FIAT Melfi workers go back to work with heads held high!

In an earlier article we reported on the tremendous struggle of the FIAT Melfi workers. Since then the workers have gone back, having gained some important victories, but nowhere near to what they could have won had the trade union leadership reflected the same level of militancy as the workers.

"I am disappointed by FIAT's choice, which aims to maintain old strategies rather than trying to find new solutions for the problems in Melfi. If FIAT means to keep on in the same old way, we have to do our best not to respond as we did in 1980. I also hope that the FIOM [powerful Italian metalworkers union] and the RSU [factory shop stewards committee] can understand how and when to bring new direction and new methods to this struggle. It is obvious that you cannot continue with a production stoppage forever. Production stoppages are certainly useful to shake things up for a while, but this is surely not the way to lead a struggle with a new character." (Gugliemo Epifani, CGIL General Secretary, Il Sole 24 Ore, April 25, 2004).

At dawn on Sunday May 9, FIAT and union bosses signed an agreement concluding the Melfi FIAT workers' strike. The agreement does not achieve all of the workers' demands and certainly does not reflect the unity and courage shown by the workers. Production was stopped for three weeks, with almost total unity among the workers throughout the course of the struggle. Without doubt, the strike has been an object lesson in how to fight the class struggle, not least for the General Secretary of Italy's most powerful union. But the workers deserved much more.

The agreement cannot be regarded as entirely satisfactory as, despite some important gains, it does not achieve all of the workers' demands. Although it is true that negotiation implies moving from some of your initial positions, we believe that the union leaders moved much further than was needed.

However, we have to give credit to the workers and recognise that their enthusiasm and their massive support for the outcome of the negotiations is absolutely justified. But we should also understand that this is only the first round of a struggle that will in future force Melfi workers to stand up and fight again for real improvements in pay and working conditions. The starting point for future battles will surely be on a higher level, as the workers returned to the factory looking and feeling as though they had won a fight.

The agreement

The agreement provides for pay rises of up to 105 euros per month, paid in three instalments: 50% from this July, a further 25% in July 2005 and the remaining 25% in July 2006. This means that there will be no immediate pay rise. There will be a rise of 52.5 euros in the first year, increasing to 79 euros in 2005 and reaching 105 euros gross in 2006. You can certainly call it a pay rise, but it has not closed the gap between the pay of Melfi workers and workers at other FIAT plants.

The same applies to night shift allowances, which will only have the full increase after 26 months. Of course, it will be pointed out that the notorious "doppia battuta" policy (12 straight days on the same shift, including nights) has been removed, and this is an invaluable result for the workers. Although this is true, (though who was it that signed the agreement for these shifts and salaries back in 1993?) it is nonetheless the case that the agreement allows FIAT to maintain the level of productivity unchanged. So even though the shift system has changed, which is definitely a good thing, the level of exploitation and the pressure to achieve the planned production targets will remain.

The final strand of the negotiations, also very important for the workers, was the issue of disciplinary measures. Here, the agreement did not provide any actual solution. Instead it was decided to turn the issue over to a hypothetical "reconciliation commission". This should have not been agreed to, but rather there should have been an immediate withdrawal of all disciplinary measures and sackings. This could have been achieved, precisely because while the agreement was being reached production was stopped and FIAT was suffering enormous losses as every minute went by.

So, what was missing?

We don't criticise this agreement for the sake of it. Nor are we trying to teach trade unionism to anybody, the workers least of all! But we must call things by their proper names and firmly refuse to misrepresent them. So, while this agreement is a step forward for the workers it is not all that could have been achieved. It was not for lack of determination that the Melfi workers failed to get everything they were fighting for. They have provided a lesson in class struggle. In part, the responsibility lies with the FIOM leaders who led the negotiations. During this struggle and in many others over recent years, the FIOM has clearly shown that it is the union closest to the workers and with the most militant attitude. But it has also been demonstrated that in the different phases of struggle it has not always been able to maintain the necessary firmness and consistency.

On April 26 and 27, following the police attacks on the Melfi workers, huge spontaneous strikes burst out in more than 150 factories. The conditions were present to widen the front so as not to leave the Melfi workers isolated. On April 28, the FIOM correctly called a national 4-hour general strike of metalworkers. Unfortunately however, it appeared that the union leaders did not take the call seriously and in some cases there was the clear feeling that everything possible had been done to calm the workers down. In Turin, they organised a few pickets in front of the Mirafiori FIAT plant. The biggest picket, at the main gates, consisted of barely 200 workers. In truth, the leaders did not want to organise a real demonstration, although the mood of the workers was extremely favourable, as the spontaneous strikes had demonstrated. The same was true of Brescia. Here, the demonstration consisted of just a thousand workers, because the union leaders did not really want it at all. It was no better in Milan, where all the local union bureaucracy could manage was to gather 500 people in front of the gates at Alfa Romeo Arese plant (owned by the FIAT group). The Alfa Romeo COBAS union leaders saved the day as they mobilised their members to turn up, so the FIOM turnout did not look quite so shocking.

Neither at that point nor at any other time during the unfolding strike was there any clear intention to broaden the struggle. This would have been absolutely necessary, not just to assist the Melfi workers to achieve their demands but also to revive the struggle over the national collective bargaining agreement, which still remains unresolved.

In the days following the action, the efforts of the FIOM leaders were focused on dousing the flames and calming the workers, playing the classical role of "pompiere" (firefighter, as Italian workers say). Is it a fact that on Thursday April 29, speaking in front of the Melfi factory gates, FIOM General Secretary Gianni Rinaldini asked the workers to suspend the strike in order to start "real" negotiations with the FIAT bosses? Is it true or not that the workers immediately shouted down this proposal, forcing him to back down and accept that the strike was to go on to the end? And is it not solely because of this determination to continue the strike that FIAT had to change its arrogant attitude? What would have happened if the workers had accepted Rinaldini's proposal and had returned to work that very day? There is no doubt that they would not even have achieved what they got on May 9! And in that case, who would have been responsible?

Also, why were negotiations moved from Melfi to Rome in the days before the agreement was signed? It must be borne in mind that the very fact that negotiations were held in Melfi was a victory for the workers that had boosted their morale and increased the perception that FIAT had its back to the wall. In fact, when negotiations were suspended for the first time to allow the shop stewards to report back on FIAT's proposals, the workers sent their representatives back with this message:"The meeting of the picketing workers, called in a tense climate to consider the company's proposals, has expressed its firm rejection. The meeting has also raised a further demand that two thirds of the wage gap with other FIAT plants be immediately filled and that, though the last third can be made up later, this must be done regardless of the financial health of the company. Then a further 300 euros rise must be implemented next July. Finally, a strict deadline of 2 p.m. today for a response was imposed, otherwise more radical actions would have to be considered." (La Repubblica,Saturday May 8th 2004)

This demonstrates how the pressure of the workers was brought to bear not just on the company but also on the union leaders, and it is pretty obvious that they didn't like it!

For these reasons it is clear that the negotiations have achieved far less than the workers could have hoped for, given their strength and their willingness to struggle.

Nothing will be the same again

The Melfi workers understand that their example represents a turning point. From now on, workers know they will have to follow in the Melfi workers' footsteps if they want to fight to genuinely improve their living and working conditions. But also, the Melfi workers understand they did not achieve all they were fighting for and do not care about the triumphal gloss the union leaders have put on the agreement. Now they are aware of their strength, and know that they put Italy's most important company into serious trouble.

We should also remember that at first FIAT tried to split the workers by signing bogus deals with the FIM-CISL and UILM-UIL unions. Then they tried violence and repression, sending the police to attack the workers. Every attempt to curb the workers' resistance brought out new reserves of strength and determination, the exact opposite of the bosses' aims. Every attempt by the union leaders to calm the rank-and-file provoked a strong reaction, pushing the workers to demand more from their leaders. This is the real victory for the workers. The "open field" in which 9000 disciplinary notices have been sent out over recent years does not exist anymore. The bosses and their accomplices, Agnelli's servants, no longer have the absolute power they used to enjoy.

Prepare for the next battles

But there is still a lot to do. Sooner or later, production trends and processes will force the bosses to try to reimpose "law and order". Therefore, even though there has been a major jump in consciousness and in Melfi nothing will be the same again, unless the workers see the need to take the leadership of their union (FIOM) back into their own hands, the bosses and the reaction will be back. We have seen this many times in the history of the workers' movement.

A positive development is that signatures are now being collected to recall the existing RSU and elect a new one. This is because FIM-CISL has 57% of the delegates on the current RSU and everyone saw their shameful behaviour during the struggle. But this is not enough.

FIAT's financial and production problems are definitely not over, and the same holds for the whole automotive industry. Companies working for FIAT in the Melfi district have declared they will apply the same rules and working conditions that FIAT has accepted. But it is obvious that such promises can be wiped away in an instant. In fact, these companies have serious problems of their own, as over 3000 workers are temporarily laid off and there is a feeling that new redundancies will be announced in the coming months. [In Italy big manufacturing companies can lay workers off temporarily. These workers keep their jobs and are paid at a lower rate by the government. This arrangement is called CIG - Cassa Integrazione Guadagni. It was intended for use in times of intense class struggle, as a means to allow the bosses to lay off huge numbers, as FIAT did with 27,000 workers in 1980, splitting the workers between those who remain in the factory and those who are "suspended" at home. Furthermore, the cost of this is borne entirely by the public purse. It does not cost the bosses a penny!]

Also, it cannot be excluded that after such a defeat FIAT will propose outsourcing, if not moving entire plants, in order to threaten and try to curb the workers.

The interests of the workers in all FIAT plants, in all other companies working for FIAT and in all subsidiaries, are absolutely the same. Working conditions at Melfi and dismissals at Mirafiori or Arese are a matter for the workers in all of the plants, not just Melfi, Mirafiori and Arese, but also Termini Imerese, Pratola Serra, Val di Sangro, Termoli, Cassino and Iveco.

There is no time to lose. Now is the time to start a real debate on how to prepare for the future. The union leaders have endless workshops discussing FIAT's policies from the comfort of their armchairs but none will take the lead in preparing for decisive struggle.

The only way to prepare for the coming battles is to develop a common set of demands, including a shorter working week with no loss of pay, so as to equalise working conditions and workloads across all plants and to create new jobs.

But in order achieve this, to ensure that FIAT uses its resources for the workers and for the country as a whole, it is necessary to demand its nationalisation under workers' control. Only in this way can we solve the problems of FIAT and of other companies'.

At the beginning of this struggle, Gugliemo Epifani remarked on the dangers of bitter disputes such as the Mirafiori FIAT strike in 1980. Then, the workers blocked the plant gates for 35 days in protest at the sacking of 27,000 of their colleagues. The defeat of the strike was a turning point, opening the way for the tide of reaction which has continued to the present day. But Epifani forgot to say who was responsible for the defeat! It was the fault of the leaders of the CGIL, CISL and UIL who signed an unconditional surrender while the struggle was still determined and united. Then they organised a bogus vote on the betrayal they had signed and calmed everything down.

There is a new generation of workers in the factories, involved in their first battles in the class struggle. They are using the natural and traditional methods of the working class, the only methods with which to win over the mass of the workers and inflict defeat on the bosses. We also have an advantage over previous generations. We have seen their history and have understood how have they been betrayed. Join us in building on this rich experience and, starting from Melfi, beginning a new era in the history of the workers movement, closing the chapter of betrayals and defeats once and for all.