Italy’s Longest-Ever Factory Occupation Shows How Workers Can Transform Production

For two years, the GKN auto parts plant in Florence, Italy, has been occupied by laid-off workers. It's the longest factory occupation in Italian history — and its retooling for green production shows how workers can reorganize the economy while saving jobs.

The dismissed workers of the GKN factory take part in a protest against the G20 World Leaders Summit in Rome, Italy, October 30, 2021. (Stefano Montesi / Corbis via Getty Images)

On Saturday, March 25, the streets of Florence were filled with thousands of people from all over Italy, marching in solidarity with workers from the former GKN factory in nearby Campi Bisenzio. The struggle at the plant had begun on July 9, 2021, when the auto parts producer’s 422 workers were abruptly dismissed. Contrary to the plans of the owner — British investment fund Melrose Industries — the workers occupied the plant, and they have been keeping it (and the millions of euros’ worth of machinery it contains) in order ever since. It is now the longest factory occupation in Italian history.

In that time, the workers at the ex-GKN plant have launched a massive solidarity movement, fighting to prevent the plant from being yet another milestone in Italy’s long deindustrialization. As we explained in an article last summer, this dispute is remarkable for many reasons. It comes amidst a political situation where the Left in its various forms has been shut permanently out of Parliament and increasingly marginalized in society, and indeed where post-fascist movements have extended their grip. It also confronts the generally dismal power relations in the world of labor — Italy is the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country where wages have fallen in real terms over the last three decades.

But the period since last summer has also seen many developments: not only because of the broader solidarity for the workers, but also because this dispute is combined with the fight for a just transition. Tellingly of this broader cause, the call for the March 25 march was signed by hundreds of associations — from unions to movement spaces, via students, parties, social centers, civic lists, and personalities, including international figures such as Miguel Benasayag, Adrian Lyttelton, and João Pedro Stedile. It closed with the slogan: “Let’s break the siege, let’s try to make the future.”

The ”siege” against these workers takes the form of the nonpayment of their salaries for some six months — a “de facto dismissal,” which has put them in the absurd condition of having neither social security nor salary, even as they deal with soaring inflation. The “future” here invoked means public intervention so that the liquidation procedure by the new owners is stopped, and the workers are allowed to pursue their own “reindustrialization from below.”

Indeed, for decades, Italian institutions have given up on any attempt at industrial policy — a situation that hasn’t changed with Europe’s post-pandemic recovery plans. The ex-GKN Factory Collective and those in solidarity with it are instead taking their own initiative to move toward a green transition. The aim: to reverse the spiral of relocations, divestments, and starvation wages that Italy has been heading down for at least three decades. To avoid a once great factory ending up as an empty shed, ready to become an eco-monster or the latest site of real estate speculation, the workers are striving to recover it on a cooperative basis, advancing their own plan to produce photovoltaic panels, batteries, and cargo bikes.

The workers’ collective has created broad alliances, with movements ranging from feminists to green causes. This is particularly visible in the climate strikes it has organized together with youth-led movements over the last two years. The ex-GKN struggle thus combines what is also called an “old” form of mobilization — the defense of workers’ jobs and a distinct class-based view of social relations — with a “new” one, i.e., the fight against climate change. For want of public intervention, it has launched a crowdfunding drive also supported by the Italian wing of Fridays for Future, with a view to “popular shareholding” in the future cooperative. But to understand why this support is important, it is worth explaining how we got to this point.

Boiled-Frog Tactic

When we last wrote about this dispute in summer 2022, dark clouds were already gathering that would soon bring Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia to high office. By a curious twist of history, this happened almost upon the centenary of the March on Rome, the fascist takeover in October 1922.

In the early 1920s, Benito Mussolini’s regime first appeared in the guise of liberal free-marketeer austerity before veering toward more interventionist policies after the Great Crash. This may itself have raised some doubts over what attitude Fratelli d’Italia would take toward industrial policies. Yet, the list of new ministries produced in October was enough to dispel any uncertainty about the new right’s cultural subalternity to neoliberalism. The ministry responsible for dealing with industrial policies and crises, known since 2008 as the “Ministry of Economic Development,” has tellingly been renamed the “Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy” (in English, despite the government’s recently launched battle against the public use of foreign languages). Meanwhile, the former Environment Ministry, in 2021 becoming the Ministry of Ecological Transition, has now been more autarkically renamed “Ministry of Environment and Energy Security.”

In such conditions, the first industrial “plan” launched by the ex-GKN workers and supportive researchers in December 2021 (an English presentation will soon be available here) as well as the call for a new public engagement in industrial policies, has been permanently shelved. The steadily widening solidarity network has thus instead gone back to work on a bottom-up conversion plan.

In fact, the lack of even potential institutional aid contrasts with the rather peculiar “presence” of the new ownership: the president of Unindustria Cassino, Francesco Borgomeo. Initially an advisor to Melrose in seeking to find buyers, he reinvented himself as savior: on December 23, 2021, saving Christmas and the factory, he announced he would himself be the buyer and was awaiting investors and business plans. Maximum secrecy had to be maintained on both fronts, but they were enough to bring Fiducia (Confidence) and a “Future” to the Florence Factory. From these four “F”s came the company’s new, rather absurd name QF Spa — literally, “Four F Co.”

Right from the start, the workers’ collective suspected that the new owner’s operation was only about buying time — moreover, with the aid of public money. This would mean getting staff layoff funds from the state, stripping the plant of millions of euros’ worth of machinery, waiting for the workers’ mobilization to wind down, and gradually waiting for them to leave, after a year of uncertainty at 60 percent salary.

Taking a metaphor from Noam Chomsky, the workers’ collective has since described this as the principle of boiling a frog without it noticing the water heating up. As one Christian Democratic premier, Giulio Andreotti, once put it, “To think badly of people is a sin, but is often bang on the money.” Since January 2022, when it signed the framework agreement with the then Ministry of Economic Development, QF has failed to meet any deadlines. The new ownership’s inconsistency reached its height in July 2022 when, instead of industrial plans, admirable slides were presented to ministers, outlining the possibility of collaboration with a consortium of innovative companies. This was supposed to mean installing “a research and development center on mechatronics and industrial electronics” at the factory; but once again, the announcement was not followed by any concrete measures, never mind flesh-and-blood investors.

Workers’ Mutual Aid

These months, in which Borgomeo shunned engagement with the workers but reassured them that things would soon get going again, were used to reorganize the support groups, starting with the creation of a legal team. Activities ranged from the Food Brigade, which keeps the workers’ canteen open on the three shifts of the permanent occupation, to Cultural Convergence: self-education activities open to the public. These latter are anchored in the right to 150 hours’ study (generally every three years) provided for by the Workers’ Statute (the state labor code) and the metalworkers’ collective bargaining agreement.

Locals in solidarity with the workers as well as national-level writers and intellectuals took part, together with Edizioni Alegre — publisher of Jacobin Italia — organizing the first Italian Festival of Working-Class Literature between March 31 and April 2 in the occupied factory itself. Funded by a two-week crowdfunding campaign, the festival brought together Italian authors such as co-organizer Alberto Prunetti and working-class voices such as Cash Carraway, D. Hunter, Cynthia Cruz, and Anthony Cartwright. During the second day — attended by some fourteen hundred people, after the six hundred of the first day — the workers could read the solidarity message from director Ken Loach, who highlighted the importance of working-class writing to the class struggle.

The “reindustrialization from below” is also following a new course. The Solidarity Research Group has in recent months transformed into a broader Reindustrialization Group, putting together the factory’s “CV,” mapping the factory layout and inventorying all the machinery and logistical infrastructure. It is also scouting projects to make use of its machinery and skills and to concretize the objectives outlined in the “plan”: the reconversion toward sustainable mobility and renewable energy.

At the same time, the collective began to think about mutualist approaches, which would allow at least a minority of them to reactivate micro-production (for instance, a brewery). But they also began thinking about the agri-food chain, and what and how we consume. In October, the workers’ assembly also launched the Soms Insorgiamo Social Promotion Association to regularize these activities. Officially established in January 2023, right from its name Soms (Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso; Workers’ Mutual Aid Society), it expresses its intention to recover values of reciprocity, solidarity, and mutualism, deeply rooted in the labor movement since the nineteenth century.

Reindustrialization From Below

This brings us to November 2022, a new watershed for the dispute. Indeed, since this point, the workers have received neither their salaries nor pay slips certifying their wages. Access to records by the legal team reveals QF’s repeated attempts to obtain Cassa integrazione ordinaria — that is, redundancy payments from the state — have been rejected due to the lack of a business plan. Apart from a threat to clear out the occupied plant, contacts with the ownership have become almost nil: the labor court has granted dozens of injunctions for the payment of overdue wages.

All that was being waited for was an announcement of the company’s liquidation: this came on February 21, three days after yet another ministerial discussion, attended by a commissioner who could only admit that he had not had time to look into the matter in depth, before he was replaced on March 7. Borgomeo, meanwhile, accuses the ex-GKN workers’ “Insorgiamo movement” of driving away investors by occupying the factory. They had, however, also been occupying the factory back in December 2021, when Borgomeo himself cited the experienced and motivated workforce as an asset of the factory he had decided to buy.

The work groups at the plant soon undermined his claims: from December 2022, a German-Italian startup engaged in new technologies and products related to clean energy production began close talks with the Factory Collective — exploring the possibility of producing cutting-edge photovoltaic panels and batteries at the plant. By this they meant products whose production would not involve the use of rare earths — with obvious reduction of the social impact and supply difficulties of the current geopolitical period — and which would even have the certification of ordinary waste, also averting the problem of disposal.

Taking up René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s famous characters from Asterix the Gaul, this summer cartoonist Zerocalcare depicted the factory as the small Gallic village, which, with the magic potion of organization and solidarity, resists the aggression of Julius Caesar’s Roman legions. The Factory Collective not only withstands the siege, but seems to succeed in achieving the objectives so bombastically declared in National Agendas and Plans.

Parallel to the technical issues surrounding industrial plans and labor organization, the work groups focused on the issue of ownership structure, including by studying the possibility of a worker buyout. In Italy such operations are regulated by the Marcora Law of 1985, which provides for public funds to safeguard workers affected by attempts at industrial relocation or liquidation and who intend to take over ownership in a cooperative structure. Usually, with such processes, the startup capital is built up through workers investing their severance pay. But in the GKN case, the idea is that local supporters should play a leading role in reactivating production, as in the struggle itself. Thus the idea of the popular shareholder campaign was born, and dialogues began with Banca Etica (an Italian ethical finance body, which has been in solidarity with the GKN struggle since the opening of the Resistance Fund) and other such institutions.

Alongside the identification of the plant’s future core business, involving the initial employment of 110-120 workers, other projects have been developing. In terms of sustainable mobility, the possibility of developing cargo-bikes was studied, both for proximity logistics and for handling items within large warehouses. Again, working groups interacted with companies already engaged in the sector to develop a concrete development plan, with the hope of employing up to thirty to forty people across production and sales.

The first cargo-bike prototype entirely “made in GKN,” painted in the same purple as Florence’s Serie A soccer team, was presented with great enthusiasm in February, complete with reviews from trade magazines such as Bike Italia. That was also when the third “leg” of the workers’ proposal was presented to citizens: the transformation of the plant into a Renewable Energy Solidarity Community, in synergy with the production of solar panels, which will also serve to achieve the plant’s energy autonomy. Once the core business is up and running and it is calculated how much energy is needed to keep it running, the surplus production can be put back into the general grid, benefiting the whole territory.

The Frog’s Jump

Twenty months after the first layoff, and after more than a year of boiling in the pot of new ownership, the frog is exhausted, under pressure psychologically as well as in terms of its income. But the months of “waiting” have served to find energy, allies, and ideas. The answer to the siege, in March 2023 as in July 2021, is to go on the counterattack. If the ownership retreats, and institutions continue to be unable to provide solutions, it will be the workers of the former GKN who will again have to be the “experts.”

One demand is the payment of what is owed to the workers — just on the eve of the demonstration, on March 23, the court held its first hearing on the nonpayments. Once again, despite accusations of “illegality” often leveled against the workers, the courts agreed with their claims. But as one of the workers said at the demo, “if I don’t pay my bills, the next day they’ll cut off my electricity, and yet when I haven’t been paid for six months, even if the court agrees with me, I don’t get a single euro.”

At the same time, the Florence protest called for reindustrialization from below. On March 16, amidst preparations for the march, the “Ex GKN for Future” crowdfunding campaign was launched, building toward the popular shareholding that will support the factory’s future. It is a campaign that anyone can back on the portal Produzioni dal Basso (English, French, German, and Spanish translations are also available) and that has raised almost €60,000 in two weeks. The support comes from across Italy, but also beyond: contacts with the startup also allowed a worker delegation to meet German environmentalists in Leipzig and Berlin during the last climate strike.

The first phase, so-called reward crowdfunding, aims to raise many small shares, which will make up the first core of capital, to meet the startup costs of the new cooperative and to cover the first dues for its final legal establishment. Next, equity crowdfunding will be launched, aimed at finding larger investors. Finally, having started panel production, it will be time for so-called product crowdfunding — getting in orders, especially from other recovered enterprises and production cooperatives, who will find in the ex-GKN a powerful ally on the road to the just transition.

Already on March 25, thousands of us flocked to Florence to defend the workers. But with the crowdfunding and popular shareholder campaign, it’s time for those in solidarity with the dispute — even people who can’t physically attend protests — to rally around the cause. As the Factory Collective puts it, “It’s time that the frog jumps. Either the worst defeat or a leap into the future.” So let us attempt this future. All we have to lose, after all, is starvation wages and climate catastrophe.