How Striking Auto Workers Showed Italy the Way Out of Decline
The battle against layoffs at Florence’s GKN auto parts plant may seem like a dispute from a past era. Yet the workers’ plan for the green reconversion of the factory shows how labor can point the way to the future.
On July 9, 2021, the 422 employees of GKN Driveline, an axle-shaft factory in Florence, received unwelcome news by email. They were told that layoff proceedings had begun, in a measure also indirectly hitting over eighty outsourced workers in cleaning, concierge, and canteen service. Overnight, investment fund Melrose — since 2018 GKN’s owner — put its “buy, improve, sell” slogan into action. It was a strategy that had already brought bad news to other GKN workers in England and Germany.
The Campi Bisenzio site has certain exceptional traits: it employs some hundreds of workers, though most Italian businesses have under five employees. It also has a long history, originating in the 1930s, under fascism. Back then, in Florence’s Novoli district, a plant was built by Fiat, associated with the famous Agnelli family. Much has changed since then: in 1994, as part of a broader restructuring process, the Novoli plant was sold to the British automotive and aerospace multinational GKN, which moved the plant to its current location two years later.
Fiat no longer exists either: in early 2021, having become FCA after the acquisition of Chrysler, it “merged” with Peugeot-PSA into the Stellantis Group. Given the more active role of the French state, this merger increasingly seems to mark the Agnellis’ inexorable disengagement from the automobile sector, and thus the coup de grace for an industry that — after decades of decline and the absence of industrial policies — still counts more than 160,000 workers in Italy, more than half of whom belong to Stellantis.
The infamous emails arrived just a few days after July 1 — the date when collective dismissal procedures had again become possible in Italy. Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, then prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s soft-left government imposed a layoff freeze. This drew sharp criticism from Italian industrialists, accustomed to receiving windfall subsidies from the state without ever having to meet conditions of any kind. Despite tensions within a complicated ruling coalition, far from alien to neoliberal policies, the layoff freeze was renewed, until the arrival in February 2021 of a new government led by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi.
Apart from his weak democratic mandate, the arrival of another technocrat prime minister sanctioned the final surrender to the diktats of the bosses’ association Confindustria. This lobby group had consistently opposed lockdown and worker health-protection measures, partly obtained thanks to workers’ mobilization, even as businesses enjoyed abundant support measures without any employment, wage, or environmental conditions. Beginning in fall 2020 the Confindustria launched a war against “Handout-istan.” For Italy’s bosses, even modest income support would turn Italy into an emirate of payouts for slackers — with an age-old taboo already having been broken with the 2019 introduction of “citizens’ income,” in reality a set of limited job-seeker benefits.
Even as we write, newspapers such as Repubblica (once the standard bearer of the anti-Berlusconian center left, and recently acquired by the Agnellis’ very own Exor) are broadcasting the complaints of restaurateurs and hoteliers supposedly unable to find seasonal workers because of the infamous citizens’ income — a subsidy that on average consists of less than $600 a month per household! Despite the supposed bounty of handouts, the announcement of the start of layoff procedures at GKN Florence in July 2021 felt like a real kick in the teeth for workers.
There was some spontaneous mobilizations at workplaces in the first days of the pandemic. Soon after, it was workers in key sectors, such as delivery and platforms, who mobilized. In fall 2020, as restrictions were again introduced, there was some localized outbursts of anger from small traders and informal workers who lacked protections, given that the aforementioned “subsidies” were often not only paltry but never disbursed. The extension of the vaccination campaign to the entire population led to the first, small “no-vax” protests. Only in the fall did the squares really fill up, with a large demonstration in Rome degenerating into the neofascist assault on the headquarters of the country’s largest trade union, the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL). But overall, faced with a nearly 10 percent drop in GDP — an unprecedented figure in peacetime — a strange torpor seemed to reign.
Long the sick man of Europe, enveloped in unbroken stagnation since the 1992 currency crisis, the Italian economy was hit by the unprecedented COVID shock while still struggling to recover from the 2008 crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis. If the total number of people employed reached an all-time high in late 2019, this mostly owed to precarious contracts in low-wage sectors — a situation that was tragically reflected in the increase in poverty, absolute and relative. Already in 2019, poverty affected more than a third of those defined as “manual and related workers” — so much for “handout-istan.”
In this bleak picture, the second populist wave — after the first, tragic Silvio Berlusconi experiment in the 1990s — was already set to culminate in farce. Paradoxically, the arrival of the pandemic changed the outlook. A country embittered by decades of decline, resigned to the war among the poor, had seemed tragically to be returning to history. Yet as the pandemic sowed death and desolation, Italians locked in their homes seemed to take part in a great collective effort for the first time in years. If the dynamics of the contagion reminded us of the enduring presence of Italian factories within global value chains, the reaction and even more so the rhetoric of its government suddenly gave the ailing National Health Service — applauded from the balconies by the shut-in population — the moral leadership of public health defense against the virus.
The undisciplined Italians — long seen (even by themselves) as “Catholics” lacking “social capital” and as “amoral familists” — spontaneously adhered to restrictive measures with few precedents, thus turning out to be far more dutiful in their duties of citizenship than “Protestants” Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. The anonymous Conte suddenly became popular, but his support was passive and distant. Italians watched helplessly as Matteo Renzi maneuvered to bring down the government, leading to Conte’s replacement by Draghi in February 2021. A government so alien to the very idea of representation that it did not even need to disguise the practice, sadly acquired by the center right and center left in recent decades, of outsourcing its economic policy to consulting firms like McKinsey.
Ice Bucket Challenge
A year ago, the five hundred letters received by the GKN workers came like a bucket of ice water to interrupt this apparent lethargy. It was certainly not the first industrial crisis. GKN workers had themselves prominently shown active class solidarity over the years, starting with their support for the workers, often immigrants, who had been victims of harsh anti-union repression in the nearby textile district of Prato.
But with GKN in Campi Bisenzio, a modern, efficient, profitable factory was being hit — a factory that was certainly suffering the effects of a dysfunctional digitization of the production process, but in general not a poor performer.
In addition to being a manufacturing site, GKN represented an exception in the Italian industrial-relations landscape. In 2007, management’s proposal to also work weekends, with rotating days off during the week, generated internal conflict among the workers and the election of new union representation but above all the birth of a true “workers’ vanguard” — now known throughout Italy as the Factory Collective. While its members are overwhelmingly part of the FIOM (the CGIL’s metalworking federation), this organization has helped to make union representation more fluid, democratic, and horizontal, with a model inspired by the factory councils of the 1970s. Over the years, the collective has racked up victories, with the reinternalization and stabilization of several workers’ positions and on the organization of work, even in the face of the major defeats suffered by labor in past decades. Emblematic was the agreement to maintain at company level the protection provided by the old Article 18 of the Workers’ Statute — the law passed in 1970 but butchered by Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party government in 2015, which had provided for the reinstatement of workers fired without just cause in companies with more than fifteen employees.
Going back to July 2021, it was clear from the start that the attack on GKN workers marked a qualitative leap in the anti-labor offensive: as the collective wrote, “If they break through here, they break through everywhere.” If it was possible for a multinational to close a historic plant in wealthy, progressive Florence, with orders for best-sellers such as the Panda hatchback, Ducato commercial vehicles (which bring Europeans deliveries of all kinds), and luxury Ferraris, Maseratis, and Lamborghinis — putting five hundred families on the street and ending one of Italy’s most advanced union experiments — nothing would prevent a new phase of layoffs and relocations, even in sectors and contexts that had hitherto been able to resist.
Cartoonist and militant Zerocalcare, recently author of the Netflix series Tear Along the Dotted Line, has effectively depicted the Campi Bisenzio factory as the village of Asterix and Obelix — the last bastion of resistance in Roman-occupied Gaul. The slogan chosen from the start,
“Insorgiamo” — “Let’s Rise Up” — was the motto of the Florentine partisans, whose decorated red banner is waved at the head of all the workers’ processions. On August 11, 2021, the anniversary of Florence’s liberation from Nazi fascism, a participatory evening procession wound through the Renaissance palaces of the city center, starting with the Palazzo Vecchio where in 1944 the chimes of the Martinella — the bell that had warned the people of impending war since the Middle Ages — had started the insurrection.
A year later, it can be said that the GKN workers’ call did not fall on deaf ears. After the occupation of the factory — with the expulsion of the private guards sent by Melrose to defend the machinery, many newly purchased (and even still packed) thanks to funds bestowed by the Italian government for “Industry 4.0” — the permanent garrison has become the destination of a continuous pilgrimage, not only by the myriad little parties of the fragmented Italian left but by all manner of supporters.
With the layoffs announcement on July 9, 2021, many others realized that the bell was tolling for them too. And what the workers called “a family” grew larger every day. At the nighttime picket lines, there were historic left-wing militants, comrades who had long struggled to find a safe space in Italy’s social movements, theater directors and actors, and activists from the Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana (ARCI) — the network of afterwork circles close to the old Communist Party, particularly rooted in red regions such as Tuscany — as well as representatives of grassroots unions, housing committees, students of all ages, and workers from other companies under attack who passed by, even if only for a coffee.
In record time, working-class writer Alberto Prunetti turned the documents of the dispute into a book, currently on “tour” across the country. In a region like Tuscany dense with universities and public research centers, the academic world also woke up. If dozens of precarious researchers signed an appeal not only to “do their bit” to save the factory but also to “rise up each with their own issues and demands,” the Association of Democratic Jurists — founded after the Resistance by the Communist Umberto Terracini and the Socialist Lelio Basso — met in mid-August with workers in front of the plant to write a bill against factory relocations, promising to write it “with their heads and not over their heads.” Environmental organizations such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion — along with the myriad organizations that fight daily against environmental devastation — embraced the worker-led mobilization, challenging the mendacious effort to set labor in opposition to health and environmental concerns. They marched together against the G20 convened in Rome last October.
In September 2021, two days after bringing 40,000 people to Florence — the first demonstration of such magnitude since the pandemic but also an evocative number, recalling the historic anti-union march of Fiat white-collar employees in October 1980 — GKN workers won a first battle. The Florence Labor Court upheld the appeal against the illegitimate layoffs: while the Draghi government (a “servant of Melrose,” as the workers of the Factory Collective chanted) sat on its hands, the judiciary forced the financial fund to correctly follow the Italian state’s own laws, earning the workers at least three months’ salary. Alongside this legal action, carried out by the FIOM, the Factory Collective worked to extend and organize solidarity, above all in Tuscany. At a time of great tiredness, with the arrival of a new, formally unimpeachable dismissal letter seemingly just days away, with the absence of any opening from Melrose, and with the confederal unions (including CGIL) hesitating to call a general strike against the employers’ offensive, the GKN Factory Collective got things moving again.
The response to the “politics of stalemate” promoted by the government was the development of a “plan” to resolve the crisis. As we wrote in December, economists, engineers, historians, and sociologists, many of them affiliated with the so-called “schools of excellence” in Pisa, the Normale and Sant’Anna, joined the Factory Collective in writing this plan, joining research skills with labor conflict and concrete solutions to social problems.
Taking seriously the appeals coming from the academic world, workers asked researchers to draw up a plan for the reconversion of the plant and for the guarantee of employment continuity and rights. There was also special attention to safeguarding contract workers — starting with the cleaners, whom the almost all-male workforce had done much to get closer to in recent months.
Green, Realistic Plan
Realizing such a plan meant, the workers insisted, demonstrating that they could “take charge” — that they were fully aware of production processes and could direct choices about what they produced and how. For the Factory Collective, this also means taking back the language of “management” and attaching it to questions of environmental sustainability and social justice. This means too taking responsibility for an overall vision for national industrial policy and pressing the public authorities over resource allocation and the choice of strategic sectors in which to invest for an overall revitalization of Italy. This is not just a matter of saving GKN but of lobbying for public interventions that reorganize the economic structure rather than just disburse bailout funds.
The plan for the ecological-productive reconversion of the Campi Bisenzio site, presented this spring, operates at multiple levels. It assumes that the factory will remain in the automotive sector. Yet it turns production toward mechanical components for ecological public transport — as against an idea of individual, private, and fossil fuel–powered vehicles now out of step with all criteria of environmental sustainability — and of machinery for the production of green hydrogen. The plan also envisages the possibility of allocating a part of the factory to the creation of a competence center dedicated to the prototyping and industrialization of robots and co-bots — which, in turn, can be integrated into the aforementioned supply chains — and to the development of pathways for both vocational training and research and development.
When the plan was first conceived, researchers remained in the dark about what the fate of the factory’s ownership structure would be: in December 2021, with Melrose on the run, the factory’s future could be hypothesized either in terms of the desirable but difficult option of nationalization or various forms of copartnership between public and private entities. In mid-December, entrepreneur Francesco Borgomeo —the advisor appointed by Melrose to find buyers for the factory — himself entered the acquisition game. Borgomeo, a Catholic entrepreneur active in the circular economy, suddenly turned into the knight in shining armor, ready to reverse GKN’s fortunes.
But if, as the famous Italian punk band CCCP used to say, paraphrasing a historic statement by Vladimir Lenin, “Soviets and electricity do not make communism,” Borgomeo’s own four-F promise — “Faith in the Future of the Florence Factory” — does not make an industrial plan. There have been countless ministerial negotiations: the latest came on August 3, when rather than presenting real investors and industrial partners, Borgomeo announced a not-for-profit research “consortium,” forcing the ministry to adjourn to August 31, the very last day that January’s deal stipulates the state would be forced to take direct action for the factory’s future after. But the only actually existing industrial conversion plan, presented to the parties, is the one produced by the workers and the researchers in solidarity with them. This plan could be implemented now, if there were a state willing to do its bit.
The Old Working Class?
What has been happening in Italy for the past year is a strange yet simple phenomenon. Here, the collective at a metalworking factory — with its old red flags, its symbol obtained by the superimposition of semi-axles and gears, and a name written in a Soviet-like font — offers not only a sounding board for the struggles of the entire country but speaks the inclusive language of feminist struggles and makes the logic of environmental transition its own. It does so in the belief that only this convergence, in a solidarity overcoming all particularisms, can upend the dominant power relations that oppress us all.
On March 26, tens of thousands of people returned to the streets of Florence, and with them convergence between labor, climate change, student, and transfeminist struggles. In May, solidaristic supporters from all over Italy came to Campi Bisenzio in a massive assembly. At the same time, the collective’s workers are going up and down Italy on an “Insorgiamo Tour,” to meet insurgent territories and strengthen the links that will represent the political and social platform for an upcoming autumn of general mobilization.
Winning at GKN would have enormous significance for the Italian labor movement. What the Factory Collective has understood is that by going on the counterattack — showing the transformative potential of workers’ knowledge and of organizing a heterogeneous working class — the meaning of this dispute can be reversed: if they don’t pass here, they don’t pass anywhere; if we start winning here, we can win everywhere. Winning at GKN means finally turning the spotlight back on the working class that has been removed from public debate, as if its very existence had been eclipsed.
At the same time, the ability of a union vanguard to impose fundamental issues of industrial policy vindicates the ancient intuition of the best Italian critical political economy — namely, that it is precisely from conflict that the incentive for investment and productivity arises and that in its absence we must resign ourselves to decline.
Of course, the challenge is by no means easy, and the circumstances are not favorable. The recent fall of the Draghi government surely has not led to mourning among GKN workers. Yet it is also unlikely to improve the situation, given what the Factory Collective calls the “social, we would say almost anthropological abyss” that separates labor affairs from political debate.
Not only is there little to be expected from the postfascist right that seems destined to win the general election on September 25. More than that, it is likely that the issues raised by the GKN dispute will have no place in a election campaign limited to the sterile “anti-fascism” of that same center left that claims the Draghi government’s agenda — agreed to by Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini — as its own. But as the Factory Collective reminds us, “We need the present.” And in the present that GKN workers’ struggle has opened up again, it is possible to act.