Italian workers’ remarkable resistance to murderous establishment policies

6 April 2020
Alexis Vassiley

Italy is a massacre. Patients who would normally be in intensive care are left in wards without the equipment or staff to treat them. Hospitals have run out of beds and doctors must triage patients, deciding whose life and whose death to prioritise. There are 5,000 intensive care beds. The ministry of health says that 2,500 more are needed to tackle the crisis. Nearly 3,000 medical workers have been infected – more than 8 percent of the country’s total cases. Daniela Trezzi, a 34-year-old intensive care nurse in Lombardy, tragically took her own life. Trezzi tested positive and feared that she had spread the virus to others.

While Italy is often reported to have a good health care system, its bed-to-population ratio is 3.6/1,000, down from 5.8/1,000 in 1998 and one of the lowest in the OECD. Seventy thousand beds have disappeared and €37 billion has been cut in recent years. Workplaces were shut down far too late – the horse had already bolted. There had been 4,000 deaths in Lombardy alone. Even then, “essential” industries were deemed to include things such as tyre production and arms manufacturing. Industries exempted from the government decree employ an estimated 12 million workers.

Crumbling hospitals, savage cuts to health over decades, lack of widespread testing and the bosses’ stubborn determination to keep production going has caused this human-made tragedy. Now, there are fears that the disease will spread to and overwhelm the south of the country, from its current epicentre in the much wealthier, industrialised north. The south has 4 million informal economy workers, including in factories run by organised crime, 50 percent youth unemployment and only 60 percent of families have an internet connection.

Workers have shown remarkable resistance in the face of the health and social crisis. According to Antonello Zecca of Sinistra Anticapitalista, a socialist group: “Workers spontaneously went on strike because they felt their lives should come before profit. Strikes were massive, like we had not seen for 10 years or so. The strikes were inspiring to us, because they marked the beginning of a new class consciousness. For the first time in years, workers perceived their interests as completely different from their bosses”.

The strikes pushed the government to take more measures to shut down non-essential production. Nationwide strikes on 25 March had two characteristics, according to Italian socialist Piero Maestri. “Firstly, a strike of a number of different industrial sectors: chemicals, air transport, metalworkers, organised by mainstream union federations CGIL-CISL-UIL”, he explains via email. “Secondly, a nationwide general strike called by Unione Sindacale di Base and other grassroots unions.” Health care workers also participated through solidarity photos and symbolic one-minute stoppages.

The strike was a response to a recent upsurge of strikes from below demanding that production cease. The spontaneous strikes spanned the length of the country, particularly in large workplaces such as FIAT-Chrysler factories, often stopping production under the slogan “Our lives are worth more than their profits!” According to Maestri, many people struck in private sector workplaces, and where the biggest industries remained open, despite the emergency measures.

Workers in the north have huge industrial power and a history of militancy. Workers in the industrial north drove bosses and union officials alike crazy in the 1960s and 1970s with wildcat strikes, mass meetings and a profound disrespect for management. The liberation from fascism was marked by an insurrectionary general strike in April 1945 in the northern industrial triangle: Milan, Turin and Genoa. In 1919, factory councils were formed by workers in Turin – named “Italy’s Petrograd” (the city in which the Russian revolution broke out) by the great revolutionary Antonio Gramsci. The following year, 500,000 metalworkers up and down the peninsula occupied factories for a month and continued production under workers under workers’ control.

The state of the Italian workers’ movement and (especially) the left today is a far cry from those heady days. Nonetheless, their industrial power remains significant and their determination to fight is encouraging. Eliana Como, from Italian metalworkers’ union FIOM, told German socialist magazine Marx21:

“The workers began to question the schizophrenic policies of the government: on the one hand, a government flooding you with invitations and obligations to stay at home. On the other, you are going to work every day as if it were nothing. But here, however, the unions made a mistake. As anger and fear grew, the union focused on an unrealistic claim, that of work in safe conditions.

“In many workplaces, especially in factories, this is impossible, there is no way to respect social distancing. And it was also unrealistic to think that protective equipment would arrive, which in the meantime was even missing for health care workers! In the current circumstances of lack of protective equipment, it is negligent to demand safe work instead of simply closing down factories.”

According to Como, focusing on demanding safe work, rather than the shutting down non-essential production, meant that precious time was lost. On 14 March, a safety protocol was signed between the union federations and the government. But this put only non-binding recommendations on companies and resulted in millions continuing to work. Nonetheless, even this inadequate protocol came about because of workers’ grassroots actions in the factories. For example, two days earlier, metalworkers across the north took wildcat strike action, with a very high participation rate at the companies MTM, IKK, Dierre and Trivium in Piedmont.

“It may seem strange, but it was after the signing of the protocol that anger and fear exploded”, Como continued. “A wave of strikes swept through the country. Not only where the workers were already strong and organised. They helped set an example, but even in less radical factories the workers stopped production. Also because when some large factories closed, those of the downstream industries began to lose orders and contracts. The workers saw the situation change and acted accordingly. To organise, workers used social networks. At Electrolux in Forli [in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna], the strike, which was successful, was organised entirely through WhatsApp.”

In factories such as GKN, Piaggio, Electrolux and Fincantieri – which have strong existing grassroots organisation – workers had already made their voices heard, alongside those at FIAT-Chrysler. Strikes were strong in logistics, where grassroots union Si-Cobas has been organising for several years. Ciro Tappeste and Giuliana Martieri reported in Left Voice on 26 March that for around 10 days after the signing of the protocol, “activities have been suspended or paralyzed by strikes in several sectors where ‘rank-and-file unions’ are active.

“Since Monday 23 March, with [prime minister Giuseppe] Conte’s response to the employers’ demands, the situation has escalated, with strikes in the aeronautics sector, in particular at Leonardo (36,000 employees), Gavio and LGS, but also at the Safilo eyewear group (where the unions have proposed converting luxury production to make protective masks), and in the metalworking sector in Padua, where workers ... went on strike on 24 March for 48 hours.”

Strikes in hundreds of FCA plants after 14 March caused the closure of half a dozen factories, at least temporarily. For example, on 17 March at the Sevel car factory in Atessa, owned by FCA, in the southern region of Abruzzo, 5,000 workers struck, saying “non siamo carne da macello” (we are not cannon fodder). There have been strikes in several Amazon distribution centres, including by 1100 workers at the Castel San Giovanni distribution centre in Emilia-Romagna on 17 March, demanding the multinational carry out its obligations under the 14 March decree. In other workplaces, protest took the form of calling in sick, taking holidays or absenteeism.

The union bureaucracy has been dragged kicking and screaming into supporting strikes. Struggle from below – either spontaneous strikes or strikes often led by grassroots committees of the main union federations – has certainly sent strong signals to the national leaderships, which has brought them into various deals with the government”, says Maestri.

“[The union leaders] missed an historic opportunity. The national leadership took two weeks to call for the closure of non-essential production. They didn’t even ask for it in the days when spontaneous strikes multiplied”, said Como. “That was the moment when the general strike had to be declared. The workers were there and the government would have been forced to hear them. Time was lost, which in this situation means human lives, and left room for [employers’ association] Confindustria to dictate its conditions. Now we are here, with these late and insufficient decrees. Imposing the closure of all non-essential production was the condition to save even those who work in the many companies where there is no union.”

Fortunately rank-and-file unionists didn’t wait as long as their leaders to act.

The international nature of the crisis means we can draw strength from struggles around the world. Some of the slogans from Italy – “Stop everything – Defend health – guarantee wages” and “We don’t want to return to normality, because that normality is the problem” – are universal demands, as applicable to Australia, Spain or the United States as to Italy.

Italian workers are showing incredible solidarity throughout this horrific crisis. Left group Potere al Popolo (Power to the People) shared photos on Facebook of “an army of thousands of silent, determined volunteers showing solidarity, from Sicily to Lombardy”. One photo shows an older woman using a pulley from the window to get a bag of shopping from a young activist below. We’ve seen videos on social media of choirs made up of people of all ages singing in unison from their balconies. These people are our hope, as are the health care workers, and the factory workers flexing their industrial muscle for the social good.

Workers in big, unionised workplaces have largely succeeded in shutting down production, but the bosses want to start it up again. The metalworkers’ union has vowed to stop this from happening including by striking. It is a life or death struggle.

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