An Eco-Revolution of the Working Class? What We Can Learn from the Former GKN Factory in Italy

While green capitalists, with the support of governments, are creating future markets that are profitably compatible with the climate crisis, thereby attempting to shape and dominate the so-called “green transition,” the working class and the climate movement are challenged to come up with a response. That such a response can and should take the form of an alliance between the climate and labor movements is exemplified by the struggles near Florence, where a cooperative and popular shareholding experiment for a truly ecological and sustainable mobility transition is taking place. In their contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds,” scholar-activists Francesca Gabbriellini and Paola Imperatore explore the case.

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On 9 July 2021, Melrose Industries – the financial fund’s owner of the GKN axle-shafts’ factory in Campi Bisenzio, near Florence – sent out an email announcing the dismissal of more than 400 workers. The dismissal has been portrayed as the natural outcome of ‘green transition.’

The GKN workers immediately organized a permanent assembly, which has been defending the plant for almost two years now. From the occupied factory, GKN workers are organizing not only to defend their jobs, but also to share a broader vision of a bottom-up ecological transition that reflects their idea of a renewal of the auto sector. By taking direct action, they highlight the question of what role the working class can and has to play in the ecological transition.

In this context, it could also be argued that Italy offers a particular context for such reflections and struggles, since since the 1980s worker buyouts have been regulated by the so-called Marcora Law of 1985, which allows workers of companies in crisis to regain ownership in the form of a cooperative. Today, this particular form is seen as the best way to counteract the “siege” of workers by providing access to bureaucratic relief, subsidized loans and assistance in drawing up business plans.

End of the Month, End of the World, Same Struggle”

As the struggle of workers organized in the Collettivo di Fabbrica (Factory Collective) opened up to institutional negotiations, they developed a strategy of convergence between working class struggles and climate justice struggles that led to four national marches and hundreds of initiatives across Italy. The situational alliances between the two movements, united by the slogan “End of the Month, End of the World, Same Struggle,” overcame the prevailing paradigm that constructs environmentalists and workers as antipodes.

At the same time, an interdisciplinary Solidarity Research Group was formed, with young researchers from all over Italy working with the Factory Collective to develop an industrial reconversion plan that would transform GKN into a public pole of sustainable mobility. The reconversion plan pursues a radical ecological approach of the workers, based on the synergy of the plant with the surrounding socio-economic context and with the territory cared for by the workers. Starting from a critical reflection on the role of the company and the institutions in this context, the plan presents the worker as a ‘historical subject’ who overcomes the union and political differences within the factory and, at the same time, forms a workers’ collective that takes democratic control of the production process, giving rise to the vision of reactivating the factory as a “public and socially integrated factory.”

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

This plan marks several turning points. First, the development of the plan is based on the harmony between the needs of the workers and the protection of the territory and the environment in general, overcoming the extortion of labor and the environment from which international capital has benefited until now – the latter, that is, the extortion, is based, as is well known, on the assertion that one can protect either the worker or the environment, but not both at the same time. The second point concerns the decision to subject production to social utility, a vision that was already central to the workers’ struggles of the 1970s, which – by asking “what, how, and how much to produce” – claimed the right to decide on production based on the needs of workers and the community in general. This perspective fits with the notion that only through production in the collective interest can the environment – not as an abstract category outside of us, but as the material context in which daily life takes place – be truly treated sustainably.

Workers’ democracy against (green) capital

The third point is related to the issue of workers’ participation, which concerns both the workers’ protagonism in the process of industrial reconversion and the organization of workers within the production process. From the outset, the plan presented by the Factory Collective puts workers at the center of the decision-making process about what to produce, as well as in the supervision of the production process itself.

Of course, an important basis for the immediate response to the layoffs and the continuation of the mobilization as it is reflected in the plan is a precise knowledge of the production process and the rights in the workplace, as well as the capillary organization of the workers in the factory. This promotes a model of workers’ democracy based not only on traditional and institutionalized forms of organization, such as unions and the RSU, but above all on the factory collective and the so-called “liaison delegates.”

Finally, the reconversion plan is based on the synergy and equal dialog between working class knowledge and academic knowledge. This represents a reversal of the logic according to which only knowledge produced in the university can be considered scientific and legitimate, a logic that has produced a technocratic and “neutral” approach to political issues and production-industrial decisions. No technician can know the factory environment, the production cycles, the existing risks, the needs and demands of the workers better than the workers themselves. Bringing this knowledge, which comes not from the classroom but from daily experience, into focus opens the way to rethinking the relationships between different forms and systems of knowledge that have long been marginalized in favor of a single technoscientific paradigm.

New challenges and unexpected alliances

A few days after the presentation of the first draft of the plan – which has since been published as an ebook by the Feltrinelli Foundation – the entrepreneur Francesco Borgomeo, appointed by Melrose as a consultant, appeared on the scene and declared his intention to buy the factory, guarantee the continuity of the work and carry out an industrial conversion project. Borgomeo became the new owner at Christmas 2021, opening a long phase of boycotted negotiating tables, reindustrialization projects that were never presented, meaningless appeasements to the demonization of the workers’ permanent assembly. According to Borgomeo, the new investors do not come because they are afraid of the workers in Garnison.

So far, the workers’ plan has not been taken into account in the whole negotiation process. Against this backdrop the Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso (Workers’ Mutual Aid Society) has been created to try a new process of recovery and reindustrialization of the factory, as the horizon of public intervention is becoming less and less feasible, also given the transition from the techno-liberal government led by former ECB President Mario Draghi to the post-fascist government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

It is therefore all the more gratifying for all those involved in the struggles that, at the end of December 2022, the Solidarity Research Group succeeded in attracting the interest of a German-Italian start-up that owns the patents for a new material and new machines capable of producing photovoltaic panels and batteries without the use of rare earth metals. This type of production is fully in line with the so-called just transition: on the one hand, the need not to burden the Global South with the supply of resources, and on the other hand, the need to transition to a sustainable mobility model.

Meanwhile, GKN workers are traveling around Italy to meet with small-scale manufacturers of cargo bikes to contribute to the decarbonization of small-scale logistics both in large workplaces and in Italian cities, which are still far from uniformly adopting sustainable mobility plans. The first cargo-bike prototype was realized in a few months and presented in February 2022, with technical designs coming from the sharing of knowledge with solidarity companies and with recycled materials.

Labor struggles as an experiment for the future

For the time being, the Reindustrialization Project 2.0 is not supported by direct investors, so the workers have to face the crucial issue of ‘seed capital.’ The Factory Collective and the Reindustrialization Group have therefore set up a crowdfunding campaign called “ex-GKN FOR FUTURE,” supported by Fridays for Future, BancaEtica (an ethical banking institution, close to the world of cooperation and social movements) and ARCI, the oldest network of entertainment and cultural clubs in Italy. The idea is to build a popular shareholding base to support the new project: The land the factory sits upon will be the first shareholder of this small eco-revolution. The first step of the campaign is aimed at accumulating the necessary funds to concretely launch the workers’ cooperative. In less than a month, with the participation of hundreds of citizens and associations, the crowdfunding campaign has already exceeded 1 million euros.

In conclusion, we can observe a multiplication of crucial events related to the expansion and future of the climate and social justice movements currently centered in the Florentine periphery. First, the renewed connection between ecologist and transfeminist movements within workers’ struggles goes beyond the narrative of special-interest blackmail. Secondly, the co-production of knowledge, which aims to concretely construct an alternative of productive reactivation from an ecological perspective, in opposition to the negotiation of wage subsidies, which are too often the antechamber of new dismissals. Thirdly, the probable creation of the largest recovered enterprise in Europe, a dream of self-management and redefinition of the production, in complete contrast and outright opposition to the mere accumulation of “green capital,” without a long-term vision.

“We have embarked on a journey that has never been undertaken before, and that comes from the specifics of this struggle, but also from general capitalist processes. This is an opportunity to experience a new mode of production that completely undermines the usual way of dealing with corporate crises,” the Factory collective programmatically stated in an October 2022 flyer.

Note from the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de

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