On Tuesday 25 September 4000 workers of the IlVA steelworks went on strike in the Italian port city of Taranto. They were protesting against a court decision to close the gigantic plant due to excessive and dangerous levels of polution, affecting a workforce of 13,000, the city and the surrounding natural and marine environment.
The decision of the local magistrate and the response of a part of the workforce brought to a head nearly two months of legal and political hugger-mugger, mounting tensions and anger, following an earlier ruling by the court.
That ruling, two months ago, had found the present owners — the Riva family dynasty — guilty of "deliberate environmental disaster on a major scale, aided and abetted by systematic corruption of public officials." Plus "criminal evasion" of repeated rulings to reform and clean up the technologically decrepit plant. It also ordered the closure of the site and the arrest of the owners and a number of its senior managers.
In the last two months every filthy trick in the book has been pulled to defy the ruling — by the the dynasty and its cronies in government, opposition, nationally and locally; by other magistrates, the trade union leadership. In order to keep the plant open "to save jobs", they ignored the environmental issues. Simultaneously the owners refused to layout even a fraction of the resources needed for the necessary root-and-branch transformation of the industry's murderously lethal dinosaur technology
One section of the workforce organised by two of the main confederal unions - CISL and Uil - heeded a the call for a two day strike... as strike in support of the owners essentially. But a majority demurred or undertook other forms of protest... in support of the decision of the magistrates. The strike day thus underlined dramatically, tragically, grotesquely, a disastrous division amount the workers.
All of these workers, their families and previous generations are the victims of an unending blizzard of poison vomited out from the largest and most polluted plant in Europe, (and one of the worst in the world).
Official statistics - like all the other "official" statements by the "experts" over the years they are probably an underestimate — report 12,000 dead, and tens of thousands hospitalised and crippled by the variety of malignant cancers, over 50 years. The technical details of the range of noxious substances are too long to enumerate here, but suffice to say that every year 2.7 tons of carbon monoxide and benzene sulphur oxide is absorbed by every worker and citizen in Taranto. Every child, every day has breathed the equivalent of 2.14 cigarettes. Each day the same child has had to change clothes on returning from school, shower and brush off the thin film of pink acrid dust that invades everything and everyone, as does the putrid smell. Near the plant, in the working class neighbourhoods, the kids are forbidden to play on the grass!
Yet this is the first serious prosecution brought after a lifetime of undisturbed slaughter! Nothwithstanding the fact that within a decade or so of it operating the first authoritative reports spoke of what was happening, culminating in 1982 in a decision of the courts that a serious cleanup was necessary or else. Nothing changed! Why?
The Tranto steel works were built in the late 50s, in the heat of the post-war Italian industrial boom; streel transformed the country into one of the top 15 industrial powers of the world. The then centre-right goverment of Christian Democrats chose Taranto as proof that it was bringing industry and work to the historically more backward south. Taranto had long been the centre of Italy's naval power, and since the coldwar NATO'"s mediterranean headquarters. A state company employing up to 20,000, with ancillary trades of 15,000 or more gave the Italian bourgeoisie symbolic and concrete proof of both its rising global prestige and proof, of the superiority of western capitalist-led development to the Stalinist model of the Soviet Union.
Not that they had much to fear from the native variant of the latter! For the Italian Communist Party, and the bulk of the trade union leadership were relatively comfortable with the project of state capitalist-led modernisation, and were eager participants in the regimes of Stakhanovite sacrifice demanded by such a project. The policy was enforcrd by shopfloor party leaders. For the party it was an "objectively necessary stage" to lay the foundations for communism!
Thus the conditions were laid for a blind eye to be turned to what went on at Taranto. Centre-Stalinist-led left councils and mayors dissociated themselves from any civil actions mounted against the bosses. The same attitude prevailed across the whole of established bourgeois authority, from goverments and oppositions, the magistrates and judges, lawyers and the medical profession, plus the church that had had built a chapel cheek by jowl with the plant in the working-class areas closest to the plant.
Most shameful and criminal of all was the the unions' cynical orchestration of a dead-eyed "choice" between jobs or health; and mouthing platitudes while branding anyone who raised the issues of working conditions as sea-green fundamentalists.
When in 1995 the plant was taken over by the Riva billionaires — lavishly subsidised — with major downsizing of the plant and a newer, younger, rawer, workforce hired, an even more ferocious regime of anti-trade union, anti-human contempt for conditions, safety or health ensued.
Simultaneously as the unstoppable evidence of more and more deaths and illness emerged the owners sought by every means to maintain the blanket of silent complicity — even by naked, systematic bribery of the experts sent in by the Health and Safety agencies, and the magistrates.
Once more the lying, hypocritical refrain of "saving jobs" from all the political forces, including those on the radical left, has dominated . All paying lip-service to the issues of health and the environment, but in fact covering the backs of owners who are going through the motions of introducing, at minimal cost to themselves, reform to the plants technology.
Last week's two-day strike came from a leadership that is a by-word for "yellow" union sub-political submission to both Berlusconi and the present government's blitzkrieg on jobs and conditions everywhere. But its decade long abject prostration and conivance at Taranto has been exposed by events, as the bulk of the workforce refused to come out.
Regrettably among the workers who chose to protest differently, and the various worker/citizen committees involved in the ongoing struggle, there remains deep confusion. Exemplified by the position and attitude of the leaders of the radical Fiom metalworkers, championing the magistrates decision on the one hand with its order for a wholesale cleanup, but still blindly accepting not only the legitimacy of the present owners — they had profits of three billion in the last two years! — but that more public money should be offered them to aid the restructuring!
It is a political blindness in a context where the demand for expropriation and nationalisation of the plant under the control of workers and citizen committees is the surest and only way to break the logjam of division and confusion among the masses. The surest way to expose the empty, bogus rhetoric and manipulation by those in the workers' movement unable or unwilling to challenge the barbaric "reality" of a social order where a tradeoff of jobs with health and life is considered normal. The only way to rouse a movement and a class sunk in an ever deepening crisis of political impotence before a ruling power in government and society; a government and system mired in the sewer of a corruption growing expoentially alongside the global financial markets' celebration of its so-far unchallenged success.