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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The GKN Workers’ Fight Continues

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April 8, 2024
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Originally published by Red Pepper


On 9 July 2021, Melrose Industries announced the closure of its GKN Driveline (formerly FIAT) factory, which produces car axles in Campi di Bisenzio, Florence, and the layoff of more than 400 workers. While in many cases the workers and unions would settle for negotiating enhanced redundancy benefits, the GKN Factory Collective took over the plants and kickstarted a long struggle against decommissioning.

However, what makes the Ex GKN Florence dispute really unique is the strategy adopted by the workers. They sealed an alliance with the climate justice movement by drafting a conversion plan for sustainable, public transport and demanding its adoption. Their engendered a cycle of broad mobilisations – repeatedly bringing tens of thousands to the streets – with the dispute still open. Despite the intention for the workers to be dismissed on 1 January 2024,  the permanent sit-in at the factory remains today.

The GKN Factory Collective had thus turned new year’s eve 2023 into a final call to action to defend their conversion plan. Such  pressure from below probably played a role in the labour court’s, 27 December decision to overturn the layoffs for the second time. The collective staged a concert in the factory and a nocturnal march across Campi Bisenzio’s industrial area. It became a mass mobilisation to relaunch the workers’ plan to set up a cooperative for the production of cargo bikes and solar panels, part of a broader vision for a worker-led ecological transition. 

This project is currently seeking material solidarity. Over 600,000 euros have been collected by the popular shareholding campaign to launch the cooperative, with an overall target of one million. 

What follows is the midnight speech on 31 December 2023, by Dario Salvetti, an ex GKN worker and shop steward, and one of the spokespersons of Florence’s GKN Factory Collective.

Dario Salvetti

‘Two and a half years since the beginning of our permanent sit-in, giving a speech while keeping an eye on the clock, not to lose the midnight countdown, is one of the most difficult things that ever happened to us. Here’s a spoiler: after the countdown and the ritual cheers, we’ll listen to Meganoidi’s ‘Zeta Reticoli’ and then we’ll set off to march, because this is why we’re here. 

‘Thanks to all those who contributed to this event: the volunteers at the stands, the kitchen, and the security service. On the other hand, we owe our apologies to those who chose not to join us tonight, including our colleagues who have been overtaken by depression, resignation, and the idea that it’s useless to be here. We’re sorry we haven’t been strong enough to protect you from the factory closure plans, from those who want to starve us and throw us out of here. It’s easy to live in Florence glorifying David against Goliath, but it’s difficult today to be David challenging the Goliath this system is. And when you meet that David, perhaps you don’t even recognise him.

‘Shortly we’ll be surrounded by bangs, fireworks and toasts. But let’s try, for the last time before midnight, to focus on the silence. We’ll hear a background noise rumbling over this factory and this community. It’s the noise of real estate speculation, organised crime, mafia, outsourcing, precarity and exploitation. Listen to it closely, because we live with it every day, in this cemented and flooded territory.

Same fight, different struggle

‘As GKN workers, we confess our embarrassment for having called you here, as if our layoffs were the only problem in the world. Unfortunately, using the word ‘plight’ when talking about layoffs is grotesque, in the face of what has been happening for decades in Palestine, in the face of what’s happening today in Gaza. It’s grotesque, but alas our life is made of relatives and absolutes.

‘To us, those layoffs are an absolute plight but are laughable relative to what’s happening in the Mediterranean, in Palestine, relative to the 500,000 deaths in the war between Ukraine and Russia. But we have the duty of keeping together this relative and this absolute. If the working class, in the here and now, does not manage to push back against delocalisation, low wages and precarity, it can’t address what happens in the world. If we don’t win the struggle to reach the end of the month, we can’t win the struggle against the end of the world.

‘To keep 5,800,000 people living in absolute poverty, 3,000,000 in relative poverty, 3,500,000 in precarity – as it is the case in Italy – to keep them subjugated in an apparent democracy, the system must absorb them completely into indifference, consumerism, pointlessness, in an eternal present with no perspective. To this eternal, fascist ‘I don’t care’ in which they keep the working class, we have counterposed our ‘we care’ about this territory and these communities.

‘They have accused the GKN workers of doing politics rather than trade unionism. Well, in a sense, we’ve been the only ones who did politics in this country and the only ones who didn’t do it. We didn’t do politics in an electoralist sense, we didn’t do any vote trading. If there is someone who engaged in political opportunism over the lives and jobs of hundreds of workers, that was the Meloni government. On the other hand, we are the ones who forged a politics, a different vision for this country. That’s us, all of those who are here.

‘We’ve won six legal cases over anti-union behaviour in five years. Now they’ll say this shows there’s a legal way to the struggle. But we have won these cases based on the Workers’ Statute of 1970. The only law that keeps us standing is the fruit of the 1968-69 struggles, nothing else!

Forging a victory

‘In this dispute, we’ve had a peculiar relationship with the unions. They’ve supported us but often they’ve looked with suspicion at what was happening in this factory. We say to them – to CGIL, FIOM, USB, and SI COBAS – this is not a struggle against the unions, it is a struggle that speaks to them about the need to recover a democratic, participative, antagonistic, radical, and insurgent trade unionism.

‘So, as after this won battle they’ll try again to soften us with bogus announcements and fake promises about reindustrialisation, we say it and engage ourselves on this 31 December at midnight: if they try again to wear us down in order to attack us, we’ll get back to them. Keep yourselves free in March, we’ll get back to the streets.

‘We also announce there will be a new edition of the Working Class Literature Festival, and hopefully we’ll all meet there, because in a country that has lost the ability to do politics and trade unionism, perhaps the only way forward is shaping a new narrative.

‘We keep hearing the slippery concept of nationalism, or ‘sovereign-ism’ (sovranismo). I believe this government does not deserve any qualification. They’re not nationalists or sovereign-ists, they’re not nothing. They’re servants, of the servants, of the servants, of the servants, of the servants, of the servants, of the servants of this economic system. That’s what they are! Otherwise, they would have nothing to fear from thousands of people gathering to defend a factory and a community, to reclaim an ecological transition and social justice.

‘We dedicate this new year’s eve to those who are no longer with us, particularly – because we’ve said it to his family, and we’ll do it – to Lorenzo Orsetti. He reminded us that you never know when the storm will come, you can’t know it, but get ready to be a drop. We’ll keep being drops for the future. Let’s go get this future. Let’s stop living in an eternal present with no perspective, let’s try and win the GKN dispute, to be an example spreading around Italy and Europe. To make this a new year, and not just another year to get over with.’


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