The Mirafiori referendum marks a turning point in Italian labour relations


ROME — The revolutionary new labour contract engineered by Sergio Marchionne, CEO of the Fiat Group, passed with a narrow majority of just over 400 votes, most of them coming from the white collar workers at the Mirafiori plant. 

Sig. Marchionne’s stated goal is to raise the productivity of the plant, to reach an increase in production of an average of 50 cars per day and 18,000 per year. In exchange, Sig. Marchionne promised not to delocalize production from the Mirafiori plant just outside of Turin, in Italy’s North west, and to invest 1 billion euros in the plant as well as making it the centre of SuV production for both Jeep and Alfa Romeo for an envisioned production of 250,000 to 280,000 units.
Several researches have shown that Mirafiori, which employees just over 5000 workers, has an annual production of more than a third lower than a comparable plant in Brazil which employees half as many workers. “Failure to accept the conditions would mean withdrawing completely from Italy’’ Sig. Marchionne stated in a press conference last month warning of the possible closure of the plant and all workers losing their jobs.
But the Mirafiori deal is much more than about the contents on paper. Tito Boeri, a leading economist at the Bocconi University of Milan, and Fabiano Schivardi professor of Cagliari University, noticed in a recent study published on that ‘the vote was decided on ideological lines rather than with regards to content’, many workers affirming to vote both in favour and against because of Sig. Marchionne’s tactic of ‘take it or leave it,’ which is seen by almost 70 percent of workers as blackmail, the study concluded.
Predictable reactions to Marchionne’s request have varied through the political spectrum and assert themselves on an ideological basis. Fausto Bertinotti, former general secretary of Rifondazione Comunista, said in an interview that with Marchionne “we are at the end on a cycle that I see as the end of the cycle of democracy.” With these words Bertinotti is denouncing “the victory of industry on the worker … of efficiency on worker’s rights” which the former secretary sees as the deep meaning of such pact.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Minister for Work and Social Planning, Maurizio Sacconi, said in a recent interview that “the changes {with Mirafiori} in the organization of labour and production are imposed by the market … and it’s the end of a rigid social control on the organization of labour and of production.”
The FIOM, like other unions, opposed such changes in a demonstration held in Rome Jan. 28.
Piero Berrocchi, COBAS national spokesman, told the Italian Insider that FIOM and COBAS were protesting “to defend the workers from the aggression of the owners. In Italy working hours are 7 or 8 hours longer per week than in Germany and they are paid less when cars are sold at the same price. It is not the people that caused the economic crisis who are paying for it but the workers. Today’s protest is to show the unity of the workers.”
Since 1993 the National Contract of Labour has remained unvaried. What is called ‘concertazione’ in the Italian political discourse, meaning a meeting of the unions, Confindustria (the Italian employee’s confederation) and the government, has always dominated labour relations. In such a model the direct relationship between the workers and the employees takes a secondary position. As Profs. Boeri and Schivardi state in their paper “we are finally talking again of rules of {workers} representation and of decentralization of the negotiations’’ bringing such issues back to mainstream attention, which is necessary to be able to start talking of any kind of reform.
What happened in Mirafiori is the first step to a reform of the status quo, which will deeply influence the structures of power in Italy. What has been called “the American business model” by the media involves bargaining increased work flexibility for increased salaries. Marchionne’s deal marks the first breach in the Italian national contract and the unions are worried it could signify the beginning of an unstoppable change. For Fiat it was a strategy devised to stem losses of nearly 800 million Euros in 2009, sales in Europe plummeting 27 percent in the last semester and a share of the Italian car market that has gone down to less than 30 percent from more than 50 percent over the last decades.