1968 will long be remembered, in all of Europe; it was commemorated this year on its fiftieth anniversary and will doubtless continue to be in future years – though above all as a student-movement anniversary. Yet at the time a workers’ revolt was also touched off in Italy, exceptional in many respects within Europe, triggered by the expiration in 1969 of sectoral contracts for several categories of the union federations.
In France too, the student movement tried to establish a relationship with the workers’ struggle that had exploded in the same period, but the mobilisation was interrupted by the negotiations carried out by the largest left trade union (the CGT) with representatives of industry, leading to the so-called Grenelle Agreements concluded without consulting the growing movement.
In Italy, by contrast, the movement of struggle was supported to the very end by the, generally united, trade unions, leading, though not without discussions on content and method, to a package of achievements still in force for various trade categories, as well as to an important package of new laws passed in Parliament (the Workers Statute, the National Health Service, pensions reform, etc.).
The students movement certainly exerted an important influence on the radicalisation of the workers’ struggle. Already in April 1968 a big assembly was held in Milano joined by students coming from practically all over Italy to discuss how to involve the factories in the struggle that had begun in the universities. The first contacts were made with the younger workers, which began to swell the ranks of the pickets. A few months later another meeting in Venice’s Faculty of Architecture took place where it was decided that the occupied universities should became the place were students and workers would assemble. And in this framework a discussion was launched on the necessity to extend the spectrum of demands to include no longer just wages but the whole human condition of the worker, health, rhythm of work, etc. From then on, for almost all of the 1970s, Turin, the Italian Detroit, became a place of pilgrimage for students.
That year saw the growth (and in some cases the founding) of extra- parliamentary groups – called ‘new left’ – with influence not only amongst the students but on the young industrial manual workers (the new type of the ‘mass worker’, of scant politicisation but much combativeness, often new immigrants from Italy’s South), which thus immediately created a conflict between them and the trade union cadre who had formed in the first and acute struggles of the preceding decade. In particular, the group of Lotta Continua (the most spontaneist of the new left, with a significant Catholic presence in its ranks) accused the union of acting as a brake on the movement. In reality, the impetus from below was undeniable and contributed to radicalise the trade unions themselves, in particular the stratum of older cadre who had experienced the struggle of the preceding years. Their experience on the ground became highly valuable in the following years.
The movement produced new types inside the factories – above all the ‘delegate of the homogeneous group’, that is, representing the workers of a specific assembly line, who was characterised by full knowledge of the work structure in the factory and who thus constituted a considerably more direct representative than members of the union’s Internal Committees (C.I.). Not all the new left groups had the same position on the delegates: Lotta Continua, for instance, accepted the idea of the delegate but rejected any representational authority, with the slogan ‘we are all delegates’, which would have impeded the forming of factory councils, the most precious of all the innovations, being the political organism expressed directly by all the workers, without the mediation of the trade-union structure seen as too distant. The Manifesto group instead fully supported the mandate of the delegates in order to build the factory councils which played a much wider political and not just trade-unionist role, involving also the white-collar workers traditionally reluctant to join in with blue-collar workers.
This deep change in the forms of struggle and of organisation opened up a broad debate between the groups of the workers and within the group of the new left. The accompanying transcript of a colloquium of shop delegates at the Mirafiori Fiat plant in Turin, from Il Manifesto – rivista, January 1970, affords a rare opportunity to listen in on one such discussion. It is important, among other things for understanding the relationship between us (Il Manifesto), Pietro Ingrao, and Bruno Trentin, then close to the left wing of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the so-called Ingrao tendency, and Secretary of the FIOM (Federation of Metallurgical Employees and Workers, the union of the mechanics/metal workers of the CGIL union confederation) and then in later years General Secretary of the CGIL.
The difficulty of understanding each other was only natural between those who, as in the CGIL, aimed at building a complex trade-union movement able to last a long time and, on the other hand, those who, with the revolutionary rhetoric of overthrowing the bourgeois state, etc., aimed at strong and immediate results even if limited. The debate continued through all of the 1970s with obvious effects on the discussion within the PCI. This also led to very harsh disputes between the CGIL and the movements on the nature of the platform of demands, which often, especially among those to the left of the PCI, led to prioritising egalitarian wage demands, around which certain groups – in particular Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) whose leader was Antonio Negri – agitated, projecting it as by far the principal demand. It is in this context, in particular around the issue of wage equality, that the already difficult relationship with Bruno Trentin, who was a leading figure not only in the trade union, broke down.
The role of the councils became even more significant in the following years when the workers realised that their lives were also determined by housing conditions, healthcare, education, as well as by the court system and they were able to spread their sphere of action beyond the factory gates into the residential neighbourhoods. As a result, along with the factory councils, ‘zone councils’ were created, with the help of new forms of organisations created by a wave of radicalised intellectuals: Democratic Medicine, Democratic Psychiatry, Democratic Judiciary. and even Democratic Police. With the platform of the Metal Workers’ Union FIOM adopted in 1972 a very significant conquest was made: 150 hours a year of paid free time each year for the worker to study, not to aquire a better qualification for his work, but to become more educated. In fact, for a long period of time the strength of workers resulted in genuine dual power in the factories.
If we can say that, with the 1970s, forms take shape to the left of the ex- PCI, along with some phases of unified combat between the three union confederations – experiences that are very rare or inexistent elsewhere – and thus new scenarios of battles in factories, as well as the syndicalism of the councils, with its protagonist, the ‘delegate of the homogeneous group’, it is a fact that we also see, at the end of the decade, the decline of the Italian Communist Party. And also the formations to its left, which die out together with it. With the end of the century the dense complex of extra-parliamentary groups, which thought to take advantage of the PCI’s weakness, ended by disappearing. Actually, it was the presence and strength of the most important communist party of the West that constituted the very possibility of their existence. It was only the PdUP (the Party of Proletarian Unity, the party wing of Il Manifesto) that stayed afloat, but, in the mid- 1980s, at the invitation of Berlinguer, it returned to become part of the PCI, while the others, incapable of standing up to the right-wing offensive, ended by dissolving themselves.
The inheritors of the great florescence of formations to the left of the PCI have persisted in the sphere of debate of ideas rather than in political activity. These involve significant fringes deriving from Quaderni rossi (the review of the left wing of the Socialist Party, then the PSIUP, Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity) as well as some major exponents of Italian operaismo (workerism) – aside from Negri, in particular Mario Tronti who although he is the most authoritative theoreticion of operaismo has had a completely different political trajectory because for years he was not only a member of the PCI but also a parliamentarian of the PD, even in the last legislature.