The Invasion of Metal and Engineering Works and an Experiment in Communism
The Invasion of Metal and Engineering Works and an Experiment in Communism
«The Economist», 18 settembre 1920, pp. 438-439
Turin, September 12
On Wednesday, September 1st, the metal and engeneering workers occupied the workshops in which they were employed and started an experiment in Sovietism which will be perhaps of the utmost consequences to our country. This was not the first time that workshops were occupied by the men; early in the year the cotton mills of Mazzonis Brothers, Turin and Pralafera (Pinerolo), were similarly occupied, but a Government Commissary instantly stepped in, and the works were eventually returned to the proprietors. Today we have not a single case; the whole of the metal and engineering industry of Italy has seen its works occupied; it is said that the workers implied in the strife are 500,000 or more. Another precedent may be found in the occupations of land, which were frequent in the past autumn all over “Campagna Romana” – the territory around Rome – in Sicily and in the south provinces. The land occupations were legalised by a decree, which prescribed the conditions under which the prefect (head of the province) can concede, even against the will of the landowner, the land to labourer cooperatives. In principle, the land must be untilled or badly farmed; in fact, the labourers wish to have the best lands, or, at any rate, lands which can give good crops.
In the metal and engineering industry the question was primarily one of wages. In July last negotiations began, consequent upon a request by the F.I.O.M. (Italian Federation of Metal Workers) that the scale of wages, of promotions and kindred questions should be revised. The F.I.O.M. alleged that the increase of wages since 1914, said to be 250 per cent., had not kept pace with the increase in the cost of living, which the municipal statistical labour offices of Milan, Turin, and Rome estimated to be 350 per cent. Wages in other industries were said to be higher than in the metal shops. The A.M.M.A. (Federation of Metal and Engineering Employers) replied that the increase of wages was abundantly equal to the increase of the cost of living; that the examples of higher wages quoted by the employees’ federation were misleading, as they related to exceptionally qualified workers, and, by a review of facts and figures, endeavoured to prove that the industry was not in a condition to grant even the smallest concession, as that would spell ruin to most of the federated employers, who had to face the current prices of world competitors.
Upon this reply the negotiations were interrupted. The men did not go on strike; instead of striking the F.I.O.M. proclaimed ostruzionismo, that is “ca’canny”. Usually obstructionism is a practice of individual workers. In Italy “ca’canny” had already been used by public employees in State railways, post, telegraphs and telephone, and several tax departments, and was legally justified by the employees, as they claimed to observe exactly regulations which are enacted for general guidance, but cannot be always observed too literally without undue loss of time. In private industry this was the first time that “canny” was officially proclaimed by unions as an industrial weapon. After 15 days the results were disastrous; the productivity of men sank to 50, to 25 and less per cent. Continuous bickerings resulted between men, foremen, and employers. On September 1st the director of Romeo Works ((Milan) requested that shops should be protected by public force, and dismissed some men. The F.I.O.M. instantly replied ordering the men to occupy the metal shops all over Italy. As the public force, excepting in the Romeo case and in two or three other cases, was absent, the invasion was peaceful, and the workers found themselves masters in the works. Truth is not easily found as to proportion of the employed which took part in the invasion. But it is probable that the great majority of the workers and a small minority of the foremen and administrative staff were among the invaders.
At this point the issue ceased to be one only of wages. The leaders of the F.I.O.M. apparently conceived the “ca’canny” practice, and the subsequent invasion, only as tactical moves towards attaining the end of higher wages; but the workers set to themselves higher aims. At Turin the F.I.A.T. motorcar shops were newly styled Fiat-Soviet. A Communist government of production, after the Russian fashion, is being attempted. In every shop a consiglio di fabbrica, a works soviet, is instituted, and the workers claim to work for themselves only. A difficult task indeed. In vain they endeavoured to attract foremen and administrative staff; a small minority responded. A few members of the higher technical staff were captured, but after a few days they were obliged to release them. Another difficulty instantly presented itself in the supply of coal, oil, iron and steel, and other raw materials. The problem is being solved by the invasion of other shops, which produce goods necessary for production in the invaded ones. With the aid of State railway servants cars full of raw materials are being introduced in the workshops. But the end of the experiment is not distant. Already part of the shops work at a very low pressure; in others the end of raw materials is in sight. The problem of wages is also insoluble. Employers have not left in their offices any money, and naturally have refused to pay wages for the period during which they are expelled from their property. A few hot-heads among the invaders talk of invading banks. But the Government, it is hoped, will interfere, and put a stop to an adventure which is an open defiance of the laws of the land. The crisis will be hard to solve, as the A.M.M.A. proclaim its resolve not to recommence negotiations if the workers do not first leave the occupied shops. The workers are full of hope of the advent of universal Communism. They have entrenched themselves in the works. Instead of producing the usual products of industry they are forging arms and ammunition, and a Red guard has been formed to defend the works against the possible inroads of public force. The workers are subjected to military discipline, and every day they are called to military exercises in the shop yards. Civil war seems impending. In the meantime the Government seems absent. It has proclaimed its neutrality between the two belligerents, but this profession is hardly compatible with toleration of assault on private and public property, organisation of armed forces, &c. Perhaps all this tumult will end in a compromise or in a farce, and Signor Giolitti will gain new laurels as a skilful Fabius Cunctator. But the matter is too inflammable; the official Socialist party (156 members out of a total of 508 Deputies of the Lower House) has always been bent against the war in years past, and is the only organised Socialist party in Europe which is today uncompromisingly for Russia and Communism; the old guard of Socialism are discredited in face of young enthusiasts, and do not dare to oppose a strong stand against dangerous experiments. It is not, however, probable that the Communist experiment will be made this time. Italians are not apt to stretch things to their extremes. They are a compromising folk, somewhat after the manner of Britishers, though only after a shower of high words and extravagant menaces. Above all, we are a nation of small land-owners, in which the propertied classes outnumber the true proletariat. They need only a strong Government, strong in ideas and leadership to put matters right.