States of Emergency
Cultures of Revolt in Italy from 1968 to 1978
First published by Verso 1990
The distinction between strategies and processes of institutionalization ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ can be misleading. Firstly, because it suggests a topographical division that is too absolute. For example, the amnesty declared in 1970 was ultimately the result of a political decision taken by the government, but it was also demanded by the social movements, the trade unions and the parties of the Left. Secondly, it suggests a certain coherence of planning or the unfolding of an inevitable logic, while the confusion of events belies such an analysis. Nonetheless, the distinction can be useful if these things are borne in mind. As has been seen, there was no shortage of strategic thinking among the powerful, but it was incoherent and contradictory, ranging from strategies of tension to schemes for an orderly pluralism. By contrast, the unions were more coherent in setting about putting their house in order and in giving institutional shape to the magma of discontent.
Unions in the Workplace
During the Hot Autumn, the unions recuperated overall control of the strike movement, but this involved ‘riding the tiger’ (that is to say, the movement). It was a movement characterized by non-negotiable demands, excessive forms of action and direct popular participation in decision-making – not the sort of behaviour designed to build union organization. However, in the post-contract period, some of the special conditions making such a movement possible were removed. The signing of the contracts for all the sectors ended the contract season – a key institutional condition for the generalized mobilization. 1968-9 was one of the exceptional moments when popular protest erupted into national politics. But expectations of radical change could not run high indefinitely. It was not only the ruling groups who defined the events as abnormal and exceptional, and therefore a ‘passing phase’. The unions, too, were anxious that the mass movement should be channelled into the more stable and durable organization needed for ‘normal times’. They sought to make demands negotiable, to direct industrial action towards their attainment, and to standardize the structures of representation. In other words, union officials aimed to discipline the movement so the workers acted through the organization which represented them, and not outside it. The institutionalization of the movement can be seen particularly clearly in relation of the reorganization of representation. The first moment of the process was marked by the split of the new collective subject formed in the struggles into two components: the participators – the active minority with an interest in power – who tended to become representatives, and the non-participators, who tended to delegate responsibility.
One of the most dramatic instances of this occurred at Fiat in Turin, where the campaign of opposition to the formalization of the delegate’s role was fought under the slogan ‘we are all delegates’. Workers joined the unions and accepted the delegates en masse, despite their earlier refusal. Similarly, in Milan, at Alfa Romeo, Pirelli and Sit Siemens, where workers had shown considerable self-organization, especially at shopfloor level, anti-union radicalism had few exponents. Lotta Continua, in particular, argued that the delegates were ‘an instrument with which the unions impose their line and repress the vanguards’, and that the union structure forced them into ‘corporative and sectoral’ struggles. It counter-posed proletarian struggle and democracy to parliamentarism and phoney democracy.
However, such reasoning fell on stony ground.
The split between the delegates and majority of workers was neither sudden nor absolute, unlike the breakdown in the relations between Lotta Continua-style ‘movementists’ and the movement in the factories. Throughout 1970-71 levels of participation in meetings remained high, and decisions were taken often against the wishes of the union officials. Many aspects of the delegate structures, which were officially accepted as the basis for union reorganization by the CGIL in December 1970, bore the imprint of the movement from below; for example, delegates were elected by all workers, they represented a homogeneous group’ (for example the foundry), they were liable to recall and they were empowered to bargain at plant level. Indeed, it was only as a result of the movement’s struggles that they first won recognition from management and came to replace the internal commissions.
Management resistance was often fierce and workers had continually to fight for their rights. At Borletti recognition was not ceded until 1972, and when the delegates went en masse to negotiate they were regularly turned back.
The tendency for the separation between the informal leaders, who emerged during the Hot Autumn, and the rank-and-file workers had numerous causes in the divisions within the working class. Surveys of factory representation in the province of Milan for 1970 and 1973 show that women and immigrant workers remained heavily under-represented, though younger workers and the semi-skilled were better represented.
Even when women were in the majority, they usually chose male workers to represent them. It was rare to see a woman’s face in positions of authority. Only six of the 185 officials of the engineering unions in Lombardy were women.
The lack of representation did not, of course, result directly from the decline of the movement after 1969, but it was exacerbated by it. The participation of women workers in the industrial conflicts had specific characteristics. Ida Regalia has observed in relation to Sit Siemens in Milan:
There seems to be a negative correlation between militancy and unionization in the moments of fullest mobilization; in this instance the women … would be the most active (in the marches, pickets and demonstrations) and the most determined to adopt extreme forms of action. The women, typically, use lightning stoppages that are ‘expressive’, and their demands remain latent, or are ends in themselves (against the speed of the line, foremen and piece-work).
In other words, women workers tended not to be regular members of the unions, but were often the most angry and intransigent during mobilizations. With the return to ‘normality’, the women workers tended once more to delegate decision-making to the male organizers.
The reasons for this ‘unpredictable’ behaviour are to be found in a long and complex history – a history which was largely hidden from view until it was brought to light by the feminist movement in the 1970s.
The burden of work in the home as well as outside, the high turnover in women’s jobs and the dominance of the idea of the male family wage (all of which were taken for granted by the unions) – these were just some of the factors discouraging women’s regular participation in the workers’ movement. However, the great majority of shopfloor representatives saw women workers as emotional, untrustworthy and difficult. The problem, for them, appeared to be increasingly one of discipline and order rather that the furtherment of democratic participation.
This preoccupation was a general one of how to adapt the union to a less conflictual situation. Many leading activists became full-time union organizers after 1969, while in 1970 up to 50 per cent of delegates resigned.
The unions did not invent the turn to organization as the answer to problems in the wake of the Hot Autumn. The revival of Leninism, to give another example, was but another symptom of a cultural shift away from ideologies of spontaneity and towards those of organization. It was a phase which saw ‘organizers’ give priority to organizational growth – a tendency which Piven and Cloward have written of as:
The presumption of most reformers and revolutionaries who have tried to organize the lower classes … that once the economic and political resources of at least modest numbers of people are combined in disciplined action, public or private, elites will be forced to yield concessions necessary to sustain and enlarge mass affiliation.
Delegates did not understand the private use of collective gains; for example, time saved.
However, whilst among delegates whose formative experiences were as protagonists of a social movement there was an intense desire to represent their fellow workers’ interests, sacrificing free time and bonuses in the process, the unions were less willing to be subject to democracy from below. Within them there was considerable resistance to the formation of the new delegate structures. The engineering sections of the unions botched together a compromise at their first unitary conference in March 1970; the factory council composed of delegates was accepted as the new unit of organization in the factory, but on the condition that the union branches and the internal commissions set them up, while continuing to represent workers in their own right. By the time of the conference the following year, some 168 factory councils had been set up in the province of Milan, but without union sponsorship. The conference subsequently accepted the factory councils as the successor to the other bodies. The confederations, however, were more cautious. The CGIL called for the postponement of the decision until after the hoped-for reunification of the unions, before it changed its position in January 1972. Meanwhile the CISL favoured the reinforcement of the existing structures.
Of the unions in Milan only the FIM-CISL consistently championed the new forms of shopfloor democracy.
However, even this maverick body showed disquiet about the emergence of forces outside union control. An article, written by a prominent spokesman for the Left in the CISL, urged:
The task of serious revolutionaries is not to make conjectures about council-communism, reducing the question of the union to its use as an instrument for other purposes, but to apply their energies radically to transform the unions, despite political and bureaucratic opposition.
He warned against the danger of producing an English-style situation characterized by shop-stewards who were ‘corporatist’.
The Italian unions wanted to make sure that the new democracy was channelled through their organizations.
The union leaderships wanted to prevent rank-and-file democracy threatening the delicate compromises agreed between the confederations. The new organisms had to be subject to what the CGIL called the ‘general and binding criteria that give political unity to the structures’.
In other words, they had to be compatible with the existing organizations and therefore as much like the internal commissions as possible.
The unions, therefore, sought to institutionalize the movement. This was achieved, especially from 1972 onwards, by several means. Pizzorno writes:
Above all, candidates were chosen according to union list. Then, especially in cases of clashes between the leadership and the rank-and-file, the electoral constituencies were widened, thereby dissolving homogeneous group representation.
Then, negotiating power was centralized in the hands of the executive committee of the factory council. The delegates became important only in moments of mobilization when an extended network of activists was required. The role of the section and factory meetings was curtailed; from being the sovereign bodies of the movement in which participation involved being physically present, expressing opinions and allotting tasks, they became plebiscitory occasions; they tended to assume the character of demonstrations with long speeches by the representatives, agendas set in line with overall union strategies, and rituals designed to affirm collective identity and minimize shows of dissent.
Although the new forms of representation derived their names and their increased powers from the movement of the Hot Autumn, the aspiration to reconstruct the unions (not to mention society) in their image was defeated. Similarly, the radical demands and forms of struggle developed by the movement were adapted to facilitate negotiation. One of the most significant innovations was the so-called Inquadramento Unico which the unions promoted in 1972. This entailed ‘squaring the circle’ by trying to reorganize the grading system to recognize both skill and demands for parity and reduction of grades. Quintessentially, in required extensive technical knowledge and bargaining skills, and provided a framework for reaching compromises. As such, it privileged the role of the union officials and the construction of a complex apparatus for processing disagreements.
The Unions and Social Protest
The key processes of institutionalization of the workers’ movement centred on the consolidation’ by the unions of the gains of the Hot Autumn. Establishing control over the workers was a necessary pre-condition of their strategy for winning greater influence within civil society and the state. Pizzorno has formulated this relationship in terms of a ‘political exchange’ in which the unions guarantee consensus within the system in exchange for benefits conferred by the state.
In this framework, the equivalent of the strike is the withdrawal of cooperation. The Hot Autumn involved such a withdrawal (though the unions were not in the first instance responsible for this), and the very success of the non-cooperation put the unions in an unprecedented position in representing a wide spectrum of discontent within society. They were said to have usurped functions proper to the political party. As Vittorio Foa wrote in 1969: ‘Today, with the deterioration in the representative institutions, the unions increasingly need a real link between civil and political society’.
However, the unions, it seems, were almost fearful of their new power to mobilize protest. The Piazza Fontana bombing threw into relief the political stakes involved in widespread industrial action. In July 1970, they lost their nerve; the confederations revoked a general strike when the government threatened to resign if it was carried out.
The possibilities for the unions to mobilize protest were very considerable in the early seventies, when burgeoning social movements appeared in the schools and further educational establishments, on housing estates, in prisons and in the factories. The factories themselves were no longer isolated within their surrounding neighbourhoods, but connected to them via associational networks (parties, political groups, tenants’ organizations and student-worker liaison). The other identities of the worker (parent, tenant, etc.) were being mobilized. Furthermore, there was a willingness to support other groups such as the homeless poor and students. At the grassroots, people were prepared to use their power to disrupt, following the Hot Autumn’s successful example.
The unions’ response to these developments was contradictory. They saw opportunities to extend their influence in society, and hence to strengthen their bargaining power with the institutions. They also wanted to have a hegemonic role over social movements in order to prevent the emergence of dangerous forms of protest, such as the insurrections in Reggio Calabria in 1970, which, it was believed, had been led by neo-Fascists.
At the same time, there was anxiety, especially in national leaderships, about promoting illegal and disruptive actions undertaken by the rank-and-file. This oscillation can be seen in connection with housing struggles, the autoriduzione [self-reduction, of prices] campaigns and the 150-Hours Scheme.
The struggles over housing in Italy grew up in the context of the students’ and workers’ movements (the first rent strikes in Milan took place in January 1968), but did not come to occupy a central place in social conflicts until 1974 when soaring inflation made it important for the unions to defend living standards outside the factory. However, from 1970, in Milan, protest welled up among the poor in the rundown central quarters and on the estates of the hinterland. One of the papers of the Catholic workers’ organization wrote of the plight of these people:
The contradictions of our society are there before us. On the one hand, there are the families of immigrant workers, who, in the struggle for survival have been thrown into situations of unemployment, slum habitations, overcrowding, high rents and the laagers called ‘evictee centres’. On the other hand, the authorities build palaces for the rich in areas that were once working class.
Evicted families squatted in municipal housing on the estates at Gallaratese. The following year, homeless families squatted houses in via Tibaldi , and got involved in dramatic confrontations with the police, involving students from the architecture faculty, political groups, and the FIM-CISL. In April 1971, after several evictions from squats, a group of women invaded Palazzo Marini, the municipal headquarters, and hurled furniture out of the windows.
By 1976 there were 1,500 squats of public and thirty-seven squats of private housing units.
The protest actions over housing presented special problems for the unions. Firstly, the leading protagonists (‘sub-proletarians’, student agitators, southerners and women) had little to do with the traditional organizations of the working class. Indeed, the latter had tended to discriminate against sub-proletarians.
Secondly, the first tenants’ bodies such as the Tenants’ Union (Unione Inquilini – UI) were formed independently of the unions, and privileged ‘movementist’ tactics of direct action. Thirdly, the unions themselves were linked to the parties represented in local government and institutions such as the IACP (the municipal housing authority). Some elements of the unions came out in support of the housing struggles; the FIM in Milan was especially active in promoting what it saw as an elementary issue of social justice which justified defiance of oppressive property laws. Similarly, many factory councils were sympathetic. They adopted UI’s demands for rents equivalent to 10 per cent of the family wage, for greater public housing provision (in Milan it amounted to 15 per cent of the total), and for the requisition of vacant property.
The union Left then campaigned for the setting up of the area councils (consigli di zona) to enable representation to reach beyond the factories.
But the national leaderships preferred the traditional general strikes and demonstrations in the pursuit of housing reforms, since there gave them greater central control and served to apply pressure on governments. In Milan, the CGIL responded to the housing struggles by creating the SUNIA, a tenants union, and, to keep pace, the CISL followed suit. These organizations acted as lawyers and negotiators for the individual tenant, and as campaign mobilizers. In cases of squats of public housing, they opposed the squatters in the name of the would-be tenant. In this way, the resources of the confederations were used to undermine the protest movement, and to win participation in the local authorities through their ability to guarantee order. This orientation was reinforced in 1975 with the accession of a left-wing junta to power in Milan and in other cities.
The autoriduzione campaign of 1974-5 created similar problems for the unions in their attempt to mediate between the institutions of the state and the popular protest movements. Apart from anything else, the unilateral non- or part-payment of transport, gas electricity and telephone tickets and bills was illegal.
Autoriduzione already had a recent history, as we have seen. But although the term was coined by the Pirelli workers, their reduction-of-output tactic had little to do with these new developments. Autoriduzione was now a consumer’s rather than a producer’s activity. The first real examples are found in the sporadic and spontaneous refusal to pay transport fares by students and workers in 1968-9. Often ticket-collectors allowed demonstrators to travel free of charge, while the latter behaved as if the trams and buses belonged to them. In 1971 young people in Milan enforced price reductions at pop concerts by threatening to sabotage performances.
However, it required the activity of factory council delegates and zone committees (consigli di zona) to provide the backbone to the resistance to rises in transport fares, and electricity, gas and telephone prices in 1974-5.
Engineering workers and their unions, especially in Turin, where the movement originated, were leading protagonists. Delegates issued tickets at reduced rates on the private buses, and set up organizations to collect the names of those pledged to refuse payment of the increases on the other bills. Although the unions at national level opposed the spreading of the protest, or used it cautiously as a tactic to apply pressure on the government and local authorities, rather than encouraging a new art of popular action, it was from a factory-based syndicalism that the movement drew its strength.
The avowed aim of autoriduzione was to defend the gains of the Hot Autumn from the effects of inflation. In the process, groups of workers pushed the unions into acting like political parties and into legitimating illegal forms of struggle, thereby encouraging civil disobedience by other social groups.
Whereas the unions’ natural adversaries were private and public companies, the logic of the new turn in social conflict made the state into the enemy. However, it was not a logic that was acceptable to the union federations, and was only canvassed by a small minority of workers close to the extraparliamentary groups. Indeed, the autoriduzione campaigns were the last significant mobilizations to uphold direct action politics against the tendency to substitute confrontation by dialogue.
The 150-Hours Scheme, which was incorporated into the engineering contract of 1973, differs from the previously mentioned examples of the unions’ relationship to protest movements in that it did not arise directly in response to them. An anecdote has it that the French wife of a trade-union leader was responsible for the idea, which gave workers 150 hours a year paid study leave to help them catch up on their education (in other word, to get the basic middle school diploma – terza media). Whatever the immediate origins of the proposal, its germination and particular shape cannot be understood without reference to the 1968-9 debates on workers’ access to education and the critiques of schooling ‘from a workers’ point of view’. ‘Positive utopias’ (to use Vittorio Foa’s words) such as the ‘four hours work – four hours study’ idea anticipated the new scheme.
The 150-Hours Scheme was part recuperative, part ‘cultural holiday’. It was designed to enable workers to get a certificate (an estimated 80 per cent of engineering workers did not have the terza media) which affected promotion. But it has been run under union auspices rather than by the state or by private schools. Thus the contents of the courses, the forms of pedagogy, the selection of students and the appointment of teachers has depended on the unions. State examiners, for instance, have tacitly accepted collective assessment.
The implementation of the scheme has led to some remarkable experimentation in group learning and teaching.
The student and worker protagonists of 1968-9 were brought together again in the classroom. Groupings of intellectuals in Milan, from the cooperative library of the Centro Ricerche sui Modi di Produzione, the political science faculty of the State University and the Calusca bookshop, channelled great energies into teaching and preparing study notes for the courses.
Workers drew on their own experiences and knowledge of the labour process, of health problems, etc. so that sessions involved an exchange between students and teachers. Even if some of the early utopianism disappeared, giving way to instrumental orientations, the scheme showed the unions’ capacity for interpreting and channelling forces of protest beyond the confines of the factory. Sections of New Left intellectuals were drawn into the orbit of the unions, which acted as their new ‘Prince’.
In 1973-4 the unions reached the height of their influence and prestige among exploited and oppressed social groups, and among radical intellectuals. They, rather than the parties of the Left, had managed to strengthen the hand of social movements and to lead them without suffocating their autonomy. The unions had capitalized on operaism (which in the 1960s had been deeply anti-union) to assert the idea of ‘workers’ centrality’ (centralita’ operaia) which they claimed to represent. Workers’ organization and methods of struggle had become the model for other forms of social mobilization (tenants’ unions, etc.). The making of a ‘working-class culture’ had become the goal of left-wing intellectuals. The 150-Hours Scheme symbolized the unions’ hegemony over agitators both inside and outside the working class. However, that hegemony was fragile and conjunctural. Economic crisis and changes in the confederations’ policies created a new situation in which unions lost their leading role within civil society.
Emilio Reyneri dates the change from 1973 when:
The close connection between factory struggles over wages and work organization, and struggles directed towards the institutions, full-employment policies and the south was broken. The unions tilted the balance decisively in favour of long-term political and economic policies, just as they had always done in periods of crisis and recession.
The consequence of this was that, over the following years, the unions were guided much more by the decisions of the confederal secretariats than by what was discussed on the shopfloor. In other words, there was a return to the practices of the mid 1960s; political parties reasserted themselves at all levels of the organizations; consultation with institutions was privileged over consultation of the rank-and-file; internal democracy withered whilst intolerance towards dissent increased. The gap within the organization, between the leaderships and the ordinary membership was greatly accentuated, and intellectuals close to the unions grew more and more critical.
To provide an adequate account of the institutionalization of the unions in this period would require analyses of how Italian society changed as a whole. It would mean looking at how the conception of workers’ centrality became increasing anachronistic with the marginalization of the ‘mass worker’ and the rise in unemployment and the ‘black labour’ market. It would be necessary to chart the electoral swings towards the PCI in the 1975 and 1976 elections, and the replacement of the union by the party as the modern prince.
But limitations of space mean that it is only possible to note here how the unions in the mid seventies ceased to represent a broader spectrum of social protest and social movements. In part IV this change is looked at through the movements of social groups, woman and youth in particular, which found themselves excluded from the cultural as well as the socio-economic world inhabited by the unions. But what appeared in the 1970s as the redefinition of the unions’ role in society, can also be seen as the end of an era in which the workers’ movement shaped all forms of social conflict and protest. Institutionalization is too limited a concept with which to make sense of this historical turning-point.
Reproduced here with kind permission of the author. Digitised for libcom.org by Linda Towlson.