Italy - behind the FIAT's attacks on workers, an offensive against the whole working class

Apr/Jun 2011

Throughout the industrialised countries, the capitalists' attacks against the working class all share the same objective - to force the working class to foot the bill of the crisis.

Likewise, the policies of union machineries across these countries share similar features. They have all been making the choice of underwriting attacks in the name of some sort of "constructive partnership" which is supposed to underpin the alleged "common interests" of workers and employers in the present crisis.

However, not only does this, at best, disorganise working class attempts to fight back and at worst, completely disarm workers, but in so doing, the union leaders are sawing off the "partnership branch" to which they cling so eagerly.

This point is illustrated by the following article, translated from the monthly published by our French comrades of Lutte Ouvrière (Lutte de Classe #134, March 2011), which describes the recent bosses' offensive at the FIAT car plants in Italy.

The rules and regulations which have been operating so far at company level in Italy, are being changed, and even totally dismantled, with a disconcerting ease. Over the past year, yet another pension "reform" was introduced, the provisions of collective agreements in the civil service were suspended, the metal industry's collective agreement was cancelled and the rules covering collective bargaining were changed. However, these latter changes have already been overtaken by events on the ground, following developments in two FIAT factories - at Pomigliano d'Arco, near Naples in southern Italy, and at Turin-Mirafiori, in the north of the country.

At Turin-Mirafiori, these developments took the form of a poisoned "gift" offered by FIAT CEO Sergio Marchionne, on the eve of Xmas 2010, which led Raffaele Bonanni, CISL general secretary (the Christian trade-union confederation and the 2nd largest in Italy), to make the following grotesque comment in an interview published on 28 December by the daily paper, La Stampa: "We should consider ourselves lucky that they won't ask me to agree to a wage cut. For Bonanni, therefore, this is only a question of "luck". For him (he is in the habit of agreeing to everything - or rather, to get workers to agree to everything), it goes without saying that he would be prepared to sign up to anything the bosses might demand. And if, out of sheer "luck", he does not have to agree to a wage cut for now, this may well happen at a later point.

From Pomigliano to Mirafiori

In the meantime, within less than a week, the CISL had capitulated to company demands at Mirafiori and signed a new collective agreement at Pomigliano - which it did both jointly with the union confederations UIL (an anti-communist union confederation formed in 1945), UGL (a union confederation originally linked to the far-right Italian Social Movement) and the company union FISMIC (a FIAT-based neo-fascist union). The only opposition came from FIOM (the Metalworkers' Federation of the CGIL, the largest trade-union confederation, linked to the different offshoots of the old Italian Communist party) and from the "COBAS" (local left splits of the CGIL, generally dating back to the 1980s).

To prepare the ground for these deals, FIAT had to withdraw from the bosses' organisation Cofindustria (Italian equivalent of the CBI), in order not to be tied by the agreements made by this organisation. To this end, FIAT created what it called a "new company" ("newCo" as it is called by the Italian media), which does not recognise the metal industry's collective agreement, nor the agreement signed in 1994 with all union confederations regarding union representation. In order to retain their jobs, workers in the two factories will have to sign an individual work contract with this "newCo". In other words, this "deal" was dictated by Marchionne from start to finish and imposed on workers unilaterally.

Another consequence of these changes is that, from now on, there will be only one level of bargaining - at company level. Moreover, in practice, only those trade-union organisations which have signed up to the "deal" will be recognised for bargaining purposes. This means that FIOM is now excluded from any discussion, regardless of the support it may have among workers. Labour minister Sacconi applauded this aspect of the "deal", stating enthusiastically: "For the first time, those who refuse to sign up to a deal will have to bear the consequences in their relationship with the employer (Corriere della sera, 24 December 2010).

The June 2010 deal, which subjected the Pomigliano plant to FIAT's diktats, had been presented at the time as an exceptional response to the exceptional level of unemployment in the Naples region. It is now clear that it had another aim: it was a pilot scheme, which was always intended to be extended to the other FIAT plants, and aimed at imposing profit levels as the only official criterion in defining workers' conditions.

The Pomigliano plant is now in the hands of the "newCo" set up by FIAT, called "Fabrica Italia Pomigliano", which is wholly owned by the FIAT group. The new collective agreement, now implemented, includes a 10-minute reduction in the length of breaks, a 30-minute meal break at the end of each shift and eighteen 6-hour shifts spread over six days. Anyone accused of taking an abnormal amount of sick leave by the commission in charge of monitoring absenteeism, will have his entire sick pay for that period docked by the company. The unions which signed up to this deal also signed up to renouncing strike action. Anyone taking part in industrial action is automatically in breach of company discipline - thereby making a mockery of the right to strike (which, on paper, is a constitutional right in Italy). As always, the capitalists only respect workers' rights when they are backed up by the right relationship of forces.

At the Mirafiori plant, the setting up of the "newCo" will allow FIAT to impose four different kinds of shifts - including nights and 6-day/week working - which will be up to 10-hour long. Breaks will also be cut by 10 minutes and the end-of-shift 30-minute meal break will cease to be considered as working time after the planned joint-venture between FIAT and Chrysler is launched. The company will be able to force workers to work 120h overtime per year without the unions' agreement (as opposed to the present 40h) and to slap on top of this another 40h for which it will need to get the unions' agreement - which FIAT can take for granted. Should absenteeism increase beyond 4% of the total hours worked, a joint management-union commission will have the power to decide the docking of the first and second days of sick pay for all workers.

Since this new agreement is not made within the framework of the Cofindustria, it does not allow workers to elect their reps in the plant. The unions which signed up to the deal will be able to appoint their representatives in the plant - but without organising any election. They have committed themselves not to organise industrial action during overtime. Should they break this commitment, their punishment may include the cancellation of all facility time for their representatives and the suspension of the check off system (the system whereby union dues are taken directly out of the members' pay cheque). As to striking workers, they will face the sack.

The Mirafiori agreement was put to a ballot on 14 January. Boss Marchionne insisted that a "yes" vote was a prerequisite for FIAT to go ahead with its planned £17.5bn investment in its Italian plants. However the agreement include no real commitment - only vague promises. When queried on this issue, Marchionne replied with all due arrogance that this was FIAT's money and the way it was used was FIAT's own business. There is no guarantee that in five or six years from now, if things turn ugly or if shareholders set their eyes on some other profitable plan, the workers won't be expected to foot the bill.

Giulano Cazzola, vice-president of the Labour Commission and an MP for Berlusconi's party (although, for years, he was a full-timer for the CGIL) explained the meaning of the Mirafiori agreement as follows: "The innovative aspect of this agreement is that, from now on, every company will have every possibility to bargain directly with its natural partners on the basis of the working conditions which it considers indispensable to maintain its competitiveness and to guarantee the amortisation of its investment. Collective bargaining recovers its true meaning - that of an agreed exchange, instead of consisting in forced concessions which amount to a sort of welfare, independently from the results and the quality of the work done. Thanks FIAT (Il Riformista, 24 December 2010)

To describe the work contract as "sort of welfare", is an arrogant way of ignoring the constant degradation of working conditions over the past years, the low wages (among the lowest among all OECD countries), the endless string of accidents and growing numbers of deaths on the job. According to this charlatan, from now on, it should be possible to impose anything on workers. Some already say that the clock is being turned back to the 1950s, if not further back.

All parliamentary parties - from the ruling majority to the so-called opposition - hailed FIAT's move. As to the main representatives of the Democratic Party (PD), the heir of the Italian Communist Party, which used to claim to represent workers, they said that they would have cast a "yes" vote in the Mirafiori ballot.

The Mirafiori workers' say "No"

In the end, however, the ballot did not go quite as predicted. On the Mirafiori assembly lines, where Marchionne's diktats would have had the worst consequences, workers voted against the deal, with 1,577 casting a "No" vote (53.25%), against 1,385 in favour (46.8%). Among manual workers as a whole, the deal won a majority of only 9 votes! It was only among middle management and the small number of white-collar workers that the deal won a clear-cut support - 420 "Yes" as opposed to 20 "No".

In other words, the deal was primarily supported by those who felt they would be better off as a result - especially those who will be enforcing its provisions against workers. But the outcome of the ballot also showed that, despite having been told for months that they would gain by endorsing a degradation of their conditions, workers did not welcome the prospect of having to bend over backwards in order to retain their jobs, let alone having to show their gratitude to the company for giving them a job!

Yet workers had been subjected to heavy blackmail. This so-called "deal" was never really a deal, in the sense that it only spelt out constraints for workers, while involving no concrete commitment on the part of the company - in particular, the amount or time-table for potential investment. The only "gain" that the unions which had signed up to it could claim, was to have unquestionably won the title of "blue-eyed unions". But, at the same time, Marchionne had been repeating up to the last minute that if the "No" vote prevailed, he would shift investment to Canada, Brazil or wherever else, and that the Turin plant would be closed down. Workers were supposed to take it or leave it - i.e. capitulate unconditionally. And while they were subjected to this blackmail, they were being targeted by the capitalist media, which accused them of clinging to the "comfort" and "luxury" of the previous century and pointed to their "laziness" and their unwillingness to work hard enough to achieve the productivity, not only of the Chinese workforce, but even of the French or German workers - in short portraying them as being stuck in the past and incapable of adjusting to progress!

According to leading capitalist commentators, progress is supposed to mean that workers should give up what little protection and guarantees they have managed to gain so far, for the sole purpose of preserving the profits of a privileged minority. This absurdity, which is presented as a universal, unquestionable truth, is backed up by a bewildering variety of nonsensical arguments, produced by the whole spectrum of parliamentary political parties. But their most determined proponents are former CGIL trade-unionists who have crossed over to the right (like Giuliano Cazzola and Labour minister, Sacconi) and, even more so, the neo-liberals of the Democratic Party. For instance, the latter have been exhorting workers "who have always been opposed to change (in the words of Turin's PD mayor, Sergio Chiamparino) to understand that "although the right to work less hard was won in the past, it is a right that Italy can no longer afford. We must understand this. And this does not apply only to Mirafiori, but to everyone of us (statement by PD senator, Nicola Rossi). Here, of course, the "we" is merely a euphemism, which does not concern the likes of Rossi, but only the Italian working class. Such language is strikingly similar to Marchionne's, saying: "Italy cannot afford to pretend to advantages which are no longer proportionate to its position as a country.

Despite all this, many workers at Mirafiori had the courage to resist this blackmail by saying "No" in the ballot, just as many Pomigliano workers had already done last June. It should be added that many of the workers who cast a "Yes" vote had no illusions in Marchionne's plans, stating openly that they were only endorsing the deal under pressure, as a result of the company's blackmail over jobs.

An attack against the entire working class

The capitulation imposed by Marchionne was endorsed by the main union confederations, with the exception of FIOM, the metal workers' federation of the CGIL. Not that FIOM was hostile in principle to signing up to deals involving concessions to the bosses' demands, something it has done time and again over its long existence as a union. However, for fear of losing its credit among workers, FIOM would have demanded some concessions in return and possibly called on workers to strengthen its hand at the bargaining table by taking industrial action, even if in a limited form. But this is precisely the sort of thing that Marchionne and the FIAT management no longer want to tolerate. By imposing a "take it or leave it" deal, they were also aiming at sidelining FIOM, whom they knew would refuse to sign up to it under such conditions. As a result, FIOM will no longer be recognised by the company, nor represented, nor will the small COBAS, which adopted the same policy.

In addition to being an attack against FIOM, this is obviously an attack on the rights of all FIAT workers. According to this agreement, workers hired by the "NewCo" will no longer benefit from the rights still enjoyed by the rest of the Italian working class, in terms of industrial action, union representation, working time and working conditions.

Beyond FIAT, this attack is aimed at the entire working class in so far as both the government and the bosses are monitoring with great interest what they call the "FIAT experiment". If this deal is successfully implemented in the country's largest metal industry company, it will be used as a stepping stone to implementing it everywhere. Many workers understand this. So does FIOM general secretary, Maurizio Landini, who declared that such an attack called for a response from all workers and turned to his confederation, CGIL, demanding that it call a general strike. However, the CGIL has not seemed too bothered so far.

On the contrary, CGIL secretary, Susanna Camusso, pretended that she did not notice the political significance of Marchionne's offensive. Her only problem seemed to be that the CGIL metal workers' federation was set to be derecognised at the Mirafiori plant. Her position was, therefore, that FIOM should give its "technical backing" to the deal. So, having opposed the deal and called on workers to reject it, FIOM was now meant to endorse it on "technical" grounds, in order to have the right to appoint representatives like the other unions? This amounted to the CGIL recommending that FIOM should capitulate to the company like everybody else!

Landini replied, with good reason, that there could not be such a thing as a "technical backing" for the deal. Signing up to the deal would have implied that FIOM agreed with it - if it did not, it could not possibly sign up to it. But this obvious reasoning was still not good enough for the CGIL leadership and FIOM was left to its own devices, to call a national 24h strike confined to the metal industries, on January 28th. Having done this, Landini declared that FIOM was not giving up and that it would carry on organising various forms of action and demanding that the CGIL calls a general strike.

The issue is obviously a serious one, not just for FIOM but for the whole Italian working class. The FIAT offensive is part and parcel of a series of concerted attacks against workers' rights which goes back a long way, even before the present Berlusconi government came to power, in 2008. In this process, the trade-union confederations and left parties, including those which were never in office, bear significant responsibility for the change in the balance of class forces at the expense of the working class.

A long series of setbacks

It was around the turn from the 1960s to the 1970s that this balance of forces was most favourable, especially due to the struggles of the "Hot Autumn" of 1969. But it did not take long for the capitalists to launch a counter-offensive. In this process, the "historical compromise" policy promoted by the Italian Communist Party from 1973 onwards, played a major role in strengthening the hand of the capitalist class. Being determined to prove itself as a "responsible" party of government, the CP overtly supported the austerity policies introduced by the governments of the time. The union confederations adopted the same orientation, not only by striving to defuse industrial disputes, but also by arguing for the need for workers to agree to sacrifices in order to protect jobs. Against the backdrop of a worsening economic crisis, union policy was the main factor in the weakening of the working class's ability to fight back, while diverting its aspirations towards the electoral objectives of the left parties.

It was under Bettino Craxi's socialist party government, in 1984, that the first major blow was dealt to the system of a sliding-scale of wages (whereby wages were automatically increased by at least the equivalent of the inflation rate). The index used to measure inflation was artificially reduced. However, instead of proposing a fight back to angry workers, the union leaders backed the organisation of a referendum over this reform, which amounted to asking the better off, the petty bourgeoisie, etc.. to endorse a cut in workers' real wages, and which predictably resulted in a government victory.

It was Bruno Trentin, CGIL general secretary, who, on 31 July 1992, signed an agreement which was the final death knell of the sliding-scale system. He had to pay for this endorsement by being bombarded with tomatoes and even bolts, during the strike days which took place in September that year. But Trentin was unmoved, declaring to journalists that being insulted in this way by workers was, in a way, part of his job as trade-union leader.

By the end of 1994, the first Berlusconi government's attack against the pension system triggered a powerful response from the working class, resulting in Berlusconi's downfall due to the defection of one of his allies, the Northern League. But within just a few weeks, the new government formed by Lamberto Dini (Berlusconi's former finance minister), won the support of the PDS (Democratic Party of the Left, the new incarnation of the CP) and the union machineries. Thanks to this support, Dini was able to get through the very same reform which had caused Berlusconi's downfall!

In 1996, the victory of a left-wing coalition resulted in the formation of the first government led by Romano Prodi, a former Christian-Democrat - and today president of the European Commission. Immediately, Prodi undertook the implementation of a drastic austerity policy designed to ensure that Italy would respect the Maastrich criteria for joining the euro-zone. He also got through the so-called "Treu package", named after his Labour minister, which facilitated the use of casual workers by companies through the introduction of new kinds of employment contracts.

It was only in 2002, following the defeat of the left-wing parties in the previous year's general election and the setting up of a second Berlusconi government (which was to be followed by a third one), that the CGIL, then under the leadership of Cofferati, finally considered proposing some sort of general response from the working class. This took the form of a series of days of action, involving strikes and demonstrations, in the name of defending "article 18" of the employment law. This article which, in theory at least, made it illegal for companies to sack workers without "justifiable cause", was being put into question by the bosses and government. Support for these days of action was impressive, but this spell of militancy by the CGIL did not go any further. It was no coincidence that Cofferati confined its scope to the issue of "article 18", instead of proposing a fight over the more general - and decisive - issue of casual employment.

This failure allowed the bosses, over the subsequent years, to do quite well without any need to raise the issue of "article 18" again, quite simply because this legislation only covered permanent workers. Whereas, ever since the introduction of the "Treu package", they could resort to a whole range of casual employment contracts in order to by-pass "article 18". Without modifying "article 18", this second Berlusconi government was able to expand the casualisation of labour even further by passing the so-called "law 30", in 2003, which provided for yet more kinds of casual employment contracts, new ways for bosses to "hire" labour and, more generally, the possibility to employ de facto permanent workers who could not claim the legal protection normally associated with permanent employment.

Then came the second "centre-left" Prodi government, following Berlusconi's electoral setback in 2006. Although it lasted less than 2 years, this government still managed to pass yet another pension "reform", which increased retirement age and reduced pensions, with the backing of all trade-union confederations, including the CGIL. Predictably, therefore, the election following the fall of Prodi's government reflected its discredit among its own electorate, leading to the return of a reinforced right-wing coalition, more arrogant than ever, behind a 4th Berlusconi government.

It should be added that this series of attacks was compounded over the years, by the slow, but increasing weakening of the struggles linked to the annual renegotiation of industry-wide collective agreements, which, in Italy, are traditional landmarks in the class struggle. These struggles were more and more constrained by the unions confederations to what bosses demanded or were prepared to tolerate, resulting in particular, in wage increases which fell increasingly behind inflation and in the introduction of flexible working hours.

Workers disarmed by the policy of their organisations

By failing to put forward in front of the working class the perspective of a real fight back, despite the many indications that it would have been ready for it, the union confederations have, therefore, presided over - whether actively or passively, makes no difference - this long series of setbacks which have increasingly tilted the balance of class forces to the advantage of the capitalists. Added to this is the political role in this evolution played by the left-wing parties, in particular the former Communist Party. Having given up its "communist" name in 1990, when it became the PDS, this party changed its name to DS (Left Democrats) before eventually forming the PD (Democratic Party) by merging with ex-Christian-Democrats and other elements from various small centre parties. The ex-leaders of the former Communist Party embarked on a competition to explain how, in their view, communism had been a "dangerous utopia" and why the only true values were those of the markets and bourgeois democracy as exemplified... by the USA!

In other words, while the unions registered the successive setbacks experienced by the working class, the offshoots of the former Stalinist party took upon themselves the tasks of disarming workers politically and ideologically. It should be added that, in addition to the PDS turned DS and then PD, the other offshoots of the old Communist Party, such as the PRC (Party for Communist Refoundation or Rifondazione Comunista) or the PDCI (Party of Italian Communists) proved incapable of doing anything better than to provide an implicit - and sometimes explicit - endorsement to the centre-left governments and their attacks against the working class.

It was at this point that the financial crisis broke out in Autumn 2008. Like its counterparts across the rich countries, the Italian capitalist class proved determined to make the working class foot the bill for its crisis. In this respect, the circumstances were particularly favourable for the bosses, not so much because of the Berlusconi government than because the union confederations had no plans to organise any kind of fight back. Besides, the accumulation of past setbacks had created a certain demoralisation among workers, who had lost some of their past class reflexes and were sceptical towards any kind of collective response.

This situation allowed the wave of workplace closures which followed the crisis to take place without the union confederations proposing any form of response to the working class as a whole. It was also this situation which paved the way for the attacks of the past few months, as described above. It should also be added that, by now, "article 18" has virtually been buried, with the introduction of a new sacking procedure based on compulsory arbitration. Employers are now able to require from new permanent employees that they should opt out of the cover provided by "article 18" and agree in advance to this arbitration in case their employer wants to sack them. On paper, workers do not have to opt out, but it is not hard to figure out that failure to do it means they will not get the job!

In fact, in so far as they believe that they will face no real resistance, the bosses now consider that the time has come to push a whole number of attacks through, including the repeal of the 1970 employment legislation, the end of industry-wide collective agreements and other things such as, for instance, a return to the old system which allowed wages to be set at different levels in different regions.

The bosses also consider that they can now do more and more without any kind of bargaining with the unions. Even though (or because) union leaders have always been willing to lend a helping hand to attacks on workers, the bosses now tend to consider that bargaining is a waste of time and money. If they no longer fear a backlash from the working class, why should they pay an insurance premium against such a risk - which is really the purpose of bargaining?

These are the considerations which actually underpin Marchionne's offensive at FIAT, when he announces that from now on the company will no longer be tied by the existing system of collective agreements; that it will directly impose its own law on workers and that it will throw out the unions which will fail to comply with it. While the FIOM machinery is the first victim of this policy, the odds are that it will not be the last one. When Labour minister Cazzola says "Thank you FIAT", what he means is that FIAT is behaving like the vanguard of the capitalist class, by daring to throw out all the "red tape" of collective bargaining. Of course, between FIAT, the Cofindustria and the government, there is no difference of approach, but only a division of labour.

The only factor which does not feature in all these calculations is, of course, the possible response of the working class itself. Bringing the bosses' attacks to a halt depends entirely on its ability to mobilise its own forces and fight back. For far too long, the union machineries have got workers used to the idea that they should rely on union leaders to defend their material interests. Even in this period of social regression, the union machineries have given credit to the idea that by bargaining with the bosses, they could get, if not a better deal, at least a less bad one. But today, the bosses themselves are demonstrating that bargaining is a dead end. By paralysing the reactions of the working class, the union leaderships have not only permitted a series of setbacks, they have also paved the way for future attacks that the bosses will not even bother to get them to agree to.

FIOM and the "COBRAS" were the only unions to respond to Marchionne's and FIAT's offensive. It should be said, though, that FIOM only adopted this policy because its own survival was at stake. In fact, it was not even able to rally some of its leading cadres behind this policy - quite simply because, having been used, for such a long time, to operating as union bureaucrats cut off from the rank-and-file, they were far from convinced that the only alternative today is to fight. Even then, the main thrust of FIOM's policy remains the rallying of the support of the whole CGIL machinery. To date, it is far from being successful and it is hard to imagine how it could be successful without demonstrating its own determination to rely on the mobilisation and struggles of workers.

It should be said, however, that the days of demonstrations and strikes called by FIOM so far, have been well supported, and not only in the metal industries. They also found support among a section of the youth. This is an indication that, in view of the bosses' offensives, there is a growing understanding that the only way forward lies in a social response. Sooner or later, with or without FIOM, with or without the CGIL, under Berlusconi or any other prime minister, the reactions of the working class will have to play a decisive role in forcing the capitalists into retreat.