Three days ago, around 40,000 people demonstrated in Florence, Italy, in support of a strike by workers at GKN, a factory that produces powertrains for the car industry. Company management announced in July that it would move production abroad, putting 422 people out of work. The workers immediately occupied the factory and their occupation continues to this day.

GKN is owned by a private equity firm called British Melrose, which specialises in buying up, ‘slimming down’ and then selling industrial companies at a bargain price. In 2018, Melrose bought GKN for £8 billion, a global company with 58,000 employees that manufactures components for the arms, mining and automotive industries in many countries. What followed was the break-up of GKN into profitable and less profitable operations, divestments and redundancies. Although the City of London forecasts GKN’s year-end profits at up to £450 million, the Melrose sharks nevertheless insist on their plan to close two powertrain factories for Toyota and Jaguar – one near Florence, Italy, and the other near Birmingham, England.

The factory near Florence was owned by Fiat until 1994 and has since changed hands through a series of owners. The workers correctly foresaw where all this would lead and preemptively set up their own resistance organisation: the Factory Collective – Workers of GKN Florence (Collettivo Di Fabbrica – Lavoratori GKN Firenze). It was this organisation that was ready when, in July 2021, the turning point came and announced an occupation strike of the entire factory. It became clear that in order to organise an action thats both effective and comprehensible to all workers, long and patient organisational preparation and the right intelligence information were necessary.

The situation at the GKN factory in Birmingham is unfortunately very different. There too, in July 2021, GKN announced the closure of the entire plant. The difference, however, is in the organisation of the workers: in Birmingham, the whole ‘resistance’ is led by the mainstream trade union UNITE. Despite being the largest trade union in Britain, they have been reduced to token protests against the hostile takeover by the Melrose sharks in 2018. At a demonstration outside parliament, they warned the government that Melrose’s takeover of their production would destabilise their supply to the British arms industry, putting “national security at risk”. While the Florence Collective is fighting where they have real power as workers, Unite organisers are attracting workers to the shaky, parliamentary terrain. Instead of linking up with their Italian colleagues, they are linking their survival to British ‘national security’. While 40,000 sympathisers from radical unions (USB, S.I.Cobas) marched for the GKN workers this week and a ‘general strike’ has been announced for the 11th October, UNITE has announced a one-day strike (that no one noticed!) for 27th September, but has since suspended it to give a better “chance for negotiations”. 

In the UK workers are facing similar attacks across manufacturing and beyond. As well as the GKN dispute, Rolls Royce and Radius aerospace workers, also with Unite, are facing job losses and possible future plant closures. But no unified response is on the horizon. The Rolls Royce workers at Barnoldswick are currently being asked to vote on a deal that doesn’t guarantee jobs and isn’t even recommended by Unite!

The call for a general strike on the 11th October by radical base unions in Italy is looking to combine multiple disputes, across industries, from across Italy and unify workers efforts against the bosses. Alitalia airline is being restructured, without workforce consultation, in a way that will cost thousands of jobs. Whirlpool is still pushing ahead with the closer of a plant in Naples. Not only these but also struggles at Ex-Ilva, Jindal Piombino, Flextronics, Almaviva, Stellantis and Sevel are all being drawn upon.

Class self-organisation pays, class collaboration does not

Sources: Di Fabbrica – Lavoratori Gkn Firenze)