the power to inspire others in similar circumstances to fight back with the same determination.  A pattern of revolt against arbitrary relocations of production and mass layoffs could thus be initiated.

Italy has not yet experienced the mass strike waves that have swept across Britain in the last months, raising workers’ awareness of the potential power they wield in fighting to change the rotten system we live in.  But it is possible that the GKN dispute, if in a quite different way and on a smaller scale, could play a similar role. If the workers win, it will massively boost Italian working people’s confidence and the feeling of their own power, helping convince them that the capitalist system can in fact be finished with.

Insorgiamo! Let’s rise up with the workers of GKN!

   The Socialist Party says:

  • Solidarity with the GKN workers!
  • Open all the companies’ books of account to inspection by workers’ elected representatives!
  • Fight for the GKN factory to be brought into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management!
  • Build a mass workers’ party in Italy to fight for an environmentally sustainable, socialist planned economy
  • For a socialist Europe and a socialist world!

For donations to the GKN workers’ fighting fund:

“Cassa di resistenza lavoratori GKN Firenze”:

IBAN:       IT 24 C 05018 02800 000017089491

Reference: “Donazione cassa di resistenza Gkn”

Address (if needed for bank transfer): Via Fratelli Cervi 1, Campi Bisenzio 50013

The GKN workers’ diary (available only in Italian):

‘Insorgiamo: Diario collettivo di una lotta operaia (e non solo)’.

Let’s Rise Up: The Collective Diary of a Workers’ Revolt (and more)

Collettivo di Fabbrica GKN, Edizioni Alegre (2022).

 

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