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Italy, unemployment

Ilva: another steel industry is possible

Today, tens of thousands in Taranto in southern Italy took to the streets to defend their right to health in a town that for decades has been polluted to lethal levels by Europe’s biggest steelworks. On 9 April, the country’s Constitutional Court will rule on a government decree that kept the plant open in defiance of orders by a Taranto judge to shut down the smelters of the plant last July to protect the health of workers and nearby residents from toxic emissions found to have caused illnesses and deaths over a period of years. Residents of Taranto will vote on April 14 on whether the site should be partly or fully shut. Unions have been split on the issue. Here’s a view from the leader of Italy’s largest metalworkers’ union, FIOM, about the future of the once state owned, now privatized, Ilva plant. 

The drama of Taranto was not inevitable, and the closure of its steelworks is not destiny, says  Maurizio Landini, leader of the FIOM metalworkers union

Today, in Taranto and in Italy, we must find a solution to the disaster wrought by the Ilva steelworks. We must be able to work without polluting. This is a general problem that affects everyone: business, union, government, local authorities. Fiom wants to make a contribution to addressing this challenge. We must not be hypocrites: pollution is not just a problem in Taranto, but throughout the country. But the problem in Taranto – because of the irresponsibility of Ilva and inaction of the state for many years – takes on a particular gravity. We must all be self-critical. There may have been situations for which unions must take responsibility and, if we want to change things, we have to rebuild an autonomous capacity to make proposals and to mobilize workers and employees. What happened in the summer of 2012 – with the strikes and mobilizations against Ilva – is an important signal.

The problem is not whether workers are with this or that organization: the novelty of recent months is that workers are thinking with their heads and have ceased to be servile to the company. On March 30, 2012 in Taranto 7,000-8,000 workers went to demonstrate against the judiciary, taken by buses organized and paid for by the company. Today the situation has changed. The workers have realized the tragic situation they are experiencing and are aware of the fact that their work at Ilva can be harmful – for their health, and that of their friends and relatives who live in Taranto.

Health should not be traded, even in the face of an economic crisis and at risk of losing their job. But we must not abandon the workers. The responsibility of the political forces, institutions and government is central and it is essential to protect people in such dramatic times of crisis.

The answer to the problem of the workers of Ilva in Taranto is not to consider this drama as a problem of a few, but as a problem for all: Italian institutions and the country. And we must say to Ilva – as to other industry groups – that the organization of the company and jobs is not just about the owners and managers, but it is a problem that affects the entire community and mainly the workers. Work – and the way we work – it not some kind of gift by the owner of a company but a right, and this right takes precedence over profits, which here in Taranto have been obtained on backs and at the cost of the heath of the people.

It is not true that the only way to make steel is the way Ilva does it. This is false. You can do this in different ways. And this demonstrated by the experience of many other countries. You can – by establishing a fruitful relationship with the world of research, science, academia – think of new methods of steel production, friendly to the environment, health, work, people. The steel industry in Italy (and also the car industry) needs a technological and cultural leap to meet today’s requirements. In particular, Ilva in Taranto has preferred the easy profits (at the expense of health and labour) rather than investing in a modern and sustainable steel industry.

We need a new industrial culture, which is not simply about new investment by companies, but also a change of mentality and consciousness: a culture of good relations with unions, much closer relations with the world of research, sensitivity to environmental issues, collaboration with the local community. I insist: in this new industrial culture we need to involve workers, and encourage them to think for themselves and be autonomous.

The drama of Ilva was not inevitable. It is not true that others – companies, corporations, industry groups – all behaved as Ilva did. In recent years Ilva prospered and has accumulated significant profits because it could sell steel at a lower price and it could do this – saving a lot of money – because it did not invest in technological advancement and research in order to make production environmentally sustainable. While such investments were not made, employment declined and production increased. None of us think that a company can survive without profits, but you shouldn’t be making profits while failing to invest in technological progress in production necessary to ensure the health of workers and citizens, and an unpolluted environment.

Without investment worthy of the name, the problem has not been resolved at Ilva. In recent years the company has not complied with environmental regulations, and this is no longer possible. For Ilva to have a future over the next fifteen years or so means taking on investments for environmental protection and health. This concerns not only Taranto but the whole country. Ilva’s capital expenditures in the future are not of the order of a few hundred million euros, but must be at least 3-4 billion euros. And if there is not enough private money (although Ilva must reinvest in safety the profits made in recent years), then you need the intervention of public institutions and the state. I think this is a fundamental point.

You have to question whether the owners, the Riva family, are able and have the credibility to ensure a process of investment and reorganization of the Ilva group.

Fiom believes that a public intervention is necessary, including a temporary shareholding, and it would be useful to seek the input of other steel entrepreneurs in our country to help manage a strategic perspective for the production of steel in Italy. We must defend our industrial system and also our steel production (it represents at least forty thousand jobs) which determines the production of many other goods: cars, phones, trains. This is about defending workers, but also an industrial future for the country. It cannot be the judiciary that decides industrial policy, I agree, but where are those who should ? Who makes industrial policy in Italy today? Where are the fora where we discuss choices regarding the prospects for our factories? For years, the governments of our country have not had a genuine industrial policy and have left it to the market. This is wrong. The plants in Terni, Piombino and Trieste are facing crisis and this is not being addressed; we must deal with the emergency, but also come up with a genuine industrial policy and a recovery in private and public investment.

We must avoid conflicts with and among citizens and workers. We must democratically involve all : this is not easy. We are facing a complicated situation and there is no easy way forward. We need a platform for workers to discuss, at a high level, with the company on the theme of the investments necessary to protect health and jobs.

We want to express our opinion before decisions are taken and we want to put at the center of the debate the question of how you exit from the crisis with a new industrial system. The problems are interconnected. If car production collapses in Italy or the household appliances sector is in crisis, then this also affects the production of steel, with serious knock-on effects.

The question, therefore, is not only Ilva, but the industrial policies that our country needs. We are running the risk of becoming the playground of large multinational companies or other countries that relocate here according to a logic of cost competitiveness and therefore limiting the rights of workers. That’s why we are not only talking about Ilva in Taranto or the thousands of workers who are in the plant. We speak of the country.

Fiom does not accept lessons. We never signed and never will sign agreements that deny to another [union] organization the opportunity to access a workplace and limit the freedom of those who work there, as happened against us at Fiat. We do not accept blackmail and do not want the right of people to strike and to organize with their own union to be put into question.

Democracy is a serious matter and so also is the autonomy of a union: a trade union must be autonomous and make decisions together with the people it represents. If a union instead supports the will of the company or is conditioned by it, then we have something to worry about. So I found it strange that, long ago, at a meeting with the government on Fiat, there were only the secretary of Fiom CGIL, while the leaders of CISL and UIL – on the advice of Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne – did not show up, arguing that they speak directly to Fiat. Behaviour of this nature questions the very essence of the trade unions.

Many argue that to overcome the crisis and to increase the competitiveness we should eliminate the national labour contract, reducing rights. There are those who theorize that the possible solution lies in increasing working hours.

Those who criticize the Fiom are the same, sitting at the negotiation table with engineering employers federation Federmeccanica, who discuss new contracts (which also affect the steel industry), under which increases in terms and conditions will not apply to all in equal measure, that the first three sick days should be unpaid, that hours must be increased and overtime compulsory. We are talking here of cancelling the rights of workers and the existence of the national contract, and the very possibility for workers to negotiate their condition. The unions are divided, but companies remain united. Thanks to Federmeccanica, Fiat – supposed to be a “unique” and “non-repeatable” case – will be extended to all workers. We have to work for unity and the condition for this is to rebuild workplace democracy, and prevent separate agreements.

The time has come for a grand bargain on jobs and democracy. For Ilva we need a common platform. We should not further divide the workers, we must instead work for unity, also with the city of Taranto. You need a permanent dialogue and discussion with the citizens of Taranto, and we can no longer be faced with the choice between the environment and labor. The company must be convinced that it has a social responsibility for what he has caused to workers and the city, and that it has to make all the investments needed to put an end to the central point at issue: Ilva is polluting inside the plant and outside it too.

We are opposed to the closure of Ilva and welfare solutions such as the granting of a citizenship income of unlimited duration to those who are left, due to the closure, with no job. For us, Ilva is a paradigmatic dispute that goes to the heart of the future of industrial policy of our country, the organization of work in enterprises, the relationship between the economy and the environment.

There is a need to put at its centre the question of rights. We are not simply dealing – in the case of Ilva – in bad businessmen, but a model of doing business that has nothing to do with the quality of work, but only with the enrichment of managers and owners. They say that health and safety is a cost. So you cannot even begin the discussion. Instead, we ask for support for those businesses that make investments in innovation, the environment, safety, work, including rethinking the organization of work and a reduction in hours.

The defence of labour and workers’ rights, has never been so closely linked with the struggle for a new growth model that focuses on the quality of investment and production.

The rights are crucial here because we are opposed to the changes in labour laws, Article 18 of the Workers’ Statute and Article 8, which allow firms to opt out of the national contract and the laws of our state: they are bad changes that we want to fight and overturn. We must not leave anyone alone, we must all be part of a big trade union project of change and defence of workers.

We have a unique characteristic that we have to defend at all costs: we are independent, we live only from the economic contributions of our members. Fiom is not for sale and no company can think to buy us and condition our decisions. This is why we have dignity and enjoy credibility among among our members, men and women workers.

It is time to end horsetrading, it is time for us to assume our responsibilities. This is the message we want to send also to Ilva. Ilva workers should know that we will always be at their side and we have no intention to stop defending the idea that the environment and the economy, health and work are compatible, that they must be able to coexist. In Taranto, as in the rest of Italy.

This article is the preface to a book by Vincent Comito and Riccardo Colombo on Ilva 

More at sbilanciamoci 

Translation/edit by Revolting Europe

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope

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