The fall of 1969 in Italy was popularly called "hot autumn" (or in Italian, autunno caldo). During this time severe conflicts between workers and the capitalists (and the government) culminated in a period of labor militancy that involved Italian workers, students, the unemployed, and the general citizenry. Tensions over demands from management, built up during the preceding two years, had peaked at this time, leading to a high degree of worker unrest. Workers increasingly violated no-strike contract clauses, chanting their slogan: "Better Wages, Shorter Hours."
At the same time, student unrest paralleled the violence of Italian workers. The situation was further complicated by a government that was split between its three major parties: the coalition of the center-left Christian-Democrat Party (DC or Democrazia Cristiana); the left-wing Italian Socialist Party (PSI or Partito Socialista Italiano); and the Italian Communist Party (PCI or Partito Communista Italiano). In addition, the three national union confederations were weakened by the militaristic demands of their members. The labor confederations were: (1) the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL or Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavora), made up of communists, socialists, activists of the New Left tradition, and independent leftists; (2) the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (CISL or Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori), made up of members and supporters of the Christian Democratic Party, independent Catholics, independent leftists, and some socialists; and (3) the Italian Union of Labor (UIL or Unione Italiana del Lavoro), made up of socialists, social democrats, and republicans.
- 1954: The French military outpost at Dien Bien Phu falls to the communist Vietminh.
- 1959: Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev engage in their famous "kitchen debate" in Moscow.
- 1964: On 7 February, in the midst of both a literal and figurative winter in America following Kennedy's assassination, the Beatles arrive at New York's newly renamed JFK Airport.
- 1966: In August, Mao Zedong launches the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," which rapidly plunges China into chaos as armed youths plunder the countryside, rooting out suspected foreign collaborators and anti-Chinese elements.
- 1969: Richard M. Nixon sworn in as president of the United States. In June he pulls 25,000 troops from Vietnam. From this point, America is no longer trying to win the war but is trying to keep from losing it.
- 1969: Assisted by pilot Michael Collins, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin on 20 July become the first men to walk on the Moon.
- 1969: Some 400,000 people attend the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in August. Also in the world of popular culture, the year is notable for several outstanding movies: Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider.
- 1969: At the orders of Charles Manson, members of his "Family" kill seven adults and one unborn child (Sharon Tate's) in a pair of grisly L.A. murders. Other crimes are also in the news: authorities learn that in March 1968, an army platoon led by Lieutenant William Calley massacred 567 villagers in the South Vietnamese hamlet of Mylai.
- 1969: U.S. Department of Defense puts its Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet, online.
- 1972: In June, police apprehend five men attempting to burglarize Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
- 1974: On 30 July the House Judiciary Committee adopts three articles of impeachment against President Nixon, but rather than undergo a lengthy trial, Nixon on 8 August becomes the first president in U.S. history to resign.
- 1979: After years of unrest, the Shah of Iran leaves the country, and Islamic fundamentalist revolutionaries under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini take control.
Event and Its Context
The events that led to Italy's "hot autumn" of 1969 had their origin in the employee-employer relations of the early 1960s. In the aftermath of World War II (which ended in 1945), Italian trade unionization began a steady expansion. As a result, the stronger unions learned more effective techniques of mobilization and organization for the new mass manufacturing industries (such as metalworking, chemicals, textiles, and construction). By 1962 the first noticeable volume of employee conflict occurred, which led to an increased frequency and duration of strikes. These strikes were a direct response to the repressive conditions that existed in factories, including exile departments (which limited troublesome employees to certain areas), blacklisting, and political surveillance. According to Italy's Central Institute of Statistics (ISTAT or Istituto Centraledi Statistica), strikes steadily increased during the early 1960s, and labor began to make wage gains in 1962 because of such strikes.
Student Protests and Government Divisions
Student protests paralleled worker protests during this time period. Herbert Marcuse (who criticized the consumer society in One Dimensional Man), various leftist magazines, several dissenting Catholic groups, and dramatic world events (including the Vietnam War) strengthened unrest on campuses throughout Italy. By 1968 revolutionary student-based organizations developed in response to such conflicts as: (1) overcrowding (the number of students had grown from 268,000 in 1960 to over 450,000 in 1968, but few new buildings had been built); (2) disputes with lecturers who had gained their positions under fascism; (3) rejection of communism (especially the Italian Communist Party); and (4) general lack of student reforms. Many students spoke to workers, which had a great influence on the dramatic increase of worker strikes and violence in the second half of 1969.
For five years a center-left majority, based on the alliance between the center-left Christian-Democrat Party and the left-wing Socialist Party, had governed Italy. The coalition government remained in power for the first half of 1969 under pressure of employee strikes and student protests. These troubles mirrored the attitude of "contestazione" (or skepticism about traditional values) that had been developing over the past year.
The Christian-Democrats and the socialists had their own ideas as to how the government should deal with a rapidly changing society. Both parties were trying—in different ways that often clashed—to become more open-minded toward the communists. They recognized a need for increased attention to the Communist Party because the communists had a history in local administration and in labor union affairs. During these turbulent times, the government struggled internally with its own problems as different factions, such as the Republican Party (PRI) and the Unitarian Socialist Party (PSU), split from the major parties. A new government formed around these new divisions and old parties.
An increase in protests and strikes began in the first half of 1968 because of a shortage of labor, which helped workers to win economic concessions (especially wages) from companies. During this time, the three unions were, for the most part, out of touch with their members. They were unable to control their combatant members, as moderate demands in 1968 turned into violent confrontations with employers and the police during the fall of 1968. Workers lengthened strikes and broadened demands with such tactics as overtaking factories, organizing slowdowns, setting up militant picket lines and roadblocks, and demonstrating through cities. Although the unions were initially outside this labor movement, they eventually conceded that it was better to join than to oppose the movement.
The early months of 1969 continued the trends of 1968. Industrial unrest and social discontent originated in a series of small strikes that turned into widespread strike action. In early April protests occurred in Battipaglia, southeast of Salerno, when a threatened factory closing caused a riot that ended with the shooting death of two people.
The workers demanded many things that were already standard in other countries, such as an end to compulsory overtime and some control over the work environment. Italian workers also made unique demands, most notably the equality of the working class, which did not want to be divided by wages, job categories, regional origins, sex, and age. Employees desired pay raises and fringe benefits to be equal, the number of job categories to be reduced, and some worker control over category definitions. The movement called for a 40-hour workweek; the abolition of piecework, other incentive systems, and compulsory overtime; and the ability to hold union assemblies inside the workplace on company time and to bargain (and strike if necessary) even after a contract had been signed.
Over time, more workers were drawn into the struggle. Workers at this time were socialist (or anticapitalist). They did not necessarily want to collaborate with management in operating the business or to compromise with management in labor and economic policies. Strikes and collective bargaining were their preferred means to achieve concessions. Radical union members wanted to gain control of businesses, but the majority of workers only expected to gain power at the expense of the capitalists.
Unions: Pension System and Salary Cages
During the time that workers were demanding better conditions, labor confederations campaigned to reform the pension system and to abolish regional salary. The pension issue in early 1968 aroused worker anger because the government controlled the nationwide pension system, and a new pension law was viewed as providing little improvement. The government ignored these protests until the three labor confederations staged a strike in November 1968 that received unified worker support. In February 1969 the Italian government agreed to a new pension law that provided 74 percent of the average of the last several years' salaries to all workers who had worked at least 40 years. The issue of regional salary differentials progressed slowly from early 1968 to March 1969 as state-owned industries, then small-and medium-sized businesses, and finally the large private corporations signed agreements to equalize wage differences over the next few years.
Both issues (pensions and regional equalization), although seemingly resolved, spurred further organization of workers. This was especially notable among semiskilled and unskilled workers and among workers from regions that had not participated in past union activities. In spite of disagreements, workers from industry, office, agriculture, and engineering sectors united during the momentous year of 1969. Although that camaraderie decreased in later years, 1969 was pivotal for labor rights. Indeed, according to Italy's ISTAT, strikes peaked in 1969 when the volume of strikes was almost twice as great as during any other single year since 1950.
When workers began to voice their demands, employers took a defensive posture. They resorted to repressive tactics such as individual and mass layoffs. They often called in police to confront demonstrators and relied on local governments for additional support. Between September and December 1969, about 13,000 Italians were arrested or charged with labor-related incidents. Leaders of companies such as Confindustria and Intersind realized that their traditional business environments were in jeopardy. As a result, they resisted conceding to demands in the areas of work conditions, company-level bargaining, and control over the organization of labor. Sometimes the actions of companies backfired, as happened with Fiat, which suspended 35,000 employees who rejected company policies. The workers' solidarity increased in response. For example, in spite of ratifying a new contract, metal and mechanical workers in state-controlled factories voted to support metal workers in private industry until an equal contract was signed.
The Hot Autumn of 1969
In the fall of 1969, national and local strikes occurred throughout Italy. The wave began with a wildcat strike in the Fiat Mirafiori works on 1 September. Only 800 workers struck, but the numbers were sufficient to halt production of vital parts. Management suspended around 30,000 workers until the strikers returned to work. Violent strikes broke out later at Alfa Romeo and Pirelli. Rioting took place in many towns, the most serious in Reggio Calabria, where many thousands of people fought against government troops. The number of strikes had multiplied fourfold during 1968 and 1969. The key revolts were centered in the factories, and by the autumn of 1969 many union leaders had lost control. Workers made strategy decisions at impromptu meetings or over a cup of coffee in the lunch-room.
More than 5.5 million workers—more than 25 percent of the labor force—walked off the job during 1969. Strikes caused 520 million worker-hours to be lost, a figure not seen since the 1940s. Dissatisfaction with social conditions was the underlying cause of the extensive strikes of the autumn of 1969. It was especially noticeable in northern industrial towns, where thousands of relocated southern workers put a strain on housing and public services. The direct cause of the strikes, however, was the negotiation of a number of collective wage agreements that became due.
Negotiations opened in the middle of October for contract renewals for 1.25 million workers in state and private metal-working industries, but were quickly broken off. Later that month, additional negotiations stopped, and more strikes continued. The strikers demanded pay increases of as much as 35 percent and contract clauses covering the rights of employees during working hours and holidays.
On 19 November 1969, 20 million citizens united in a nationwide general strike to demand reforms from the government. At the end of November, 150,000 metal and mechanical workers marched on Rome. The outcome of these strikes during the "hot autumn" of 1969 was a victory for the labor movement. In fact, the labor unions considered the victory to be one of the most significant events of their entire history.
Labor legislation was passed as a result of the 1969 strikes, as the government wanted to show that it was amenable to labor reform. On 20 May 1970 the Statutes of the Laboratories (Statuto dei Laboratori) granted a series of individual and collective labor rights, including the right to organize, the right to hold union assemblies during working hours, and the right of shop-floor union representatives to take time off to perform union tasks. The bill also promoted subsequent trade union stability. Most important, the new law recognized the right of organized labor to act in the workplace.
The contracts won in 1969 and 1970 usually had several things in common:
- Reduction of the workweek to 40 hours
- Significant wage gains that were largely equal across categories
- Limits on overtime
- Additional worker holidays
- Equal treatment for sick or injured white-and blue-collar workers
- Right to hold up to 10 hours of annual assemblies on company time in plants with over 15 workers
- Recognition of union representatives in the factories
- Expansion of decentralized bargaining
- Formalization of "unity-of-action" agreements among the labor confederations
- Acknowledgement of eight hours a month with pay for representatives to perform union duties
- Concession to post union notices on designated bulletin boards
- Ratification by the rank-and-file of union contracts
- Concession of the right of workers to a written management explanation (and to defend themselves) for any disciplinary action
Historical Analysis and Consequences
Italian historian Alessandro Pizzorno felt that the "hot autumn" of 1969 came about because unrepresented groups of semiskilled workers finally brought attention to themselves with strikes and violence. Other scholars have advanced different explanations for the militancy. Most agree that the deliberate wage restraint in the mid-1960s by employers was the conduit for worker strikes and violence a few years later.
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—William Arthur Atkins