The Rebirth of Conflict (at FIAT), 3 – Aris Accornero

Some questions on the FIAT-strike[1]

Accornero responds to the explosion of industrial strife.

In this post and the next, I have translated responses to questions posed by the journal Problemi del Socialismo by two figures, Aris Accornero and Mario Tronti, Italian workerists (and PCI members) to the strikes that had just erupted at FIAT.

  1. Why today and not yesterday did this massive trade union resumption take place amongst FIAT workers?
  2. How should one situate this resumption of trade union activity, particularly its latest developments, in the general political situation?
  3. What is the general political assessment we can give to the return to combativeness of the FIAT employees, particularly from the standpoint of the consciousness of those workers of their effective trade union rights, not only in terms of their union role but also of the political one to which they are called?
  4. What weight and what direction can the combativeness of the FIAT-workers give to the immediate demands of the metalworkers and to the demands of the workers in other productive sectors?
  5. What new relationships will be created between the worker and the employer, and between the worker and the union from the request for trade unions to have the right to ‘enter’ the firm? Might this be a prelude to the union being able to influence the direction of production, especially in the firms in which the state owns a stake?

Aris Accornero

Labour’s compulsory collaboration with capital (the Italian version of bourgeois reformism) has gone into crisis with the centre-left, which instead posits a participatory collaboration between capital and labour for the harmonious development of the nation. [The path of compulsory collaboration] had already cracked under working class consciousness of the boss’ exploitation, which had demystified the practice of collaboration by identifying its class contents. This consciousness was unwavering in the vanguard workers, it had been reborn in the ‘old’, and had been rapidly taken up by the ‘young’. This is the case because of the tenacious resistance of the class organisations to ideological corruption and political reprisals by the FIAT brand, because of the obstinate search for building connections with workers and with reality, because the difficult elaboration of new directions for union action in the factory and in the nation, had enabled the call for the worker alternative of struggle to outlive the boss’ call for collaboration. (Despite moments of uncertainty and ‘tactical’ errors – that were more or less inevitable given the ‘strategic’ shortcomings announced by the collapse of the CGIL in ’55[2] – such as the temporary abolition of the word ‘strike’, the falling back upon the demand for a firm-level contract, the illusion of being able to strike at the monopoly – without an internal struggle – even from outside, at the level of the superstructure).

Aris Accornero

When the ‘economic miracle’ began to diminish the labour market pressure at the gates of the monopoly, robbing the FIAT treatment the privilege which it had enjoyed compared to other industries in Turin, the myth of the ‘FIAT labour aristocracy’ was shattered. For it stemmed from the stability of employment and the [higher] remuneration that the automobile monopoly was able to guarantee its dependents. This levelling of distances, in addition to downgrading the ‘favourable circumstances’, brought out more clearly the harshness of the FIAT factory regime, such that not even the higher salary, the health insurance, the anti-strike ‘collaboration’ prize, etc., were able to compensate.

What was missing for the FIAT workers though was the consciousness of being stronger than the monopoly. Indeed, with the strike called by CGIL failing, they had already fallen back upon passivity, to the point that the union elections of April had worsened the workers’ subordination to the worn path of opportunist ‘collaboration’; [a path] furthered by the company union SIDA and the reformist UIL, by the decline of CGIL’s classism and by CISL’s inter-classism.

Meanwhile, the centre-left government had in March opened a new prospective for the workers. Offering economic well-being and asking social collaboration, it took the struggles and the contradictions to a higher level. Its subsequent actions (ministerial provisions, ‘triangular’ conferences,[3] bringing the unions into the planning process) had in fact generated a climate in which workplace conflicts no longer seemed to be pathological manifestations of a sick body, but physiological ones of a healthy one. Not then a phenomenon to coerce in a conservative manner but to be accepted democratically. The union dynamic was instead to be programmatically channelled – used for propulsive ends – and not condemned and blocked because of fetter on development.

The new situation fuelled demands and struggles, in a short time leading to a coincidence rarely seen in the post-war period: simultaneous, solid and united strikes in industry, in agriculture, and in the public sector, that posed the fundamental issues such as the reform of contractual rules, of agrarian pacts, of labour relation in the countryside, in public administration, in schools. But in this vast and powerful movement aiming to ‘change things’, there remained this ‘black spot’ FIAT (as some described the halting of the union dynamic in the largest Italian factory).

Still from ‘Strikes in Turin’, Piero and Ada Gobetti 1962

It was the appeal to class unity, for the metalworkers’ battle over the new contract, which accelerated vertiginously the process of maturation of class autonomy at FIAT, leading it over the threshold of the strike, which extended to all the workers in a relentless progression: from 400, to 7000, to 60000, and 90000 in three weeks. The final strike marked the refusal and condemnation of company reformism with the searing disavowal of the separate accord by SIDA-UIL, with which the bosses had sought to break the united union and worker front. (Even the referendum that the automobile ‘union’ proposed to its members, according to a typically reformist procedure, confirmed a posteriori the decision to struggle, which they had already carried out by striking).

In this way, in what remains the citadel of the Italian proletariat, crumbled the highest citadel of the monopoly bosses, which since 1953 had denied the workers’ movement its point of greatest strength. Class unity was rebuilt without an ‘oasis’, confirmed was the end of almost a decade of worker silence that had been determined by:

  1. the practical distance of the workers’ institutions from the class, due in turn to the theoretical distance from Italian capitalism; and
  2. the political distance from the Turin-based monopoly, which since 1952 methodically pursued labour’s coerced collaboration with capital, by means of fascist repression and reformist paternalism, dialectically interwoven in an anti-communist logic for the aim of maximal profit.

The resumption [of struggle] at FIAT was above all an anti-capitalist revolt: a declaration of war on social peace founded upon worker capitulation; insubordination towards an order established by [Vittorio] Valletta[4] with the carrot and stick; a rediscovery of the abnormality of the relations of production that had previously been disguised as the normality of production; followed by trade union revival: one had to break with collaboration if one wanted to strike over the contract. Up until the last strike, it might have seemed as if the workers [lavoratori][5] at FIAT had only taken action to achieve a higher price for the collaboration that was exhorted from them. The strike of 7-9 July demonstrated that their class autonomy was priceless. 

This is true after Valetta professed himself precursor and advocate [fautore] of the centre-left.[6] His decision seemed instrumental, not organic; political not ideal. Indeed Valletta (unlike the deceased Olivetti) did not prepare the centre-left, which is to say the supportive collaboration between capital and labour; the same trade union dynamic that the centre-left accepts, and that he had paralysed, left him unprepared. His actions of that time demonstrate once again the continuing recourse to violence and to cajoling: from the lock-out and the reprimands towards ‘backwards’ entrepreneurs; from the use of the police to that of the convenient unions.

(One day, it will be necessary to assess the extent to which the vision of Valletta as a coherent epigone of reformism has been exaggerated. He without doubt represents the most advanced, which is to say the most aggressive part of the Italian bosses, but precisely of the Italian bosses, not the Swedish; standing before him the Italian not the English workers’ movement. His brutally refined politics of domination, which had spread from the factory to society, and that he proposed extending to the whole country, accepting peaceful international competition between socialism and capitalism while suffocating the class struggle in Italy, did not contain an effective – which is to say an enduring – hegemonic capacity; it was incapable of achieving the complete adherence of the workers to class collaboration, and had to impose and instil it).

When the strike entered the gates of his empire, Valletta became agent of a different line of resistance to workers’ struggle from that of Confindustria, instead welcoming the model that state participation in industry, in the guise of public and collective capitalist, had shown private and individual capitalists. Meanwhile, the strike at FIAT was becoming a sort of testing ground of the centre-left, which conditioned the decisions of the unions [that the centre-left] could influence to prevent the repetition of such tests acting as so many hammer-blows to the building of a balanced and stable capitalist expansion, so that it could proceed via coordination of the state and monopolies, and with the supported of the workers’ organisations.

The historic nature and explosive significance of the reawakening of FIAT had upset the balance that the struggles at work in 1959-60 – while imposing and in crescendo after the workers’ revival from the preceding crisis, marked by the defeat at FIAT ­– had been unable to affect the political or trade union relations of force in the country. The anti-fascist uprising against Tambroni had in this sense counted far more, it had produced an immediate and evident result, forcing the ruling classes to change path. But after 1960 is seemed as if the workers’ movement revolved around the ‘economic miracle’, and that it was incapable of posing for itself a more advanced milestone than a different aportioning of the fruits of its labour between producers and beneficiaries. The anti-capitalist content of many of these struggles and resurgences – demonstrated also by the specific combativeness, intransigence and ‘indiscipline’ of the new recruits of workers – had been restored to the economic bedrock.

These limits have been overcome with the metalworkers’ struggle across Italy, workers and employees, taking power from the bosses to give it to the union. And with the FIAT workers [lavoratori] taking to the field, the battle has assumed political qualities, above all because of the various bewildered reactions of the ruling classes, as much as in the ‘enlightened’ vanguards, as much in the ‘backwards’ rear-guards. For the latter, the reconstitution of the full potentiality for workers’ struggle in the strongest industrial sector placed in peril the preservation of privilege; for the former, it threatened the consolidation of future ones.

In particular, the planners of balanced capitalist development, who had not counted on FIAT, found their accounts abruptly upset; for they believed FIAT to be a by now pacified (to use Gaullist terms) ‘oasis’. Certainly, there was little hair splitting over the inadequate correspondence of means and ends, all the more so since one could, eventually, plan a gradual cleansing of the FIAT elements compelled to collaborate, so as to make it free and above all democratically accepted; hence the homogenisation in accordance with this new line of Italian capitalism as a whole, which resolved to strengthen itself by walking with the workers, no longer against them, despite the reluctance of many capitalists.

But the Fiat workers [lavoratori] had been unable to patiently await the arrival of ‘our’ cavalry, the planners, which is to say for the achievement of that ‘operation of vast significance’ that [Aldo] Moro announced in Naples[7] and that is now underway, with which the anti-communist class mould remains the constant that ties together ‘backwards’ and ‘enlightened’ capitalism.

From the anger of the bosses and the disappointment of the centre left, their not always heeded ‘Jiminy cricket’ [voice of conscience], sprang moves to shatter or put a break on the unfolding of any further struggle of the metalworkers. It will seem ironic and blasphemous to say, but the weight of the revival [of struggle] at FIAT has taken the clash to such a level of sharpness and tension as to put a break on developments: too many people were seriously scared, finding themselves unexpectedly faced with the working class, reintegrated in its unity. Everything was then done to avoid that the clashes should present anew to the entire country this image, thereby jeopardising the results of the clash.

This episode has, more than any other, already exacerbated the contradiction that was already present in the earlier workers’ struggles between their potential for struggle and the results achieved, between the aims and the compromises; something which can issue in mass rebellion but that can also highlight the relative weakness of current union unity, when compared to the possibilities of quantitative and qualitative reinforcement provided by increased employment and combativeness. A heavy responsibility falls on the leaders of the catholic and social-democratic unions who, finally seeing their aspirations realised in the programme of the centre-left – that of ‘rendering superfluous’ the class struggle, renewing the superstructures to reorder the base – have more obstinately than before circumscribed their tasks in this way: bartering compensation and forms of labour collaboration with capital. For this reason, even heavier duties fall on the CGIL, to make sure that class unity and autonomy and the capacity for action of the workers’ movement are not frustrated.

Moreover, the participation of FIAT in the contractual struggle of the metalworkers has further shifted the axis of demands from the sectoral terrain of the contract to the general one of bargaining; from economico-normative requests tied to occupational category to those of power for all workers [lavoratori]. That is to say, it has revalued them. Because particularly in the establishments of the Turin-based monopoly, the ‘condition of the workers’ will be unable to take any step forward if one fails to introduce into the factory the bridgehead of the union; if one does not oppose to the boss an institutionalised power that negotiates what the workers want to achieve and that the internal commission will administer. (The fact that CISL and UIL do not call for the union in the factory as the titular negotiating agent, reveals the room for action they’re willing to gift the capitalist, thereby leaving their own workers defenceless in the workplace).

Only in the factory, which is to say directly linked to the workers [lavoratori], can the union achieve a timely and constant fit between the labour relation and the productive dynamic, can it efficiently counteract the boss’ despotism, and become the antagonistic instrument  that represents, organises and defends the exploited precisely where the process of exploitation takes place. Without this anchoring in production and with the producers, the union cannot fully fulfil – at the base, but also at the summit – its function. Its function is not to influence the direction of production, but rather to manage the rate and reintegration of labour-power, negotiating its price (in all its component parts: from professional training to the piece-rate, from skills to healthcare, and so on) as well as its consumption (from its location [in the process of production] to the hours, from pace [of work] to freedoms, and so on).

To administer the national asset of labour-power, of which it is the custodian and tutor, the union must have a management plan of its own. It can be compared to an economic plan, in which the capital to be invested is for labour. Via this path the union will certainly influence the direction of production but in mediated fashion, having as an end not productive expansion but the compression of exploitation. With state capitalism this permanent objective is even more inescapable, given the differences it should have compared to private capitalism: political ones – it must comply faithfully with the Constitution that is founded upon work and not upon capital; and economic ones – it can count on the mass rather than the rate of profit, and on productivity rather than exploitation.

It remains the case, however, that the part state-owned firms refused all union power (i.e, contractual power) within the factory. What is indispensable in private firms thus becomes pressing here: the creation of forms and organisms of political power (which is to say, of workers) that can guarantee, not so much the ‘control of workers [lavoratori] over the direction of production’, as much as the presence of a socialist alternative to the direction of the capitalist factory, economy, and society. And this as foundation of all other types of political power. (In Italy, and precisely at FIAT, there exist two original experiences: the factory councils, which pursued non-collaboration for revolutionary ends; and management councils, which pursued collaboration for national ends).

This is what differentiates the function of the workers’ party from union unity. Their sphere of influence depends upon their tasks, which can be summarised as socialist revolution and social progress respectively. The workers’ party evolves the consciousness of exploitation, which the union takes up and stamps, turning it into collective consciousness in struggle, into scientific consciousness of exploitation. Achieving the consciousness of exploitation already in the unconscious, instinctive state, the worker discovers the irreconcilability of interests that oppose him as exploited to the exploiter boss. Realising a scientific consciousness of exploitation, the worker identifies the logic of the capitalist system to which she opposes, as a producer, her own class hegemony, which is to say her own historic role: the edification of socialist society.

In the FIAT monopoly, where the degree of development of the productive forces of the organisation of labour has particularly accentuated the contradiction between the social character of production and the private one of accumulation, it is necessary to consolidate the first two stages and to reach the third (and, in a modern firm, this is objectively easier from the standpoint of consciousness) with the only instruments of contact, of development and of power that permits it: the united union and the workers’ party. The objective is to defeat every form of collaboration – whether old or new, achieved through coercion or persuasion – of labour with capital. In other words: to prevent that the one irreparable contradiction in Italy today is becalmed.


[1] Published in Problemi del Socialismo, 7-8, V, July-August, 1962: 631-52. These were questions to which several figures from the workers’ movement who had not adhered to the centre-left were asked to respond. In addition to Accornero Tronti, the other respondents were Giuseppe Boaretto (also a contributor to Quaderni Rossi), Andrea Dosio, Provincial Secretary of the Turin federation of the PSI, and Giuseppe Palermo-Patera, about which I have only been able to discover that in 1960 he published a book, Dalla politica anticongiunturale alla politica di sviluppo, Feltrinelli, Milan.

[2] In 1955 the CGIL, the union closest to the PCI, suffered a historic electoral loss of its majority on the ‘internal commissions’, which were the representative organs through which workers are represented at the firm level. See part 1, note 2 on the ‘internal commissions’.  

[3] Bringing together ministers, bosses and unions.

[4] Valletta was either CEO or a director of FIAT from 1921 to 1966, apart from a short period in the post-War period when he was sacked for fascist collaborationism. He was soon returned as CEO by the Agnelli family. His management of the company, especially in the 1950s, was reliably anti-communist. In testimony by the FIAT worker Otello Pacifico, Valletta’s reign in the 1950s and ‘60s was described as one that attempted with all means necessary to increase the ‘legacy of fear’ (cited in E. Santarelli, Storia critica della repubblica. L’Italia dal 1945 al 1994, Feltrinelli, Milan 1996, 186).

[5] It is often little noted that the term operai used in these writings and many of those in the Italian workers’ movement and especially amongst the operaisti, is that of ‘industrial workers’. When referring to the broader working classes (e.g. office workers, precarious workers, day labourers, as well as industrial workers), the term would be the more generic lavoratori, literally ‘workers’.  Whenever the word ‘workers’ appears in this text, please bear in mind that it is to industrial workers that we are referring. I will add lavoratori in square brackets when the generic sense of workers is intended.

[6] In an interview for the daily Il Messaggero on 26 June 1962, Valletta is reported as saying: ‘The centre-left government is the result of current developments. One cannot and one should not go back. I am an advocate [fautore] of the centre-left’ (cited in G. Tamburrano, Storia e cronaca del centro-sinistra, 153).

[7] Aldo Moro was a central figure in Italian politics in the post-war period, assuming different ministerial roles for the DC, including that of Prime Minister. He would die at the hands of the Red Brigades in 1978. The reference to Naples was to the Christian Democrat Congress, 27-31 January 1962, where he called for a broadening of the government to include non-communist elements of the workers’ movement, and for an increased role of the state in the governance of the economy.

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