By Conor Gallagher
The longest-ever factory occupation in Italian history is taking place in Florence where the 300 workers are now making progress at turning it into a worker-owned non-profit that would pay the employees and produce products that would benefit the community. Should the workers succeed, it could provide an inspiration for others.
For three years workers at the former automotive parts factory, GKN Florence, were in limbo. According to Investigative Reporting Project Italy, in 2018 GKN was purchased by the British hedge fund Melrose, which went about enacting its motto of “buy, improve, sell.”
And in 2021 it was preparing to do just that when it abruptly announced the termination of the entire workforce. Instead the workers occupied the factory and have been there ever since.
Since the occupation, Italian labor judges have condemned GKN for its anti-union practices (in Italy a negotiated settlement is supposed to precede a business closure) for a lack of dialogue in the firings, and cases are open at the Ministry of Enterprise and Made in Italy, but importantly the workers did not rely on the government.
While workers are still demanding back pay, they’re also now trying to make “ex-GKN” a worker-owned, non-profit factory – one that produces photovoltaic panels and batteries that do not involve the use of rare earths, as well as a cargo-bike painted in the same purple as the Florence soccer team. The idea is that the factory will serve the community and potentially the surrounding region. Francesca Gabbriellini and Giacomo Gabbuti write at Jacobin:
Parallel to the technical issues surrounding industrial plans and labor organization, the work groups focused on the issue of ownership structure, including by studying the possibility of a worker buyout. In Italy such operations are regulated by the Marcora Law of 1985, which provides for public funds to safeguard workers affected by attempts at industrial relocation or liquidation and who intend to take over ownership in a cooperative structure. Usually, with such processes, the startup capital is built up through workers investing their severance pay. But in the GKN case, the idea is that local supporters should play a leading role in reactivating production, as in the struggle itself. Thus the idea of the popular shareholder campaign was born, and dialogues began with Banca Etica (an Italian ethical finance body, which has been in solidarity with the GKN struggle since the opening of the Resistance Fund) and other such institutions.
The first steps are promising as they’re blowing past initial fundraising targets. In the second phase, to begin this summer, ex-GKN will launch an “equity crowdfunding” from small, medium and large investments.
The group says “the workers are directly involved in the management of the new production project.” Additionally, the plan is to include all “public and private investors, representatives of the region and all participants in the equity crowdfunding” on the board of the cooperative.
How Has the GKN Occupation Been So Successful?
First off, the workers who were already unionized made preparations early. As soon as they recognized that ownership was “boiling the frog” – or preparing to sell off the machinery and shutter the factory – they began to make plans to occupy. They realized striking or other forms of protest wouldn’t be enough as Melrose would arrange to have the machinery removed from the factory. They also did not rely on judges, elected officials, or any other outside group to save them.
The workers involved the community by partnering with other unions, green and other local groups, including including organizing the first Italian Festival of Working-Class Literature March 31 – April 2 in the occupied factory:
Dal 31 marzo al 2 aprile siete invitat3 al Festival internazionale di letteratura working class organizzato assieme agli operai del collettivo di fabbrica GKN di Firenze. Diffondete la notizia e aiutateci a sostenere il progetto: https://t.co/xDXPM0bDMq pic.twitter.com/nwFFuZ4jm4
— Alberto Prunetti (@alprunetti) February 14, 2023
Those connections were so strong that within a few days of the occupation, there was a general strike in Florence and more than 10,000 people took to the streets in support of the workers’ cause. Last month – nearly two years after the occupation began – roughly 15,000 came out to show their support.
Firenze, in 15mila al corteo ex Gkn: “Siamo una marea. Ci tengono a bollire a fuoco lento ma noi abbiamo idee e progetti per ripartire” https://t.co/qWr68BxwDe via @fattoquotidiano #26marzo
— Siciliano (@Siciliano741) March 26, 2023
Occupation is also maybe the most effective tool workers have. From Socialist Worker:
The main reason why sit-downs are so effective is that it is impossible for management to use strikebreakers to defeat a strike, since the workers are literally sitting on the means of production.
Secondly, whereas police customarily inflict violence upon picket lines–only to turn around and blame the strikers–it is much more difficult to do the same thing to workers occupying a plant. For one thing, it is somewhat difficult to attack the occupying strikers without damaging the company’s property. But also, it is much more difficult to charge sit-downers with starting the violence.
In contrast, the closure of a GKN plan in Birmingham was announced at the same time as the one in Florence. Despite strikes, negotiations, and angry condemnations, the factory closed, moved to Poland, and 519 people lost their livelihoods.
Ex-GKN Florence could become another Birmingham – albeit one that put up a longer fight, or it could become an inspiration in how to fight back against precarious work and build something run by workers and for the benefits of the community.
Could It Happen in the US?
While Italy has some current built-in advantages – namely unions that are still strong despite decades of conservative and liberal efforts to weaken them – both countries share a strong history of occupying workplaces at different points in the 20th century.
The Italian Biennio Rosso (two red years) saw more than half a million workers run their workplaces for themselves in 1919 to 1920 – although that eventually led to the fascist reaction of the Biennio Nero (two black years).
In 1936 and 1937, sit-down strikes and occupations spread across the US. It started in Akron, Ohio, when all the rubber workers at the Goodyear truck tire department sat down and refused to work in protest of a wage cut. Management quickly restored the old wage rates. Socialist Worker on what happened next:
By January 1936, 2.500 Firestone workers struck to protest the firing of a union member, in a sit-down that lasted several days. Against the strike ended in victory.
Soon the sit-down trend had spread to the auto industry and on December 28, 1936, more than 1,000 workers at Cleveland Fisher Body occupied the plant, demanding a national auto contract.
Within two days, the strike spread to Flint, Mich. Within three weeks, the strike would shut down GM operations not only in Flint, Detroit and Toledo but also at plants as far away as Kansas City and Atlanta.
By the end of the strike, 140,000 of GM’s 150,000 production workers had been involved in either a work stoppage or a plant occupation, making demands that included union recognition and a signed contract, the 30-hour week and six-hour day, a seniority system and union input into the seed of the assembly line.
In the first 10 days of February, GM produced only 151 cars in the entire country.
The 44-day Flint sit-down strike, which was led by shop floor militants and socialists, has become legendary–for its outstanding rank-and-file solidarity, which drew in thousands of workers from nearby cities, as well as its shrewd execution, which repeatedly outsmarted GM management in their attempt to force the strikers out of the plants.
After battles with police and the calling in of the national guard, the workers won a new contract.
It wasn’t that long ago (2008) that workers occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago. From Libcom.org:
On Tuesday 2 December 2008, officials informed the 300 workers of Republic Windows and Doors that the company would be shutting down in three days. Employees would not receive severance pay or accrued vacation pay. On Friday morning ownership also informed workers that they would be immediately cut off from their health insurance providers.
Two hundred and forty union members (Local 1110 of the united Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America) voted to have a sit-in later on Friday. The sit-in participants carefully organized and orchestrated the action, dividing into three groups to manage and clean the factory equipment, provide security, and communicate with the media and supporters.
(Occupy Wall Street was influenced by Republic Windows and Doors, but we know how that turned out. Thanks Obama.) After six days, the negotiated settlement by Local 1110 with Republic and Bank of America provided the workers with the eight weeks of pay they were owed, two months of continued health coverage, and pay for all unused vacation.
Maybe next time, workers will go a step further and try to accomplish what ex-GKN is doing in Florence.