Turin’s powerful union tradition chipped away by harsh realities for Fiat plant

April 25, 2011

Back when Turin was a company town in the ’50s and ’60s, the streets were empty by 9 p.m. because almost everyone had to get up early for work at Fiat’s giant Mirafiori plant. The legendary factory employed more than 50,000 workers, regimented in powerful unions with a strong sense of class struggle, and turned out endless columns of whirring little cars that filled the roads of Italy.

That era has long since passed, however, evaporated along with la dolce vita. These days, it has been replaced by globalization and a merciless economic crisis in which clenched fists, worker solidarity and picket line bravura seem to have no place.

Reduced to a 10th of their former number, Mirafiori workers voted 54-46 percent early this year to forsake some of their most sacred benefits. Ten-minute breaks were carved back from four a day to three, for instance, and management got the right to impose overtime whenever it wants. Unions pledged that an absentee rate averaging 7.5 percent — particularly high when key soccer matches are played — would be reduced by increasing the threat of sanctions against those who fail to show up.

In return, Fiat-Chrysler promised a $1.35 billion investment program designed to rescue a working-class icon threatened with extinction. Under the plan, the company said, Mirafiori will be modernized and become the site for production of certain Alfa-Romeo and Jeep sport-utility vehicles designed for export to the United States.

“Without work, there are no worker rights,” shrugged Claudio Chiarle, an organizer of the Federation of Italian Metalworkers, one of the four unions that recommended a yes vote in the referendum.

Mirafiori workers are not alone; lavish social welfare benefits have been cut back across Western Europe in the wake of the global economic crisis. The shrinkage has been particularly painful here, however, because Mirafiori had been a beacon of working-class power ever since laborers at the plant rose up against Italy’s fascist government in 1943.

That tradition “is a thing of the past,” said Guiseppe Bonazzi, a retired professor at the University of Turin who specialized in industrial relations at Mirafiori for four decades.

With the vote, a majority at the factory reluctantly agreed.

Fiat negotiated a cutback deal with four of Mirafiori’s five unions and said if it was not endorsed by the workers, the factory would close. Richard Gadeselli, Fiat’s vice president for international corporate communications, said the company’s proposition was simple: Unless production costs were reduced, the factory could no longer operate at a profit.

Fiat’s factory in Brazil employs 9,400 workers and makes 730,000 cars a year, he pointed out, while the company’s five factories in Italy employ 22,000 people and make 650,000 cars a year. Workers at Mirafiori, with their tradition of labor activism, tend to view the problem as revolving around Turin, he complained, when in fact Fiat holds a 25 percent stake in Chrysler and runs 185 factories around the world, of which only 80 are still in Italy.

“If we’ve got to compete with Korea, Japan, with the French and the Germans, we’ve got to do this, or else we’re dead in the water,” he added.

That is exactly the problem, said Giorgio Airaudo, head of the Turin branch of the Federation of Metallurgical Employes and Operators, the plant’s fifth union and lone holdout. Fiat’s new chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, he said, is trying to apply at Mirafiori the labor practices he has seen in the United States and other Fiat sites around the world.

“They are trying to take Italy out of the European social welfare context,” he said, by “de-legitimizing” unions and shaving back benefits on the basis that they cost too much compared with other parts of the world.

Antonio Diflorio, 56, who is a 39-year veteran of the Mirafiori plant, said Fiat’s ultimatum — investment for lower production costs — was “an unacceptable trade-off” that never would have been possible in the old days. The company’s long-term goal, he said, is to “bring down the system” of social protections that Italy and other Western European countries have built up since World War II.

Diflorio, who spent years on the assembly line before being promoted to logistics, said he has bitter personal experience with the benefit shrinkage. He had planned to retire next year after 40 years on the job, he said, but under a new law tightening retirement rules will have to keep at it for another year.

Workers at Mirafiori generally are discouraged by what is happening to them, he said, and many suspect the investment plan will turn out to be short-lived and their jobs phased out anyway. But a 46-year-old colleague from the production line, Pascuale Loiaconio, said in the end the workers of Mirafiori will triumph, according to their tradition.

“Of course, we will get our rights back,” he vowed.

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