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International Socialism, April 1973


Mike Balfour

Italy: The Unions and Rank and File Power


From International Socialism, No.57, April 1973, pp.16-17.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The current struggle in Italy over the renewal of national agreements between employers and unions is taking place against a background of mounting social unrest, political instability and economic recession. No longer the precocious child of Europe, Italian capitalism has grown into a deformed and sluggish adolescent. [1] Falling private investment, low productive growth, inflation, a failure in the past to invest in research and technology, all have combined to create a critical situation for Italian employers.

Despite massive investment in the backward south, the gap between it and the north is widening. The failure of successive governments to iron out the uneven development of the economy has added fuel to the social tensions created by rising prices, unemployment, pitiful health and welfare services, inadequate public transport, overcrowding and slums.

The rash of closures, redundancies, speed-up, and the victimisation of militants, has not enabled employers to recoup the losses they suffered during the hot autumn of 1969. The strength and combativity of the Italian working class is blocking any recovery in capital accumulation.

Intense competitive pressures require the employers to rationalise industry and to re-establish their control in the factories in the interests of long-term planning. The unions showed during 1969 and 1970 that they were unable to maintain the control over workers which the employers needed. Nor was the centre-left government an adequate instrument to deal with social and industrial upheavals.

The present centre-right government of Andreotti serves the immediate needs of the employing class – to unite the ruling class (the limited fascist revival is supported by these backward sectors of the Italian ruling class which were violently opposed to the centre-left government [2]) and to clear the ground for a defeat for the labour movement in the current struggle over the national agreements.

The task it has set itself is to isolate the working class and emasculate its vanguard by State repression and an intense campaign in the mass media. The State’s tolerance of fascist violence against workers and students is just one aspect of this campaign.

1. Reformism

Disagreement over a longer-term strategy deeply divides the bourgeoisie. The dominant sector, linked to the private and State monopolies, wants an eventual return of a centre-left government on a programme of structural reforms, incomes policy, and the integration of the unions into State planning. [3]

This strategy requires the unions to regain firm control over the rank-and-file in order to ensure steady growth and planning. It also requires the parliamentary Left to adopt a more limited programme as a basis for an eventual centre-left coalition. To this end, the ruling party, the Christian Democrats, have set out to sabotage the unity talks between the three trade union confederations in order to impose more moderate terms for their eventual amalgamation.

Their success is evident in the failure of the trade unions to agree on unity but their willingness to sign a pact which envisages a strengthening of the unions’ control over the official rank-and-file organisations in the factories. Similarly the Socialist Party is divided over the terms for re-entry into a future government coalition.

Above all, the programme of the reformist wing of the ruling class only stands a chance if the working class can be decisively defeated in the national agreements.

The union leadership also sees negotiations over the agreements in terms of the need for economic growth. In practice this means accepting the need for rationalisation with consequent redundancies and closures. It also means a form of incomes policy limiting wage rises and in particular maintaining the level of wages constant between the period of national agreements. Both the unions and the Communist Party have given their blessing to this policy in exchange for a limited programme of social reforms.

The recent report of Lama, national secretary of the Communist Trade Union Confederation (CGIL), in preparation for their July congress, proposes a policy of productivity dealing and control of wages and strikes for the length of the national agreements.

The union leadership and the communist party have a difficult balancing act to perform. Under increasing pressure from their rank-and-file for united militant action which would bring down the centre-left government, they do not wish to jeopardise their long-term strategy of collaborating with the reformist wing of the ruling class on a programme of economic development and social reform. To topple the government at this time of social crisis would leave a dangerous vacuum in which only the revolutionary left would gain, since the centre-left have not built an alternative to the Andreotti government.

Thus the unions have made no attempt to unite the different sections of workers whose agreements are due to be renewed. The union leadership has also modified the militant demands emanating from the factories and retreated in the face of the intransigence of the employers’ federations. Agreements already made in the telephone, chemical and building industries are in large measure a defeat for the workers. The chemical agreement was hastily signed a few days before the national strike planned on 10 October. The unions gave way on the most important demands and accepted terms meant to guarantee a long period of ‘peace’ in the industry.

2. The Engineers

It is the struggle over the engineering workers’ agreement which is the key to the immediate future. The platform of the Engineering Workers Federation reflects the experience of the 1969-70 struggle: the drive among workers for greater unity, for breaking down the divisions between skilled and unskilled, white-collar and manual workers. The most important demand is for a single grading system of five grades to cover all workers – production, maintenance, clerks and technicians, and for parity between staff and shop floor workers.

The demands originally drawn up by the Federation contained only those which, in the estimation of the leadership, the employers could afford during the economic recession. The first conferences which accepted the platform did not represent the rank-and-file since the ‘delegates’ were largely chosen by the unions.

At mass meetings in ail the major engineering factories, the unions’ proposals were turned down. Instead the demands of the unofficial rank-and-file committees were approved. The last conference was forced to adopt a few of these demands, although in a watered down form. The final platform included, in addition to the demands for a single grading system and parity, an across-the-board increase of 18,000 lire a month (about £4 a week), a guaranteed 40 hour week and a four to five week holiday.

Since the breakdown of the talks with the Engineering Employers’ Federation, enormous strikes and demonstrations have been held all over Italy. But the willingness of the rank-and-file to fight has not been matched by the unions’ handling of the struggle. Engineering workers in the public sector have been called out separately from those in the private sector and those in the smaller factories. The unions have toned down their demands to the confederation of small capitalists – in line with the communist party strategy of alliance with ‘anti-monopoly sectors’.

While the employers have intensified repression in the factories, sacking militants, bringing others before the courts; while the government has invoked fascist laws widening the arbitrary powers of the police, the unions have delayed for months any form of effective militant action in order to keep negotiations open. Now the employers have broken off the talks, the General Council of the Engineering Workers Federation has decided effectively to abandon some of the demands. As their Secretary General stated in the Communist daily L’Unita:

Our platform is not a diktat. We are ready to discuss it, and we well know that any agreement is the result of compromise ... for us there are demands which can be dropped and others which can’t. [4]

3. Rank and file committees

The unions unwillingness to fight and their appeal for workers to look to the ‘national interest’ has deepened the contradiction between the leadership and the rank-and-file. The growth in numbers and influence of the Comitati Unitari di Base (CUB) although still limited to the more advanced factories in northern Italy, is highly significant. During the hot autumn, these unofficial rank-and-file committees emerged as the strike leadership in all the major factories in northern Italy. As the struggle abated they tended to disintegrate because the spontaneist revolutionary groups who were the major elements in them, failed to develop any coherent political line which would provide a sustained political leadership in the factories.

Through the work of Avanguardia Operaia especially, they have now re-emerged, in particular in Milan, where a district committee links all the CUBs. Their influence can be gauged by the fact that in the major engineering factories their list of demands for the national agreement was supported, while the unions’ platform was rejected.

The CUBs bring together the most advanced workers in the factory, not as another trade union, but as an autonomous workers’ organisation linking economic and political struggles, maintaining pressure on the trade unions to defend wages and conditions, and developing a coherent revolutionary perspective. Where the CUBs are strong, the official rank-and-file organisation, the Factory Council (established in 1970 by the unions to regain control over their membership after the hot autumn) becomes an arena of conflict between the trade union bureaucracy and the militant rank-and-file.

Against the search for unity among the trade unions at the price of rank-and-file democracy, the CUBs counterpose the need to build the unity of the working class on a democratic basis, to connect social and economic struggles in and outside the factory.

The purpose of the Andreotti government is to prevent a new hot autumn, to curtail the development of a political movement which would link social and economic struggles and raise the whole question of power in Italy.

The long-term aim of the main wing of the ruling class is the return of a centre-left government incorporating the Socialists and eventually the Communist Party. Such a government would have as its task: solving the enormous contradictions which the Italian ‘miracle’ has created, pushing through reforms to provide the structure necessary for economic growth and political stability, and integrating representatives of the working-class through the trade unions and the communist party into the management of the economy.

This strategy coincides in large measure with the explicit objectives of the communist party and the trade unions. Yet while the Italian working class remains militant and well organised, this requires a new period of economic growth on an international scale, and an iron grip by the union leadership over their membership, neither of which is on the cards at the moment. As the employers and the State machine step up the offensive, the unions and the Communist Party are increasingly under pressure from their rank-and-file to unite the struggle over the national agreements and bring down the Andreotti government.

The inability of the reformist organisations of the working class to provide leadership in the growing struggles, north and south, provides the revolutionary left with great opportunities. In particular, the growth of the CUBs opens up an exciting perspective – that of building a revolutionary socialist party rooted in the working class.

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1. For a recent analysis of the Italian miracle and its aftermath, see New Left Review 76, Nov.-Dec. 1972.

2. See the last issue of International Socialism, a note of the month on fascism in Italy.

3. For a more detailed analysis of this strategy see IS 40 and IS 42.

4. L’Unita, 31/12/72.

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