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‘As long as it takes’: 2 years on, ex-GKN workers in Florence continue to fight redundancies

Freedom visits the GKN automotive factory in Campi Bisenzio, Florence which has been taken over by its workers since July 2021, when the bosses planned mass layoffs, but the workers took over the factory and plan a worker cooperative that manufactures buses, cargo bikes, and solar panels without rare earth metals rather than car axle shafts:

‘Fino a che ce ne sarà’ (‘As long as it takes’) reads the poster advertising the New Year’s Eve open event planned at the permanently assembled factory on December 31, among other details such as the daily programme of talks, music, food, bar and more.

This is what the ex-GKN workers say in response to the threat of yet another final mass lay-off planned for January 1, 2024. Dreadfully, it’s been named ‘Hour X’; when the factory will legally turn into a ‘real estate’ property and the ‘permanent assembly’ lead by the factory collective (‘Collettivo di Fabbrica’) will formally cease to exist. In Italy, a country filled with contradictions, what better way to come together in this tragic moment than by throwing a party?

“This is it. The final turning point: after this, either we double down or end it.” This is how Dario, a member of the Collettivo di Fabbrica, voices it, his face and hazmat suit dotted with droppings of white paint while he covers a long stretch of surrounding wall facing the main road just opposite one of the region’s largest shopping malls. Graffiti will be appearing on those same walls in the next few days, among other things, in solidarity with the victims of the November flood, which displaced 23,000 in Campi Bisenzio alone – the same neighbourhood where the factory stands. 


Yes: In the same town that only a few weeks ago saw entire neighbourhoods washed away, houses destroyed, families losing everything, and whole communities displaced during some of the coldest days of the year, the sacking of 185 local workers took precedence of attention over the actual emergency. The same people who were shoving mountains of mud and bricks for days helped distribute food and clothes and opened a community support group for the victims of the flood.

However, this is no surprise. Because in the eyes of those who want to continue business as usual with high profits and low wages, autonomy and solidarity should be curbed, and anyone who tries to bring attention to the climate emergency, more and more tangible even in the untouchable Global North, should be bent. Every dissent should be silenced and repressed, and the struggle of the ex-GKN workers should fall into the pit of doom. A shit show of usual suspects: business directors, province and regional councillors, as well as the government itself, which has been rotating the same excuses and time-buying tactics to keep the workers stuck in limbo by denying the transfer of ownership of the manufacturing facilities to the workers cooperative (or intervening in the process), hoping to tire them out into inaction until the final redundancy comes at last. An exhausting back and forth of failed negotiations has been going on since the creation of the ‘permanent assembly’ in July 2021.

Nevertheless, the negotiations have brought nothing, and the factory assets have not been expropriated, but in the meantime, the collective has not been sitting still. Within months since that Friday morning when the 480 workers were notified of their immediate redundancy, the internal assembly, open for everyone to take part, proposed the creation of a Technical and Scientific Committee made up mostly of university students and other comradely professionals of the sector, to help them draft a plan of ‘re-industrialisation from below.’ This would include writing a financial, technical and commercial strategy to convert the original business and production of axle shafts for cars into a green workers cooperative for manufacturing public transport buses, cargo bikes, and solar panels without rare earth metals. This has now been ready for a while, despite the ambitious nature of the undertaking, which hasn’t proven to be the hardest part in the end. They just needed to be given the way to formally be put in charge of the plant so they could finally start replacing the machinery, repurposing the structure, starting the production line and hiring more workers. The first line of cargo bikes is out already, and from around last September, you could spot Robin Food couriers cycling around town riding these beauties. Robin Food is another worker’s coop of food delivery people trying to offer a workers-run alternative to Deliveroo and Glovo’s starvation wages, fair to both couriers and small food businesses. 

Roberto, another member of the Collettivo di Fabbrica, takes us on a tour of the establishment around the wing used for everyday activities since the beginning of the permanent assembly. He also describes the actual factory where machinery is located, the same ground contested in the negotiation rows. We walk past the entrance door and see four cargo bikes lined up in different designs bearing the Collettivo di Fabbrica logo. One is painted in purple, an unmistakable reference to Florence’s local football team ‘Fiorentina’ and a symbol of the city itself. We try and take a peek past the connecting corridor that leads into the main factory building. We are told the place is 8000 square metres: we glimpse a solid tangle of silver pipes as far as the eye can see until the walls of the humongous warehouse at the other end. Many machines are densely scattered everywhere in what looks like a thick metal forest; I do not know what they do. But Roberto spent over two decades working within those walls; those machines tell him a different story. He showed us a photo of an axle shaft, the final product manufactured in the facilities, and I finally recognised what those unidentified shapes in the collective’s logo were. He tells us that when the factory was in full production mode, it manufactured about 10,000 axle shafts daily. It’s two for each car for most makes. In the past, the GKN produced axle shafts for the whole Fiat line in Italy and a range of other makes – about 20, as I count the logos displayed on banners hanging on walls and fences around the place.

“Where the hell all those cars go, I don’t bloody know”. I think what a moment later Roberto voices out after seemingly reading my mind; the tone pervaded with dark humour. It’s no coincidence or surprise that one of the first things the collective expressed was to transition to green technology and make it accessible to ordinary people.

Our tour, in Roberto’s words, continues. He talks about his historical working station, where he would spend most of his waking hours for the past 20 years. He goes on about another working station in the line, which had been partly automated by adding new robots, thus reducing the number of human workers from 5-6 to only a couple. Roberto recalls effortlessly a myriad of very detailed information about the physical structure of the factory, the production, the business director, the corruption, the struggle with the institutions and a very intricated chronology of trade union battles, negotiations and much more I’ve lost count of. He has evidently been closely following the events within the working environment and has actively participated in the struggle for workers’ rights.

“How did you make those bikes if you don’t have access to this machinery?”

“You mean the ones in the hall and those made for the couriers? They were made in a small workshop with basic tools, no sweat. We need the whole plant to be repurposed if we want to make some serious stuff happen and start a proper production line”.

In a similar exchange, later on, I ask Roberto what ‘winning’ means for the workers. He goes on: “After many and lengthy negotiations with the boss and other private investors have failed to bring forth a re-industrialisation, the aim is now to have the factory coming back in full production mode, in the hands of the workers cooperative of course and with a strong trade union movement within it, active in other local and national trade union campaigns and movements, as well as closely connected with other grassroots groups and collectives. We want to institute once again the original workforce of 500 people, as it’s only 185 left today after 2 and half years of permanent assembly, as many couldn’t survive the lack of redundancy pay that came amiss from October 2022 to July 2023. We also don’t want the physical assets to go to waste: the building and the tools are here and in full working order; they just need to be re-organised, sold or exchanged. On top of this, we want to build a strong, stable workers base that doesn’t get displaced now and then by the usual capitalist administration, so to prevent workers’ power from being built; instead, we’ll foster the opposite and make sure the trade union movement grows stronger and can support intersectionally a whole range of interconnected struggles, including the environmental which we feel is very close to our hearts and politics”.

The political analysis the collective has elaborated transpires so deeply articulated and contextualised through one of its spokespersons. It’s incredibly inspiring how these people, in highly adverse circumstances I would come to know more about very soon, have managed to actually practice what many others worldwide endlessly struggle to translate from theory. On the other hand, the project doesn’t revolve around workers’ control and green transition only but around mass mobilisations and strikes to keep the focus on the workers and environmental struggles, as well as the tension high with both institutions and bosses. We remember with joyful nostalgia the demonstration called by the Collettivo a few months after the dreadful news, which brought 40,000 people onto the streets of a town that numbers 380,000.


I pause and try to rewind in my head to pick up a piece of information that seemed to have snicked away unnoticed: no redundancy pay between October 2022 and July 2023.

“Do you mean that for nearly 1 year, you didn’t have any regular statutory pay, as you’re supposed to when you’re laid off?” I asked as if I could even think for a second the state would provide anything but trouble, let alone support.

“Nope, during that time, the workers were solely sustained financially by the Mutual Aid Fund (where cash donations are collected), the sale of merchandise and the incoming funds from the self-organised bar and canteen, both in the fixed venue of the factory (which are open every day to anyone) but also their travelling versions when attending events to which we are invited to by other collectives around the country. Even a brew of beer was self-produced. This way, we have managed to sustain quite a bunch of us; 185 remain today, and our families were, for several months, completely autonomous thanks to solidarity and lots of work behind the scenes and on the frontlines. It’s already a lot that we got a few months covered by the statutory pay, as we have now since July, because even that was a struggle to achieve, and the fact that we won it back was the outcome of a suffered legal battle”.

But financial pressures are not the only concern. Keeping the spirits and morale high is paramount for the people’s psychological well-being and the fight to come. For these reasons and more, they have created emotional support groups and listening circles, which have been urgently opened up to the flood victims very recently. A medical support group has also been created to help with the people’s physical health.

The level of organisation is astonishing, and the more you hear about the many projects, the more you wonder how the hell they managed to pull it off. Well, none of this came out of thin air. The Collettivo di Fabbrica has a longstanding history of insurgency and has played an active role within the workers’ movement for a long time. It receives a legacy from the trade union struggles of the 70s. Since 2017, the collective has upped its game by strengthing its identity and making its voice louder, with monthly or bi-monthly assemblies in cooperation with other workplaces, especially within the local industrial area. Around this time, the first shirts, hoodies and jackets were printed with Collettivo’s logo and started to be proudly worn in public. 

But none of the current struggle would have been so successful without the solidarity and complicity of many different communities, including a range of leftist and environmental groups based in Florence and beyond. From trade union campaigns in cooperation with a range of bottom-up syndicates such as RSU (Rappresentanza Sindacale Unitaria – Unitary Trade Union Representation), CUB (Confederazione Unitaria di Base – Basic Unitary Confederation), USB (Unione Sindacale di Base – Basic Trade Union), Si Cobas (Sindacato Intercategoriale Comitato di Base – Intercategorical Basic Trade Union Committee), … to actions with and in solidarity to many others, including Fridays For Future, Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) and the collectives of historically longstanding social centres in Florence. Scrolling down their social media pages, you can see many more groups and struggles mentioned in solidarity: high school and university students collectives, transfeminist action, anti-fascism, anti-carceral and anti-evictions solidarity networks. Some groups mentioned helping more closely with organising mobilisations, making banners and helping the working groups within the Collettivo di Fabbrica. 

It’s worth adding that the GKN is not an isolated case of abuse of workers’ rights. Still, it perfectly fits in a landscape where a significant chunk of both the borough of Campi Bisenzio and the province of neighbouring Prato is a massive industrial estate, where migrant and poorer working class communities are exploited for cheap labour, with conditions behind closed doors being appalling and dangerous. 

Interporto and Macrolotto are the leading centres for manufacturing, wholesale retail, and logistics, lots of it being textile and fashion, and it’s not the case that many trade union battles have taken place there in recent years. We remember the battle led by Texprint workers supported by the trade union SI Cobas, who held a 24/7 permanent picket and busy encampment outside the factory for nearly a year, their protest against 12-hour shifts 7 days a week being met many times by police attacks and sheer violence.

The daily routine at the factory is articulated around working groups; the Collettivo (made up of both workers and supporters) does EVERYTHING, in fact, beyond the organising work, which takes a big chunk of the collective time and energy, they also take care of greenkeeping, cleaning, maintenance and fixings. They do the work that not even the boss bothers to do. We get to know Mr Borgomeo a bit more closely: he is a philanthropic presenting entrepreneur invested in green technology; a bunch of factories under his current administration based in Frosinone, southern Italy, convert incinerator waste into cobblestones. For this, he prides himself on being an active promoter of circular economy, and for this, not only does he earn profits from the sale of the end product, but he also receives a considerate tax relief from the state – it didn’t take long to see his true colours, did it? It’s wild that the current running costs for the GKN establishment are near 0 for him, considering that the workers are doing everything in spite of Borgomeo’s legal duty. “The underground ‘dark’ water waste tank has not been checked in the last two and half years, and if it fills up beyond capacity and ends up flooding over, it’ll end up in the Bisenzio river nearby, and that will be big troubles”, adds Roberto, who’s just seen the local neighbourhood being swept away by the flood only weeks before. Also, no regular legally required safety checks have been carried out in the structure either in the recent past (aside from an alarm system being fitted at some point), which again shows the local council doesn’t mind looking the other way towards rich business owners, which is hinting some corrupted connection there.

Going back to the working groups, there are several, and the activities within them keep everyone busy. In general, the groups take care of outreach (flyering), food-related activities (shopping, cooking, distributing), running the bar, organising assemblies and events (at least 1-2 happening every week since the start of the permenant assembly), including tours mostly around Italy but also Europe, logistics, finance, press & media, banner making and more.

Wrapping up, the final considerations that can be made here are many and conflicting. The factory could continue to be a long-term, permanently assembles point of reference for the workers’ struggle in the country and across borders instead of going back into business. This would be the ideal outcome for everyone IF the workers had a stable source of income to sustain themselves and their families. The reality of capitalism in this broken world is hard, and even the toughest movement must confront it to not let the struggle consume its people. In the eyes of a more nihilistic onlooker, compromising in any way with the logics of the same market that uphold this treacherous capitalist system and giving in to going back to a life of hard labour isn’t good enough. I feel these are all valid positions, and it’s fair for each to have the opinion that best supports their lifestyle choices and the lifestyle that supports their opinion. I’m confident enough that the workers will know best what path to take after comparing all the potential pathways with each its risks and benefits.

In only a handful of days, all that was built in this recent piece of history will cease to exist: regular events and assemblies, factory permanent assembly, and workers’ collective.

…Or will it really? The solidarity, organising work, love and rage that has been poured into the movement will never be erased from history; the connections made will not dissolve back into the void, and not just Italy or Europe but the whole world has had a taste of what happens if some of our wildest dreams of autonomy and self-resilience come true. The ex-GKN workers are showing us, in practice, that with unity, solidarity, perseverance and lots of goddamn hard work in movement building, the possibilities that open up are many, and those who thought that history could not be rewritten were wrong.

In our dream utopia, we only work to provide and care for each other and our basic needs. Not for the markets and not for the profits, not for pockets of bosses, safes of banks, batons of the cops, bombs of militaries and wallets of politicians. In the meantime, whoever actively strives to provide some sort of relief from the miserable lives we are forced to live in today’s society, the same society that forces us to watch genocides on social media and leaves us powerless and broken deserves a chance to survive and be supported in their struggle. 

The international movement, militants, and activists stand in solidarity and are complicit with the ex-GKN workers and their struggle.


(Let’s rise up)

UPDATE: The appeal against the company was won by Fiom (national metalworkers union) a couple of days ago on December 27. The tribunal ruled out the company has been perpetrating ‘anti-labour behaviour’ towards the ex-GKN workers. The redundancy has been averted, but this is only a temporary victory, buying extra time to keep working on the re-industrialisation plans and continuing the fight.

~ Gin

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Images: Gin / @insorgiamoconilavoratorigkn

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