The Iron Heel

The following two pages are from a report on how two Italian workers responded under the fascist dictatorship. [Luisa Passerini, ‘Work Ideology and Consensus under Italian fascism,’ History Workshop, no. 8, Autumn 1979, pp. 82-108.] There is no suggestion that millions of Italians across twenty-two years behaved like this pair.

The reason for circulating their accounts is to spotlight how a degree of resistance is possible even in seemingly impossible situations such as the overt dictatorships during the era of fascist counter-revolution.

We can all supply comparable instances from our working lives under the covert class dictatorship that is bourgeois democracy in Australia.

Humphrey McQueen at Leightons in Eagle Street Brisbane 21 Sept 2009 – launching Frameworks of Flesh

For example, while I was being escorted around a large construction site in central Brisbane, a young engineer challenged the union organiser’s right of entry. The leading delegate sorted her out, quietly but firmly. After she had gone, he patted his pants pocket and said: ‘She’d better not try anything more. I’ve got a list of twenty-six violations in here.’

Ten years earlier, he might well have been able to stop the job over even one of those violations. But under Gillard’s ‘tough cop on the block’ he had learned to keep his powder dry.

Since the late 1970s, the agents of capital in state apparatuses have shrunk the legal wriggle room, while their counterparts in the corporates have beaten back the organised strength of working people.

Activists therefore have had to acquire new skills for resistance.

The attached reminds us how it is possible to hold the line even under the least favourable conditions. Since the situations reported below are not going to recur here today, our lessons cannot be from copying the particulars. Rather, we can learn from the tactical ingenuities deployed. And we can take heart from the dignity of social labour.

When we stop reading these two pages we can say: ‘Yeah. I could pull off something like that.’

Humphrey McQueen
March 2020


The engineer told me to take his place. ‘But I’ve only been here one month!’ I had to take his place, the foreman’s I mean. That engineer had taken a liking to me and I got him to hire a lot of people ’cause they’d been sent away from the RJV [a local firm] and couldn’t find any job anywhere. ‘Cause he’d say: ‘You go and ask Giovanni’. And I’d say: ‘Well, look, engineer, I can lake no one on without asking you’. ‘Well, I, I’ll come and ask you … ‘ ‘All right’ – I says – ‘you come and ask me and I come and ask you’. You got that? l used to go­ and we were 90 in the shop – I’d go to his office and he’d keep me there for hours, half a day to show me the map of Italy. Thirty he was, young, but he knew everything down to the last screw we had in the warehouse. He always had this notebook on him and when you said: ‘The stock is so much’, he’d say: ‘No’. Mind you, he couldn’t make head or tail of mechanics. but was he a bright one for the accounts!

And we caught one stealing! A poor devil, a Tuscan, a widower, good at his job he was. He was a labourer, and he’d take away a glass of lathe chips every shift. And they told the engineer’ if only they’d come to me, but they didn’t tell me. They went straight to the engineer and told him. And so he came – it was three minutes to noon – and he says to me: ‘Listen, this and that happened, now you … ”Now look, I’m no guard, am I, not me. It’s not my job, that isn’t’.

That poor man! They called him into the office and he pulled out what he’d got in his pockets, a bit of chips from the turning: they’d give him a glass of wine in exchange for it where he went to eat. He was sacked. ‘Look, engineer, he’s a good man, works a lot, a labourer, but one you like to see working’.

‘It’s theft and it’s a question of principle’. So I says – you see, the one who told the engineer used to be a cobbler once, red-haired he was. Well I went to get him in the afternoon as soon as I get to work, he worked in the warehouse. ‘What did you go and tell the engineer for?’ ‘But, no, I … ‘ ‘You, you, your job was to come and tell me! And I had to go to the engineer, not you. And now I’m giving you the sack. You did something that was my privilege. I ‘ll be the foreman and I want to be foreman. Now I’m sacking you.’ ‘Well, look … ‘ ‘I’m sacking you. Now, as soon as the engineer gets here, I’m sacking you. You took my privilege and I’m sacking you in exchange.’ When the engineer arrived, I talked to him for two hours, I did: ‘If he does not go, I go.’

And they sacked him. ‘Why must he? … ‘ It was a bit like a family, you see, all nice good people. Some were fond of a drink – in 1931 we’d work like rogues, we would, ooh! [One of Giovanni’s friends joins in, recalling that on Mondays nobody worked because of drinking.] It is not that we’d have an extra holiday on Monday to rest, to get over our Sunday drunken­ness. No, it meant getting drunk again on Monday, then go to work half-drunk, but … But once I [Giovanni] lost a 50 lira coin, think of that, 50 lira. We had a stack of supplies in the workshop, two meters of them. Two labourers! They worked in their lunch hour for three or four days, going through it all to find my 50 lira. Well, that’s saying something … ’cause you see I’d take eight or ten of them home with me to eat when there was overtime working, like working on Sundays, well, in the evening I’d take them home with me to eat …

I should like to underline the following points in the interview:

the refusal of piece-work refers to the idea of work as ability and honesty, which allows self-regulation; consensus. Their anti-fascist inspiration, in order to become effective again, had to change completely its cultural points of reference. In which form could a new and updated political consciousness emerge?

The following is an interview with Manino, born in Turin in 1912. Fiat worker in the ’30s and in the postwar period, now a member of the Italian Communist Party. He explains the reactions to the introduc­tion of the Bedaux system:

“I’ve not mentioned so far the system we worked by. It comes back to me now. I’d really like to talk about it, so that you can realize what it meant, working at Fiat before the war. I’m saying this just to explain how you could earn your bread. Well, when you worked there. you see it was piece-work for us, it was called Bedaux, and this Bedaux system meant that a bloke called the time-checker would look at you working once, 10, 20, 30 times, what you did, how you did it, how you made your piece, I mean the job you were doing. Sometimes he’d do this openly, but other times he’d hide to see if you’d use a faster method. Finally, when he’d found the quickest possible way co do that job, he’d check the time you’d take to do that job with his stop-watch. And they’d fix the price on that. Once the price had been fixed, that was fixed and for each job a price was calcu­lated according to a man’s ability. Now ability means that since you were 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd or 1st category, the job and not the man was classified. [. . . . .. ]

Then there was a minimum. If in the time fixed for that. job, the worker couldn’t make it-you know, there is the quick one, and the one who is not so quick, the one who is a bit brighter and the other one who i,n’t as bright and couldn’t make it – and so we had a minimum. [. . . . .. ]

Those who were at that level were still tolerated. But there were some who were a bit slower and they couldn’t manage the minimum and it was easy for them to gel the sack. There were lots of these- with that sort of rope around your neck of checking your speed ­there were lots of them and they worked all day, they had families and wept and you could see them working with tears in their eyes. They counted every single piece they made, they looked at the time, the time was over and they hadn’t made it, they hadn’t managed to keep within the limit and could be sacked.

When I entered Fiat, I found I had no choice. l squashed my brains on that … I was quick at work, and could understand these things and how they were getting money out of us, like money-lenders … Let’s say, to a fellow it took 10 minutes to do certain work, and to me, let’s say it took five minutes. That left me time to help the weaker ones. There was a book and l ‘d write down how much produc­tion I had done … and so you had to find a way to help the others. So, at a certain point I started to … the two or three, shall I say sleepy ones, I’d write down how much they’d done on their books, and put some of the work I’d done, I wrote it down on theirs, so they could earn their bit of bread …

Now, to manage, I used the same tricks Fiat used against us. We worked with metal sheets and there was one heading I could make use of in the book: ‘Other eventualities’. I’d take a hammer and go and ruin the body-work. And by ruining the body, when they came to … they’d call a tester. ‘Look-I’d say-if you want to, send it off like that’. ‘Oh no, this has got to be repaired’. So it goes under ‘Other eventualities’. Write down and give me the money! By the end of the month or week, I’d found a lot of money I could share out in our work-team and give it to these people who couldn’t manage otherwise.

This was one of the ways to reach the minimum indispensable to have enough bread to feed the family.”

Workers in Florence protesting the austerity measures. Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL)