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Europe

Fiat workers torn between past conquests and uncertain future

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2011-01-17

A battle over groundbreaking changes at Fiat's flagship plant in Turin has stirred a heated debate about the future of Italian industry and the defence of workers' rights.

For more than seventy years, Fiat's Mirafiori plant in Turin has stood proud as the crown jewel of Italian industry and a bastion of the labour movement. The country's best-selling daily, Il Corriere della Sera, recently described it as "the left's Bastille or Winter Palace" – albeit a symbol to defend and not to overrun.

Now, with its fate seemingly tied to the outcome of an internal referendum, the mammoth factory has once again turned into a battleground, tearing workers, unions and political parties apart.

The plant's 5,500 workers voted Thursday and Friday on whether to accept concessions, including longer shifts, shorter breaks and less freedom to strike, in return for €1 billion of new investment and a pledge to produce a compact sport utility vehicle there. Fiat had vowed to take the money elsewhere if the deal were rejected.

The plan squeezed through by the narrowest of margins, but only after a heated debated that has split the country in two and raised questions about the future of Italian industry.

Analysts say the move, taking place at the flagship plant of Italy's largest firm, marks a watershed in the history of Italian labour relations.

"We are on the verge of a rupture that will entail a profound modification of labour relations," said Marina Cassi of the leading Turin-based daily La Stampa, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

A great leap backwards for labour

Under the proposed plan, Mirafiori workers will essentially leave the standard employment contract applied across Italian industry, instead adopting the conditions set by a new joint venture between Fiat and its US ally Chrysler.

Crucially, Fiat’s plan will exclude from the plant’s representative bodies all unions who opposed the deal. “The company is effectively cancelling democracy within the factory,” says Federico Bellono, the secretary-general for the Turin area of the FIOM, a powerful left-wing union and the only one to have opposed the agreement.

According to Paul Ginsborg, a professor of contemporary Italian history at the University of Florence, the transformation at Mirafiori carries "immense historical significance because it will apply well beyond the company and even the car industry."

"Workers are being asked to turn their backs on more than a century of bitter struggles for labour rights, chief of which is the right to be represented within the company", Ginsborg told FRANCE 24.

Italy the ‘weakest link’

The row over Mirafiori underscores the central role played by Fiat as the "national champion" of Italian industry – a part critics say the company is increasingly reluctant to play.

Speaking in October of last year, Fiat's managing director Sergio Marchionne, the man widely credited with reviving a once-moribund company, said the carmaker would be better off without its Italian plants. "Fiat reached €2 billion of revenues in the first nine months of the year, yet not a penny came from Italy," he said in an interview broadcast on state television.

His comments kicked off a nationwide row and drew condemnation from politicians left and right. Critics reminded Marchionne that the company had been bailed out time and again by the state. As Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of parliament’s lower chamber, pointed out: "If Fiat is still a giant, it is because Italian taxpayers have granted it this position".

Marchionne’s remarks also fuelled fears among unions that the Italian carmaker, which also owns factories in Brazil, Poland and Serbia, has set its eyes firmly on foreign markets and is seeking a way out of its homeland. “The fact is that Fiat’s plant in Poland produces better cars at a faster pace,” said Mario Cianflone of Italy’s leading financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

New Taylorism

The proposed deal at Mirafiori is part of a 20-billion-euro plan to double domestic production by 2014. It targets widespread absenteeism by curbing pay for those who take repeated sick leave around holidays and by ending wildcat strikes.

It cuts the number of breaks per eight-hour shift from four to three and raises the number of shifts to 18 a week from 15. Fiat can also call on each worker for 120 hours of overtime per year without union approval.

Sole 24 Ore journalist Mario Cianflone describes Marchionne’s proposal as “New Taylorism”, a new vision of the manufacturing process designed to bring quality and productivity levels in line with those abroad. “PSA and Volkswagen have proven that by taking the necessary steps it is possible to improve quality while cutting costs, and thereby remain competitive in Europe,” he said. "It is time Fiat does the same."

Cianflone says Fiat’s five plants in Italy have been beset by frequent industrial action, abnormally high rates of absenteeism, and poor quality. With the company’s share of the European market slipping from 8.7% to 6.7% last year, Cianflone says Fiat has no choice but to adapt its work process in order to survive in a cut-throat market.

Blackmail

The FIOM, Italy's leading metalworkers' union, argues that the referendum at Mirafiori is illegitimate and tantamount to blackmail. “Workers have come under tremendous pressure from the company and, more recently, from the government to vote ‘yes’ [on the deal],” the union's Federico Bellono told FRANCE 24.

Bellono says the agreement weakens labour rights, enforcing punitive rules in matters of sick leave, pauses and worker’s freedoms. He believes Mirafiori’s workforce has been stigmatized on the issue of absenteeism. “We have an older workforce [the average age at Mirafiori is 48, while many workers have spent more than 20 years at the plant], with many who have contracted illnesses linked to their work,” he explains.

According to the FIOM delegate, Fiat’s plans are based on a wrong assessment of the troubles affecting the company’s Italian plants. “One mustn’t forget that for the past two years Fiat plants in Italy have been partially shut because of the crisis,” he says. “Investments went elsewhere and no new models were launched, so no wonder the plants produced less.”

Bellono’s assessment is shared by Claudio Chiarle, the local head of the FIM union. But Chiarle, whose union backed the deal, comes to a different conclusion: “this is not blackmail, it’s an alternative to idle factories and unemployment. One in four metalworkers in the Turin region is idle because of the crisis. We cannot afford to let opportunities go.”

The state’s ‘historical failure’

Whether they back or oppose Marchionne’s proposal, trade unions seem to agree on one point: this government and previous ones have failed them.

“The French government stepped in [to help its car industry], the German government stepped in, [US President Barack] Obama stepped in – but where was our government?” asks the FIOM’s Bellono.

According to Professor Ginsborg at the University of Florence, the Mirafiori case is further evidence of the “historical failure of Italy’s political class, both left and right, to shape a coherent industrial policy for the country”.

Politicians’ apparent ineptitude turned to farce on Tuesday when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Fiat would have “good reason” to leave Italy should Mirafiori workers reject Marchionne’s plan. His comments drew stinging rebukes from trade unions, while some in the opposition said the prime minister should be “tried for treason”.

As for the left, torn as usual between nostalgia for its past links with the labour movement and the desire to appear pragmatic, it has proved once more unable to define a clear and united stance.

FIM’s Chiarle is unambiguous about the mood at the plant: “The workers feel abandoned by politicians, who time and again have shown they understand precious little about factory life and the car industry.”
 

Date created : 2011-01-15

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