Italy’s “Hot Autumn” of 1969 triggered a decade-long battle between the working and ruling classes. It saw migrant, unorganised workers and women take the lead in challenging the old order.
The Hot Autumn was the biggest, most prolonged strike wave in history, which developed into a struggle for a better society. It also saw the emergence of a large far left.
Before the outbreak, few in Italy believed that it was possible. The Catholic church and the pro-US Christian Democrats seemed to dominate the country.
Italy did have the biggest Communist Party outside of Russia or China – but it was generally loyal to Russia, and accepted that Italy was part of the Western Bloc.
The Communist Party, and the CGIL trade union federation it controlled, limited protests to one-day strikes and set-piece demonstrations.
Italy was, in many ways, a newly-industrialised country. A post-war economic boom had transformed society. Hundreds of thousands of people moved from the countryside and the poverty-ravaged south to work in the northern cities of Turin and Milan.
There, the southerners were treated as second class citizens, and offered the worst jobs and accommodation. To get a job you needed a recommendation from a Tory politician, a pro-company union official or the local priest.
Foremen bullied, harassed and intimidated workers on the production lines of the Fiat car giant and the Pirelli tyre manufacturer. The CGIL was barred from most workplaces and management only dealt with right wing and pro-company unions, if at all.
And state repression was an everyday reality. Men who had loyally served the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini from 1922–45 ran the security services, military, police and judiciary.
Police regularly attacked demonstrations and strikers, killing 80 people between 1948 and 1956 and injuring more than 5,000.
A year before the Hot Autumn there had been a series of occupations and battles on the university campuses and high schools.
There were hopes that student unrest would ignite a strike wave in the factories, as happened in France in May 1968. But this did not happen, and the revolt fizzled out.
Groups of students turned their attention to the workers, putting in regular leaflets or bulletins to the factories.
A number of far left groups had sprung up. One of them, Lotta Continua, was strong in Turin, and the Fiat Mirafiori plant became a centre for its agitation.
One Fiat worker describes its impact: “The leaflets were very important, at least for me. I was a passer-by and had no time to stop after work outside the gate to discuss things. I could understand them because they were written in simple language… they made an effort to speak the language of the slave.”
The leaflets criticised the timidity and tactics of the union leaders. Workers, often from the south, began to approach the student agitators and tell them stories of life in the plant. These were then written up in bulletins.
In Turin, the Hot Autumn had been preceded by strikes over wages, housing, and the police shooting of striking Sicilian land workers.
These helped unite skilled and unskilled workers, northerners and southerners, and workers and students.
The situation exploded in Milan in September when Pirelli brought in tyres from its Greek plant. A right wing military dictatorship ruled Greece, and lorry loads of tyres were set alight in protest.
In response the company declared a lock-out, then retreated from that and sacked a leading activist instead. The workers walked out.
Massive demonstrations swept through the city. Strikers’ roadblocks were joined by thousands of students, together with delegations from hundreds of factories.
Pirelli’s headquarters was blockaded for three days. Bus, tram and metro workers let strikers and their supporters travel free, saying, “Pirelli will pay.”
The centre of the Hot Autumn was Turin. Strikes spread across the city, centred on Fiat, but hitting all sections of the working population. Women struck for equal pay.
Socialist Worker reported at the time, “One young woman migrant worker explained how she felt transformed from feeling totally isolated in the new work environment to becoming a ‘chatterbox’.
“She began to get a ‘lot out of going to work in a factory. You learn things directly. Not like a housewife who learns things second hand’.”
New forms of organisation were thrown up to push the struggle forward. Department and plant-wide assemblies became the ways of taking decisions.
These were known as CUBs, rank and file organisations based on workers across the different unions. Factory councils brought workers together in mass assemblies, which elected delegates to represent them, regardless of what union they were in.
“We are all delegates,” became a key slogan, meaning that decisions would no longer be left to union officials or representatives. Leadership shifted to the young, unskilled workers.
Action came in different shapes and forms – stop and go, work to rule, checkerboard strikes where different shifts or sections took turns to walk out and slowdowns.
On “internal demonstrations”, workers marched through the factory and invaded management offices.
One Fiat worker recalled, “When I heard them coming, the whistles, the tam-tam on the cans, I was very happy.
“I would throw away my gloves and march along. We would catch the scabs and place them in front of the rally.
“It was the right thing to do to catch them, yank them out of the dumpers where they hid, and put them right in front of the rally, kicking their arses.”
Southern workers used the office phones to phone home, joking, “Agnelli [Fiat’s owner] is paying.”
At the Mirafiori plant, workers turned the table on management. One explained, “Four, five hundred workers would hunt down managers, pick one and tell him, ‘From this moment you get the hell out of the plant, and you don’t come back until we tell you’.”
One 10,000-strong demonstration took up the chant, “Agnelli, Indochina [Vietnam] is in your factory.”
Strikes shifted away from pay to issues such as health and safety, trade union rights and much more. Continual pay battles ensured differentials between workers, and men and women, were reduced. The slogan became “Vogliamo Tutto” – we want everything.
The strike wave continued after the autumn of 1969, terrifying Italy’s rulers. In 1972, workers walked out over housing, price rises and fascist attacks.
Slogans moved beyond demanding better pay and conditions and denouncing the bosses. Now it was “All power to the workers” and “The bosses’ state is for smashing not changing.”
Lotta Continua and three other revolutionary organisations were transformed from small groups into parties with tens of thousands of members and many more supporters.
But they were still a minority, though they were capable of taking the lead during strikes and on the streets. The Communist Party remained the party workers voted for.
The trade union leaders swallowed their hostility to the radical developments and decided to “ride the tiger” – to work with and attempt to co-opt the new worker-delegates.
They were helped by the fact that the CGIL grew as many workers who had never belonged to any union joined it. Rather than leaping to the far left-run CUBs, they moved more cautiously into the bigger, mass organisations.
The unions increasingly influenced the factory councils.
A global recession hit in 1973 and the unions argued for a “common sense” solution to rising unemployment and inflation – elect a Communist-led government. Workers sensed that strike action was no longer enough.
The Italian ruling class reacted in two ways to the threat to its power.
One was to unleash a “strategy of tension” in which fascist attacks and the threat of a military takeover were used to warn the Communists to stay within the confines of established politics.
On 12 December 1969 a series of fascist bombings began that went on for over a decade.
A bomb in central Milan killed 16 people. Police, acting on information from the secret service, blamed the left for the bombing.
They arrested two anarchists, one of whom was thrown from a window and killed in what police maintained was a suicide.
The following year, a fascist war-time leader led a coup in Rome, with the help of the security forces. It was called off when senior intelligence officers advised him to end it and helped spirit him away to fascist Spain.
The second reaction was to lure the Communists into policing the working class by vague promises that they would be included in decision-making, though not directly in government. This was known as the “Historic Compromise”.
Eventually, with the aid of the Communist Party and scares over left wing “terrorists”, the militant minority was isolated and the movement broken.
The revolutionary parties fell apart.
Despite all this the Hot Autumn left a legacy. Two referendums in 1974 and 1981, involving huge battles with the Catholic church and the Christian Democrats, saw voters support divorce and then abortion.
Agnelli summed up the feeling of the ruling class, “We experienced a continuous loss of managerial authority.
“For us, then, the lack of equilibrium between management and unions inside the factories lasted ten to 12 years. That cost us dearly.”
The Fire Last Time by Chris Harman (Special offer £5)
A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and politics 1943–1988 by Paul Ginsborg (£12.99)
Both available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848. » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
Genoa: La Lotta Continua, a 2001 Socialist Worker pamphlet, available from » www.swp.org.uk/resources/genoa.pdf