From Milan and Turin, SALLY LOW concludes a report on trade union politics in the Italian car industry.
After passage of a law to reduce the sliding scale, which tied wages to inflation, a strong movement based on the workers councils emerged in the early '80s. At first this movement was very broad, Rocco Papandrea, a Fiat worker and leader of the left tendency within the CGIL union federation, explained.
It led beyond the issue of the sliding scale to strategic discussions on how workers could regain their former strength. They focussed on the need to rebuild united structures and even discussed the need for nationwide coordination of the councils independently of the official union bodies.
The CGIL, politically dominated by the Communist Party (PCI), played an ambiguous role. It participated in and won control of the movement but then tried to use it as a factional weapon against the other union bureaucracies. Consequently, the councils movement receded.
According to Papandrea, events in eastern Europe have helped fuel the union bureaucracy's ideological campaign of helping the owners manage the company: "The system is accepted as good in itself, and the only thing the union has to do is limit the extremism of the employers.
"This is totally in line with the PDS [Party of the Democratic Left — the new name of the PCI] outlook. Union leaders have played a very important role in the evolution of the strategy of the PDS. For example, the general secretary of the CGIL is one of the most important counsellors of PDS general secretary Achille Ochetto."
Papandrea also pointed out that, despite the defeats of the '80s, employers did not enjoy a totally smooth run. The councils were able to oppose and modify some of the changes. They were not, however, able to turn the situation around.
Ideologically, he claimed, the new strategy has not been successful. The majority of workers reject what is called Japanisation — "the complete identification of workers with management". Workers have submitted to the changes "because of fear, not because they agree. Only the union cadres agree."
In the last two years, combativity among workers has begun to re-emerge. Before the last national agreement between employers and government, rank-and-file opposition forced the union to drop concessions from its platform.
"There is a potential will to fight, but at the same time a complete lack of confidence in the union structure. What has been lacking up to now is a clear alternative."
Within the CGIL, the left tendency has about 16% support nationally and more in important centres such as Turin and Brescia. Both Papandrea and local CGIL official and left tendency leader Raffaello Renzacci agreed that it could be the beginning of an alternative. However, they fear the best time for such an alternative to emerge has passed. Entering a recession, fundamental attacks on the working class can be expected, they said. Fiat may lay off more people, including the new militant layer.
However, Renzacci also pointed out that, in such a period, it will be impossible for a local or limited struggle to generalise itself and succeed without a new national leadership.
Renzacci described the main differences between the left tendency and the majority as their conception of the role of the union movement. "The majority think the union must cooperate and not fight. The minority thinks of the union as a class, combative organisation — that is, the kind of union that existed in the '70s.
"A good example of this new attitude of the union is the agreement reached for conditions in two new factories in the south. Even before Fiat started building them, the union had agreed to three-shift work — which, except in certain sectors such as steel and energy, does not presently exist in Italy. Employees will have none of the conditions outside the national agreement that other Fiat workers have won."
Despite the defeats of the '80s, said Renzacci, union membership has not declined significantly, although of Italy's 9-10 million unionists, about half are pensioners. There are 6-7 million non-unionised employees in Italy. Services such as legal advice and the fact that they are still active at the grassroots level have helped them maintain members, he said.
At Milan's Alfa Romeo plant, until 1986 the property of the state and then sold to Fiat, Luigi Malabarba's experiences during the 1980s were slightly different.
Alfa Romeo unionists have just won a legal battle to stop the company from sacking workers who had been stood down for several years and were paid out of a special national fund. In Turin, the Fiat workers lost a similar issue.
The workforce in Milan were in a better position to resist the attacks of the '80s because, since the late 1960s, a militant and politically conscious core of employees had organised and worked together. Taking varying names and organisational forms, this group often met independently from the official union structures and operated as a pressure group on them.
"When Fiat bought Alfa Romeo, the company tried to break the strength of the organised work force", explained Malabarba. "The experience of the workers enabled them to resist moves to sack the militants." Out of this resistance emerged a two-pronged campaign, "against the bosses and against the union bureaucracy to maintain the position of ivists within the factory.
"The challenge against the bureaucracy was also possible because they signed an agreement with Fiat management to bring conditions in Alfa Romeo in line with other factories. This would have meant cutting back on many conditions won by workers in Alfa Romeo."
These conflicts have crystallised around the fight for democratic shop steward elections within Alfa Romeo and at the same time to revive a workers' representative body known as the Internal Commission.
Despite a court order that the company should conduct such elections, it refused to do so. In May, the activists' committee, now called the COBAS or Committee of the Bases, organised the election despite active opposition from management and union officials, including most of the current shop stewards.
Again despite a court ruling, the factory and the union refused to recognise the election and signed a written agreement to oppose the new structure.
Nevertheless, the COBAS continues to operate and has become something of a parallel union structure within the factory. It issues its own membership cards, and many people, claims Malabarba, no longer have cards of the old trade unions. In July COBAS had 800 members while the CGIL, the biggest union within the plant, had fewer than 2000. In June it organised a successful one-hour strike despite union opposition.
The COBAS leadership has a political outlook well beyond trade unionism. Various left political parties are represented and now, says Malabarba, many have decided to participate in the Movement for Communist Refoundation. MCR emerged in opposition to the right wing course of the PCI and split after the name change to PDS. Democrazia Proletaria, another left party, has since dissolved to join MCR, which at its first national conference in May claimed to have around 150,000 members.
Malabarba says the COBAS would like to see a national movement for democratic reform of the trade unions. To create this, it is not possible simply to work within the CGIL or other union structures. "It is necessary also to have a real base among the workers to peg back the force of the apparatus. This is the challenge for us. We need many Alfa Romeos in Italy."