The closure of an aluminium smelter in a depressed industrial zone on the Italian island of Sardinia has sparked protests by enraged employees
On Wednesday they blocked Cagliari airport. Friday they sought to mount a blockade the sea port of the Sardinian city. Workers of the Alcoa aluminium plant are angry – and desperate – as hopes of keeping their jobs and their families fed, watered and housed vanish before their eyes.
Five hundred skilled jobs are at risk following news that all potential buyers of the US multinational’s Portovesme smelter appeared to have lost interest.
On Wednesday, a ‘large delegation’ of Alcoa employees turned up at the entrance to the airport of Cagliari, in the south of the island, blocking it for about two and a half hours. The action, involving around 300 workers, was agreed at the end of a meeting at the plant held at 5.30 am.
Amid firecrackers, smoke bombs, banners and chants, no traffic was entering and leaving airport.
The workers distributed leaflets explaining the reasons for the protest to departing and arriving passengers. A queue of cars stretched for nearly a kilometre, and many departing passengers preferred to leave the car on the side of the road and walk to the terminal. Only when the assembled police threatened to move against them did the workers decide to dismantle their road block, warning they could be back any time.
The protests continued Friday morning with a blitz of the port of Cagliari: More than 200 workers occupied the entrance of the St. Augustine docks . Upon their arrival, at around 9.30, they found access to the ferries blocked by police. But the protest went on anyway. Some workers then proceeded to leap into the sea to block a ferryboat from docking. Sources said the workers climbed a fence and forced their way past law-enforcement officers before jumping into the water, it was reported.
It is just a few days before the date fixed by US giant – which doubled profits last year to $611 million and boasts that it is sitting on a pile of cash – to close the plant. The workers have already made clear they will not proceed with the shutdown of the plant, a job that due to safety regulations only they can do.
The dispute began in January, when the U.S. multinational – the world’s largest producer of aluminium – announced a reduction in output, which in Europe means the closure of one of the only two plants in Italy and Spain .
The decision was met with anger by employees and trade unions.
500 workers are directly employed by the corporation and as many again work in related industries in the Portoscuso area in the south west of the island. Together they make up a total of 25% of the employees in an area that for years has seen no investment but plenty of factory closures.
So in February, the workers took their demands to keep their jobs to Rome. But a protest outside the Ministry of Development was met by police cracking heads with their batons.
Just how it will pan out in the next few days remains to be seen. Unions have indicated they don’t know how to keep a handle on a dispute that risks getting ever more inflamed. ‘We are no longer able to keep the situation under control , one rep told Il Manifesto newspaper. ‘Tempers are tempers seriously frayed, at any moment the workers could return to the streets. So far we have been able to coordinate all protest actions, but the workers can’t take it any more. It’s a pressure cooker ready to explode. ‘
The unions reiterate that Alcoa must stick to commitments made to the Government to keep the plants active, even if activity is reduced, until 31 December, and so ‘safeguard the jobs of all workers.’ The government must continue its search for investment ‘to give a future for Portovesme and the aluminum sector,’ they add.
The problem is that the potential buyer initially identified – the German group Aurelius – has dropped out. The government is reportedly verifying interest – which seems to have vanished – by the London and Geneva-based private equity fund Klesh, but above all the Swiss mining multinational Glencore.
If the plant closes it will be another blow Italian industry in a country with near 11% unemployment.
There are legal threats to close the huge southern steel plant ILVA because of serious environmental concerns that neither the private owners nor the government appear ready, with the money, to fix.
And Fiat – these days much more interested in the US than Italy now that huge government subsidies have been pulled – is threatening to shut a second Italian factory after closing one in Sicily last year.
Video of Workers seeking to block port of Cagliari