Since July 2021, the automotive components factory Driveline GKN has become the battlefield of a heated industrial dispute. The factory itself is located in the small town of Campi Bisenzio in the outskirts of Florence, central Italy. The dispute has, at last, managed to upset the ossified balance of class power in post-pandemic Italy and to re-ignite the terrain of class struggle. Through their mobilisation, the GKN workers are showing a possible horizon of action for the working class in Italy, with potentially momentous political consequences.
Driveline GKN Florence is an automotive components factory in Campi Bisenzio (FI) producing axle shafts for car manufacturers. Until 1994 it belonged directly to Italy’s former automotive national champion FIAT (now Stellantis). On July 9th, the British management of Driveline GKN Florence announced via email the immediate closure of the site and the collective dismissal of over 500 workers. Of these, 422 are directly employed and the other 80 are working for various outsourced services.
The announced closure of the GKN site was not the result of a situation of industrial or productive crisis, nor was it motivated by financial difficulties. Driveline GKN in Florence, indeed, is a ‘healthy’ factory with a thriving orderbook, including for Stellantis. Rather, the closure decision is a direct result of the long-running process of financialisation of the economy and of the speculative principles of shareholder capitalism. Since 2018, the multinational GKN group has been owned by the UK-based financial investment fund Melrose. First, GKN received public funds from the Italian government to finance the upgrading to robot machines, part of the so-called shift to ‘industry 4.0’ (which has been a buzzword of successive Italian governments since the last economic crisis). Melrose then decided to shut this technologically innovative and fully productive site as part of its speculative activities to maximise shareholder profits, without any ‘objective’ economic basis to its decision.
This is not an isolated case. There have been similar ‘restructuring’ activities involving mass dismissals by GKN management in other sites across Europe, including the Erdington factory in Birmingham (UK), where workers have been struggling since 2020. The closure of the GKN Florence site is not strictly speaking a case of delocalisation. Only part of production is being moved to Poland, while other parts have been redistributed to existing sites in Italy and France. Nonetheless, it is part of a trend of dismantling Italy’s once-thriving automotive sector. There have been many large-scale restructuring operations over the last years, with the closure of many factories and a significant loss of employment in the sector, aggravated since the outburst of the Covid pandemic crisis.
The collective dismissals at GKN Florence were announced without following the proper procedures of trade union consultation and information set in the sectoral and company’s collective agreement. The management did not follow the EU legislation on the functioning of European Works Councils either. This is a sign of management’s boundless arrogance, unilateralism and clear hostility towards trade unions and workers representatives. From the day of the announcement, according to Italian legislation, a 75-day-notice period begins. Workers are meant to still receive their salaries during this period, then the dismissals would become effective. The 75 day period was supposed to end on September 22nd.
In the face of such managerial arrogance, the workers of GKN Florence have been staging an impressive fightback against the decision. Since the very day the dismissals were announced – in the middle of the hot Italian summer, usually a period of complete slump in political activities – they have organised. . Under the slogan Insorgiamo (‘Let’s Rise Up’) a fightback has grown to involve the whole local community, eventually rising to national significance and visibility. As activist labour scholars with deep ties to the city of Florence, and with a political commitment to the GKN dispute, we want to focus on what this can teach us about class struggle from below.
GKN is not a ‘typical’ factory. It is perhaps one of the most advanced sites of workers’ organisation in Italian manufacturing, and possibly Italy as a whole. There is an active and combative union presence at the firm level. The majority of workers unionised with the metalworking union FIOM-CGIL. The GKN workers have also been organised since 2008 in an autonomous factory-wide collective, the ‘Collettivo di Fabbrica’, which operates as a grassroots structure of workers’ organisation. The Collettivo di Fabbrica runs parallel to and independently from the ‘official’ union structures. Yet it is closely connected to them, as most of the local union reps are themselves active members of the collective. Since the beginning, the Collettivo has been meeting informally on a regular basis to discuss contractual, organisational, and political issues relating to the factory’s operations and to managerial decisions. It has broadened the space for workers’ engagement and active participation in decisions about their working life. This has infused ‘official’ union activities in the factory with a broader democratic input, as well as strengthened? the workers’ autonomous organising and political resources. This legacy of ‘organising infrastructures’ came strongly into play when the dispute broke out in July 2021.
From the day the plant closure was announced, two channels of organising have operated in parallel. First, the ‘official’ trade union activities, led by FIOM-CGIL. The trade union has mostly operated through formal voice and legal channels, participating in the occasional negotiating tables with local authorities, government officials and the firm. Second, the massive grassroots mobilisations of the workers organised through the Collettivo di Fabbrica_. The leadership role over the development of the dispute has mostly been taken by the latter, and not without the occasional political tensions between the two. The workers have also counted, from the first day, on the support of a wide network of activists, political and social organisations and social centres from the broader Florence area. These have been organised in a support group ‘Insorgiamo con i lavoratori GKN’ (‘Let’s rise up with the GKN workers’), which has been following and supporting the dispute step by step.
Since July 9th the mobilisation has been relentless. There have been various episodes marking an escalation of the conflict, which has carried on throughout the summer and continues until now. From the moment of the announcement, the workers set up a ‘permanent assembly’ inside the plant. This is essentially a permanent occupation, day and night, to prevent the firm’s squads from removing the production machines from the plant. This was then followed by a 4-hours strike of the metalworking sector in the province of Florence on July 19th. There were two very large city-wide demonstrations, first on July 24th then on August 11th. A large concert was organised by the factory gates on August 28th. Finally, a massive national demonstration was called on September 18th, which attracted 40,000 people from all over Italy. This was the largest mobilisation witnessed in the country since the start of the pandemic, and by far the most combative labour-related protest in Italy since years.
In parallel, the movement has been fighting on the legal and political front to put pressure on the government to intervene directly on the issue. The local FIOM-CGIL trade union presented a legal appeal against the dismissals. They claimed that the firm engaged in ‘anti trade union behaviour’, in light of the fact that the dismissal procedure took place without following the due process and without consultation. At the same time, the workers, supported by a group of activist labour lawyers, have been drawing up a legal proposal ‘from below’ to push the government to introduce a new legislation against offshoring and delocalisation of productive activities. So far, the government has remained wilfully inactive, limiting itself to inconclusive consultative meetings that the GKN management has mostly boycotted.
These various channels of action and mobilisation all aim towards the same goal: increasing the political visibility of the dispute. The aim is to make it impossible for the government to continue sitting on its hands, and in the process, assembling a broad coalition of actors and social forces to kick off a broader fightback. Indeed, the GKN closure ties to much bigger political and social questions of the very future of the Italian political economy in the post-pandemic world. These include the progressive deterioration of labour rights over the last two decades, the complete absence of industrial policy in the face of persisting economic stagnation, the threat of mass layoffs and restructuring, and the government’s post-crisis policy agenda, strongly tied to large business interests
For now, a temporary victory has been achieved. This buys time and breathing space for the struggle. On September 20th, the Employment Tribunal of Florence ruled in favour of the appeal presented by the FIOM-CGIL union. They declared the dismissals void according to Article 28 of the Italian Workers’ Statute, due to the company not having followed due processes of union consultation in case of dismissals and restructuring. This does not mean that the dispute is over. GKN has already announced its intention to appeal against this decision. They will in all likelihood proceed with the dismissal process afresh. However, this means that the process is delayed by at least another three months. This is a time in which further mobilisation and political pressure on the government can be built up and the balance of power still be upset further. Hopefully, again, this will be in the workers favour. In short, the fight is still very open, and the ending is still to be written.
Two lessons from the GKN struggle
We believe that the GKN struggle can teach us two main lessons. We must take these into consideration seriously, as they show the limitations of some assumptions that still dominate many attempts to analyse struggles.
1. Trade unions are not the only actors of labour politics. The development of the GKN dispute shows clearly that we should not limit the analysis of current labour mobilisations to a ‘trade union centric’ perspective. The legal action promoted by the union has been central to winning the dispute in the Employment Tribunal. However, the GKN struggle, prompted by a unilateral decision of the management, has been carried and organized since the very beginning by the workers themselves. The Collettivo di Fabbrica has played a key political role
This bottom-up organization has involved several aspects, both political and logistical. The success of this approach can be seen in the mobilisations so far, which would not have been possible relying on ‘formal’ union channels alone. These include:
An ongoing factory occupation, sustained by an effective organisation coordinating and implementing all the daily activities necessary to the factory life.
A clear and responsive decision-making process, taking place on a daily basis through the channel of the permanent assembly, able to deal with the most urgent issues at stake each day.
A coordinated organisational infrastructure for the implementation of the three daily factory shifts (i.e., 6am to 2pm; 2pm to 10pm; 10pm to 6am), held at the four factory gates to protect the permanent occupation of the plant from potential external threats (i.e., the company squads aiming at seizing back the machinery to send to other sites).
A centralised coordination of all the forms of political action concerning the mobilisation (i.e., rallies, demonstrations, strikes, etc).
A high organisational capacity to set up and implement the different forms of communication to the wider public (i.e., leafleting, public conferences and meetings, participation at concerts and other cultural events).
A political orientation and organisational ability to forge strategic alliances with other worker struggles and the broader landscape of social movements at the national level. Already long before this dispute, the GKN workers had been building networks of solidarity and support with other local workplace disputes in the Florence and Prato area. This facilitated the consolidation of alliances, and made the GKN dispute a ‘megaphone’ and rallying point for many other local struggles.
A pragmatic approach to confronting political institutions and policy makers. No politicians or institutional authority expressing feeling of solidarity with the ongoing struggle is rejected as such,yet, their commitment is politically evaluated by the workers themselves on the basis of the acts of concrete (and not only symbolic) solidarity towards the GKN cause.
This focus on bottom-up forms of organising, far from implying an irrelevance of union structures, points to the importance of considering the whole complex of organisational infrastructures that can come into play. These interact and reinforce each other in developing and sustaining mobilisations, without any previous focus on specific organisational forms.
2. The workplace is not the exclusive place of organisation and mobilisation. The GKN dispute shows that we should also overcome the idea, still present among several trade unions and union representatives, that the workplace is the only site of struggle and organisation. Most of the above political and organisational capacities would have not been possible, or would have not been so effectively exerted, without the cohesive and solid support of the surrounding local community. This highlights the centrality of social composition to this struggle.
In particular, the creation of the solidarity group Insorgiamo con i lavoratori GKN (‘Let’s rise up with the GKN workers’) has been crucial in the implementation of several tasks. More specifically, the support of this group, operating with an assembly for coordinating and implementing the activities held on a regular weekly basis, has been pivotal for:
Shifts and practical support for the occupation. The carrying out of shifts in the factory during the August break, when most of the workers were in their planned period of vacation, and the organisation of logistical support for the permanent assembly.
Stewards. Logistic support in the stewarding activities during demonstrations, rallies, and concerts.
Dissemination. The activities of communication of all the public and political events concerning the GKN struggle (especially through various and innovative forms of leafleting, but also a constant and massive presence on social media). This has been constantly and meticulously organised, drawing on different communication skills and increasing the national visibility of the dispute.
In parallel to the support group, the Women’s coordination group (Coordinamento Donne GKN) has also been central to the struggle. The group brings together the wives and partners of the almost exclusively GKN male workforce. Through its coordinating activities, it has made possible the active participation of the workers’ families in the mobilisation. It has also brought the sphere of social reproduction into the struggle and into the factory. By socialising essential social reproductive tasks, it has allowed for the mobilisation and the occupation to continue for so long.
Why and for whom do these lessons matter?
The ongoing GKN struggle in Italy matters for the practices of unions and all other actors interested in advancing the cause of the working class and the success of emerging disputes and mobilising efforts. This is particularly true in times in which the unfettered domination of global capital seems to be unstoppable. More importantly, the GKN case offers an interesting example for all actors in the labour movement about the kind of linkages, broad alliances, and social coalitions that must be nurtured at the local level. These can successfully amplify an industrial, workplace-based struggle and give it roots, legs, durability, and political visibility. In this respect, official trade unions should not see these instances of bottom-up mobilisation as an external threat to their political role of worker representation. Rather, such experimentation of grassroots organization should operate to encourage new unions strategies and creative actions. Bottom-up mobilisation and the consolidation of bargaining power are not to be regarded as contrasting strategies, but part of the same radical political agenda (on the Italian case, see also, On Struggles in Logistics). The adoption of such integrated strategies seems more urgent, today, in the face of the new challenges posed by post-pandemic capitalism. Indeed, global capital (with the collusion of political elites) seems more and more eager to squeeze workers’ labour-power and erode their rights to secure its own survival. Here it is where labour unions are expected to be ready and able to fight back, including on the terrain of politics. In this sense, the struggle of the GKN workers can offer a helpful guideline.
Building on the 40,000-strong demonstration of September 18th, the mobilisation and demands of the GKN workers could have the potential to act as a rallying point to scale up and generalise labour conflict on many terrains. Starting from demanding a law against delocalisations, to a broader recuperation of labour rights. To fulfil this potential, however, the full political and practical support of national unions and political forces, in Parliament and beyond, would be necessary. Thus far, bar a few important exceptions, this support has been more symbolic than substantial. It remains to be seen over the next weeks and months what the future developments and political outcomes of this struggle will be. The development of the GKN dispute so far, and the massive ‘insurrection’ and re-awakening of political consciousness over labour issues it is giving rise to across Italy, shows a horizon of hope for labour struggles and working class political organisation that, we hope, can act as an inspiration for workers all over Italy and well beyond.
Photo credit: Luca Mangiacotti