In honor of International Workers' Day, I'm republishing an article I wrote 11 years ago about a group of workers fighting to prevent the closing of their factory INNSE near Milan; their 14 month long protest culminated in August 2009 when 4 workers and 1 trade union official climbed on a crane inside the factory, threatening to throw themselves down if the factory didn't stay open. More photos can be found here.
IN FRONT OF THE FACTORY
At the end of August 2009, at the protest defense post in front of the INNSE factory, the men around the lunch table were still talking about the days spent on the factory crane. Anecdotes were told to the persons who hadn't been present: “One day, Luigi was thirsty and he drank Amuchina, and then he turned pale: ‘I feel sick, I feel sick!’ Well, you just drank disinfectant...” Luigi himself tells about a phone call he had received from his mother-in-law on the crane: “She goes: ‘Are you on the crane?!’ And I’m like: ‘Well...’ And she goes: ‘Get down immediately! Come back home!’” Even the dog didn't recognize Luigi anymore when he finally did get back home: “The dog growled at me, I was so dirty. He only came to me after I had taken a shower.” To kill time on the crane, taking the police officers for a ride was an option: “We did it in turns; one of us started to yell ‘That’s enough, I’ve had enough of you, I want to get down!’ and the officers rushed to see what was going on. But in the last days they didn’t fall for it anymore.” Everyone adopted their own method to bear the unbearable stay in the extremely hot factory. “I remembered my past life: I used to roam around without any stuff with me, just a sleeping bag,” Fabio tells. “But it was really tough up there.”
Vincenzo, also him one of the men on the crane, becomes serious. “Now you can talk lightly about all this, but it was hard, really hard. All those 14 months before August 2009...” You can see and hear it from the words of all the workers. “Especially last winter, being here at the factory gatehouse; it was snowing, it was so cold, and the police were out there.” In September 2009 everything seemed all right; INNSE had a new owner, Camozzi, and the first workers were expected to return to work at the beginning of October. And yet: “It’s a bitter victory,” Vincenzo remarks. “We freed ourselves from an overlord, and now we’re starting to work for another one. Other people are making money; we go back to being blue-collar workers, not managers.”
In the midst of all the clamor of those eight days and seven nights of the five “craners”—four plus one, Vincenzo stresses; four workers and a trade union official—a big part of the protest, just as hard and not less important, has gone largely unnoticed. However, the crucial point is exactly those 14 months of fighting and resistance before August 2009: months during which the workers first stayed inside the factory running it themselves, and then, after the police evicted them, in the old gatehouse in front of the factory. During the entire period the workers, very united among themselves, tried to change the things both with conventional means and with more controversial ones. And all this with the institutions, in theory, involved—in theory, because what then happened in practice doesn't completely satisfy Vincenzo and his colleagues: “In the early days, Maria Sciancati, head of Milan's chapter of [trade union] FIOM CGIL gave a statement to the media: ‘It’s a great battle, but not exportable.’ All those demonstrations we held... around 40, and we had several meetings, too. The trade unions were present at every meeting, but the solution to the situation couldn't be found. The [governors of Lombardy] Region claim that they conduct ‘labor-centric politics’, but what politics is not having ever seriously intervened during those 14 months? On Monday, August 3 2009, when we went to meet the prefect to ask that the dismantling of the machines be suspended immediately, the prefect still told us: ‘My dear fellows, I can’t do anything.’ The same day, we went also to the Region government offices and we stayed there until 7 pm, and they didn’t even let us out to grab a sandwich.” The next day, August 4, was of course the day when the men climbed on the crane, and then stayed up there for eight days. “And now all the institution representatives and such, now they are all giving themselves medals... but it’s ok, let them do it, the important thing is that we go back to work, that we have our jobs.”
At the same time, Vincenzo is also extremely satisfied and proud of what they have accomplished: “We managed to show that the will of a company owner is not the will of god, it’s not an absolute truth. Everyone thought that the blue-collar workers would be a cancelled thing by now, stuff from the past. The message we want to convey is that you shouldn’t accept things passively. Carrying out our protest we explored and launched an ‘INNSE method’: we always went to the meetings wearing our uniforms, we went to see the institution representatives in groups of at least 15 persons, all wearing overalls. If you go to meet them with a few dozen people with banners and all they won’t let you in. A blue-collar worker delegation in overalls is another thing: in the office environment they aren’t used to workers’ presence, already that makes them feel uncomfortable. Sure, it was a continuous back and forth, but in the meanwhile we were in their offices.”
In the past, the factory has had several owners. “INNSE has always been passed around,” Vincenzo explains. “In the good years we manufactured turbines that were over 33 feet long. The first crisis was in 1999, during the German management. At a certain point, they decided to close the Milan site; not because the site wasn’t productive anymore, but because the Germans already had another site in Germany—and when you had to choose between that site and ours, they kept the German one. Within three months a buyer was found; Manzoni Group. However, Manzoni failed in 2001, and consequently also INNSE started to have difficulties. At this point, Italian state took over. Then came along Genta.”
Right, the notorious Genta. Vincenzo sees a rather clear framework in Genta’s actions. “Genta was able to acquire the company for a really low price, for only €700,000 ($840,000), in exchange for promising the government to commit himself to developing the company. Instead, the plan was to sell INNSE piece by piece; had he succeeded, he would’ve gained €10 million ($12 million). By selling the factory, he only got €3 million ($3.6 million)—against the initial €700,000 though.” And so, in 2006 Genta becomes the owner of INNSE. “Now, pursuant to the Prodi Act, during the first two years [of a business rescue procedure] you aren’t allowed to terminate any employment. So, Genta simply started to wait for that period to end, and in the meanwhile he also let the things to rot. In the interview for [Italian weekly] ‘Panorama’, Genta claims to have invested €7 million ($8.4 million) during these two years. Too bad that we employees never really saw any of these investments; he didn’t even provide us with new gloves or new safety shoes. Instead, we continued to wear the old INNSE overalls. Genta never conducted the safety audits, as required by the law, for that matter. For two winters we worked in an unheated factory. Several times, he brought dismantled presses dirty with oil and grease to the workshop, and made us clean them on the square. The grease ended up in the sewers. We told him that it would poison the aquifers, but he didn’t care.”
Exactly after two years, Genta promptly decides to close the company. “On May 31 2008, Genta announced the cessation of activities, and he initiated the redundancy consultation that lasts 75 days. On August 18 2008 there was a meeting at the regional labor agency. We employees didn’t even go inside; only Sciancati from FIOM entered and we remained outside, demonstrating. We declined all arrangements and told Sciancati to announce that we didn’t accept the agreement—we required ‘no agreement’ to be recorded as the result. In this kind of consultations, a typical agreement consists of different types of reorganization for the employees: some will be laid off temporarily or permanently with unemployment benefits based on their age, others perhaps will be recruited somewhere else. All this in exchange for a closure of the business by mutual agreement. This is the critical phase in similar cases; often the employees accept the agreement.” Understandable, often people fear that the risk is too high if they don't accept the offer—or blackmailing, as Vincenzo defines it. “For example, Sesto San Giovanni, with the cases of the companies Falck and Breda, was a stronghold—however, in the end the employees accepted the agreement. We didn’t.” On August 22 2008 Genta fires everyone.
Immediately after the announcement of the cessation of activities the employees hadn't stayed put just sitting on their hands. To begin with, they announced in turn that the business was healthy, and there was no reason to close it. Then they commenced direct management of the factory. “We maintained the same system in order to make everything work, even regarding the canteen; there were engineers washing the dishes and the factory workers as cooks. In those three months our revenue was €170,000 ($204,000)—and not €50,000 ($59,900) as Genta claims—and we kept the business running.” So much so, that one of their clients, ORMIS, express their interest to buy the factory. “We had a mutual trust with ORMIS; they even were present the factory, supervising the work. In June 2008, ORMIS declared their willingness to buy us, but Genta declined. The institutions told us: ‘If Genta doesn't want to sell, we naturally can't force him to,’ and ORMIS rightly said: ‘If you don't want to sell the factory, I'm out of here.’ We had all the elements to resolve everything already in June 2008.”
During the resistance the workers continued to seek help from the institutions anyway: “We spoke to Filippo Penati at [the government of Milan] Province and we made him a proposal—a bit provocative, yet feasible—to be taken over by the Province administration itself; they could’ve done it by establishing a consortium. This proposal was based on the fact that nowadays also banks are being nationalized; why not do it with INNSE too? With such act they would surely have won a landslide of blue-collar worker votes. Penati wouldn’t even consider it."
Also the employees received suggestions: “We were advised to create a cooperative in order to start running the factory by ourselves permanently. However, during those three months of direct management we saw how it would work: as workers we would be divided between managers and executors at the service of the markets—no, thanks. In the end we preferred another owner in order to have another adversary against whom we can fight!”
Meanwhile, Genta continued to maintain his argument about a bankruptcy. During his management he had also gave an order to decline any incoming job orders. And not only that: “He created false invoices in order to show that the business should be closed. We presented those invoices to [Italian General Investigations and Special Operations Division] DIGOS but the financial police never visited the factory.” Vincenzo presumes that Genta had started to sell the machines in January 2009. “Evidently they were of a certain value, seeing that he managed to sell them in few months.”
The direct management by the employees themselves lasted three months. On September 17 2008 the police came and threw the workers out of the factory. However, the occupation of the gatehouse continued. “We made two attempts to reoccupy the factory, but didn’t succeed.” On February 20 2009 there were also clashes with the police and the gendarmerie, carabinieri.
During the entire period, different groups—institutional or otherwise—and many private persons supported the INNSE protest. Vincenzo is grateful: “The solidarity we received was really heart-warming. It takes money to keep the defense post up and running, for example to feed the people every day at lunch and at dinner.” Then he adds, with some bitterness: “Many people spoke so positively about us and our resistance, but in the end, on August 2 we found the police in front of us—and Genta inside the factory, dismantling the machines.” Roberto Giudici, a trade union official and the fifth “craner”, passes. “It was so great that he was with us. He knows that we aren’t messing around.” Indeed, Giudici hadn’t been avoiding the difficult moments previously either, and he had experienced the clashes with the police in February on his person too.
Climbing up onto the crane inside the factory was an emergency decision, a move that was planned and calculated on the spot, and the men never thought that it could have any far-reaching consequences. “August 2 and 3 were days of a total isolation and failure. When we climbed on the crane, we didn't expect to resolve the situation the way it then got resolved, with the selling of the factory. At that moment, the only thing we wanted was to stop the dismantling of the machines." Vincenzo recalls the situation with a certain amusement: “When we started to yell from the crane, the men below us dismantling the machines looked at us as if we were crazy.” Also the police get there and decide to send the dismantlers out. “At that point, we already had reached our goal. But looking down from the crane, the sight of the machines dismantled partially or even more than halfway made us even more enraged.” So the men stayed up on the crane. “That was the last time we saw Genta.”
The days passed, but the final solution wasn't reached, despite the news about various potential buyers. Also Fabio recalls the day before climbing on the crane: “First we are told that all the options have been explored and nothing can be done. So how is it possible that when we had climbed on the crane, a potential buyer pops up after just one day? The day after, another buyer pops up. The fourth day, yet another one. And eventually Camozzi bought the factory.”
Monday, August 10, was the second last day that the men had to spend on the crane, but no-one knew it yet. The same evening, after a visit at the crane, Maria Sciancati from FIOM managed to make Vincenzo’s wife laugh outside the factory gates: “Vincenzo's beard has grown—but he seems younger!” Sciancati must have forced herself to appear strong in front of the worried wives, because Vincenzo has another kind of memory of her: “She teared up when she saw us on the crane; at that moment I thought that she would finally take us seriously.”
By now many people are congratulating the workers for the protest, but Vincenzo wants to maintain a certain distance. It’s not easy to forget that at the most difficult times no-one helped them seriously: “Several political parties have invited us to various meetings and events; we have said no to everyone. We want to stay out of the parties, any party. The parties can stay where they are.” Speaking of public appearances, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the workers started receiving invitations to go and speak in television: “However, we won't go. They can come here if they wish, but we won't go to their studios; we don’t want to end up in a situation like for example Santoro’s program. They wouldn’t let us talk.” The INNSE workers don’t always recognize themselves in the articles written about them, not even in those that speak positively about their protest: “Reading those articles, it often seems that we are really happy to be factory workers. Of course we are happy that we don’t lose our jobs, but we will return to work in a factory: this is heavy duty work. This is about livelihood, not pleasure.” Among the press, there are also those who can’t find anything positive about the protest. “[Italian right-wing daily] Libero is waging a war against us,” Vincenzo snorts. “They even wrote that if we hadn’t done what we did, now it wouldn't be necessary to pay the bill for the police officers that were sent here.”
Perhaps the employees will also hear from Genta again, too. “Genta never paid for the waste disposal and the canteen is deep in debt, but all of a sudden he has the money to hire very expensive lawyers.” And these lawyers seem to be quite combative: “We wanted to get in the factory already in August, just a few times a week, in order to start tidying up the workshop while we're waiting for Camozzi. Moreover, we had agreed to return to Genta the tools for dismantling the machines that still are inside. We had a direct agreement with Genta to get into the workshop. However, one day Genta’s lawyer paid a visit at the gatehouse and told us that the agreement wasn’t valid anymore and we couldn’t go in.”
All things considered, Vincenzo will not pop the champagne just yet: “For the moment, the defense post stays here at the gatehouse. We still need to see what will happen, we aren’t completely confident yet. Restarting the factory won’t be so simple either: there are 49 people, and some of them need to be retrained, for example.” The return of the first workers was supposed to take place on the 1st of October, then it was postponed to October 12 due to a situation concerning a machine that Genta already had sold to another company and due to the negotiations with the owner of the lot on which the factory is built. So, confidence is good, control is better. There’s also a paradox: Camozzi wouldn’t have been able to buy INNSE if he hadn’t the spirit of an entrepreneur who wants to make profit. “We met with Camozzi, we paid him a visit. It was an informal encounter; he wanted to get to know us, he showed us his factory in Brescia. However... in the end, Camozzi is an overlord as well.”
After a few months I return to the factory to meet Vincenzo. It’s the end of February 2010; the gatehouse has been emptied and the factory is in the process of restarting. The production has started a good while ago, but there still are many things to do. Some of the machines have a new paint, other machines are waiting for their turn. It’s quite cold in the factory because the heating doesn’t work well; the system takes some time to restart after having been shut down for a long time, as the security manager of Camozzi explains to me. Many of the workers moving around the factory are wearing a beanie. “Well, what do you think,” Fabio asks me with a wide smile on his face. “Was our battle the right thing to do?”
More than six months has passed since Camozzi took over, and Vincenzo still thinks that what they have achieved is a “bitter victory”. “It was so strange to return in the factory for the first time when it was opened again, I had an inner conflict: on one hand I was extremely happy, I almost couldn't believe it—we were really returning to work! There perhaps couldn’t have been an end better than this for this story. During those months, some people in our group were tempted to give up. But at the same time I was aware of the fact that I was returning to being a factory worker, with all the limits of the trade included: low wages, harsh working conditions and so on. We were strong and uncompromising—but we’re blue collar workers again. Now everyone only talks about how everything has been reconciled, but we are working in a factory; this is tough, you know."
The satisfaction is high nonetheless, and so is the feeling of having done the right thing, in the right way: “I would do everything the same way, the entire protest.” Then Vincenzo bursts into laughter: “I may seem conceited, but I don't believe that I have made errors.” On the contrary, Vincenzo thinks that all this will benefit also others, that it will be an example and a model to act upon. “In my opinion, our experience shouldn't go wasted; we want to extract and transmit the teachings of what we did. I want to tell other people in similar situations, ‘Workers, the decision is yours.’ That's what we did. We didn't give in to the various agreement proposals.”
Vincenzo believes that their experience could also have a wider impact, that the experience could change the trade unions: “The relationship turned upside down. Previously, the trade unions told the workers what to do in these situations; last August instead, [Gianni] Rinaldini of FIOM-CGIL came below the crane to ask us: 'Well, what shall we do?' If the INNSE trend continues, I believe the trade unions will regenerate themselves.”
A truce has been reached also on another important front: with Genta. There was a risk of lawsuits and charges flying in both directions between the two parties, Genta and the employees; he owed money to the employees who, according to his lawyers, allegedly had broken the law during their protest, for example by occupying the factory and the machines. “We made an agreement with Genta at the prefect’s office. Basically that means that he paid, as a waiver, €75,000 ($90,000) and the parties committed to not file any claims.” Vincenzo wants to highlight a detail related to the received funds: “Genta owed us money, different sums for each person. However, instead of starting to divide the sum exactly according to what was due to each person, we took the money and we divided it in equal shares to everyone.”
Another sore spot has been resolved as well, namely the fines due to the occupation of the ring road in the beginning of 2009. The prefect has promised to make sure that they will be cancelled. The related charges are still pending, and the employees are hoping that they will be cancelled too. “If they won't, upon receiving the first legal document we will go on strike and stage a demonstration. The issue is about charges against two persons, one of whom isn’t our employee either, but we did everything together, and we will assume the responsibility together.”
Vincenzo returns to the subject of whether he’s satisfied or not about the achieved result: “Do you know what's Hannibal syndrome? It’s when despite all that you’ve conquered you still aren’t satisfied. I wonder if that is our case?”
In the meanwhile, the factory continues to run. In addition to the employees who have returned to work, also new personnel has been hired. “Next Monday, six new persons will start working. They are full time employees, and they will respect us, because without us there wouldn’t be these new jobs,” Vincenzo says, with a visible pride. “In any case, we’re still in a transition phase. The locker room is still missing, as is the canteen, because Camozzi still needs to determine the exact area; they will be built based on that. There’s a deadline, April 30th. If by that date nothing has happened, we will stage a protest.”
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