The Postwar Action and Policy of Opportunism Mark the Subjugation of the Regime Unions to Capital and its State
from Il Partito Comunista, no.104‑109, April‑September 1983
In our work on the trade union question, published in issue nº10 of Comunismo we sketched a summary of the whole history of the trade union movement from the viewpoint that has always directly concerned the communist movement: we had set out, as is our method, to draw lessons from the past history of the workers’ movement, and in relation to the social situation of today, the broad indications of what must be the revolutionary strategy that the Party must set out in the perspective of the future resumption of the class struggle. We outlined the process of regression of the trade union form, or, rather, of class associations with economic content, in the period of imperialism. In particular, we wanted to emphasize how these tendencies are not “modern discoveries” but always appeared clear to Marxists throughout the evolution and vicissitudes of the workers’ movement in all countries, and this for the simple reason that the social laws that governed their emergence from the first workers’ struggles, as well as their regression, intrinsically belong to the unfolding of the capitalist mode of production.
This observation has led us to highlight a classic thesis of the communist left: that the future reappearance of the proletariat on the scene of class struggle necessarily has to be accompanied by the resurgence of proletarian class organizations with economic, “non‑political” content, to quote the expression of a 1951 writing, which today we, for purely expository purposes, and without any myth toward particular organizational forms, call “class-based unions”, since it’s by this term that entire proletarian generations have known it so far. The thesis of the resurgence of class-based economic bodies is linked to the observation of the irreversibility of the process of the currently existing trade union organizations’ subjugation to the State, in the imperialist phase, a phase that reached its climax after World War II, when in all countries national trade union organizations became irreplaceable pillars of the institutional apparatus on which the class domination of the bourgeoisie rests.
The left has emphasized this characteristic peculiar to the international political order that emerged from the World War II massacre in the immediate postwar period. On this basis it has ever since denied any classist validity in Italy to the democratic-resistance unitary trade unionism that followed fascist corporatism.
The special attention which the Party has devoted to the Italian implications of this international tendency derives not only from its interest in the geographical area within which our albeit weak capacity of action predominantly took place and is taking place, but also from the particularly mystifying character it has assumed there, having our opportunism had to reckon with a traditionally combative working class, reluctant in many of its sectors to feel itself an active and sharing participant in the corporatist production process and in the smooth running of the national economy, a proletariat moved by a sound class instinct and inclined to regard the bosses, governments, the State and its institutions as enemies. It cannot be denied that today, even under the relentless blows of the crisis, this instinct is dormant under a cloak of apathetic distrust and forced acceptance of the “policy of sacrifices”, but with this class combativeness Italian opportunism will still have to reckon.
In this context, the action of the trade unions, particularly the CGIL, on which the weight of this combativeness was most concentrated, has always been characterized by a balancing between the need to subjugate workers’ interests to capitalist productive demands and that of appearing, through its action for demands, to be the real and only true defender of the working class. This contradiction typical of any regime union is most easily disguised in periods of productive development of the capitalist machine, when capitalists can afford to give the proletarians some crumbs from their profits, while it takes on, as it does today, shocking aspects when opportunism is forced to unmask and show itself more and more openly as the valuable ally of the bourgeoisie, taking on the task of imposing on the workers, through all kinds of lies and deception, the necessary “sacrifices” and all sorts of contracts with the official representatives of capitalist interests.
The very fact of having to play this classic role of regime prop in direct contact with a proletariat that has often written formidable pages in the book of class conflicts, has enabled Italian regime unionism to acquire profound and perhaps unique experience in this field, and today it knows how to skillfully play cards in order to discover which are the most painless possible ways for workers to swallow down the anti‑crisis measures of the government and employers’ organizations, to the point of making its own demands aimed at reducing the purchasing power of wages and aggravating the living conditions of workers and presenting them as workers’ goals.
It’s important for the Party to have an exact grasp of the characteristics of this collaborationist policy, to identify the social forces it represents, to assess well the workers’ reactions to it in order to foresee trends in the future unfolding of class recovery and to set up a correct tactical solution to the inevitable workers’ struggles of a certainly not very distant tomorrow.
In the second part of the study, The Party Facing the Trade Unions in the Age of Imperialism, we highlighted in summary form the stages of the regression of democratic trade unionism after World War II toward embracing State institutions in relation to the then existing social situation. Now we want to delve deeper into this period, to try to grasp the precise meaning of the attitude of the trade unions to the major political and economic issues that characterized this thirty‑year period of trade union life for the working masses.
It might seem pedantic to continually write about the union’s attitudes during this period, but these Party works are not for intellectual and cultural purposes but to provide the Party with a critical weapon to be aimed today against this traitorous influence and for the continued refinement of the Party’s tactics in the trade union field.
Our Party, in the first two decades of its activity as a formal organization, refounded in 1951 on the basis of a body of characteristic theses that integrated it organically and exactly on the tracks of the theoretical-programmatic continuity of the Communist Left and thus in authentic left‑wing revolutionary Marxism (all adjectives that we’re compelled to use in order to distinguish ourselves not only from the filthy official opportunism but also from the terrible swarm of countless little groups of pseudo-revolutionaries who claim to refer to Marxism, because a “different” Marxism does not exist), dictated for Italy a trade union tactic marked by the prospect of the return of the working masses to class-based action, of reconquering the existing trade union structures, in particular those of the CGIL, since the bulk of the most combative proletariat militated in it. Thus it worked within it, with the membership of the Party’s worker militants in these unions and the establishment of communist groups within it.
In the last decade the Party has abandoned this tactic in favor of a position tending to favor a process that will see the resumption of class struggle express immediate economic bodies outside and against to the existing trade unions. We have abandoned internal fraction work in favor of moving toward the prospect of organizing independently of these unions, while not ruling out “on principle” the otherwise unlikely possibility of having to return to a struggle within them in the future.
Both of these tactical choices were not the result of experimentalism, nor voluntarist and activist orientations which, substituting the party for the class, preferred a particular classist organizational direction, but rather the logical tactical deduction consequent to the evaluation of the existing situation within the workers’ union movement and “its” organizations, in relation to the struggles and the responsiveness to them of the sectors of the most combative workers.
The history of the labor struggles of these years is therefore also important in this respect, for it’s from it that the Party must draw the most significant insights for its tactical direction.
2 – The desperate living conditions of the Italian proletariat in the period immediately after the war
This work is also intended to be a completion of the then discontinued series of articles that appeared in our newspaper from issue nº64 under the title The Post‑War Refoundation of Italian Trade Unions on a National, Patriotic, Corporatist Spirit. These articles highlighted one aspect, already covered extensively in other Party works: the total subordination of the then‑unitary CGIL to the policy of rebuilding the national economy disrupted by the war, by examining the period from the end of the conflict, or rather, from the founding of the CGIL with the “Pact of Rome” of ’44, to the union split of ’49. We won’t return to this topic, which was explored at length in that report, limiting ourselves to recalling how those were years of extremely harsh struggles that, especially in the South, often assumed an almost insurrectional character, followed by bloody repressions. A spontaneous movement also willing to take itself to a more general level, as during the reaction to the assassination attempt on Togliatti, which was immediately crushed by the joint PCI‑CGIL action. The trade union split was a reflection in this field of international events characterized by the “cold war”, that is, the political-economic opposition of the two imperialist blocs that emerged from World War II, which had as its political consequence in Italy the fracture of the government of national unity and reducing the PCI and PSI to opposition parties, which immediately, and through the CGIL, assumed the role of elastic controllers of the threatening proletarian movement, tormented by terrible living conditions, on the borders of grinding misery.
«This split – we wrote in that article – made coldly, at a time of ruthless employers’ attack, appeared to the Italian proletariat as a stab in the back, an attempt to dismember its forces. The organizations born out of this American-financed split appeared as an attempt to reconstitute the white and yellow organizations of the post‑WWI period, where they opposed the red unions.
«Actually, just as the patriotic CGIL of 1948 had nothing to do with the class-based CGL of 1919, likewise the CISL and UIL were but a rough copy of the white organizations of the early postwar period. (…) But, given the peculiar international situation of the Cold War, given the ostracism that the Americans were imposing on the PCI, which actually declared itself and indeed was sincerely national and patriotic, the CGIL appeared to the most combative part of the Italian proletariat as the red organization, as opposed to the other central centers linked to the bosses and the State. To be a member of the CGIL in those years meant exposing oneself to bosses’ harassment, dismissals, repression, while having nothing to gain personally. With the selflessness and courage that has always distinguished it, the most combative nucleus of the Italian proletariat rallied around this banner, filling the goons of the CISL and UIL with hatred and contempt».
It was in this situation that the Party saw the CGIL as its natural field of intervention and action, because it was in it that the most combative proletariat susceptible to the influence of the positions of the Revolutionary Party was organized.
As noted above, the union split fell on the heads of a proletariat gripped by miserable living and working conditions and malnourishment. An OECD survey of average daily availability of protein, fat and calories in the 12 European countries saw Italy in last place with 15 to 17% less than in the pre‑war years, which were already years of hunger and misery. If one considers the usual interclassist trick of statistical “averages”, one gets an idea of the appalling conditions of the proletarians.
Bourgeois sociology itself, as always subservient to the dictates of the powerful and privileged classes, was forced to acknowledge this in books reminiscent of Marx’s classic passages on the alienation of wage labor and Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England. Some excerpts from Simone Weil’s La Condition ouvrière are significant here: «He consumes in the factory, sometimes to the extreme limit, the best of his own being, his ability to feel, to think, to move; he consumes it because when he leaves the factory, he’s been emptied of it; and yet he put nothing of himself into his work, neither thought nor feeling, nor even, except very slightly, movements which he determined as having an end goal». And, further on, «One can see women waiting ten minutes in front of a factory in the pouring rain in front of an open door, where the bosses pass by, until the hour has struck: they are workers; that door is more foreign to them than any unfamiliar house where they would most naturally enter for shelter». Weil exclaims with candid astonishment, «It must be that social life is really rotten to the core if the workers feel at home in the factory when they go on strike, and strangers when they’re working!”
A few more figures: a parliamentary inquiry into poverty, conducted at the behest of the government and concluded in ’52 (and it is well known that these kinds of inquiries are always enormously rounded down) found that 2,800,000 families lived in houses with more than 4 people per room or in “improper” housing. Moreover, the average worker’s monthly wage, calculated by dividing the payroll by the number of workers employed, was given in ’51 by the Ministry of Labor as 26,790 liras, while the cost of living for the “typical family” hovered around 50,000 a month. But these calculations were starting from the official payroll, which did not take into account the contractual violations of a very large number of companies that tended in general to evade payment of working holidays, 13th month bonuses, and insurance contributions.
In addition to the wage aspect, the precariousness of work was a generalized phenomenon and found nourishment in the reserve army of the unemployed. Although Italian industry was at the beginning of a recovery phase, unemployment didn’t as much as hint at decreasing because companies were being organized on a more technologically modern basis and the increase in labor productivity, as always, induced capitalists to reduce the labor force. Statistics show that in 1950, of the total number of workers employed, those who found jobs were 4.94% and those who lost them, 5.93%. Layoffs affected female workers specially bad, who were often expelled early in pregnancy or even when marrying. Unemployment was on the rise, under the effect of an economic depression that became more pronounced in the first two to three years of the decade: in 1950 employment fell by 40,000 and in 1952‑53 by 160,000.
Meanwhile, the exploitation of labor-power will reach the maximum possible psycho-physical squeezing of workers with the introduction of the Taylor system in the organization of factory work, based on a strict chronometric control of the timing of the phases of work in relation to piecework, and incentive compensations that were added to the basic pay in proportion to the amount of work produced. Imported from the U.S., where, moreover, it found application in a much more technologically advanced production structure, applied in Italy, extended in the first half of the 1950s to a productive tissue that was being modernized extremely slowly, it produced what was called “ragtag Taylorism”, that is, a frighteningly intense exploitation of labor-power.
3 – State and splinter unions united in anti‑worker repression
To this situation of ultra-exploitation of the working class was to be added a climate of fierce State and employer repression in the factories toward the most combative workers, with real purges against CGIL members, a method which, especially at FIAT and on precise instructions from international political-economic circles linked to U.S. imperialism would last until around 1958‑59, while the police forces, police headquarters, and prefectures worked openly in connection with company management to profile workers on the basis of their political leanings and “moral conduct”, as can be read on the regularly printed and signed forms that Police Superintendents sent to the companies for information about their employees. There’s no doubt that such a connection never ceased to exist but, as always, every aspect of anti‑worker repression is unveiled for intimidation purposes at times, as back then, when social tensions and proletarian unrest become threatening. The situation created in the union field following the 1948 split undoubtedly favored political control of the working class by the institutions in charge. The white and yellow unions CISL and UIL, the former in particular, but indirectly also the CGIL with its reformist policies, immediately proved to be valuable collaborators of the bosses. The migratory flow of labor-power across the country since 1953 reached considerable proportions with the exodus of peasants from the countryside and the internal emigration of the population of the poorer regions to the “industrial centers”.
The CISL, openly financed by the Americans, was the most classic expression of the Italian bourgeoisie, bigoted and beggarly, committed to squeezing every possible drop of workers’ sweat, with the open complicity of the Church apparatus, exploiting its hold on populations of peasant origin who, driven by misery and hunger, were about to sell their arms in the hellish cycle of capitalist production. By appealing to the spirit of religious submission of the proletarianized peasant masses in search of employment, the CISL offices became centers of anti‑union struggle, forged and encouraged by the bosses. The migratory currents that reached the more industrialized provinces of Piedmont and Lombardy from the Veneto region were predominantly characterized by unmarried women workers; hence the development of so‑called “boarding schools”, generally run by nuns with traditionally severe criteria. When elections for the renewal of internal commissions were being prepared in the factories, the boarders collectively prayed that CISL candidates would be elected. And it’s no mystery that a “recommendation” of the curias and sacresties for workers seeking employment was needed to guarantee their submissive behavior.
The UIL, on the other hand, was mainly devoted to organizing the labor aristocracy and “middle management”, and so it too, albeit to a lesser extent because it was quantitatively weaker, contributed to the strengthening of the cordon sanitaire in the factories around the most combative sectors of the proletariat.
4 – The collaborationist policy of the CGIL
What about the CGIL? Faithful to its role as a democratic-national union (a line which it by no means abandoned), in the presence of an army of proletarians in desperate conditions and a rising tide of the unemployed, it put before them, then as now, the imperious interests of the nation, of the economic and social “progress” of Italy; i.e., it pretended to resolve these interests through capitalist development, as is in the classic spirit of reformism and as is in the aspiration of the very forces that embody the direct interests of capital. It was in this spirit that, at the Second Congress in October ’49 and subsequently at the “Production Conference”, the CGIL launched its “labor plan” and declared itself ready to make workers swallow “minor sacrifices”, assuming it was still possible to sacrifice more than they already had. In the midst of millions of starving proletarians, the concern of the “red” union leaders was to convince the capitalists of the productive and profitable efficiency of their plans. Let us follow Di Vittorio’s report in its salient passages:
«The works we propose are useful, productive, profitable. The investment of capital in such works would in most cases be convenient even from the point of view of the capitalist’s economic calculation. We need to do these works, to solve these distressing problems of the nation, these problems that condition life and Italy’s small step toward progress. Why is nothing being done? Because in the first place the current economic structure prevents us from taking any step forward and because we lack capital investment».
And here are the points of the plan:
In order to finance this plan, part of which would later be implemented by the bourgeoisie because it suited its interests insofar as it carried out the social structures essential to properly oil the mechanism of production and the market, and certainly not because its “silly servants” proposed it, Di Vittorio proposes, «a few things [not too many, for goodness sake!] can be obtained from the propertied classes, from the large landowners, from the agriculture kings, from the monopoly industrialists, who will have their lands reclaimed, irrigated, their plants increased and modernized and won’t expect to get these works for free». The second source of financing was to come «from an organized orientation of national savings toward productive investments”, as if this were not one of the most trepidatious expectations of all entrepreneurs, and finally «from foreign loans, which will not undermine the economic and political independence of the nation».
These reformist statements, which were accompanied, at company levels, by the proposals of the Production Conferences (such as those of Fiat in which the CGIL proposed the “plan to give the little car to all workers”, that of the famous “600”) translated on the practical level into an abandonment of the defense of wages and the most elementary living conditions of workers.
When, in 1952, these conditions reached perhaps the lowest point of the postwar period, at the Third Congress of the CGIL not a word was raised about it, and the anger and ailments of millions of proletarians were muted by resignation and starvation. The “Unitary Motion” that concludes the congress is entirely a hymn sung to the great achievements of democracy, peace among peoples, and national unity:
«The CGIL calls the attention of all Italian workers to the direct link that has been formed between the struggle for the defense of one’s labor, one’s bread and one’s elementary rights, with the struggle in defense of the democratic freedoms won, for the realization of indispensable social reforms, for the defense of the supreme good of the people of Italy and of all humanity: Peace (…) In this struggle for welfare, for progress, for freedom and for peace, all strata of the people are directly concerned: the CGIL calls on the confederate organizations to achieve relations of good understanding, cooperation and mutual help with artisans, merchants, with small and medium agricultural and industrial producers, with professionals and with every other stratum of the working middle class by making their legitimate demands their own, so that the whole people united will succeed in making the needs of life and development of the Nation prevail over the blind selfishness of the capitalist and agrarian oligarchies».
Di Vittorio was certainly correct at this congress when he said, «We are the most constitutional force that exists in Italy today. The CGIL, on the political terrain, wants to preserve the great achievements enshrined in the Constitution, in the fundamental pact of national society, consecrated by the Constituent Assembly, elected by universal suffrage». This fidelity to the constitution will go so far that the CGIL – in contrast even to the CISL, which will proclaim its supposed “independence” from the State (what this independence actually was, it continually demonstrated in deeds!) – will repeatedly demand that Article 39, the one concerning the legal recognition of the union as the sole representative of all workers, be applied.
5 – Corporate paternalism and CGIL submission
Imbued to the core with national-patriotic reformist demagogy, the CGIL could hardly represent a class-based alternative to the collaborationism of the CISL and UIL. On the contrary, the period of most acute contrast between the confederations, which we can point to from 1952 to 1956‑57, was characterized by searing verbal polemics that substantially reflected the political positions of the parties to which each confederation belonged and that, as a reflection, found nourishment on the level of inter-imperialist relations between the blocs that emerged victorious from the carnage of war, dominated at the time by the so‑called “cold war”. On the level of demands, the CGIL always maintained an attitude of yielding and giving up the struggle by accepting in fact, beyond instrumental attacks and verbal polemics, the actions of the other two. As a matter of fact, this attitude allowed the bosses to make one‑sided contracts, both generalized and at the company level, with the CISL and UIL, without the CGIL’s explicit involvement, but without the latter ever opposing these conclusions, despite its bargaining strength and mobilization capability. A significant example was the “conglobation” dispute. Under pressure from the workers’ rank-and-file, increasingly exasperated by the immiseration of wages, all three confederations were forced to respond to these pressures, and they did so through a demand to conglobate the check meant to help with the high cost of living and other minor checks into the basic pay, while demanding wage increases at the same time. Each union presented separate demands. For the UIL, the increase in the basic wage was to be 10%; the CISL demanded wage adjustments differentiated from one industrial sector to another, according to higher or lower productivity, based on a logic that would become, as we shall see, first its big number, then adopted by all unions. The CGIL initially presented a demand of 20%, demurely later reduced to almost 15%.
This facade of radicalism remained so, however, because the dispute dragged on for two years amid workers’ weariness and distrust. While the CISL immediately took a lukewarm stance and made it clear that it cared little about wage increases, the CGIL abandoned its commitment to this dispute, all bent on the 1953 general elections, on grabbing votes for the PCI and PSI among a bewildered and confused worker base. Once the elections were over, the pro‑government unions threw themselves headlong into supporting the politicking games and scheming of parties and currents in forming new governments. After several vicissitudes of “transitional” governments whose exploits are useless to narrate, the formation of the center-right Scelba government, between Christian Democrats-PSDI-PRI-PLI, for which the CISL had fought, induced the latter to take an even softer attitude, immediately followed by the UIL.
At this point the Confindustria opened negotiations, but from the outset declared that it would only agree to conglobate the various wage items, with no increases. The CGIL leadership sensed that an agreement along these lines was on the way and left the bargaining table, but without calling the workers to struggle, so that the Confindustria in June 1954 was able to reach a separate agreement with the CISL and UIL: by conglobating the wage items, the increases varied from category to category by a total of less than 5%. A couple of examples suffice to comment on the agreement: the hourly wage of a common laborer increased, in Milan, from 139.05 Lire to 142.50 Lire; in Turin from 133.55 Lire to 139.38 Lire, and this was after wages had been at a standstill since the 1948‑49 contracts while there had been a significant increase in the cost of living in these years.
The absence, in the CGIL’s bargaining policy, of any serious reference to the need to drastically increase wages and reduce working hours is confirmed by the fact that the first contract renewals of the main working-class categories that had entered into collective bargaining agreements in the immediate postwar period would take place after 10 years, in 1959, and we’ll see with what disappointing results.
That the mighty post‑war development of Italian capitalism and in particular the economic “boom” of the 1960s was based on low wages and intensive exploitation of the labor force is now accepted by all. But the dynamics through which this occurred, and in particular the specific role played by the union opportunism of the various political currents is of fundamental importance in understanding the developments of the trade union movement in the following period and up to the present day.
The CGIL’s surrendering attitude in the face of pressure from the bosses and repression in the factories, as well as in the face of the openly collaborationist policies of the CISL and UIL, caused a growing mistrust of proletarians toward it, and this resulted, under the combined effect of bosses’ intimidation and the flattery of the pro‑bosses unions, in a decline in membership in the CGIL and an increase in the “contractual weight” of the CISL and UIL. At the end of 1954 the CGIL reported 4,525,000 members, the CISL almost 2 million, and the UIL 500,000.
This quantitative consistency enabled the CISL to play a considerable role in interpreting the demands of corporate capital and translating them into consequential attitudes within the factories. A role that became invaluable when Italian industry, starting in 1953‑54, began to appear on world markets, finding there a favorable terrain for its goods, which were very competitive thanks to the progressive, albeit slow, modernization of production facilities under the effect of the Marshall Plan and the new technologies imported from the U.S. and, as already mentioned, to the super-exploitation of a proletariat reduced to misery.
This resulted in a gradual increase in employment and relative wage improvement, differentiated, however, by categories and firms. This was not in response to union demands, never put forward by the unions, but granted by the bosses to tie labor-power to the individual firm, at a time when capitalist expansion of production promised easy and huge profits. Entrepreneurs thus aimed to devalue collective bargaining, valuing corporate concessions. Individual entrepreneurs, on their own initiative or by negotiating with accommodating union representatives, including the piecards of the CISL but also artfully and custom‑made union formations created by the companies themselves, granted significantly better treatments than those of collective bargaining, thus achieving to discredit the unions, especially the CGIL, in front of workers and to present themselves to workers and young job seekers as “good bosses”.
The consistently low level of contractual wages and the complicit acquiescence of the official trade unions gave the entrepreneur wide space to decide de facto real wages, and, as a consequence, a power to maneuver and put even psychological pressure on individual workers. This was the period of the blossoming of company paternalism, of most favorable agreements, of bosses’ unions embedded in the social environment surrounding the factory, capturing its most docile and servile workforce, leveraging the promise of a “secure job”, a “privileged position”, and “growing prosperity”.
They sought to organize those already employed in the company through campaigns designed to convince the worker that his or her wage‑earning chances would increase as, having abandoned the path of struggle, he or she entered the company’s productive structure with a collaborative élan. A classic example is the A.A. union at Olivetti. At FIAT the CISL had been openly supported by the company in Internal Commissions elections, to the point that the union itself was about to be blatantly discredited in the eyes of the workers. The CISL national secretariat itself had to intervene, whose secretary Pastore personally went to Turin and, in a press conference, rejected employer interference in the IC elections and announced that the CISL would not present its own lists if the company did not guarantee freedom of voting. This intervention provoked the split, which saw as many as 100 out of 144 IC CISL members go the way of the formation of the Italian Automobile Union (SIDA), which the company would use to conclude separate agreements benefiting the categories of clericals and skilled technicians.
Compared to the 1947‑53 period when wages had remained far below the cost of living, they increased in the following period, but if we examine this from a general class point of view, we see that this didn’t detract from the fact that Italian capitalism continued to be based on starvation wages. In fact, a significant gap between categories, qualifications, and geographical areas was determined. For example, a common worker in the steel industry earned, as an hourly union minimum, 148 lire in Terni, 167 in Livorno, 179 in Milan. Then there was a clear differentiation between the lowest qualifications, which barely reached the minimum needed to buy enough food to survive, the intermediate clerical categories, and the upper strata, the workers’ watchdogs. It’s worth noting, to get an exact idea of the situation, that in 1956 unskilled laborers still made up 47% of the industrial workforce to which must be added a 33% agricultural wage earners for a total of 80% unskilled labor-power as opposed to 20% skilled workers, clerical workers, and “cadres”. Moreover, according to a government survey, which we thus certainly need not suspect of being pro‑worker, conducted in 1957 on the standard of living of industrial workers, the average global wage, differentiated according to the area scale and according to a fractional scale of qualifications, showed wide fluctuations, but the incomes of the vast majority of workers were found to be between (putting all wage items into the calculation) 50,000 to 60,000 liras per month, «and yet the 60,000 – said the government commission report – is a figure that concerns, as a mass, only the workers of some large metal and chemical companies in the North». That year the CSIL noted that the budget for a family of four needed to meet essential expenses was 70,371 liras per month. Even taking into account the sketchiness of statistics, which always masks the worst and most widespread situations, it is clear that, 12 years after the end of the war and after the proletariat had already paid a heavy price for the reconstruction of the national productive tissue, wages were insufficient to guarantee the minimum living for a family in which only one member worked. This, among other things, caused widespread and generalized recourse to second jobs. Add to this 2,171,000 unemployed and underemployed in that year and the picture is complete: the vast majority of workers remained bound to misery wages.
At the same time, recourse to buying by bills of exchange, installments, etc., a phenomenon that was later called “consumerism” by bourgeois sociology, began.
It’s natural that on such a basis, fostered by the concentration of the bulk of manufacturing production in the so‑called “industrial triangle”, an infinite variety of situations was created with remarkable differentiations between categories and sections, between North and South, between industrial regions in general and agricultural regions. Again, between households in which several members or only one work; between workers with more or fewer children; between workers who while working in factories maintain the agricultural livelihood from which they came, etc. Heavy economic atomization of the working class, ruthless competition among workers, and an army of well‑paid watchdogs who organize themselves into white unions and keep the proletariat at bay by squeezing every last drop of their working energies.
This whole situation, fostered by trade union politics, explains why the 1953‑59 period is characterized by the absence of major struggles for demands, so much so that direct repression by the State itself was toned down, giving opportunists an opportunity to sing hymns to democratic achievements and the prospects of continued social progress, which is apparently confirmed precisely by a series of company‑wide wage increases that lead a certain number of workers, the “luckiest”, to reach the minimum of vital subsistence.
7 – The drama of internal migration
Another aspect of the working-class condition of the period that cannot be overlooked is that of internal emigration, not forgetting, of course, emigration abroad. The influx to the “industrial triangle” of workers of peasant origin in search of work, coming from the South or from the depressed provinces of the Center-North, accentuated by the floods of that period in Polesine and Calabria, determined around the cities of the industrial pole, in particular Turin and Milan, the rise of chaotic villages in an urban cluster devoid of the most elementary hygienic facilities, which contributed in no small measure to the manifestation of all kinds of tensions and social contradictions due to the great difficulties in integrating newcomers, who also encountered a certain aversion from the local population. The phenomenon took on remarkable dimensions in the urban areas north of Milan, which from 1952 to 1956 saw the local population increase by 16%. This mass of proletarianized peasants uprooted from their social environment clashed with the fundamental need for housing, prohibitive within the big cities, due to the already then high prices, relatively less so within a radius of 20‑30 kilometers, as long as one found a way to sell, even at a very low price, one’s labor-power. Into the “housing speculation” go the businesses in the sector: in the northern area of Milan from 1951 to 1957 the value of land increased no less than 1000% on average, with peaks up to 1200. The “master plans” prepared by municipal administrations were being swept away before they were even launched. Ruling unchallenged over everything was the chaotic and anarchic greed for capital appreciation, which was all the more frenzied and uncontrollable the more individual capitalists, banks, small and medium entrepreneurs sniffed out easy profits. The need for housing led to a distressing situation of chain exploitation of immigrant proletarians, another emblematic example of the working-class living conditions brought about by the so‑called “economic miracle”. The first arrivals, who in 1951‑52 had bought the land by paying 150‑200 liras per square meter and had built the small house there themselves, at the price of course of unspeakable sacrifices, began to recoup at the expense of the proletarians who arrived with the successive waves of migration.
«The house – reads a volume-dossier compiled by the CGIL in the late 1950s – begins in the cellar; it’s the cellar that allows the house to be built, because it is immediately rented to a family that does not have enough money to be able to build it on its own; one family lives in the cellar for rent, the landlord’s family on the ground floor: it is two rooms and a cubbyhole, or a room with a partition. The next year, if things go well, the immigrant has made a second floor, in which he will immediately go to live. The basement tenants will move up to the ground floor, and the basement will be sublet to a newly arrived family».
In this situation, every proletarian nucleus tended to shut in on itself, to try with its own strength to get out of the ghetto of oppressive misery, to the great detriment of class consciousness, and on which the labor racketeers speculated, hiring on behalf of third parties at the lowest possible prices. We should remind it to those who today, having now collapsed the myths of “growing prosperity”, which at the time found easy nourishment in the miserable conditions in which the working class lived, accuse the proletarians of having hitherto lived “above their means” of all this. They “forget” these people that the “better affluence”, if you want to call it that, enjoyed by large strata of workers in the past two decades, has been only for the crumbs of an impressive mass of profits extirpated by bestial exploitation, at the limit of physical endurance, from which proletarians only benefited a tiny fraction.
To this dramatic situation we saw how the unions responded with their disinterest on wage levels that would materialize, in addition to the sad affair of the agreement on conglobation, in the contract renewals of the years between 1954 and 1958, whose tabular increases on minimums would never go beyond 3.5%.
On the other hand, these renewals will serve the unions to inculcate in workers the myth of the national collective agreement, a bargaining structure beyond measure extolled by the unions, including by the CGIL, a set of rules that regulate the labor relationship and that for its entire duration would be considered inviolable in itself. The contract ensures the bosses a reference on which to rely in the exploitation of labor-power and, above all, union peace for a contractually predetermined time. It reinforces in proletarians the illusion that the bosses are bound to abide by certain clauses only because they have signed a piece of paper and that their defense can be left to the bourgeois judiciary, an illusion for which the proletarians are paying the price today, as the recent episodes of workers resorting to the judiciary to defend themselves against the bosses’ decision to place them on layoffs have shown.
The subservience of the trade unions to capitalist productive demands can be seen not only in the contents of their bargaining policy but in their attitudes toward the bargaining structure, issues that are, moreover, closely interrelated. This question is important for understanding the evolution or, rather, the regression of today’s trade unions with respect to the period under consideration, particularly with regard to the rapprochement of the three confederations and their march toward unity of action and, later, of organization, which stopped, however, at the federal level and never materialized in the return to the single union of the immediate postwar period. It also allows us to understand the evolution that the union’s organizational structures in the factories underwent during this thirty‑year period, an issue to which we will devote a separate chapter. The bargaining structure, that is, the specific level to which the union’s demand action can or should refer, is of great importance since it allows capital to diversify its control over labor-power according to the characteristics of the sectors in which its exploitation takes place. The union bargaining of the period now seen has a pronounced centralized character, in the sense that union action was carried out on matters of a general nature, at the level of the national confederation above all, and tended to conclude with the bosses general agreements that established norms and provisions valid for practically all categories and sectors of production.
This contractual system had a precise justification in the objective situation of the postwar period and reflected the need of capital, and mainly of State institutions, to integrate all the labor-power needed to put the productive backbone of the nation back into operation in the most regulated and uniform way possible: the problems that had to be addressed had a general character and involved all workers; the situation existing in the various industrial sectors presented homogeneous features; problems of reconversion, reconstruction, and reorganization of plants were arising in all companies. This period having passed, and entered a phase of productive expansion in all sectors, capital felt the need to organize the labor-power according to the specific productivity of each sector and according to the organization of labor in each firm.
Consistently playing its role as a white union, the CISL discovered, in the mid‑1950s, “articulate, company bargaining”, which in the 1960s would become the workhorse of the whole union, which would posture and declare itself willing to co‑manage, alongside company management, workforce and production cycles.
The first explicit CISL demand in this sense goes back to the General Council held on February 24‑26, 1953 in Ladispoli. There was explicit talk of “overcoming the national category contract” or rather of its “integration at the company level” in order to maneuver on wages and qualifications, too much flattened downward by the national contract, but taking the company’s productivity as a benchmark. Dionigi Coppo, confederal secretary, summarizes the significance of this new trend this way in his introductory report:
«A guiding principle has been established that governs the whole system, namely: the real possibilities for improving wages and working conditions are closely linked to the development of the efficiency and profitability of the system. Hence it follows: from greater efficiency and profitability can be obtained the improvement of the social position of workers as a group within the national community, and the possibility of increasing the strength, presence, and importance of the labor movement».
In particular, the fifth point of the “Concluding Motion on Wage Policy Guidelines” states, «The required adjustment, without prejudice to the full validity of inter-industry and categorical collective bargaining, requires the introduction and development of a practice of supplementary company agreements, as far as it relates to the incorporation into pay of the element that expresses the indispensability of workers’ contribution to efforts directed at increasing the productivity of companies».
As can be seen, the CISL didn’t even bother to mask this precise choice with fake pseudo-class language, a task that, as always, the CGIL would later take on, and explicitly enunciated the classic thesis of the apologists for capital that workers would have every interest in working to increase labor productivity in the factories as this would reflect positively on the possibility of acquiring better wage welfare. For its implementation, the CISL proposed the creation of Company Trade Union Sections, which, however, as we shall see, never enjoyed bargaining autonomy.
This proposal, especially because it was stated in such naked terms, provoked an initial aversion in the CGIL, which obviously reflected the moods of a combative rank-and-file that could never accept the principle of anchoring higher wages to the intensification of exploitation, and a certain caution on the behalf of the UIL itself. But this opposition didn’t last long. Under the objective pressure of events, and in particular of the employers’ repression in the big companies tending almost everywhere to favor the election of CISL members to the Internal Commissions, the CGIL’s ruling apparatus soon realized that in order to survive as an organization and above all to continue to play the role of national-democratic union that the bourgeois institutions had assigned to it, it was necessary to revise its demands strategy and to adapt to what the CISL was advocating.
A resounding fact intervened to make the leaders of the CGIL take the plunge, causing a real trauma in the CGIL rank-and-file: in March ’55, the elections for the renewal of the ICs at Fiat – where the CGIL had always obtained an absolute majority without any problems – gave 41% to the CISL, 36% to the CGIL, and 23% to the UIL. These results were undoubtedly the result of Fiat’s intimidation and allurement to reduce the representation of the FIOM list, in deference to American pressure that threatened to reduce orders to companies where “Reds” had a majority. The polling stations had been increased in order to reduce the number of voters registered at each polling station and thus allow for more widespread control by company hierarchies while leaflets with a cartoon depicting a little man coming out of a door on which CISL‑UIL was written and entering the Fiat gates triumphantly were inserted in workers’ paychecks.
Instead of reacting with a call for workers’ mobilization against such intimidation and denouncing the blatant bosses’ union nature of the CISL‑UIL, admitted by the company itself, the CGIL bureaucrats, despite pressure to this effect from its most combative rank-and-file, drew the opposite lesson: it was time to give in to these pressures and to move closer to the positions of the “competitors”. The union’s entire management apparatus attributed this resounding defeat to errors in its bargaining strategy «made outdated by the developments that have taken place in recent years in the organization of company labor», and invoked the need for change.
The “turn” was the dominant theme of the Fourth National Congress of February 27‑March 4, 1956, which, for this very reason, was called the congress of “self-critical consideration”.
Formally, the justifications given were at odds with the CISL in that at the center of articulated integrative bargaining the CGIL claimed to place the interests of workers, but the criticism was only formal in that this strategy would serve to conclude with the companies an infinity of one‑sided deals in which, under the claiming facade of bargaining for “all aspects of labor relations”, in reality the union gave its endorsement to the introduction of all technological and organizational innovations that the companies deemed profitable in order to extort as much surplus-value from the workers as possible.
The greatest skill of these subjugated unions in the post‑World War II period was precisely that they managed to leverage the trust that millions of proletarians placed in them in order to present their strategies for demands which tended to disguise the interests of capital as the interests of workers, so as to divert their energy of class struggle toward goals that actually backfired on them. This approach can already be detected by following the salient steps of the congress, a true, artfully dosed mixture of pseudo-class demagoguery and anti‑worker objectives.
The “Points on Congress Issues”, with such polemical skill as to elicit workers’ agreement, start with a critique of the notorious bourgeois “human relations” policy: «Workers cannot consider human relations either as an ineluctable reflection of technical progress or as a contribution to the improvement of the social and business climate, they – who remain the most consistent asserters of advanced forms of production – believe that the normality of relations in companies must be based on collective bargaining of all aspects of work performance, on absolute respect for workers’ rights, as well as on a strict delimitation of their duties».
But the real purpose of company bargaining is to bring social peace to factories by nailing workers to “their” so‑called “duties” in the production cycle. The goal was dressed up as follows: «To achieve that all aspects of labor relations are subject to bargaining, namely: remuneration in all its forms, work duration, time measurement and work rhythm intensity, modalities of work organization, hygienic conditions and safety, discipline, compulsory and supplementary social security benefits, cultural and recreational activities, the correct application of laws and contracts, so that none of these aspects are left to the discretion of the bosses, and ultimately, to articulate action for demands, adapting it to different situations». Further on:
«Particularly topical is the regulation of pay elements linked in any way to the intensity of work: piecework, incentive wages, production bonuses and others. Incentive wages must be established in such a way as to compensate in full, on the basis of the total remuneration inherent in the worker’s qualification, for any additional time‑saving in relation to the time‑base; the time‑base and work‑rate must be determined in such a way as to guarantee fair earnings and not to cause psychological and bodily burnout on the worker».
Any doubts about the true intentions with which the strategy of company bargaining was formulated are dispelled by Fernando Santi in his report:
«The struggle for employment and for better living and working conditions are ultimately the struggles for the social and economic progress of the country. We can no longer adapt to purely general formulations and actions for demands, which no longer correspond to the needs arising from the existing profound differentiations, among workplaces, among regions, between one productive sector and another, which particularly do not address the problems that have arisen from the new forms of work performance and organization of production and from the new company wage systems resulting from them».
«I think the basis of our strategy is in the method to be followed: effective bargaining of work rhythms and pay. Remuneration that must always correspond to the effort asked of the worker. This bargaining also means discussing the workforce itself, namely the number and qualification of workers to be assigned to a particular job, safety measures, etc. In essence, this bargaining implies that the worker must be aware of the need to act on the production process itself and the organization of work resulting from it».
Indeed, this thesis that “all aspects of labor relations are subject to bargaining” might have seemed suggestive in that it might seem correct, from a class-based point of view, for the union to challenge the companies on these specific aspects, but in reality it’ll only result, as these contractual premises consistently express, in the union’s participation in the company’s cataloguing and utilization of labor-power in relation to the productive needs of the processing and assembly cycles of individual companies.
But the worst feature of this approach, which our party immediately denounced and propagandized against in the years that followed, was that integrative bargaining, on which the union tactic of “bargaining struggles” was logically grafted, was the channel through which opportunism inflicted a mortal blow on the united struggles of the working class, breaking its force of action into a thousand weak struggles that never acted together or in unison. By claiming that each sector, each factory, each department, even each individual worker, had “special interests” to defend against the boss and for this reason had to fight separately from the others, the proletariat ceased to be considered a class and became a formless mass of individuals and groups, each nailed to their workplace, to their productive specificity, with their own “professional” heritage to safeguard and develop. No longer wage‑earners forced to sell their labor-power for a living, and thus having common interests opposed to those of the ruling class to which they are forced to sell themselves, but rather individual “producers”, characterized by the exercise of that particular job.
The classic revolutionary tendency for the different sections of the proletarian army to unite, to generalize their struggles above the interests of a particular section, or factory, or category, was reversed into its opposite. The strategy of separate struggles and company bargaining determined, as we shall see, the tendency of the rank-and-file union organization to structure itself by adhering to the factory organization and the consequent dismantling of the territorial organizational structure by the CGIL, at least as a reference for the struggle and extra-categorical meeting of workers, and marked its final abandonment, even formally, of any class-based appeal, to become a real labor bureaucracy, in the style of the split organizations CISL and UIL.
The process of bringing the three confederations close together began, not coincidentally, precisely under the impetus of this union strategy of company bargaining, which will lead the unions to find themselves on the terrain of joint action claiming contractual recognition of integrative bargaining by the bosses.
9 – First calls for union unity
It’s no coincidence that the first calls for union unity come from the CGIL and are launched by Di Vittorio at this very congress. In fact, the slow but steady rapprochement of the CGIL to the other two confederations will be characterized in the 1960s by continuous yielding by the CGIL leaders to the CISL and UIL strategies, traditionally surrendering on the level of struggle, productivist and corporatist in matters of demands. Of course, this process isn’t linear, undergoing ups and downs, under the influence of a combative rank-and-file that resents the idea of having to join forces with the CISL’s sanctimonious bootlickers and the self‑declared flunkies of the UIL, who in those years showed up in the factories as defeatists of any even mild struggle. On this initial aversion of the CGIL’s most combative rank-and-file to union unification our party would try to leverage by propagating its aversion to unity with the CISL and UIL in the name of returning to the class tradition of the CGIL, extolling the necessity of internal work within this confederation, because there the most combative ranks of the proletariat militated with bellicose conviction. In the years that followed, the rapprochement of the confederations was advocated with increasing fervor by the CGIL’s confederal leadership, which was eager to reunite with the bosses’ beloved unions. This leadership orientation will be in unison with those of the rank-and-file CISL and, in more cautious ways, the UIL. This second aspect of the unification process is no less interesting and significant than the first, because it allows us to understand how the efforts of all regime trade unionism from then on were directed in the direction of achieving the establishment in Italy of a modern unitary union, “modern” of course in the capitalist sense, that is, characterized by efficiently performing that regime union function of regulating social tensions, coming as close as possible in this to the unitary unions of the most stable Western democracies: West‑German and Anglo-Saxon. To achieve this, all trade unions had to operate in the sense of encapsulating the two necessary characteristics: on the one hand, to offer the bourgeoisie and its institutions the best guarantees that they would be able to contain and control the most dangerous workers’ drives, that they would be able to shape the movement in their reformist and collaborationist politics, anchoring it to the bandwagon of the national and corporate economy, subordinating class interests to those of capitalist economic productivity in general; on the other hand, this could only be offered on the condition that the trade unions at the same time could appear to the working masses as the real and only possible defenders of their living and working conditions.
The period of long and relatively steady development of industrial production that was opening up was preparing the objective conditions for the contradictions implicit in such a function to be smoothed out. In a period of gigantic profit-growth, conditions had indeed been created for a growing strata of proletarians to enjoy, at the cost of hard labor, some crumbs from this spasmodic capitalist accumulation, and for the trade unions to take credit for the relative improvement in their living conditions when such improvements were due to the stimulus of proletarian drives. This situation required, on the one hand, the CGIL to make every effort to free itself from the “red union” image and, on the other hand, the CISL from the sanctimonious, bootlicking and yielding union image it had to the CGIL workers. This second need was no less important than the first.
After all, the young CISL workers, who had largely gone from the church straight to the “white union”, holding a peasant and Catholic mentality, in years of rapid industrial development, weren’t slow to be influenced by a more genuinely proletarian spirit. Upon impact with the harsh reality of the factory, peasant caution and idyllic, phony Catholic moralistic and “humanitarian” illusions eventually gave way to aspirations not unlike those of any other worker. The master was beginning to be seen not as the benefactor to be respected, but the one who sought to bleed as much profit as possible out of those forced into the factory. These tensions led to rank-and-file movements in the CISL in the early 1960s that pushed for unity of action with CGIL forces.
The CISL national leadership itself realized that explicit collaboration with company management couldn’t go beyond certain limits without potentially emptying its rank-and-file organizations, as Pastore’s aforementioned intervention at Fiat had shown, when almost the entire CISL‑Fiat broke away to form SIDA. Something similar happened at OM in Brescia but this time at the initiative of the FIM rank-and-file whose company cadres disavowed the newly elected Internal Commission in the usual climate of company interference and pressure. The “left” FIM current that coagulated from this experience managed to win the local congress in November ’58 and became a majority in the local FIM, although nevertheless still remaining a minority in the Brescia CISL and the national CISL.
However, that episode triggered a whole turmoil within the national FIM, and long controversies and clashes especially with the CISL. At the FIM national congress in March-April 1962 the line‑up of so‑called “innovators” succeeded in winning a majority. This process of “modernization” of the CISL is certainly not to be confused with a purported rapprochement of the CISList Metalworkers Federation to class-based positions in the field of workers’ struggles, as certain leftist circles in 1968, which entered it to militate, would claim. The “innovators” who joined the FIM were youth who came from the “Florence school”, the reservoir of rank-and-file union cadre training wanted by CISL leaders to try to send executives from working-class backgrounds to the factories. The CISL from being a predominantly Public Service union was also trying to establish itself as a modern industrial union.
Young workers, mostly from the Veneto region, militated in the FIM to do trade unionism without leaving the Catholic sphere. But the harsh reality of the factory brought them closer to the rank-and-file militants of the FIOM, traditionally on class-based positions, at least in words. This propensity to free themselves from the weight of Catholic traditionalism and from a blatantly pro‑government attitude is picked up by the criticism later voiced by many of the young piecard leaders at the Florence School, where “the teachers’ speeches”, as Tridente, for example, who had passed through that experience, would later state, «demonstrated all their cultural inadequacy with respect to the times of dynamic development of Italian society». «After all – another CISL bureaucrat, Franco Bentivoglio, would later state – we must not forget that, until then, the CISL union leader was the good Catholic of the parish, the local notable, who was imposed from above. The Florence School, with its fundamentally interclass and pro‑capitalist indoctrination, still expresses this situation but gives Catholic workers a chance to become leaders and the vast majority become so within the FIM».
Contributing in no small measure to these pseudo-class ferments in the Catholic working-class world was the attitude of the Church, which, as always artful at adapting its propaganda to changing situations, toned down, as in the encyclical “Mater et magistra” of May 1961, the crudely anti‑classist and anti‑worker tones that had hitherto characterized it and worked, with the pontificate of John XXIII, to mix Catholic fideist theories with the liberal and democratoid mystification of “social justice”, adorned with socialistoid and humanitarian-bourgeois reformist tones.
The “white” activist was therefore slowly trying to shake off the label of “bosses’ servant” and began to strike quite naturally alongside his fellow worker, even if he was a PCIist. At union demonstrations, and at the clashes with the police in which they often ended up in those years, CISL members also began to participate. «That the police beat us in a particular way, with particular pleasure», observed FIM leader Nino Pagani in an interview in which he recalled the period between the late 1950s and early 1960s, «meant that we were no longer privileged, compared to the other workers, who were usually beaten all over».
These rank-and-file ferments provoked mixed and restrained reactions and forced these forces into almost conspiratorial activity for quite some time, as Pagani still testifies, «I always remember the struggle at the Mediterranean shipyards to defend employment. Those were hard years, wretched things, you have to have lived through them to understand them. And the letter would come that the strike wasn’t to be held jointly. The demonstration was to take place on the sidewalk, on one side the reds, on the other side the whites. It ended up that the workers went to the middle, because they did not accept the division (…) Costivani emerges victorious from a tough fight against the old leadership. Things went less well elsewhere. Tridente is fired from the CISL in Turin, Carniti is transferred from Milan to Legnano. Pagani is excluded from the general council of the CISL. And I could go on with this list. We used to talk to each other in hiding. About ten people would meet in Via Morosin in Milan, Carniti’s home. Connections between the provinces ‘on the move’ were maintained by skipping the national federation».
From the point of view of bourgeois influence in the labor movement, this transformation of the CISL and particularly the FIM, was no less negative than the anti‑classist dismantling of the CGIL; suffice it to consider how these workerist ferments succeeded in influencing combative worker fringes in 1968‑69, and it was precisely these socialistoid and radical attitudes that constituted the basis for the aggregation of a certain left‑wing catholic petty-bourgeois matrix that found in this organization a certain development to the point of making it assume, in moments of the most acute social tension, attitudes of “go beyond the left” of the CGIL. This is the generation that would go on to constitute a not insignificant fraction of the so‑called “trade union left”, which in more recent years, and still today, plays an important role as a cover for leftist trade union collaborationism, trying to control and bring back into its ranks the working-class fringes that tried to oppose the official line of the trade union centers. A not insignificant role in this regard was played in the CUBs and factory councils in 1968‑69 and after.
But in the meantime, in 1960‑63, these grassroots CISList thrusts served to hook the CGIL and aggregate it in the unity of action for company bargaining, in a social-economic situation that would mark favorable conditions for the resurgence of workers’ combativeness, a unity that would prove invaluable for the purposes of control of the working class. Later on the UIL would also join this engagement, while in the struggles the CGIL more and more took on an attitude of yielding to the other two confederations.
But it wasn’t yielding: in reality the needs of the CISL and UIL, which had to appear to the workers as unions that defended their interests, and the CGIL, seeking the bosses’ approval as a responsible union beneficial to the interests of the capitalist economy, were being met. To the first two, the rapprochement with the CGIL served to make them appear to the workers as willing to fight, while the alibi of unity of action served the CGIL to force its rank-and-file to accept the renouncing solutions from the other two. The cowardice of the CGIL confederal leaders toward the CISL and UIL will always be justified to their members in order not to reach the breaking of “workers’” unity. All the worst rubbish agreements were always shoved down workers’ throats in the name of unity.
10 – “Unity of action” crushes major struggles in 1960‑62
These “unitary attitudes” began to express themselves concretely in the contract renewals of 1959, of which the metalworkers’ dispute was the most significant, and in which the demand for recognition of the unions’ right to company bargaining appeared for the first time. However, this strategy meant dangers for the bosses in that, while it contained all the preconditions for involving the unions in the subjugation of the workforce in the factory, it could also have led to the uncontrolled eruption of demand movements at a company level. This explains the initial aversion of the Confindustria and of Intersind; they would accept it only with the contract renewals of 1962‑63, and with very precise guarantees. The unitary strikes of 1959 found little support at Fiat, and the dispute dragged on for several months, amid ups and downs and with little fighting conviction on the part of the CISL and UIL. On Sept. 23, after another unsuccessful meeting, the unions pretended to give an ultimatum, but this was of no fighting consequence and was shelved in subsequent meetings.
On October 23, the FIOM‑CGIL executive (it should be borne in mind that contract renewals were then handled not by the trade unions but by the confederal secretariats) voted to resume the struggle, but FIM and UILM preferred to continue the negotiations (again, it should be remembered that at that time, and until 1969, the principle of stopping the struggle while negotiations were in progress was in force). The FIOM avoided the break and the agreement was signed the same day with laughable results, almost nothing on the normative level, a few crumbs regarding wages: increases of less than 5%. This provoked a widespread sense of unease among workers that was one of the causes of the explosion of worker anger in the early 1960s.
We had now entered the period of the so‑called “economic miracle”, a period of industrial boom due to, essentially, Italy’s massive entry into the world market for the first time: exports increased from 1,341 billion lire in 1956 to 3. 159 billion in 1963; industrial output, taking 1953 as 100%, reached 128% in 1956, 138% in 1957, 142% in 1958, rose to 158% in 1959, to 182% in 1960 and 240% in 1963; employment in industry increased from 7,034,000 workers in 1958 to 7,986,000 in 1963, or a 950,000 increase. The exodus from the countryside intensified and the agricultural labor force fell from 6,847,000 in 1959 to 5,295,000 in 1963, that is, by about 1,500,000 workers; part of them found absorption in industry, part in services and construction, another part as always emigrates abroad.
This favorable situation resulted in a reinvigoration of the ranks of the proletariat, but it made the contradictions between the staggering increase in labor productivity and capitalist profits, and the low wages and generally precarious living conditions of the working masses even more visible. This resulted in an impulse of struggle and a general revival of workers’ action, barely controlled by the CGIL. The choice of articulated struggles, reaffirmed and indeed launched as the only possible strategy in the 1960 congress, clashed with a growing ferment in almost all the factories, which objectively tended by natural class instinct to the enlargement and unification of local conflicts.
In 1960, however, there were no particularly important strikes: statistics say it was the relatively calmest year of the decade, but deep tension mounted in the factories.
Violent anti‑fascist demonstrations occurred during the summer. The fuse had been ignited following the formation of the markedly right‑wing Tambroni government, which enjoyed the support of MSI votes, and the latter’s attempt to provocatively hold its congress in Genoa, a stronghold of “anti-fascism”. The radicalization of political polemics had acted as a catalyst on working-class discontent, brought about by the imbalances we have mentioned, first and foremost that between North and South. While the economic boom and the mirage of “welfare” was concentrated in the North, the dispossessed masses of the South were in desperate conditions.
On July 5 there was a town demonstration in Licata against the lack of water, with the police shooting into the crowd: one dead, many wounded. In Rome an anti‑fascist demonstration was overwhelmed by a charge of mounted carabinieri. On July 7 the most tragic episode: in Reggio Emilia police intervention resulted in five deaths.
On the wave of rising proletarian tension the CGIL was forced to proclaim, for the first time in 10 years, a national general strike. The CISL did not join, due to its traditional aversion to political strikes; the UIL participated only in a few provinces. In Sicily, during the strike, there were more police shootings and more deaths: three in Palermo and one in Catania.
The mobilization was such that from the hall of Palazzo Madama the then president of the Senate, Merzagora, addressed a “proposal to the country”, suggesting a 15‑day “truce” during which all armed forces, of all orders and types, would remain consigned to barracks, while parties and unions would work to avoid strikes and demonstrations. The call, however, fell on deaf ears because the government, which was evidently trying to escalate the situation in order to strike even harder at the labor movement, ordered the Ansa agency, radio and television, not to report it, and the clashes in Sicily occurred when Merzagora had already formulated his proposal.
Concerns about this situation were no less strong among union leaders and opportunist parties, to the point that the “leftist” Terracini himself commented on this fact:
«Knowledge of the proposed political truce might perhaps have calmed tempers when they were still heated. Those who forbade the radio to broadcast Merzagora’s appeal can be called responsible for the deaths in Palermo and Catania, which fell under police lead».
11 – Workers anger explodes in Piazza Statuto
In the fall the workers of the Susa Valley Cotton Mills and the electromechanical workers went on strike. In the Cotton Mills the agitation started almost spontaneously from one factory and immediately spread to the eleven factories of the group: the piecards, while putting themselves at the head of the movement, carried out an intense work of extinguishing it and tried to limit the extent of the strike with articulated bargaining; the workers demanded wage increases and went so far as to oppose the factory regime and the pace of work. The unrest would last until mid‑1962, meanwhile metalworkers went on strike, implementing a mighty struggle which on Dec. 27 saw more than 150,000 workers across the country take to the streets. At the beginning of 1961 the cotton workers started, soon followed by steel and shipyard workers, while just about everywhere there was a proliferation of company unrest, especially at Saffa and Montecatini, and as other categories prepared to enter the struggle. This gradual growth of conflicts will have the significant effect of highlighting the unions’ propensity to collaboration. The government convened in January 1961 the first of what came to be called the boss-government-union triangular meetings, which the latter never shirked and which indeed would remain from then on a significant symbol of the organic anti‑worker bloc formed by all of these forces and of the unions’ irreplaceable role as regulators of social tensions. The government’s attempt, under pressure from the bosses, was to regulate the whole dynamic of contracts structure to prevent the proliferation of unrest. Pella, who presided over the meeting, proposed an outline agreement that forced the unions to unceremoniously rebuff rank-and-file thrusts. Presented in the proposal was a “truce clause”, which the unions then agreed to include as a “contractual premise” in all agreements and in which it remained until 1969: «The workers’ organizations undertake not to promote and intervene so that demand actions intended to modify, integrate, and innovate what has been the subject of agreement at the various levels are avoided». The unions thus took on the task of crushing struggles, and their action took place, consistently, in this manner. The workers of the Susa Valley Cotton Mills, after 145 days of strike action, were forced to sign an agreement with a very small wage increase and a “bonus”, while nothing was decided about the pace of work. The same fate befell the electromechanics and steelworkers in private firms.
Despite this defeat, workers’ tensions rose, and 1961‑62 saw the explosion of the entire labor movement – a social ferment that instilled in workers a consciousness of their strength. In 1962 the unrest reached an unprecedented scale, surpassed only in 1969: 181,732,000 hours of strikes, twice as many as in 1961. Almost a common feature of these struggles was the rapidity with which local movements spread and the reluctance with which workers accepted the unions’ strategy of articulated struggles. This strategy was also unpopular with the bosses, who feared the unrest might branch out. However, it is precisely because of this articulation that the struggles of 1961‑62 never managed to merge into a single mighty class movement. The workers perceived with their class instincts this situation, and the aversion to separate struggles took on such tones that the CGIL, in the Fourth Congress of 1964, was forced to take an official stand against those who were called the “nostalgics of old‑fashioned trade unionism”, asserting the validity of the congress’ choice.
This, moreover, was beginning to bear collaborationist fruit on the level of union control of company organizational processes: particularly significant in this regard was the Italsider group dispute in 1961. The company’s management, in order to increase productivity on the basis of modern criteria, had introduced the system of “job evaluation”, which consisted of distributing tasks among employees according to extremely calibrated evaluations of the ability of individuals. This method allowed for a rational and scientific exploitation of the workforce, and at the same time enhanced competition among workers in an extreme fragmentation of qualifications. In the Italsider dispute, the metalworkers’ unions didn’t reject “job evaluation”, but merely demanded its mitigated application; this resulted in an agreement, reached jointly on April 30, 1961, in which the company recognized that the union had some power over the allocation of qualifications and on the incentive wage policy linked to the new method. Through the “bargaining of all aspects of labor relations”, the union effectively endorsed and managed with the company the criteria for the exploitation of workers.
On this example, integrative bargaining found favorable ground in state-owned enterprises. There were disputes at Nuovo Pignone, at Dalmine; at Alfa Romeo a unitary agreement was signed that regulated piecework in production line.
In 1961 34 contracts were renewed, including construction workers, private oil workers and cement workers. Worker pugnacity imposed increases around 7‑12%, then higher than previous ones. Reductions in working hours were also agreed upon, usually an hour and a half a week, but this achievement remained de facto on paper because it resulted, amid union benevolence, in an increase in annual leave or compensated in money.
The peak year was, as noted above,1962 in which the metalworkers’ dispute stood out. Workers anger erupted early in the year when, without waiting for the contract deadline, strikes broke out in individual factories, against union directives. Particularly noteworthy was the one at Lancia in which the struggle started in a few departments, quickly invaded the entire complex and finally overflowed over the whole city. After a month of struggle, in which the Bolzano plant also participated, the 11,000 workers at Lancia obtained decent wage increases, extra days off and a contractual reengagement at the end of the contract.
The turmoil was such that the Confindustria itself was interested in opening contract negotiations in advance to prevent the uncontrolled eruption of individual unrest. This employers’ demand was met by the UILM, which, while 50,000 metalworkers were on strike in Milan, officially called for the opening of negotiations. After the usual polemics to disguise it, the FIM and FIOM also agreed to negotiate. The unions tried, as usual, to curb the strikes, which nevertheless saw massive worker participation; even at FIAT, overcoming the shocks caused in past years by harsh employer repression.
With the specific intent of breaking the fighting front, on July 5 the unions signed, in unison, a separate and preliminary agreement with the Intersind and ASAP in which, for the first time, the legitimacy of separate bargaining by sector and company was recognized, albeit with an “applicative” and not “integrative” character, thus without the possibility of improvements. Leader-in-chief Lama himself, in an interview in 1971, would say, «We made concessions then that, in hindisght, are dramatic».
Immediately after the agreement, the UILM declared its willingness to sign a separate agreement with Fiat if the Turin company accepted the contents of the agreement reached with the State Participated firms. Fiat agreed and, two days later, signed the agreement with the UILM and SIDA. This was the spark of the famous events of Piazza Statuto. Although the UILM and SIDA had a combined 63% of the votes in the Internal Commission, the strike called by the FIOM was joined by 92% of the workers, and most of the most combative workers came out in demonstrations, flocking to Piazza Statuto, under the provincial headquarters of the UIL to shout their anger against the separate agreement. Tension was at its highest and the police charged the demonstrators. A few hundred workers took on the battle and fought against the police Jeeps; uncountable bruised, injured and arrested; the clashes lasted all night, the entire square was stripped for material to use against the police: cobble stones were hurled at the policemen and almost all the sign posts were torn down and used as batons.
The provincial secretariats of the CISL and CGIL immediately condemned the events, naturally attributing them to the usual “thugs alien to the working class” or to the presence of “fascist provocateurs equipped with fancy cars”, and appealed to the workers to condemn and firmly reject “any attempt to undermine the unity and democratic discipline of the strike wanted by the workers”. These traitorous narratives would later be ridiculed during the trial of the arrested: all Fiat workers, two‑thirds young southerners and many of them union members, some even with UIL cards. A few days later Fiat fired 84 workers in retaliation, calling them “troublemakers and violent agitators” in a communiqué; in response the unions proclaimed a 10‑minute nationwide strike in which the UILM did not join.
The dispute dragged on amid considerable tension for several more months until the unions dealt the death blow to the movement by agreeing, this time in unison, to separate compromises called the “protocol of agreement on future renewal”. The dispute didn’t end until February 1963 with very modest improvements when compared to the great combativeness expressed by the workers. The workers’ flare‑up dragged on throughout 1963 until the threshold of 1964.
There can be no doubt that in those years the trade unions, on the wave of a workers’ combativeness expressed by the younger generations who had recently entered the factories and were pervaded by a considerable sense of frustration and insecurity, established themselves on the field as indispensable to the capitalist regime. The same leading sectors of the big bourgeoisie became increasingly convinced of this, a primary factor in determining the formation, just then, of the first center‑left coalition government experiences.
In these inflamed years, the unions drew lifeblood from the young proletarians who had participated in the struggles, and the process of “modernization” of the trade union centers that had come of age at the organizational level saw a wide turnover of management cadres. In the aftermath of the struggles of 1962‑63, the metalworkers’ federations held their congress and replaced the old leaders from the Cold War period. At the FIOM congress in Rimini in 1963, members of the left‑wing of the PSI and new recruits from the PCI took over its leadership, and the election of Bruno Trentin to the general secretariat symbolized this change. In the following years this process extended to the local level and the changes in numerous cases took place not without violence or defections. The same phenomenon occurred in the FIM where in the same period traditional Christian Democrat cadres were replaced by young militants from the Catholic left. In the UILM, renewal occurred in 1965 following the PSI‑PSDI merger; a large fraction of social democratic cadres were replaced by a new generation of socialist militants from the left of the unified party. After the new split, the UILM would remain in the hands of these cadres and fit more organically into the role of the trade union tripartite.
12 – The “transitional crisis” between union reformism and State repression
While the contracts reached in those years were, thanks to great worker combativeness, less worse than previous ones, they didn’t, in general, bring significant improvements in working-class conditions. Rather, the relative rise in the general standard of living of the proletariat was due to the continuous injection of youth and women, so that the number of families in which two and even more members worked increased, into the production process, which seemed to expand endlessly. Then the practice of a “second job”, which was relatively easy to exercise in an expanding economy, grew in popularity, as did the increasingly frequent and uncontrolled use of overtime work, which was very profitable for businesses, which could meet the growing demand for goods without resorting to additional hiring. The rise in the general standard of living of the proletarian masses in the industrial zones was thus the consequence of extensive, as well as intensive, exploitation of labor-power, and on this exploitation bourgeois and reformist propaganda could sow the illusion of ever-increasing and unstoppable prosperity and security, as long as the proletariat contained its class combativeness. The illusion was shattered as early as 1964 with the onset of what was called the “conjunctural (or transitional) crisis” which peaked in 1965. The economy entered a recession, unemployment grew, and investment stalled. From January 1964 to January 1965 among metalworkers employment dropped by 100,000, by 60,000 among textiles, and by 150,000 among construction workers; investment dropped by 20%; 500,000 metalworkers were on layoff benefits. This led to massive corporate restructuring, clamping down on workers’ demands, government measures aimed at hitting real wages. Under the threat of job loss, worker combativeness diminished. Brief defensive strikes occurred somewhat throughout the country, but the unions toned down their initiatives, trying on many occasions to harness worker discontent. Catastrophism and the government’s calls for “reasonableness” found the unions ready to seize the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to control the working class. Wage demands were pushed to the background and subordinated to reformist claims. In particular, the CGIL framed the defense of workers’ interests within the framework of so‑called “structural reforms” and a “policy of development and planning”. This would be the dominant theme of the 6th National Congress in Bologna on March 31‑April 5, 1965. The CGIL was beginning to insert itself more and more organically into State institutions and to regulate all of its trade union activity in order to become a “valid mediator” of bourgeois governments, to the point of accepting the substantial contents of government programs aimed at carrying out coordinating interventions of the entire national production system. It’s symptomatic how in every period of crisis this natural tendency of opportunism is strengthened to the point of securing, as today, blatantly and openly anti‑worker initiatives and attitudes and becoming one of the irreplaceable protagonists of the institutional mechanism of capitalist society.
At that time, the CGIL effectively accepted the government’s economic programs. In his congress report, Agostino Novella said, «The CGIL, together with the entire labor movement, is faced with the draft economic development program for 1965‑69, recently approved at the Council of Ministers. It’s well known that this draft has been submitted to the CNEL, where the CGIL has its own direct representatives. We said there that the goals and objectives which the draft proposes correspond, on the whole, to goals and objectives which the CGIL has set forth in its economic planning line. The CGIL therefore believes that the presentation of the economic development project for the five‑year period introduces into the dialectic of social forces a new terrain of confrontation on which the union intends to be incisively present».
In this spirit, the themes of the congress are a real reformist project to which the bourgeoisie itself aspires through the mouths of its parties and to which the CGIL openly proclaims that it will subordinate wage demands dynamics.
The theses indicate:
«Tax, credit and public administration reform, to give the State the guiding instruments necessary to put the growing parts of monopoly accumulation into public accumulation; incisive interventions in the industrial sector; agrarian reform to create new forms of accumulation (…) the formation of a democratic (?!) network of distribution for all goods (…) urban reform that eliminates parasitic rents (…) the formation of a transportation network functional to economic development (…) the adoption of a school plan consonant with the actual needs for the dissemination of culture and professional preparation (…) social security reform».
Finally these key passages, in points 78 and 79:
«The struggle for democratic planning represents for the CGIL an essential moment in the development of its initiative. This moment finds in the autonomous demand-making initiative and in the bargaining strength of workers its organic welding with the complex of union action in its company and category articulations. In this perspective, the CGIL and its organizations will evaluate the effects of their choices of demands (wages, hours, etc.) graduating them on the basis of a general judgment of the situation in relation to the rhythms and modes of the effective realization of the objectives and the democratic program».
Further on, in paragraph 83:
«The union’s contribution will have to take place in full awareness of the fact that the wage, social and democratic achievements of the broad working masses contribute to determining a productive momentum that favors the raising of the productivity of the entire system». Finally, in point 91: «The CGIL believes that its task in the coming years will be to strengthen, through the struggle for demands, union power at all levels and to find new forms of generalizing the movement for the objectives of structural reform and economic planning and the gradual stages of their realization».
The CGIL’s reformist strategy was not at all dissimilar to that of the CISL, which, at its congress held shortly after that of the CGIL, also showed itself willing to support the government’s five‑year economic program and subordinate its wage demands to it. Rather, it relaunched in grand style the “contractual savings” proposal that had characterized its previous congress and consisted of returning to productive investment a part of the contractual wage increases «within the framework [as is said in a 1963 document] of a rational wage and contractual policy harmonized with the growth of productivity at the different levels of the system».
Once again supine surrender served as a corollary to the intensification of government anti‑worker repression, which in the fall of 1965 had an impressive upsurge and hit the civil service in particular. In Bari, in September, Moro called the government back to set an example of firmness: the famous “we’ll say no”. In the civil service in1965 alone 50,000 workers, between strikers and union leaders, were fired.
The employers’ offensive and the economic crisis itself, however, was not enough to dampen the workers’ combativeness that in 1965 to 1967 led to extremely hard struggles in all sectors, as documented in our Spartaco paper in those years. Let us recall, just by way of example, the struggles of the shipyard workers in 1966, against the threat of closure of some factories, which, after a few months of 0n‑off strikes, turned into a revolt in October in the main centers: La Spezia, Livorno, Monfalcone, Genoa and Trieste, with very harsh clashes against the police, and the struggle of farm hands, which reached the highest moment of mobilization in Puglia, in Bari, where a strike lasted 17 days and was supported by strong popular demonstrations. The CGIL, now in full cahoots with the CISL and UIL, tenaciously tried to fragment the struggles; every company, every sector, every category, was kept rigidly isolated from the rest of the class in struggle.
13 – The basis of the ’68 strikes
The contract renewals of many categories of workers, led again this time by the metalworkers, dragged on for months and months with short-lived strikes interspersed with long periods of truce, until they ended with an out and out one‑sided contract that, in addition to wage increases that became entirely theoretical for their meagerness, provided for the de facto blocking of any possibility of company-specific wage improvements, such as production bonuses, for the entire duration of the contract. That agreement, incredibly sterile in terms of improvement, provided for the first time for the withholding of union dues with the adoption of the annual individual dues checkoff in private companies and for three-years in public companies. The bosses perceived the usefulness of such a demand made by the trade unions and didn’t hesitate to grant it under the heading of “union rights”. Thus it conceded the establishment of “joint technical committees”, which included in equal numbers company representatives and union representatives, the latter designated by the union from among the company’s employees, for the settlement of individual and multi-person disputes concerning piece‑meal work and the attribution of qualifications, the first step toward the organizational establishment of the “union in the factory”, which would prove to be very efficient from the point of view of its involvement in the technical-organizational management of production cycles. In this period the unions also began to experiment with super-articulated forms of struggle, which would become their workhorse in later years, whose alleged validity would also be substantially shared by 1968‑style “leftists”. With a watchword as suggestive as it was reactionary: “the greater damage to the boss with the lesser damage to the worker” in numerous company disputes (the Olivetti toolmakers’ dispute became famous, both in this respect and for having ended without any improvement, despite the great combativeness shown by the workers) the unions fragmented the strike hours so that the overall production cycle was never interrupted and remained merely “disturbed” by strikes. The “greater damage” was thus transformed into greater employer resistance and consequently their hardening in negotiations, which in many companies would lead to dud agreements. These, coming on top of the negative agreements in the category contracts, led to considerable discontent among workers and a growing detachment from the union apparatus outside the factory.
This was one of the main causes for the explosion in 1968‑69. The wage compression of those years was accompanied by a considerable increase in productivity resulting from the corporate restructuring of 1964‑65 and increased production with new employees. These contradictions became acute in 1967‑68 when there was again a resumption of industrial expansion based on the low prices of Italian industrial goods on the world market, mainly determined by low wages. The most conspicuous aspect of this phenomenon was the impressive spread of overtime work that reached levels unsurpassed in the entire postwar period (workers with a national contract of 44 and even 42 hours a week worked in practice 10‑12 or even 15 hours a day).
Mindful of the production slump of the “economic transition", many companies preferred to respond to the increased demand for goods with extensive exploitation of the labor force, compensating with increased labor productivity, rather than with new hires. Additionally there’s the introduction of increasingly advanced U.S. imported technologies that impart impressive acceleration to hourly production and savage intensification of workers exploitation.
The combination of the introduction of sophisticated machines that make labor increasingly monotonous, repetitive and simple, and the large-scale spread of what is called, in homage to the purported neutrality of science, the “Scientific Organization of Work”, consisting of the rational exploitation of every single move of the worker according to the so‑called “labor parcelling” technique, impressed an increasing impetus on oppression in the factory, stressing one’s endurance limits.
Here, for example, is the response of a Turin worker to an inquiry conducted in some factories in 1968:
«With these new machines you don’t go home with tired arms, you go home with a lead head. You have to put the workpiece in the clamp and operate the machine in the morning, those are the two operations, then watch for the light bulbs that indicates when the head is working and when it’s finished, while the workpiece goes to the second head for more working, clamp another workpiece in the next clamp and watch the two light bulbs, and so on. I used to do those machining operations with different machines and it would take me two hours, today I do it in ten minutes; that’s why before when I used to work somewhat fast so I could get my smoke on, but today, out of ten minutes of work even if I move the machine to “fast” I don’t gain a thing».
What for the worker becomes a backbreaking and degrading job for the company was a real boon. Here are some significant figures: in Fiat’s workshop 56, line of the 124 sport, 60 cars per shift were produced in May 1967 and 112 in the following month with the same number of workers; in the Villar Perosa workshops, between 1965 and 1966, production increased by 18.7% while employment decreased by 3.1%. All this explains why, between 1964 and 1968, labor productivity increased more in Italy than in any other country in the European Union, with profit increases far higher than wage increases.
The exasperating intensification of work rhythms goes hand in hand with a growing social instability in the big cities: immigrants, uprooted from the South, find it difficult to integrate into their new social environment. The contradictions and tensions of life in mega‑cities growing under the banner of the greatest possible profit add up to a factory life that becomes more unbearable every day. This leads on the one hand to a striking increase in neuroses and physical depressions, as well as individual defensive reactions through the use of absenteeism, which in those years experiences a sharp increase: between 1963 and 1968 it rises from 8% to 12%.
The absence of a class organization to gather these tensions together and direct them towards the terrain of struggle provokes in many factories individual reactions that are directed against what appears to the worker to be the immediate culprit of his desperate condition: the machine and the organizational structure of the production cycle; sabotage, which significantly will be exalted by the first small groups as “revolutionary” gestures, and spontaneous reactions, as violent as they are confused, which arouse the indignation of the so‑called “priggish persons” and of the same union piecards, increase. In a Milan factory – for example, reports a local newspaper in early ’68 – a sudden strike takes place without the unions’ knowledge, described as follows:
«The workers stand still as if by an arcane order, no one knows quite what is about to happen, but on their faces one can read a common desire for violence, and here comes the voice: “The personnel director is to come down”. By higher orders, our man resigns himself to coming down, prepared for the worst, and this happens; they tell him to stand still, next to a lathe, and then they, all the workers there, parade in front of him and repeat, one after another, “Shitface, shitface”».
This situation is undoubtedly one of the causes of the explosion of the “hot autumn”, the most chaotic and combative union season of the postwar period. In the face of that situation, trade union policy is increasingly out of touch with the real interests of the working class, anchored in a reformism that places the “productive revival of the national economy” at the center of all action and to this sacrifices the most basic needs of workers. Having just emerged from a campaign of bargaining and company struggles made up of derisory contracts on wages and regulations and full of binding clauses on the terrain of work rhythms in the factory, in which this collaborationist and renunciatory policy had expressed itself in deeds, workers tended to turn away from local union structures or at any rate to distrust their actions.
This phenomenon is accentuated and in a sense fostered by the CGIL’s own organizational structure. The dismantling of the network of factory collectors, which maintained a direct relationship with rank-and-file members and generally with all the workers in the departments and factories where they acted, and the demise of the Chambers of Labor as a point of reference outside the factory, a meeting place for workers from all the factories in the area, together with the historical tendency of reformism to turn into a labor bureau, have gradually annulled the presence of unions in the factory; local structures have become bureaucratized. The political insensitivity proper to opportunism toward real workers’ needs also became organizational insensitivity. The unions are present in the factories only through the Internal Commissions, bodies now rotten and reduced mostly to handling individual workers’ individual matters vis-à-vis the companies.
This situation will be the basis of the almost spontaneous organizational expression of the factory workers’ movement of 1968: the Unitary Rank-and-File Committees (Comitati Unitari di Base, or CUBs).
14 – The dispute over pensions and “wage zones”
The common tendency of the three trade union centrals to make themselves “valid mediators” of the State and the bosses and to be recognized by them as the only legal representatives of the workers, had induced a considerable push in all three trade union structures toward trade union unity, and the CGIL, in this perspective, accentuated its policy of yielding to the bosses, while widening, in the factories, the detachment of the bureaucrats from the most combative worker rank-and-file and its own members. The generalization of the dues checkoff method, against which our Party led a fierce battle, was the most concrete expression of this tendency. On the political and demand-making level, unity of action was particularly produced in the intertwined disputes in 1968‑69 over pensions and “wage cages”, in which the CGIL’s position manifested itself as a continuous adjustment to the demands strategy of the CISL and UIL. In the former, despite the pugnacity and strong worker participation in the modest struggles sponsored by the CGIL, this, on the night of February 26‑27, 1968, gave its consent to a scheme for reforming the pension system proposed by the government and immediately endorsed by the CISL and UIL, in which, in exchange for the usual vague promises for the future which were limited to anchoring pensions to 65% of the average salary of the last three years for workers with at least 40 years of contributions, the immediate interests of those already retired were heavily sacrificed, with ridiculous salary rises and increase in the retirement age for women to 60, and a ban on combining pensions with salaries.
The negative reaction of workers and pensioners to this arrangement was of such magnitude that the CGIL was forced to hastily backtrack within hours, withdraw its adherence to the government plan and call a general strike for March 7, which had vast adherence everywhere. Nonetheless, this proletarian outcry did not prevent the CGIL from immediately re‑establishing unity of action with the CISL and UIL and reaching, a year later, on February 5, 1969, after two more “general” strikes this time united, a final text that, if it was better than the previous one for future pensions, left the living conditions of pensioners substantially unchanged.
The other dispute, the one over the abolition of the “wage zones” into which Italian workers were divided, took place at the same time as the previous one, but was always kept clearly separate from the first, confirming a demand strategy that intended union unity among the confederations as the basis for the “legitimacy” of a modern regime union whose action is based on the shattering of true class unity, and the proletariat is rigidly divided into retired, employed, unemployed, Northern and Southern workers, each with their own specific and non‑interdependent interests, to be safeguarded within a social system that treats them as any social “category”. The unity of action of the “tricolor” centers (the “tricolore” is the Italian national flag) found its strength and institutional “legitimacy” in the breakdown of workers’ unity. The political strategy underpinning this shattering of the proletarian front was based on productivism and the modernization of capitalist society even from the point of view of the exploitation of labor power, and in this sense every demand for the improvement of the condition of the working-class had for justification not the exclusive interests of the proletariat but those of capitalist production.
Vittorio Foa’s statement in April 1968 is emblematic, when the unions denounced the agreement in force on “wage cages”, which provided for 6 different zones in which union minimums were different and decreasing from North to South: «Italy in slices – he said – is social injustice which, not having productive justifications [because if it had them, the ’wage zones’ would be sacrosanct for him!] provides an extra motive for the struggles in the backward areas and especially in the South. It is absurd that for equal exploitation and output a worker in Cagliari, Syracuse, Caserta, Bari, Chieti, and even Venice should start from lower wage bases». And again, «Even economic science today denies that low wages can encourage investment: the opposite is true».
Strikes for the abolition of “wage zones” were articulated province by province, and the dispute ended on March 18, 1969, with the usual compromise “mediated” by the Ministry of Labor, which provided for the abolition of wage zones but with a gradualness deferred over three and a half years. In reality this leveling was fictitious in that it concerned only union minimums and not the real wage. In fact, wages never ceased to differ not only by category but by productive levels, higher where capital needed to attract labor-power, lower in less industrialized areas.
15 – Birth of the Unitary Base Committees (CUB)
These two disputes, symptomatic of the “new” “unitary” strategy, were now taking place in the midst of the spontaneous explosion of 1968‑69. To describe the unfolding of struggles and events of those two years of social and proletarian ferment in the factories would take too much space, and it wouldn’t even be the aim of this work. Instead, it’s essential to grasp the most significant salient aspects for the implications on the organization of the regime trade unions and their further involution towards integration in the economic, political and social institutions of capitalist society and State, which is the most significant and real fact that emerged from the conclusion of this famous two‑year period of struggles. The explosion of 1968‑69 is characterized in the factories by the intertwining of the workers’ movement attempting, on a strictly company level, to organizationally make up for the lack of the union, which was present in the factory only through the Internal Commissions, and the initiative of a sudden swarming of groups grouplets and tiny parties of a leftist stamp existing in a varied “ideological” matrix, embracing the whole gamut of the traditional strands of anti‑Marxist deviations and tending to theoretically embrace the spontaneous weakness of the factory struggles of that period.
An analysis of this is indispensable for a complete assessment of the period, defined as “historical” by all the political-cultural junk of the following years.
In the spring of 1968, coinciding with a phase that had seen a noticeable “detachment” between the union leadership and the rank-and-file workers, as a result of the disispiring conclusion of the 1966‑67 round of bargaining, Unitary Base Committees, company bodies formed mostly on the initiative of the most combative strata of workers, including unionized ones, were born in many factories. They were characterized by being open to all workers regardless of political positions or union membership, and by having as their stated purpose the promotion within the factories of anti‑boss struggles and demands in defense and improvement of workers’ living conditions, against, but not in organizational contrast, with the official unions.
The phenomenon affected in particular the factories in the cities of Milan, Turin, Pavia, Trento, Porto Marghera, Bologna, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Terni, Latina, Porto Torres and expressed the most significant experiences in some large companies such as Pirelli, FIAT, FATME, Breda, in general where the organizational deficiency of the union was most marked.
We’ll republish a passage from a Breda CUB flier, significantly titled, “Who we are and what we want”.
«The CUB was born in the course of struggle; it’s a mass organ with its own autonomy, both at the level of the line it takes and at the organizational level, and is formed by all workers who recognize themselves, at first spontaneously, then at an increasingly elevated level of consciousness, in a clearly expressed line of defense of class interests inside and outside the factory and in an anti‑capitalist and anti‑collaborationist function.
«The CUB is not bureaucratically organized but, as an autonomous body, possesses the widest articulation; it directs its activity in various forms: assemblies, leaflets, evening meetings.
«Belonging to a CUB doesn’t require membership: it’s enough to participate and bring one’s contribution to the defense of workers’ interests. The tasks of the CUB are thus the discussion, agitation and propaganda of all problems which, arising from factory struggles, can contribute to raising the class consciousness of the workers, so that the heritage of unity and experience gained in the struggles is not lost but continually increased (…)
«The CUB, as a mass democratic body with autonomy, doesn’t want to replace factory councils. But the factory council must increasingly define itself as the defender of the workers’ fundamental interests and abandon its current collaborationism (…) That is why it is important to emphasize that there is no incompatibility between the CUB and the factory council.
«In relation to the unions, the CUB wants to maintain the autonomy of its line because it’s convinced of the need to denounce to the workers everything the unions do, all the sellouts, in order to confront them with their responsibilities and also to develop all those truly class-based lines that the unions have now given up».
The class-based and spontaneous character of these bodies is unquestionable in the phase of their establishment, on a wave of workers’ pressure, and, beyond what would be their limitations on the terrain of class struggle and especially in confronting traditional trade union politics, they constituted the clearest sign that the defeatist and devastating action of the union centers had not extinguished the traditional combativeness of the Italian proletariat: the objective pressure of material living conditions and especially of the exacerbation of worker exploitation in the factories overcame the subjective compression by which opportunism sought to keep worker discontent integrated in its own renunciatory and collaborationist politics.
Significantly, the demands on which the CUBs operated, and the struggles they sponsored or directed, beyond the traditional ones of wages and reduction of working hours, involved the specific conditions of worker exploitation: piecework, qualifications.
Let us follow, for example, the evolution of the CUB at Pirelli Bicocca in Milan. It was formed in the spring of 1968, after the signing of the company contract, criticizing its results and proposing to resume the struggle, after broad worker consultation in all the group’s plants, on the basis of a series of demands that can be summarized as follows: 1) wage and production bonus increases; 2) revaluation of piecework; 3) passage of all workers into the higher category; 4) freezing of rhythms and their determination by the workers; 5) abolition of work “harmfulness” and formation of workers’ control committees; 6) reduction of working hours.
By now all the platforms of demands of the various CUBs followed this approach: while in some factories, including Pirelli itself, the degree of workers’ mobilization around these demands was such that management was forced to recognize them and deal with the CUBs, in other companies the workers, on the wave of a rapid generalization of these experiences of struggle were breaking decades‑long taboos, such as at Marzotto, where workers occupied the factory and tore down the statue of the boss, a symbol of die‑hard paternalism, or at Rhodiatoce, where they negotiated, with a very hard struggle and with a factory occupation, on the issues of working conditions, harmfulness, and rhythms. Similar more or less spontaneous movements occurred in the chemical, textile, and construction sectors.
16 – Limits of the CUBs and the defeatism of grouplets
But the characteristics that made the CUBs, in their initial very rapid phase of establishment in some large factories, class bodies likely to constitute a viable alternative organizational structure to the official unions, represented at the same time their limits, and since they were unable to overcome them they unavoidably slided into the traditional politics of the regime unions, or physically disappeared, or regressed toward forms of pseudo-political, “counter-power in the factory” bodies, as they were theorized by almost all the ultra-leftist groups of that period, and thus their isolation from the workers. The most serious limitation was that of company‑ism, an inevitable consequence of the spontaneity with which the CUBs were formed. Restricted within company boundaries, the CUBs didn’t have the capacity (nor indeed could they have expressed it, lacking a generalized push in this direction and the influence of the revolutionary party in them) to transcend their narrow sphere of the individual company, so that the territorial union representatives had good game in re‑proposing to the workers the official union as the only concrete possibility of organization at a category and national level. As the brief initial flare‑up faded, this limitation was clearly expressed when, between the fall and winter of 1968, the only two attempts by some CUBs to coordinate their action at the national level, in Rome and Milan, failed: thrusts in this direction coming from some workers’ sectors in the Milanese area in particular clashed with the whole intellectualoid and petty-bourgeois entanglement of the “student movement” and the leftist cliques, bent on the exaltation of company autonomy and group particularism, a vain alternative recipe to the suffocating bureaucracy. Instead of moving toward overcoming the spontaneous struggles, the CUBs fell vice‑versa prey to its exaltation, and this was another limitation closely related to the first. As always, a spontaneous and almost natural reaction to a serious deviation ended up producing the opposite mistake: born as a reaction to the asphyxiating and paralyzing bureaucratism of official union representation, many CUBs fell prey to the myth of the rejection of all forms of delegation and in the exaltation of workers’ assembly‑ism as the sole and valid decision-making tool, an illusion fueled by the undoubtedly remarkable worker participation in the struggles in the assemblies of that period, which were often held during strike hours. The rejection of any form of representation, untenable on a practical level of developing and conducting struggles, could only result, as the immediate impetus that determined its theorization subsided, in a return to the representation that actually, concretely existed and operated: that of the official trade unions.
These, for their part, having overcome a very early phase of bewilderment and confusion, had a good hand in inserting themselves into these weaknesses and gradually, and in a relatively short time as well, reabsorbing the most dangerous thrusts, until they entirely assimilated these organized forms, originating from their own organizational deficiency in the factories. The union strategy was skillful; in no case, except perhaps in a few episodes of greater exasperation, did the piecards disavow the movement; they inserted themselves into the struggles, even actively proposing themselves, at the most opportune moments, as the only organizations capable of imparting organizational seriousness to the CUB movement and “positively” concluding the struggles they undertook.
This relative ease with which opportunism was able to control the new situation can be explained by the CUBs’ own demand positions and especially by the forms of struggle they proposed. The company‑ist organizational limitations of the CUBs and the “spontaneous delegation” movements ended up expressing themselves in their very demands and action policy: spontaneism, fueled by the theorizing of the “leftists” of the time, raised as its own banner of action the strategy of articulated struggles, already the workhorse of the official unions. This strategy was extolled by the petty-bourgeois “ideologists” of studentism and grouplet spontaneism as useful for the workers’ “acquisition of political consciousness”, since they were kept constantly in mobilization. As can be seen, these extremists ultimately ended up making the positions of the unions their own, taken to extremes, and in fact supporting them in their work to salvage the movement.
Contrary to what’s always maintained by the leftist circles that survived past 1968 and by certain “historiography” and “leftist” publications, extremist groups were by no means the protagonists of that two‑year period of struggle. In the development phase of the spontaneous movement and CUB organizing, their presence was modest and certainly not decisive. It made itself felt in a negative sense, on the other hand, in the subsequent phase of the reflux of the movement, when some groups inserted themselves into the CUBs theorizing their transformation into hybrid political-union “counter-power” bodies. This defeatist action led to the disintegration of the bodies, effectively consigning their remnants into the hands of union opportunism, and the same leading elements of infantile extremism ended up swelling the ranks of the regime cadres. Typical was the end of the Pirelli CUB into which “Avanguardia Operaia” inserted itself in the early months of 1969, which, attempting to hegemonize it, led to a split in June with the formation of two CUBs in dispute with each other with one accusing the other of top‑downism while the one inspired by A.O. accused the former of anarcho-syndicalism. The result was the subsequent fall of both into opportunism.
17 – After the “hot autumn”: the Factory Councils
In some factories, notably FIAT, although without the formation of actual CUBs, the spontaneous organization of workers was expressed through the election of “department and line delegates”, as opposed to the representation of the Internal Commission, which produced movements-for-demands of considerable intensity, although always limited to the environment of a single company. The struggles managed by the base delegates at FIAT, effectively opened the famous “hot autumn” of 1969. Toward the end of June, following a dispute whose main subject was work rhythms and the grading of the various categories, an agreement had been signed between FIAT and the trade unions, in which the company undertook, among other things, to promote from the third to the second category all those workers who had no less than two years’ seniority and responsibility for at least four machines. After the August vacation, the affected workers expected the upgrades, but when the department heads forwarded the names of those eligible to the management, FIAT managers realized that the list was too long and began to shorten it by excluding numerous workers with the usual paternalistic and discriminatory system. Disappointed workers felt cheated, not only by the company but also by the union, and anger erupted, involving base delegates, and on September 1st Workshops 32 and 33 in Mirafiori went on strike, bypassing the unions. The following day the agitation spread, provoking a reaction from the company, which suspended 6,700 workers, which became 25,000 the following day, to further extend the struggle. Tensions rose to the point that the union confederations mobilized all their Turin structures, and while in Rome meetings between the government and delegations from FIAT and the unions were going on at a frantic pace at the Ministry of Labor, in the Turin workshops the piecards of the metalmechanical federations succeeded in a series of assemblies to crush the movement and get the most combative sectors of workers to resume work so that the company could withdraw the suspensions. But immediately the unions were in a position, in order not to lose face, to demand the immediate opening of negotiations for the metalworkers’ contract, which expired at the end of the year.
The tensions and struggles of 1968 and the early months of 1969 and the State repression that saw the return of the police shooting at strikers (Avola and Battipaglia massacres) had fully awakened workers’ combativeness, so the contract season of the fall of 1969 was characterized by a very wide participation in strikes, with often violent and extremely harsh initiatives in picketing, marches inside the factories, and street demonstrations that put the unions’ policing to the test.
The contract season of 1969 was a continuous succession of agitations and strikes of all categories, in which the confederations had the function of preventing the mighty movement of struggle from converging into a single overwhelming agitation dangerous to the social and economic stability of capitalist society. The confederal secretariats were forced to perform calendar acrobatics to break up strikes and demonstrations as much as possible. However, they succeeded in never losing control of the movement, and indeed in the very fall of 1969 the union centers completely reabsorbed the delegate bodies, with the explicit help of the companies that refused to recognize workers’ delegates who were not themselves recognized by the unions.
There’s no denying that the mass movement created at that time influenced the demands policy of the regime unions centers in no small way, especially with regard to the definition of the contractual platforms, in which the most notable novelty was the demand for wage increases that were no longer percentage-based, as had been the case until then, but equal for all, a claim clearly imposed by the rank-and-file workers against the will of the unions, which had initially proposed “parameterized” increases, that is, linked to the category, and thus stronger for labor aristocracies. Such pugnacity as that expressed by the proletariat in those months couldn’t have been disappointed, on pain of the re‑exploding of movements beyond the unions’ control. Even in the contractual conclusions unions and bosses were forced to take this into account and to agree on improvements substantially higher than in previous contracts. However, this didn’t prevent the reduction in working hours from 44 to 40 hours a week from being staggered over three and a half years, giving the bosses time to make up for the loss of production through technical innovations and increased work rhythms.
To attribute the reabsorption of those spontaneous impulses and the control of workers’ pugnacity solely to the skill of opportunism would be erroneous: this process, and the resulting contractual conclusions, was made possible by the favorable trend of the capitalist economy at that time, which could allow the bourgeois regime to allocate part of the huge profits accumulated in those years to quell social tensions.
Trade union opportunism emerged from those events by greatly strengthening its presence in the factories. Indeed, the key aspect of these two years was precisely this: a wave of struggles that arose as a reaction to union politics resulted in their strengthening. This confirms our classic position that, in the absence of a political influence of the revolutionary party, capable of directing spontaneous proletarian uprisings towards overcoming their inevitably limited horizon, and in the absence of objective material conditions that push proletarians to act with determination and intransigence, any spontaneous workers’ movement, any proletarian organization born on the wave of demand movements are destined soon to fall under bourgeois influence.
The rapid reabsorption of these thrusts, which we could foresee already during their most intense manifestation, was made easier by the fact that in no case did the CUBs or the rank-and-file delegates take an attitude of considering themselves alternative bodies to the trade union structures.
On October 25‑26, 1969, a congress of workers’ delegates was held in Grugliasco, run by those forces that would later be integrated into the unions as the “trade union left”: it was the last attempt to organize with a certain autonomy from the central unions. But already the convocation specified that the initiative was in no way intended to appear “as an action that induces the slightest suspicion of alternative competition to the union”; the promoters stated, “we are aware of the very strong component of trade unionism that animates the delegates”. But at that time the control of the official union apparatus over rank-and-file initiatives was already almost total, and any attempt at autonomy was destined to resolve itself, as in fact it resolved itself at that conference, in an objective strengthening of this control, which became definitive with the conclusion of the main contract renewals between the end of the year and the early months of 1970.
In the following months, the unions de facto institutionalized the new representation structures created in the factories, proceeded to formally establish the Factory Councils, definitively absorbing the CUBs and the rank-and-file delegates and importing these bodies from above into the factories that had remained outside their spontaneous formation. Formally recognized by company managements in the 1972‑73 contract renewals, the FCs became the basis of official union organization in all workplaces.
This transformation of the representative bodies of trade unions exceeds by far the purely organizational aspect, investing the very nature of the process of their integration into the economic and political structures of capitalist society. Exalted by the propaganda of official reformism no less than by grouplet extremism as a great workers’ achievement, the formation of the FCs in fact marked a stage of considerable magnitude in the anti‑worker involution of the entire organizational structure of the three union centers. Through the FCs the apparatus of functionaries succeeded in building a capillary structure by which it transmitted into the most vital fabric of the industrial proletariat all the disruptive essence of its productivist, collaborationist and reformist policies. This passage is fundamental in the history of the unions after World War II and must be grasped in all its fullest significance. To better understand its significance, it’s essential to briefly reconstruct the evolution of workers’ representative structures throughout this period.
18 – The organization of trade unions in factories
Immediately after the military fall of Fascism, opportunist propaganda introduced the formula of “constructive trade unionism”, which was to overcome the old concept of a union understood as the sole defender of the immediate interests of workers and to put the problems of industrial production and labor organization at the center of its demand action, dampening in the Italian proletariat the traditional class instinct that had seen it as the protagonist of amazing struggles in the post‑WW1 period and very much alive in the memory of the workers who had experienced those events directly or indirectly. Immediately the CLN officials launched the Management Councils (MCs), organs inherited from Fascism, which they had served in view of war production, the constitution of which aroused the approval of all “leftist” and “right-wing” parties and all bourgeois economists. The proletariat had to give up the struggle for wages for many years while, then as now, supposed “political conquests” were put before the improvement of living conditions: in fact, with the MCs, an attempt would be made to make the proletarians believe that they had made a breakthrough in the conquest of “power in the factory”. The MCs were in fact the fascist Labor Committees just with new officials replacing the old ones; underlying their structure was the classic Fascist concept of “parity” between representatives of the workers and the company, with the latter guaranteed a majority (half plus the chairman). The spirit of the MCs is well expressed in the document that the CGIL executive approved on the evening of September 23, ’45:
«Only through the direct participation of the workers in the management of the company, achievable through the work of the management councils, is it possible to arouse the ’labor fever’, the enthusiasm of the working masses in the productive effort. Management councils, already in place in the most important workshops of Upper Italy, have yielded fully positive results, judged as such even by the employers».
Almost all “anti-fascist” parties supported the need to legally regulate the MCs. In November 1947 it was decided to set up a special commission, consisting of nine trade unionists, nine Confindustria members, four representatives of the ministries concerned, and five technicians – and this alone says it all – which was supposed to draw up the “charter” of the MCs. The project failed because of the open opposition of the big bosses and the representative bodies of the Allies, particularly the U.S., who feared that workers’ anger could end up being expressed through them, distorting the collaborationist content on which they were to be constituted. Those already operating ended up losing all function by merely surviving until the early 1950s as mere flunky bodies of the unions.
A form of union representation in the factories had to be organized, however, and it was expressed in the exhumation of the Internal Commissions, abolished by the Fascists on October 2, 1925 with the “Palazzo Vidoni pact” that recognized the Fascist unions as the only legitimate representatives of the workers, and reborn spontaneously in some factories in the North in the summer of 1943. These bodies were formalized by an agreement between CGIL and Confindustria on August 7, 1947.
Electable by all workers in the company on lists submitted by the unions, IC members were statutorily tasked with “helping to maintain normal relations between the workers and the management of the company, in a spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding for the smooth functioning of production activity”. Here are the points in which the ICs’ activities were to be expressed:
The statute then went on to attribute specifically to the IC the task of de facto endorsing collective or individual dismissals requested by the company, through a strict procedure of examination in common with the company managements “in a spirit of mutual understanding”. They were thus de facto explicitly collaborationist bodies, imbued with the productivist and responsible spirit typical of “national-democratic trade unionism”. This agreement was finalized on May 8, 1953, with unions divided but it had interconfederal extension, thus remaining unchanged in substance.
As it clearly presented itself as a body for the peaceful settlement of class tensions arising in the companies, the Party always refused to participate in its constituent elections and sternly denounced its anti‑worker character. This was in no way contradictory to the indication of working within the CGIL; the distinction was in the fact that the ICs were not structures belonging organizationally to the union, although controlled by it, but company bodies representing all workers vis-à-vis management, with no bargaining power, which was delegated to the union’s territorial structures. The union organization, and in particular the CGIL after the split, had a presence in the factory only through the network of departmental collectors, whose function was to keep the link between the members and the apparatus of officials outside the companies, and tasks of proselytizing and disseminating union material. The union’s organization remained territorial and depended on the Chambers of Labor.
This structure traced out that of the first postwar CGL, but only formally. The departmental collectors were in fact the spokesmen for operational and demand decisions extraneous to the rank-and-file apparatuses and members, accrued autonomously by the zonal, provincial, regional and national leaders, an apparatus of salaried officials that was increasingly resembling those already then typical of British, German and American trade unionism.
The collectors’ meeting point was the area’s Chamber of Labor, which gradually emptied itself of its original function of inter-company and inter-industry liaison to assume that of an advisory office for members. The Party then fought against this regression, claiming the validity of the factory collectors – later abolished with the gradual introduction of membership by company delegates – as a stimulus to struggle and an active point of reference for the union in the factory.
The territorial nature of union organization, external to the factory, whose branches and function were to be expressly devoted to overcoming company and category limits was also an essential demand of the Communist Left. It’s a natural tendency for workers to acquire in struggle an awareness of their conditions and the need to fight in defense of their class interests, but by objective determination they are inclined to express their combativeness within the narrow limits of their factory and their category, losing sight of general class interests.
The unions’ demands policy proceeded in the opposite direction, oriented toward “integrative bargaining” of all aspects of labor relations since the mid‑1950s, which in practice means collaboration with company management for the best parametric and technical management of the workforce. In relation to the organization of labor this structure becomes over the years more and more inadequate. Having become inadequate the ICs, which had as their statutory task only that of managing union agreements, and should defer the definition and management of company and category problems to the provincial unions, the need arises for specific company bodies invested with demand-making powers. The trade union then launches the suggestion of the establishment of Company Trade Union Sections (Sezioni Sindacali Aziendali, SAS) closely linked to these needs. In a CGIL Executive Committee report on “Issues of Organizational Strengthening”, lamenting the slow formation of SASs, the point is well pinned down:
«The failure to set up the Company Trade Union Sections, not as an instrument of decentralization of the territorial union, but as an expression of the workers’ will and capacity for self‑government, cannot but seriously jeopardize the possibility of implementing the line of articulated demands policy that best responds to the protection of workers’ interests. The goal of the union’s right to bargain at the company level is common to all organizations (…) The existence of the Company Trade Union Section thus becomes a determining factor in the assertion of this right».
Even more significant in this regard is Novella’s speech at the Fifth National Congress of the CGIL:
«Union bargaining within the company in all its basic aspects, as we demand it, we know that it can only be done by a union organization within the company. That is, we know that the future of supplementary company bargaining rests and has all its fortune in the development of the union in the company. We must thus work with all our strength, with all our energies, in order to struggle to obtain the right to have the union in the company, also with that certainty which comes from the conviction that we are calling for the establishment of a new, completely new company institution in the democratic trade union life of our country, and that we must therefore give this institution the fullness of its tasks, the fullness of its functions and its prospects. The union in the company must not oppose the internal commission, but cooperate with it and become together with the internal commission an instrument of action and an instrument of unity of the workers of all labor organizations».
The SAS, however, did not take into account the company’s production structure since the mechanism for electing their members was based on names submitted by the trade union organizations, and these bodies were never endowed with effective demand-making power; they ended up backing the work of the ICs, whose members on the other hand belonged to it by right. Having appeared at about the time when the infamous union membership by employers’ proxy was introduced, they merely replaced the company union committees previously composed of factory collectors.
This was still not enough. Integrative bargaining needed a body that adhered closely to the production framework of workers in company production processes. It was necessary to arrive at the department, at the assembly line, at the “homogeneous group”, on the road to that progressive anti‑class organization of the proletariat, the direct opposite of its natural tendency, which consists in overcoming all the specific limits that the bourgeois productive mechanism poses to the total union and solidarity of the exploited.
20 – The Function of the Factory Councils and the Party’s Assessment
The spontaneist flurry of 1968‑69 had offered the unions an opportunity to adjust their rank-and-file structure and finally overcome the limited role of the ICs, which had however lost credit in the eyes of the workers. With the institutionalization of the FCs, the unions integrated into a single organization the two aspects of factory bodies that had hitherto remained separate: the one representing all workers, the prerogative of the IC, and the factory union, which organized union members in the SAS. In this way the union definitively annulled all class function to its territorial structure outside the factory and centered all its rank-and-file action internally through the FCs, which thus became closed company union bodies, in the sense that this new structure effectively prevented contact between proletarians from different factories and categories. Indeed, the activity of the FCs manifested itself through departmental and plant assemblies during working hours, in which all workers could participate. The worker, the member, is left with no other opportunities to participate in union life; he’s prevented from any union work outside the factory. The FCs were extolled by union opportunism as the workers’ highest democratic rank-and-file expression, since the election of delegates is on a blank ballot and any worker can be elected, regardless of union membership. In reality, this was the formal cover for an ironclad control that was already expressed in the FC Executive, which was composed in equal form among the various labor organizations and practically in the hands of union-appointed officials. This was manifest as early as the rank-and-file elections, which were dominated by the subterfuge and scheming among the various union currents committed to imposing their most loyal henchmen on the workers.
The most significant feature of the FCs was that they realized the assumption that reformism held most dear: the adherence of rank-and-file representative structures to company production processes. Thus was born the “homogeneous group delegate”. The class criterion of the union being an organization of wage‑earners as such, and thus disregarding the particular working conditions they find themselves in by chance, was replaced by representation on the basis of the division of labor-power according to the tasks performed, specifying to the point of exasperation the special interests of group, of qualification, of specialization, of production sector. The traditional employers’ weapon of dividing workers through individual competition for the acquisition of higher wages, linked to qualitative and quantitative improvement of work effort, is also wielded by the unions, justifying it to take away or contend with the boss’s decision-making power regarding category transitions and corporate restructuring. Reality soon showed, through the setting up of company integrative disputes, that this system is congenial to the productivity of enterprises and is the most effective means of involving the delegates and the union in the management of the organization of the exploitation of wage‑earners, interpreters of the technical requirements of the work process in accordance with the increased productivity of labor.
We quote, by way of example valid for all large companies, the definition of the functions of the delegates and the FC contained in the Olivetti integrative agreement of April ’70:
«The Factory Council, absorbing the tasks attributed to the Internal Commissions in the interconfederal agreement of April 13, 1966, assumes, within the production unit of which it is an expression, functions of control and dispute relating to matters of union competence (piecework, qualifications, environment, etc.). More specifically, the individual members of the Factory Council, assisted when needed by the Executive Committee, may intervene in the first instance against the representatives of company management; it’s the duty of the Executive Committee, on the other hand, to pursue disputes in the second instance.
«It shall be the responsibility of the Factory Council of each production unit, through the Executive Committee or appropriate delegations, to bargain over any problems of union competence typical and exclusive to each production unit. Provincial and national unions shall be responsible for the settlement of disputes in the third instance and for bargaining tasks for matters of union competence that exceed the scope of the production unit and the provincial area, respectively».
It should be noted that every workers’ protest that rises from a sector, from individuals, or even from the entire production unit, every spark that erupts from any department, from any production line is immediately channeled into a rigid procedure of competencies that reports to the provincial and national union, and is extinguished in it. Drives for demands and workers’ struggles, recognized by us as an essential “school of war”, an exercise to train and unite more and more the proletarian front on the basis of demands reflecting general class interests, in this structure follow an exactly reversed process. The FCs and the delegate thus turn out to be the channels through which workers’ struggles take on that character of thousands of parallel and never converging actions, with no class outlets, starting from the factory, the department, the individual workplace and dying in them with no possibility of extension, with the tragic results known to all even on the level of specific disputes.
However, from the point of view of our attitude toward them, the FCs could not be equated with the ICs. They were bodies composed of the direct representatives of the workers and in which the union tensions that arose in the workplaces were reflected. Not all delegates were necessarily union henchmen, especially in small and medium industries where control of the union apparatus was traditionally weaker, and it was harder to bring the FCs under its control, which, under the impetus of worker combativeness, was in danger of overruling the union. For these reasons, the Party’s course of action was to work within them, where our worker militants had the opportunity to be workers’ delegates, while maintaining a clear autonomy of action and discipline. We wrote then:
«One participates in it strengthened in the fact that one joins it as an expression of a workers’ election, in an attempt to drag other delegates to our line, in an attempt to attain control of these bodies and at the same time to use them, in the immediate term, for the purposes of our propaganda and proselytism and our agitation among the workers, bearing in mind that this task is facilitated for us by the fact that we are in contact with elements who, for good or ill, constitute the part of the workers most sensitive to the questions of the proletarian movement.
«It would be a serious mistake to start from the consideration that they are extremely limited bodies, acting in a situation of complete stagnation of the class struggle, and thus reflecting that situation, to conclude that our participation is useless. The company narrowness of their function exists in that they are completely dominated by opportunism, but there’s nothing telling us that, in the wake of a resurgence of class confrontation, they cannot become the first nuclei of effective intermediate bodies to graft that relationship between party and class, which is the main purpose of our action within them.
«On the other hand, we cannot be opposed in principle to workers organizing themselves by factory, by plant, or even by departments; it’s up to the class union to uproot this essential organization from the narrow company limit and to make it flow into extra-company and inter-category bodies in order to arrive at and overcome the corporatism inherent in this structure. Nor should we forget that if a particular elective and representative structure does not by its very nature make an organism definitely revolutionary, it does not by other means make it definitely counter-revolutionary: it’s a question of programmatic direction and action, not of organization per se».
21 – Toward a modern regime union
The changes to the basic representative structure of unions in 1968‑69 are integrated in the general regression of trade unions into being functional bodies of the capitalist production system, and they represented a modernization of Italian unions taking giant strides in those years and the years immediately following. The mighty productive drive of the capitalist machine, churning out goods at increasing rates that were never sufficient to meet the demands of an unstoppably expanding world market, required capital to be able to count on a national trade union organization that was strongly representative of the proletariat, capable of integrating the workforce in the factories, aware of the stimulating functions of a responsible trade union inserted in all the productive and institutional organs of society, capable of functioning as an outlet valve for workers’ pressure, channeling and containing its basic thrusts toward objectives suited to the better functioning of the productive and social mechanism: on the level of reformism and the compatibility of claims with the needs of the national and corporate economy. In those years the most intelligent and representative sectors of the industrial and agrarian bourgeoisie were calling, through the governing parties and the regime press, for a “strong trade union”, and looked favorably on the process of trade union unity among the confederations that seemed to be looming with increasing insistence.
The Italian bourgeoisie was endeavoring to shape its social, political and economic institutions in the image of those of the more capitalistically stable and evolved countries – the U.S., England, Germany – where the proletariat is integrated in large unitary trade union associations linked by a direct thread with governments and large industrial groups, where legislation regulates relations between trade unions and entrepreneurs and defines procedures and modalities of factory union activity, where State assistance to the proletariat constitutes an efficient shock absorber of social tensions.
The huge profits that are accumulating in the State and bosses’ coffers make possible the implementation of measures directed at the “modernization” of social relations, at the harnessing of the proletariat in a network of welfare, legal and regulatory prebends that tend to reinforce the “golden chain” with which capital drags the working class behind its vicissitudes, an effort aimed at mitigating the classic social contradictions of capitalism and at drawing the proletariat away from its class instincts. There’s a convergence of all sectors representing the general interests of capitalism, first and foremost the centrist parties, which follow one another in government through the traditionally recurring ministerial crises, toward this goal. And union opportunism also leans toward it, accentuating the reformist claims within which it encloses all the wage thrusts coming from the categories.
One of the most significant results of this “progressive” fervor (a term that became fashionable throughout the dominant culture of the time, which also reflected the aspirations of the ruling class) was the approval of the Workers’ Statute, a true example of democratic-corporatist legislation tending to elevate the constraints and conditions within which the exploitation of the proletariat is raised to State law, and which recently the leftoids who survived 1968 have attempted to introduce, by referendum, in companies under 40 employees, backed by alleged ultra-leftists making reference to nothing less than the Communist Left.
On the trade union front, the aspirations to arrive at the single union, a pillar of the political and State institutions of capitalist society, pervades all three confederations and is intertwined with the accentuation of the reformist themes of their claims, which now no longer differ in terms of action. With the contractual cycle of the “hot autumn” closed, the main commitment of the “triple” is to bring workers’ combativeness back to strictly reformist terrain. This need is so commonly felt that all trade union currents get in unison and lean toward moving beyond unity of action, toward so‑called “organic unity”. At the forefront of this unity drive is the CGIL whose confederal leadership emphasizes efforts to erase all residual class formalism in the organization and to appear in the eyes of bourgeois institutional forces as a union responsibly bent on improving the social structures of the capitalist machine. The CISL and UIL are described to the workers as unions that have largely rejected their pro‑boss origins and with which organizational reunification can therefore be pursued in the name of workers’ unity.
This watchword exploits workers’ natural propensity for unity in struggle and finds favorable ground in a rank-and-file conscious of the combative ferments of recent company contract struggles. The unity of action among the three union centers, which actually occurred in the management of these struggles, seems to support the CGIL’s piecardist thesis. Urges for unity came insistently from the federations representing categories that had had the most weight in the struggles: metalworkers, chemists, construction and textile workers, and from the sectors most sensitive to reformist propaganda such as the FLM, the CISL left‑wing and even the UIL left‑wing. Into these currents will converge most of the extremist groups that will go on to form the pillars of that “trade union left” whose function of caging proletarian thrusts against the politics of the confederations will become invaluable in the following years.
The 1969 congresses of the three union centers extolled this unitary perspective, at the basis of which they placed the policy of the infamous “structural reforms” that would characterize the triplice’s anti‑worker action in the three years following the conclusion of the contractual disputes and which would serve, among other things, to deflect certain rank-and-file thrusts that considered unity in the sense of strengthening the class struggle.
In those years, up to the first tangible symptoms of economic crisis in 1973‑74, meetings and consultations between ministries and unions on the reforms demanded by the triplice, relating to building, health service, tax system (the only one this reform actually carried out, to the great detriment of workers’ wages), transportation, and the eternal question of the Mezzogiorno, became systematic. Soon all the noise about “great reforms” showed itself to be nothing more than propaganda grandstanding by which trade union opportunism demonstrated its national and constitutional vocation and its aspiration to elevate itself to the rank of a “social force” decisive for the economic stability of capitalist society and its social infrastructure.
Corporatist-democratic control, based on the recomposition and compromise of the pushes and contrasts between classes aroused by the economic and social contradictions of capitalism, found its highest institutional expression in that period, favored by the flourishing conditions of the expanding economy, and constituted a powerful factor in the attenuation of social tensions and workers’ combativeness. The relative improvement in the living conditions of broad proletarian strata – the result of exaggerated exploitation of labor power and the plundering of underdeveloped countries by world imperialism – and the formation of large pockets of a labor aristocracy, which enjoyed a wealth of “normative guarantees” and welfare, a classic phenomenon of periods of capitalist production enlargement, reinvigorated the collaborationist and institutional function of trade union centers, which found in these favorable objective conditions the ideal terrain for extolling increased social welfare as being a consequence of their reformist policies. To thousands of workers who entered the factories in the last 15 years, these guarantees, ephemeral emancipation from the misery of the immediate postwar years, appear as, and opportunist and bourgeois propaganda describes them as such, irreversible and conclusive “conquests”, while the flourishing of capitalist production creates the illusion of job security and continuous improvement of living conditions linked to the efficiency of the company’s production system. The “protests” flurry of 1968‑69, which saw in the background of workers’ struggles the agitation of the student and petty-bourgeois strata, anxious to grab a substantial slice of workers’ surplus value, easily found an outlet in the convulsive volcano of commodity production. Many of the protagonists of “protests” enter to occupy positions of privilege in the production mechanism or its outline structures, while in the factories there was a sudden return to the ranks of union opportunism of many of those rank-and-file delegates, often more or less influenced by grouplets extremism, who had participated in the struggles with attitudes critical of the unions. Much of this, indeed, will go on to reinvigorate the representation structure, producing in many workplaces a turnover between generations of middle officials.
In the factories, the FCs become the rank-and-file bearers of a productivist mentality reflecting the orientations of the confederations and now rapidly moving away from any class-based postulates, leveraging the workers’ propensity to see their wages improved through category transitions linked to what is now called their “professionalism”.
The grievance platforms of the company integrative disputes following the 1969‑70 contracts focused mainly on these issues. Through them the unions became the interpreters of company needs related to the organization of work, piecework, and the structural characteristics of assembly lines and production workshops. Particularly implemented is the need of large companies to make the organization of the production apparatus more flexible to the needs of the market, which demands products that are increasingly rapidly outdated by frenetic technical evolution. The trade unions make themselves the spokesmen for this by presenting the criteria for organizing work that best responds to these productive evolutions as being workers’ demands, such as the transition from traditional assembly lines with individual piecework to “islands of production” with collective piecework, in which each worker becomes the controller of his or her comrades. This demand, which will be presented by the unions as an overcoming of Taylorism through the so‑called “recomposition of tasks” and even as an overcoming of the separation of manual and intellectual labor, will allow companies to introduce these new production processes with the complicity and assent by contract of the unions.
The delegates, among whom the PCI piecards would distinguish themselves in company boot‑licking, would soon assume the figure of co‑managers with the intermediate company hierarchies of the distribution and control of the workforce in the factories, and the FCs would champion, through company agreements, the so‑called “job classifications” based on the “productive tasks” of the workers. The worker is no longer regarded as the wage earner in the traditional class sense, but is equated with the figure of the petty bourgeois with his “professionalism” to defend. The very terminology of trade union language gradually conforms to this productivist and company approach, and union agreements increasingly take on the appearance of highly complicated technical manuals drafted by experts in “labor organization”.
The entire trade union apparatus tends to lock itself into this productivist and efficiencist logic and to present itself as an “institutional counterpart” at the more general political level, where trade unions are now regarded as “social forces” whose opinion is heard by all forming governments when drafting their programs.
23 – The preconditions for internal work within the CGIL fall away
Any “virtual and statutory” possibility of organized action within the CGIL by union currents or fractions, not only communist but simply proletarians committed to class positions, is practically ruled out by a host of middle officials imbued to the core with reformism and democratic allegiance to bourgeois political institutions and separated from a membership base increasingly excluded from the real life of trade union organizations and in whose “historical memory” the memory of the CGIL’s class-based tradition of the “red union” of the pre‑fascist period is becoming increasingly faint. The formal call to the CGIL as “class union” disappears from confederal documents and piecard phraseology. From factory representations to the mechanisms of review and territorial and company participation in the life and activity of the union, all class formalism linked to the past is now erased. With the wave of worker combativeness of previous years having ended, indeed transformed into a swelling of the ranks of union opportunism, for the CGIL leadership union unity must seal its complete emancipation from any connection with the past, from “organic unity” must emerge a union devoted to full democratic and institutional maturity. But the never-ending polemics between the democratic parties in the Italian political tissue also take over their internal currents in the three trade union organizations, linked by a thousand threads to those of the parties that control them even when they proclaimed that they wanted to make themselves “independent”. The so‑called “organic unity” between the CGIL, CISL and UIL, undermined by inter-party disagreements, will not go beyond the establishment of the united federation on July 25, 1972.
But just as the split of 1948 hadn’t changed the general picture of trade unionism at the time in the slightest and didn’t shape again the CGIL as a “red union” in antithesis to the CISL and UIL, so the failed organizational unification of 1972 was not the result of rank-and-file class-based opposition to the CGIL’s reunification with the other two and did not change the political substance of the “single union”, i.e., a trade union organization that, although divided by internal currents – which in various ways reflected the interests of the various petty-bourgeois and middle-class strata vying for the biggest slice from the pie of workers’ surplus-value – continued to represent an irreplaceable bulwark of the ruling class for the purpose of controlling the proletariat.
However, the two situations are not entirely identical and the attitude of revolutionary communists toward them is not identical either. While it is true that the substance and content of the CGIL’s policies do not change in this quarter century – it is just as reformist and collaborationist in ’48 as in ’72 – different is the attitude of the great mass of workers toward these organizations, profoundly different in the two situations.
As we have seen, millions of combative workers militated in the CGIL in 1948, remembering the class tradition of the CGL and seeing in it the “red” organization as opposed to the pro‑American and pro‑boss CISL and UIL. The party cannot disregard this attitude and, while in its political analyses it refutes this illusion and rightly describes the CGIL as “based on the Mussolini model” like the other two, in practical action it organizes its weak numbers of worker militants in this union and points the workers to the prospect of its conquest, in the wake of the inevitable future resurgence of class struggle.
From the 1970s onward, the situation is completely different and it no longer makes sense to distinguish between the three confederations even on the ground of practical action. As a result of the events we have tried to summarize here, in the membership base there is no longer a clear‑cut opposition between the three confederations that recalls the tradition of the past. There is even in many cases a reversal of roles that sees certain fringes of the CISL rank-and-file going more to the left of the CGIL rank-and-file and indeed entire CISList federations, such as the FIM, taking more radical and demagogic attitudes than the FIOM.
In a union rank-and-file, which has undergone a real turnover of generations in the last 10 to 15 years, leading among other things in the factory union cadres to the exclusion and marginalization of those figures of elderly rank-and-file leaders, combative even if linked to the external union hierarchy, who had constituted the point of reference for the action of the mass of workers and in the front row in the clash with the boss, the objective conditions for the propagandistic appeal to the red tradition of the CGIL against the self-described bosses’ unions of the CISL and UIL were lacking. All the more so since the CGIL leadership had by then disposed of all the organizational features that could recall in the memory and instincts of proletarians the characteristics proper to a class union as it had manifested itself in the years before fascism. By this time there was nothing left in the CGIL to be defended and a situation had in fact manifested itself that indicated to the party the need to readjust its immediate tactical directions.
The directive to establish “Committees for the Defense of the Class Union” against unification with the CISL and UIL, which the party then gave as its last‑ditch effort, consistent with its tactical direction, which drew on the “red tradition” of the CGIL and called on this basis the most combative proletarians around its communist groups, was not taken up by the working class and in fact the Committees were reduced to our forces alone.
As we have amply documented, in the following years the question was muddied and used in order to bring about a serious political and organizational disbandment of the party, which was treacherously prevented from serene study and continued evaluation of a not‑easy question. In fact, the degeneration of the party didn’t originate from the “union question”, as certain small circles that emerged from its disintegration continue to believe, but from a serious degeneration both because of the rejection of organic centralism as its internal method of work and because of subsequent profound deviations on political and tactical principles.
All this, however, did not prevent the forces that survived that catastrophic lurch and gathered around our newspaper from also analyzing the more purely tactical aspect that was posed in those years on the terrain of union action. Consequently, the perspective of defending the red tradition of the CGIL was abandoned, and, without, however, denying the validity of the internal action of the trade unions, the direction was oriented toward the “ex‑novo rebirth of class unions”, not as a mechanical re‑definition of the “union form” of the past but as a reconstruction of a tissue of class organization that post‑World War II events had now definitively destroyed, faithful to the delivery of all our theses that there can be no real revival of a real class movement without the rebuilding of proletarian defense organizations with immediate economic content. Subsequent events in the trade union field confirmed and reinforced this indication as we shall expound at the conclusion of this work.
24 – Trade union opportunism facing the crisis
The 1972‑74 period saw the united confederations emphasize the reformism of their general line and the productivist approach in company integrative contracts. Meanwhile, the first symptoms of the economic crisis became apparent: industrial production growth slowed and international trade began to jam. The nonconvertibility of the dollar into gold proclaimed by the U.S. in August ’71 is the first official effect of the beginning of a cycle of crisis and involution of the capitalist economy that, amid ups and downs, but with ever deepening lows, lasts and continues to this day. The first political reflection of the crisis is the hardening of the government-bosses-political parties front against the labor movement, including the PCI, which is increasingly bent on inserting itself into the democratic-parliamentary “rotation” game.
Responsibility for the slowdown of the national economy and the waning of capitalist accumulation is attributed with increasing propaganda hubbub to workers’ struggles and the economic and regulatory “excessive concessions” of previous years. Trade union treachery is subject to these accusations and, in the classic collaborationist approach, turns the accusation back on the “inability” of company managements to profitably invest their capital and the failure of governments’ economic policy. On this basis will be set the trade union “strategy” of the crisis years: wage demands always relegated to a secondary level and subordinated to the “policy of sacrifice”, in the acceptance that the working class must contribute with all its strength to the “exit from the tunnel” of the crisis, a policy constant from then until now.
The contractual struggles of the winter of 1972‑73 are consequently thus characterized and, despite the fact that the various categories express not less combativeness than in previous renewals, they end with very low wage increases. In this round of bargaining, the famous unique blue‑collar/white-collar salary scale finds implementation, reflecting on the normative level the intertwining that had by then come to exist in workplaces between these two fundamental categories into which the workforce in factories had traditionally been divided. Presented by the unions as a great achievement, the legislation merely took note of the progressive technical simplification of work tasks, which pushes company figures previously considered “privileged” toward lower union wages and grading, and relatively raises the value of the labor-power of certain specialized worker strata, which capital itself has an interest in paying better than the traditional paper-pushing clerk.
With the 1972‑73 contracts, the FCs are institutionalized and officially recognized by the companies as corporate bodies representing all workers, and their sclerotization and slow but gradual detachment from the rank-and-file formally called upon to elect them begins, becoming increasingly asphyxiated bodies designed to passively ratify the operational decisions of the apparatus of officials outside the factory.
This period better defined the structure of unions that would have to face years of crisis and with which the proletariat still struggles today. The hodgepodge of currents and fractions more or less belonging to the official parties into which the entire ranks of regime triplice officials are fragmented is the best aspect that can characterize a modern regime union. There is a majority “center” hinged around the CGIL and the “socialist”-inspired sectors of the UIL that sketches and sets the basic outlines of collaborationist policy and that permeates with itself and controls the vast majority of the FCs in the big companies. A “right-wing” referring to the UIL minority which, depending on the moment, is imitated by the entire organization, which is responsible for going to the front row when it comes to dropping the hammer down on the workers and more openly prostrating itself before the bosses. A more or less radical and verbose “left”, again depending on the situation, made up mostly of that sizeable fraction of the 68ist left, which, having gone out of fashion during the disputes and protests commotion period, has found its true opportunist essence in the arms of the confederal piecards, and which is concerned with bringing back under official union aegis and control those fringes of workers whom the crisis tends to instinctively place on class-based grounds against the tutelage of the official unions.
From then on, the theatrics aimed at having workers swallow the increasingly hard-to-swallow pills of the crisis will reflect the same script. Faced with any bosses’ attack, the unions always respond at first with a more or less united verbal opposition; they all deprecate, accuse, reject bosses’ proposals, appeal to workers’ mobilization, which never goes beyond a symbolic ritual of a two or four‑hour strike or the “protest day”. Having saved face, the “right” begins to regard the employers’ or government demands as not entirely unfounded; the usual bombastic verbal polemic with the “center” and the “left” follows, after which they all end up unitedly presenting themselves to the workers to swallow the new dud deal, with the “left” distinguishing itself in this. For almost a decade now, the proletariat has been a witness to these theatrics. Its return to real class struggle will sweep away this play and the sleazy actors playing it.
25 – Worker reactions outside and against structures
In 1974‑75 the capitalist crisis manifested itself in all its severity, and the demands policy of opportunism reflects it by shifting to the issue of “productive investment”. In the face of the first bosses’ attacks on wages and employment, workers are invited to strike under the pretense of imposing different “productive choices” on the bosses, as if capital didn’t spontaneously move toward the most profitable investments. This anti‑worker strategy is painted with absurd reformist theories, such as the “new way of working and producing”. The acceptance of the “policy of sacrifice” by the PCI and its trade union offshoots is framed in the strategy of “austerity”, which implies the full willingness of the workers’ official representatives to play to the full their historic role as puppets of the capitalist economy. The trade union history of the past 5‑6 years [the present time of this work is early 1983] is practically one of continuous, slow but progressive reduction of a series of wage and welfare quotas, through a sequence of union agreements ranging from the reduction of the wage incidence of the living allowance on severance pay, to the elimination of certain items from the sliding wage scale, to the recent drastic reduction of this wage mechanism. It’s also the story of the ongoing government-bosses-trade union co‑management romantic triangle, of the expulsion of redundant labor-power from the factories, of the unions’ acceptance of continuous governmental attacks tending to directly and indirectly affect the wages and general living and working conditions of the entire working class, of contractual and company demand platforms drawn up and flaunted with the aim of “getting out of the crisis” and of agreements concluded on this basis. And recent history known to all, the particular events of which we avoid setting out so as not to weigh down an already overlong report.
Instead, we are interested in tracing the essential aspects of the function of union representative structures and workers’ reactions to the behavior of opportunism and employers’ attacks. In general, there has been a progressive detachment of rank-and-file workers from union organizations. From 1976‑77 onward, union membership declined, while workers’ protests in assemblies to ratify agreements and contracts grew in intensity in parallel. Contesting the management in the squares, in demonstrations, in factory assemblies has become a constant in labor disputes in recent years. It has so far, in most cases, been a matter of reactions and confrontations that on the whole have not gone beyond a passive rejection of union decisions and policy, and have had the effect of increasing workers’ distrust of union centrals. On the one hand, we are witnessing in the factories the passive turning away of large masses of workers from the increasingly symbolic strike actions proclaimed by the central unions that make the workers feel as though they’re being mocked, the magnitude of which is certainly greater than the decline in union membership and the increase in membership cancelltions, which are significant in themselves. On the other hand, to the impressive increase of an army of jobless, unemployed, underemployed, and laid‑off people, strangers to official trade union organizations, left fighting completely for themselves, among whom resignation, apathy and the attempt to resolve their situations individually cannot but dominate.
This general phenomenon of estrangement of the broad working masses from the trade unions, which is expressed in the stunted adhesions to strikes and especially to the increasingly rare street demonstrations, is significantly more pronounced where, as at FIAT, workers have suffered the burning consequences of union policies on their own skin. There has, however, been no lack of active and organizational reactions to the defeatist action of the unions in recent years, which have had different vicissitudes but an unambiguous meaning: the material impossibility of defending even the most basic necessities of life and work while somehow remaining under the protection of the union centrals.
26 – The new Unitary Base Committees
The first significant episodes date back to 1975, with the formation of CUBs, rank-and-file workers’ committees, which sprang up in some workplaces or categories, particularly among the Milan tramway workers, school workers, unemployed Neapolitans, and railway workers in Naples and Rome. On April 23, 1975, the CUB of the Milanese tramway workers proclaimed a 24‑hour strike in support of wage and regulatory demands joined by the entire category, paralyzing public transport in the Lombard metropolis for the entire day. The reaction of the unions, past the bewilderment and amazement of the first hours, is harsh: epithets of “provocateurs, hooligans, irresponsible, corporatists” rain down on the striking workers. Communiqués from the CGIL and ATM management thunder in unison against the strike. The first openly calls for strikebreaking and urges the tramway workers to “return to the correct forms of struggle carried on so far and which are part of the more general action of the trade union movement: reforms, transport policy, productive recovery”. The second proclaims, “Those who organize these actions, even if they claim to be on the left, are playing into the hands of the forces that want to impose on the emotional wave created by right‑wing terrorism, authoritarian state-of-emergency solutions”. This reaction will be repeated in all subsequent similar situations, especially in the face of the uniting of the Rome and Naples railroad CUBs in August 1975, which saw the vast majority of workers go on strike openly against union directives.
These rank-and-file bodies differ markedly from those of 1968‑69. While those never claimed to constitute an alternative to the union and arose primarily as a reaction to the union’s bureaucratic sclerosis and organizational deficiencies, the committees of this period act explicitly and avowedly outside the rank-and-file union organization, which is however present where they are formed. Not only that, but in the heat of agitation, in the moments of greatest tension and struggle, they are led by events to clash against the unions’ rank-and-file bodies and especially against the external organizational apparatus.
A feature that differentiates them from those of 1968 is also that of content of demands in their actions, which tend to overthrow the productivist and collaborationist approach to union policies and focus on the assertion of real workers’ interests through wage and normative demands antithetical to those of the unions.
Consequently, the attitude of the confederals toward these bodies is the opposite: no attempt is made to integrate them or ride on the coattails of the agitations they manage to call and direct, but they are openly fought against. The different nature of these CUBs or workers’ groups and the different attitude of the trade unions toward them is an expression of the changed economic situation: the bosses and their State can no longer tolerate the disruption of the production cycle and social order in factories and workplaces by spontaneous actions; it needs more than ever order and regularity in production that only official trade union bodies can guarantee. The confederations can no longer tolerate or ride on the coattails of struggles and agitations that explicitly stand against its collaborationist policies. The deepening economic crisis no longer allows even the partial satisfaction of what workers spontaneously demand, as had been possible in 1968‑70 at the height of productive expansion. Their spontaneous struggles have to be nipped in the bud, or at best, pandered to, as will happen at FIAT with the 35‑day struggle, with the intention of better stifling them when they tend to take on the appearance of real social clashes.
The economic crisis pushes the working class toward increasingly precarious living conditions, and instinctive reactions are had in the civil service in general, railroad, school, hospital, tramway, and airport workers, categories that, because of being characterized as being “service" workers, have been particularly neglected by the confederal piecards, who are also concerned not to antagonize the audience of “consumers”, the middle-classes, in whose defense it will claim to have drafted the self‑regulatory rules for strikes.
Precisely because they’re the expression of a discontent generated mainly by the disillusionment of the economic crisis, these bodies do not spread as fast as those of 1968, but, conversely, the phenomenon does not exhaust itself in a bargaining season and presents an alternating, lasting and changing trend over time, closely linked to the spontaneous drive of the most combative sectors and manifesting itself in a discontinuous manner and often, after magnificent as well as brief bursts of combativeness, burning out without a trace. This characteristic, which gives class character to the CUBs and similar bodies, is at the same time the cause of their weakness.
Almost always, having exhausted the initial impetus that expressed them, they end up closing in on themselves, often prey to the illusion that it’s enough to make up for the lack of connection with the class through the “political quality jump”, to the adventurism of small groups who delude themselves that they can act politically, or in substitution for the class, or fall into the error of pitting “their” minority struggles against the vast majority of other workers.
Fomenting these aberrations, which can arise after the euphoria of the best moments of struggle, are a plethora of extremist small groups, usually the remnants of 1968 that have not converged into the official ranks, but also long‑standing “revolutionaries” gone bad and harking back to none other than the communist left who, consistent with their fundamental opportunism, interpret the organized expression of spontaneous workers’ struggles as a “trend”, analogous to that which had seen them 5‑6 years earlier pose as “protesters”. The “committee” or “workers’ collective” thus becomes, in the conception of these bunglers, an organizational mystique in itself “revolutionary”. The relationship between class and its organisms of struggle is reversed, the workers’ committee becomes a “builder” of struggles, a maker of “vanguards”, an “obligatory reference”. Thus in the years 1974‑78 we witness a whole flourishing of fake and phony “committees” and “collectives”, workers’ appendages of small parties and groups that are born, die, split up and recompose according to the mood of their “builders”. Often rank-and-file bodies that have arisen from genuine class-based impulses, or even just from the need in combative minorities to pose the problem of organized reaction to union betrayal, end up falling prey to these lowly political hirelings.
A destructive influence in this process of a slow and troubled return of proletarian strata to the uncompromising defense of their living conditions has been determined in recent years by terrorist groups and their more or less active supporters. The petty-bourgeois and adventurist ideology of the proponents of the “armed party” ended up influencing a certain number of proletarians disgusted with the opportunism of the official parties and the regime trade unions and their “leftist” offshoots, many of whom naively believed that they would find the answer to the defense of their basic needs in the desperation of the “exemplary gesture”, in crippling or killing a bourgeois, a pen‑pusher, a magistrate or a factory boss.
The result has been, on the one hand, to have diverted scores of young proletarians from the healthy and natural class instinct, which tends not to isolation from their fellow workers but to union with them in anti‑boss and anti‑capitalist action, in which what counts is not the “audacity” of individuals but the weight of the number of participants on the basis of conviction to the defensive struggle, on the other hand, having created among other numerous proletarians a fear of class-based intervention and action, for fear of being branded as “followers or flunkies of Red Brigades” by official trade union propaganda, which with these epithets has always tried in recent years to neutralize the action and denunciations of proletarians who actively resisted their politics. The consequence has been to have turned away many more conscious and combative proletarians from the correct path of immediate resumption of defensive demands on class economic grounds. The action of these people must thus be considered harmful to class recovery and objectively (but also subjectively, not a few, in the factory, being delegates or union officials faithful executors of directives) convergent with that defeatist official policy which they claimed, but not too much, to fight against.
These disrupting phenomena do not invalidate the important significance of these early workers’ attempts to shake off the heavy cloak of regime unionism. Already since 1975 our Party has been noting this, pointing out the dangers and errors to which these bodies are exposed, distancing itself from fakes. Issue nº10 of June 1975 of our newspaper writes:
«The party, while enthusiastically greeting these first reactions of the working class to opportunist treachery and committing all its forces to support and strengthen them, recognizing in them the first germs of the resurgence of a class movement, indicates the need for them to tend to unite and merge into a general movement of trade union opposition which must lead to the resurgence of economic defense bodies truly linked to class interests, to the resurgence of class unions, the weapons of the working class in the struggle against the bosses and against the capitalist State, both in the event that working-class opposition to the nationalist policy can take place within the present trade union organizations and in the event that it is forced to take place outside and against them; the organization of all workers who stand against opportunist defeatism is as necessary as is the linking in an ever more dense and extensive network of workers’ bodies of trade union opposition which must, while starting from the immediate needs of the workers in a factory and of a category and precisely in order to be able effectively to defend these same needs, rise to the vision of the necessity of the resurgence on the general scale of the working class of truly class-based economic bodies, to direct their efforts and action to this end.
«On this path the party points out to the spontaneously arising workers’ organisms two concomitant dangers which must be avoided. The first is that of closing themselves off on the basis of adherence to certain political lines, while it’s necessary for them to welcome all workers, regardless of their ideology or political position, who stand on the ground of the unremitting defense of their living and working conditions against the bosses, the State, and the nationalist policy of the current trade unions.
«The second danger is represented by the tendency to conceive of their tasks as going beyond the union function itself, to conceive of themselves as superior and substitute forms of workers’ union organization that could safely be left in the hands of opportunist piecards thus isolating themselves in a kind of triumphalist spontaneism. While it must be clear to all workers who stand on this ground that if they’re forced to organize outside of the official trade union organizations themselves, it’s precisely because the essential function of trade union defense is being betrayed by these organizations and it’s a matter of reaffirming the inescapable necessity for all proletarians to work to rebuild it by wresting its positions within the workers’ organizations from opportunism».
In issue nº17 of January 1976, we wrote:
«Communist groups operate within the official movement, insofar as their integration is possible, openly against the leaderships and policies of the union centers, striving to organize workers’ forces around a class union opposition, which also operates outside the official unions, in close connection with spontaneous workers’ bodies, with the specific aim of wresting the initiative and direction of workers’ struggles from the gangs of regime union leaders without thereby sabotaging the strikes they promote, while fiercely criticizing their anti‑class intentions and aims.
«In the face of dissident workers’ committees or bodies outside the confederations, the Party directs its militants to work within those which are “open”, that is, which are not direct emanations of political parties or groups, thus capable of not setting party or sectarian political conditions and of organizing every worker in principle, allowing communists freedom of organization and program dissemination. In them, communists organize themselves into groups simultaneously operating in the official trade unions with the aim of taking over their leadership, conduct intense propaganda, and assume attitudes able to promote and facilitate the connection between the various workers’ bodies operating on the terrain of class struggle, for their unification into a single and unified organization over a wider territory.
«The party does not work with groups organized within other closed bodies in which it is prevented from carrying out its activity and developing the organization of its communist workers’ groups. It does not participate at all in bodies in which elements of several classes and middle-classes converge, such as neighborhood committees, committees for “self-reduction”, school management bodies, business administrative councils, etc., nor in initiatives promoted by other “workers’” parties even if they enunciate purported trade union actions with inter-party organs.
«The action of the communists will always strive to be a coefficient of attraction of the proletarian forces, no matter how are they characterized from a political and trade union point of view, on a class ground toward the rebirth of a truly proletarian and fighting organization with the means of class struggle and direct action; opposing to all centrifugal and off‑center initiatives, with respect to the unity of the movement, the coordinated and centralized action of the workers in struggle to defend their immediate economic interests».
This direction the party would later have a way of expressing it directly and concretely in the struggle of the hospital workers in 1978, which saw in many areas the entire category go on strike, under the leadership of the rank-and-file committees, not only against union directives, but also against their own local base organizations.
28 – Toward the reorganization of the class
Parallel to these first significant episodes of organized rebellion against trade union policies there was a gradual closing down of trade union organization. Every form of active and participatory union life of the members, which had never shone in the past but which had at times permitted communists to do some organized work in their midst, is obliterated. The rank-and-file organizing apparatus is increasingly reduced to a swarm of loyalists, detached from the rank-and-file they claim to represent and whose only task is to pedantically bring the official lines of the trade union confederations they belong to to the workers, trade functionaries impervious to any class-based stimulus. Taking advantage of the action of terrorist groups, the unions expelled from their ranks the workers’ delegates who refused to sign allegiance to democracy. This act erases the last formal expression of independent trade unionism: the membership of every proletarian without political discrimination. The regression of trade union organizations into regime apparatuses is marked by the purely corporatist relationship that has come to be determined on the institutional level, hinging practically on a continuous, close and consolidated confrontation of the government-bosses-trade union triangle in an anti‑worker function and with the explicitly stated purpose by all to operate with the goal of social stability. Of this role played by the trade unions a growing number of workers are aware, who experience the effects on their own skin in terms of worsening living conditions, and it’s made more explicit by the increasingly rigid attitude that the confederations are forced to take toward explosions of workers’ anger.
Again recently there has been an example of this: when, last January, thousands of workers spontaneously went on strike in various localities occupying some stations and airports for short periods, protesting against yet another government blow in the making, for the first time in the postwar period the confederations immediately distanced themselves from these demonstrations, although they were of purely symbolic value and had a limited scope.
From this general situation, which we have in brief attempted to describe, one fundamental element emerges clearly: worker discontent tends to take on, as a generalized phenomenon, the appearance of growing passive detachment from union action while, whenever more or less substantial groups of workers tend to overcome this attitude toward active organizing for the defense of their immediate needs, even minimal ones, they are forced to do so outside the organizational control of the unions. It’s no longer possible, as it may have been in the 1950s and 1960s, to express any form of class-based workers’ organization, however small and weak it may be, that somehow enjoys the formal cover of the official trade union organization and allows a class-based opposition to be expressed within it. Not only that, when this organized external opposition succeeds in translating into substantial workers’ struggle, or is directly the expression of a struggle that has erupted out of the control of opportunism, the workers who participate in it are forced to clash with the regime trade union organization, which tends to bar their way and break up the agitation, in open collusion with the boss or the government, which recognize the official trade unions as the sole representatives of the workers.
It’s from this situation that the party has drawn the prediction that the future resurgence of class proletarian uprisings with economic defense content can only be expressed outside and against the official unions, and it’s as a result of this that today we’ve abandoned the address of organized work within the CGIL, with the prospect of its conquest “perhaps violently”, as the Party had envisioned it until the early 1970s.
Today, when growing masses of workers are becoming aware of the anti‑worker function of the unions and many of them are tending to abandon them, especially those who had most confidently followed their actions in previous years, the Party no longer invites workers to join the CGIL to fight against the reformist and collaborationist policies of the leadership. This direction today could only be confused with those of the “trade union left”, which tries, with its pseudo-radical attitudes, to stem the hemorrhage of workers abandoning these organizations and their policies.
Worse still would be to confine ourselves to a kind of tactical limbo, where to do away with having a tactic of practical action, waiting for future developments in the situation to express trends and elements more tangible and concrete than those of today. As we have written a thousand times, the party’s task is to determine a tactic of action, on the basis of its own theoretical and programmatic cornerstones, supplemented by the analysis of actual situations, and work to foster actual development consistent with its predictions. The abandonment of this task amounts to the party ceasing to be as such and its transformation into a coterie of intellectuals, satisfied with defending theory and program in words, through scholastic appeal to Marxist theory and abstract general principles.
Certainly only the development of the workers’ movement, its non‑episodic reappearance on the scene of class struggle, will be able to confirm our prediction and tactical direction. But it’s exactly in the heat of action, in contact with the real movement of the class, not in the sphere of the lucubrations of opinion, that the party must verify this confirmation. We haven’t drawn the basic outlines of our prediction from activist mirages or abstract intellectual formulations, but from the application of the Marxist method to the analysis of real social facts, however bleak those of today may be, as we have once again tried to demonstrate here.