On 9th July 2021, at the start of the fourth wave of the pandemic in Italy, almost five hundred workers employed by the GKN Automotive plant in Campi Bisenzio just outside Florence, receive emails informing them they have been fired and the factory will be shut down. The plant produces axle shafts for most of the major names in the car industry. It is thriving and the collective dismissal comes as a shock. The Campi plant is unlike any other: it happens to be one of the most unionised and organised structures in all of Italy, one which has seen an impressive number of strikes in the past years. If management can break this plant, they can make it anywhere.
It takes only a few minutes for the Collettivo di fabbrica (factory collective) to show up en masse in front of the GKN gates, currently occupied by a squad of private security guards. It takes even less time for the workers to get rid of the guards and take control of what many already considered their factory.
It’s the beginning of a summer of direct action and solidarity networks and movements, spanning the whole region of Tuscany, and a number of similar worker-led actions across the country. The factory itself is placed under ‘permanent assembly’ status, and opens the space to various local cultural and political activities and events, to students, film screenings, workshops and talks, all led by the workers’ Collective. This is the same group which documents all the events and actions of the months ahead in the form of a collective diary, to be published under the title of Insorgiamo (Rise up). The title for me is both beautiful and complicated: in Italian, the plural, inclusive nature of we is part of the single word Insorgiamo, which literally translated means ‘we rise up’. The plural equality is the point, a political and stylistic choice in the book, and a collective exhortation, as the passage below demonstrates (my translation):
We win if all of us, with our limitations, our different imports, cease to be a minority. Because the problem with this struggle is not in saying, with a flyer perhaps, that we need a full-scale nationalisation, that allowing companies to dismiss workers again* has been disastrous, that we demand the resignation of this or that person… We’re already beyond all this. This is part of our past. The game we’re playing now concerns our future and present. And the game of this present, of this future, is being played out right now, today; we can play the game the right way by helping each other develop our struggle and making it into a positive force to change the power dynamics in this country.
(*NOTE: the Italian government had frozen all dismissals during the first waves of the pandemic, and unfrozen them on 1st July, eight days before the GKN management email.)
The extract above is from the diary entry for 24th July 2021, barely a month into the assembly and occupation of the factory. It’s part of a wider section of in-the-book acknowledgements and thanks for the initial support shown to the Collective and the workers. This strong and passionate sentiment, however, continues throughout the book, and all the movement’s actions – right up to today, in fact, because even after the courts ruled that the mass dismissal was illegal, the issue remains unresolved and production – as far as management is concerned – closed.
In all the entries I was reassured by the fact the authors Collective refused to slip into a comfortable and easy ‘us versus them’ narrative; obviously that is the implied reality, and local authorities, Melrose plc, and the Italian government are addressed regularly in the text, but the Collective remarks: calling ‘them’ evil bosses, even talking about ‘them’ as a single entity is playing a different game, and playing it alone already means having lost. Instead, they reframe the context again in the form of that laudable plurality, including all those who have already joined them and their supporters in the future.
On 17th September 2021, the eve of one of the largest worker-led demonstrations of the past few years in Italy, attended by 40,000 people – an image of which graces the cover of the book – the Collective rekindles the fire, and reminds us what that fire actually means (my translation):
Rain and sunshine, says the forecast. Autumn is about to start. And that’s what autumn should be: public demos, lead sky, variable weather. And we’re confident that a few drops of rain will not prevent you from being with us.
Do not join us in the streets for our problems and issues. Join us in the streets with your problems, and our grievance will be the watershed of a river of demands.
Let us become pure willpower. Where there are no laws of the market, of labour, of physics. There is only pure will: do not dare send those letters. Not this time, we won’t let you. This time won’t end like every other time before.
Bring your voice as always, your adrenaline, your determination. When voices grow hoarse, clap your hands, if your hands hurt, stomp your feet. Bring instruments, bring flares. Bring your weaknesses and fears, and we will be invincible.
And we shall rise up to rebehold the stars.
Insorgiamo is a remarkable piece of work on many levels: as a piece of collective writing, neither anonymous nor singling out any one person; as a history of one of Italy’s strongest workers’ movements of the past decade; as a celebration of the ideals of a trade union; as a depiction of the struggles faced by that same union on a daily basis from management, legal loopholes, hostile takeovers and violent incursions; and, finally, as an experiment in writing a passionate, engrossing piece of non-fiction of a story where there is no end in sight – as the book makes clear in its closing remarks.
By Alex Valente
INSORGIAMO (Rise up)
by Collettivo di fabbrica GKN
Published in Italian by Edizioni Alegre (2022)
Translations from Italian by Alex Valente
Collettivo di fabbrica GKN is a worker’s collective created in 2017 by employees of the GKN plant in Campi Bisenzio (Florence) after almost ten years of developing a new model of trade unionism. The Collective took main stage after 9th July 2021, along with its union reality, in the movement against the delocalisation of the plant, by means of a permanent assembly and de facto takeover of production.
Alex Valente (he/him) is a white European currently living on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ land. He is a literary translator from Italian into English, though he also dabbles with French and RPGs, and is co-editor of The Norwich Radical. His work has been published in NYT Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The Short Story Project, and PEN Transmissions.
Read previous posts in The Italianist series: