Imagine a climate strike in which 40,000 industrial workers, climate activists, pacifists, and other non-politically active people are brought together. In their speeches, they denounce the shutdown of an automotive supply factory. They all agree that what is needed is a conversion of production instead of layoffs. The bloc right at the front of the demonstration is made up of workers from the affected factory, and behind them are masses of militant climate activists and spontaneous demonstrators.
Lukas Ferrari is a political scientist and interpreter. He spent several days and nights in the factory occupied by the Collettivo di Fabbrica.
Julia Kaiser is a sociologist and a member of the socialist student league, Die Linke.SDS, in Leipzig, Germany.
This article first appeared in LuXemburg. Translated by Marta Cazorla and Alex Minshall.
The workers of the plant join forces with scientists to develop a conversion plan together and, based on their skills and the latest research in environmental sciences, a vision emerges of producing components for hydrogen-powered buses. More and more people agree: we need production centred on people instead of profits!
This vision — one that would not be at all out of place in an ecosocialist manifesto — became a reality in Tuscany, Italy. After the 422 employees and approximately 80 agency workers of the automotive supplier GKN Driveline received an email on 9 July 2021 informing them that they didn’t need to come to work next Monday, they occupied their plant in Campi Bisenzio, on the outskirts of Florence.
The strategic centre of the occupation and the wave of mobilization that developed around it came to be known collectively as the Collettivo di Fabbrica GKN, which operates autonomously from but closely with official trade union structures. The majority of the more than 500 workers, including the workers’ councils organized within the Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici (FIOM), the Italian metalworkers’ union, identify as part of the collective, which meets outside of working hours.
GKN is an automotive supplier with more than 50 production plants worldwide. Up until the production halt in summer 2021 the plant in Campi Bisenzio mainly produced axle shafts for Fiat (Ducato), Maserati, and Ferrari. The plant has changed ownership many times over the last decades. Once under the property of Fiat, in 1994 it was bought by the company GKN, which in turn was bought by the British investment fund Melrose Industries in 2018 for 8 billion pounds. Only three years later management announced the shutdown of the plant in Campi Bisenzio and the layoff of all its employees, days after the Italian government lifted the ban on dismissals it imposed during the pandemic.
The reason for this decision was in no way down to a crisis of the company. Just before the shutdown, an important investment was made in high-value robots that, at the time of writing, still lie shrink-wrapped in the occupied plant. The shutdown was, in fact, part of the broader “financialization process of companies and the speculative principles of shareholder capitalism”: the plant was sacrificed as part of the profit-oriented restructuring of value chains and its production was relocated abroad. Melrose Industries’ motto, “Buy, Improve, Sell” , leaves no doubt as to their primary motive. Moreover, the shutdown is understood to be, in the words of Lorenzo Cini, “part of a general trend towards the dismantlement of the Italian automotive sector”.
Already on the very day of the shutdown, some workers occupied the plant and set up a permanent assembly, while over the next few days most of the staff joined the occupation. By doing so, the collective aimed to prevent management from emptying out the building and taking off with the machines and the axle shafts stored in it.
The collective also decided to open the doors of the factory for supporters and people interested in the process and to start applying systematic political pressure to oppose their own layoffs and the ones that followed. They were offered an earnings guarantee for transition processes similar to the short-term compensation schemes that the state started paying in January 2022.
Since then, there have been monthly crisis conversations between the factory collective, the Ministry of Development, the government of the Toscana Region, the Florence municipal council and the new owner of the factory, Francesco Borgomeo. He bought the factory on 23 December 2021 and pledged to develop a new production plan for the factory in the following six months. However, the collective began extending its struggle to the whole region, as its members assumed that Borgomeo was nothing more than a stooge in the ongoing process of dismantling the company.
Insorgiamo: The Workers Go on Tour
Ten days after the occupation, the FIOM called for a four-hour metal industry strike in the Florence province. Workers on strike in the logistics sector (Text-Sprint, FedEx) and textile sector (Prato), social centres, ecological farmers’ associations, and thousands of outraged citizens expressed their solidarity with the occupation.
A series of major demonstrations followed, such as that which took place on 11 August, the day that commemorates the liberation of Florence from fascism, and the slogan of the demonstrations, “Insorgiamo con i lavoratori GKN” (We rise up with the GKN workers), is in fact a reference to the Florentine resistance against Nazism.
The functioning of the factory collective needs to be understood as a continuation of the Italian tradition of class struggle, which was most evident in Fiat factories in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.
When Fridays For Future (FFF) Italy called for a protest during the G20 summit in Rome on 30 October, the Collettivo not only answered the call, but arrived in force, and made up a whole bloc of what was a very diverse and colourful demonstration. It was the first joint action between the youth climate action movement and the factory collective, and over the following year ecological and labour struggles became increasingly intertwined.
But how did the shutdown of a factory lead to the mobilization of a whole region? What made it possible, in this instance, to overcome the so-called “jobs vs. environment dilemma”, the contradiction between the preservation of workplaces and the ecological transformation that so often drives a wedge between workers’ and environmental movements?
The environmental class struggle that has been taking place in Tuscany for a year-and-a-half didn’t fall from the sky. Its origins lay for one thing in the sustained efforts of unions in the workplace and the tireless search for alliances by the Collettivo before and after the plant’s shutdown. That was most apparent during the Insorgiamo Tour, when the factory collective visited workplaces, social centres, and environmental organizations all over Italy to spread their struggle. The other reason is the joint creation of social and ecological demands made by the collective and the climate activists of Fridays For Future, maintaining an attitude that seeks — and finds — common ground.
The Trade Unions as a Weapon
If there were a Collettivo di Fabbrica recipe for building an ecological class struggle, the key ingredient would be, according to the workers, maximum trade union participation. The collective is the result of a ten-year process, instigated by an intense dispute between the staff and the FIOM in 2007. The company management had planned a reform of the shift system that the FIOM works council had, at the time, readily accepted without opposition.
An additional factor was the acquisition of the plant by Melrose Industries in 2018: “As the new management didn’t seem to care about the quality of the industrial operations and occupational health and safety we had to establish our own, alternative power structures”, explained works council member Dario Salvetti in July 2021.
As a consequence of the disappointment with their own trade union and the indifference of the new management, many of the plant’s workers who were more active in union work started devising a participative trade union model. This came to fruition in 2018 with the establishment of the Collettivo di Fabbrica, an organizationally open and non-hierarchical structure that unites workers’ councils, union activists, and unorganized workers, as well as external supporters. Furthermore, shop stewards (delegati di raccordo, literally “liaison delegates”) are also involved in the factory collective.
These shop stewards were introduced shortly after the takeover by Melrose Industries. Originally, management had intended to introduce team leaders to each area who were supposed to be the contact person for questions related to work contracts or holidays. However, the workers’ council rejected the introduction of team leaders, as experience generally shows that they weaken trade union presence within the workplace. After lengthy negotiations, there was an agreement on the introduction of shop stewards.
From the collective’s point of view, they play a central role in building union power within the workplace, acting as a liaison between the workers’ council and the rest of the workers. They are elected every year by the workers’ assembly, so every worker has the opportunity to learn about the trade union structures from within without necessarily being a trade union member. As union representatives are not exempt from work and remain employees of the firm (only three hours per month are allotted for their work) they spend their working days among their colleagues, and thus are able to glean experiences and problems from all areas of the collective.
According to the workers, the introduction of shop stewards has led to a widespread democratization of trade union work, as awareness of each area was able to coalesce after each shift, also in part during weekend meetings, and formed the basis for the decisions of the workers’ councils. The work of the factory collective in the most recent years has led to a resurgence of trade union participation. The number of affiliations to the FIOM grew in the first weeks of the occupation from 200 to 300. It was this structure that made it possible to react almost immediately to the plant’s shutdown with an occupation led by almost all workers.
The functioning of the factory collective needs to be understood as a continuation of the Italian tradition of class struggle, which was most evident in Fiat factories in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. During that time, workers were already developing democratic and widely supported council structures on which the Collettivo di Fabbrica would come to base itself.
The notion that the class struggle does not end at the factory gates and needs to be expanded through solidarity with other workers and initiatives is rooted in the tumultuous disputes that took place at that time. In that sense, approaching Fridays For Future, the biggest youth organization of the time, to discuss common perspectives in August 2021 was an obvious choice for the Collettivo.
In contrast with the sceptical position of many industrial workforces regarding the environmental movement, the collective had already broached the environmental issue before the scheduled layoffs. For them, it had long been “a contradiction that [they] produce axle shafts, that is, a product used in luxury cars and commercial vehicles, thus forming part of a development model for which [they] can’t advocate”. They invariably faced a dilemma between wanting to keep their work and salaries but, at the same time, wanting to leave behind a habitable planet for their children.
The collective has already managed to cross lines that, until now, divided industry workers, climate activists, scientists, farmers, and the unemployed in their fight for a sustainable industrial conversion.
In conversations with representatives of Fridays For Future, a joint climate strike was eventually agreed upon. On 26 March 2022, Fridays For Future Italy took to the streets of Florence to protest alongside the factory collective. The climate activists announced: “We won’t support any more layoffs and outsourcing under the pretext of an ecological transition. We won’t stay silent in light of the exploitation of workers and resources. We produce too much and at an unsustainable pace; we need a serious new plan to ease the load on workers and the environment”.
This cooperation meant that the repeated assertions of the need to connect the ecological transition and class struggle already present in FFF became common practice. According to statements by climate activists in Rome, from that moment on GKN workers started attending FFF protests, which also gave Fridays For Future more legitimacy among workers and employees. At the same time, climate activists had increasingly started to address labour issues and strategies: “the issue of production from below — who decides what is produced and how — is no longer an empty shell, but something very specific!”.
In summer 2022, the factory collective also visited the Fridays For Future Summer Camp. According to climate activists, this brought a certain degree of proletarian culture to the event, though it was not completely devoid of tension, as there was a large discussion surrounding the issue of degrowth.
In the meantime, almost all debates have led to the common demand for a reduction in working hours on full pay. Furthermore, the joint plan for the next Insorgiamo Tour was also agreed upon during the Camp, with the aim that next year’s meetings with industrial workers from other companies revolve not only around defensive strategies against the threat of shutdowns, but also around ecological alternatives — that is, around a production shift for the mobility transition.
A Lucas Plan 2.0?
A spokesperson for Fridays For Future Rome expressed the hope that the struggles surrounding the GKN plant can become a symbol of the increasing confluence between social and environmental struggles and contribute to resolving the false contradiction between the preservation of jobs and the ecological transition:
The ecological movement is often accused of wanting to cut jobs, but the GKN experience shows that this supposed juxtaposition of work and environment is in fact fatalistic. We need to trigger a mechanical conversion — machines need to be redesigned from an ecological perspective. That’s why GKN is working extensively with researchers from the University of Pisa. The collective wants it to be a laboratory that serves as a model for the whole of Italy.
Indeed, the idea of a reconversion of the GKN plant in Campi Bisenzio is already gaining momentum and is reminiscent of the shutdown of the arms manufacturer Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s. In that instance, employees developed their own highly detailed proposals for a production shift under what was known as the “Lucas Plan”. Similarly, the GKN workforce wants to push the Italian state and the new plant owner to continue production under socially beneficial conditions.
When the Collettivo opened the doors of the factory to all interested parties after the occupation, some of those who came were engineers and economists. An individual willingness to turn solidarity into action ushered in the creation of the working groups Economisti solidali and Ingenieri solidali (“Economists in Solidarity” and “Engineers in Solidarity”). They started to write a plan for alternative production in Campi Bisenzio based on the ideas of the workers. The debates among scientists and workers resulted in a very solid plan that presented the GKN workers with several scenarios. The common starting point of the plan is the factory as a laboratory for the transition towards the transformation of mobility — an idea that the workers had communicated to researchers.
The plan details the possibilities of a production shift at Campo Bisenzio in 55 pages. It proposes two options: in one, the plant could keep on producing axle shafts, but only for buses and trains. In the other, it could manufacture electrolyzers for green hydrogen production.
The plan was presented on 7 July 2022, at the University of Pisa by the factory collective, researchers acting in solidarity with the initiative, Fridays For Future, and the responsible trade union secretary. This vision of production for the mobility transition is still the central point of the joint demands in the current protests. So far, neither the Italian government nor the new owner have shown interest in the considerations surrounding a shift in production. Against their original promises, the new owner still hasn’t presented their own plan.
The fight around the plant is by no means over, despite the fatigue and the economic pressure caused by the significantly lower earnings guarantee. In September 2022, the collective joined the Fridays For Future climate strike in Florence. In October 2022 it welcomed an unemployment action group from Naples and planned a large-scale demonstration there. In addition, the collective has visited ecological farmers’ associations from the region and discussed sustainable food production from and for Tuscany.
If the state or Francesco Borgomeo continue failing to give signs of wanting to reactivate the production in Campi Bisenzio, the workers are considering the option of doing it themselves under a cooperative, temporarily offering services for other employees in the area such as childcare and a canteen. However, they stand by the idea of a general shift in production. With this in mind, they are trying to establish contact with other factories under threat of shutdowns, with whom it would become possible to produce a complete sustainable product — as opposed to only one component, such as an axle shaft.
Nevertheless, the struggle continues: the collective has already managed to cross lines that, until now, divided industry workers, climate activists, scientists, farmers, and the unemployed in their fight for a sustainable industrial conversion.