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50 Years Ago: When the Workers Ran the Factories

Recently the Trade Unions International of Metal and Engineering Workers (which is part of the World Federation of Trade Unions) issued a pamphlet describing how the Italian steel workers refused to allow the owners to close steel factories during 1949 and 1950, and instead continued at their work without wages and without professional management, electing temporary managers from their own ranks. While the workers ran the factories themselves, they built ships, aeroplanes, furnaces; they improved efficiently; and by introducing new processes, they economised considerably on production costs--for example, at the Ilva-Bolzaneto works at Genoa, they reduced the price of a kilogram of metal from 44 to 28 lire, and in order to economise on oil, they invented a process which saved 500 kilograms of oil in every eight hours of work.

It Can be Done

This episode in Italy has a number of useful lessons for all socialists. First, that workers can run the factories by themselves; and that they can not only maintain but improve efficiency. Second, that this kind of movement, which consists of industrial action alone cannot permanently put the workers in control of the factories. As the pamphlet itself says, "there was no point in cherishing the illusion of stable and lasting working-class management in a capitalist regime." Like all such experiments, this one would have ended immediately had the Government decided to employ resolutely the coercive forces at its disposal. Italy thus reinforces the lesson of Russia after 1917, where the system of worker-elected managements, which operated for a short time after the Revolution, was soon abolished by the Bolsheviks in favour of State-appointed managements when the former system was seen to be incompatible with State-capitalism.

(From "Passing Comment", Socialist Standard, November 1951)