Alternating school and work is difficult at a time when work is in crisis, and schools are not doing so well either, stunted as they are by the pandemic. The two fifth-grade classes of the Cuppari Technical Institute in Jesi went to have their classes in front of the gates of Caterpillar, where all 270 workers face being laid off in a little over a month because the company’s top management believes it is more convenient to move production elsewhere. This is why the professor of law and economics Ero Giuliodori took 40 girls and boys to meet the workers and trade unionists, to learn how the things they’re studying all year long work in real life. Class struggle in more ways than one.
“Our students do a lot of internships,” explains Giuliodori, “and maybe these days the idea of what a factory is like is painted in rosy colors. It’s important for the students to understand that work is the fruit of struggles and committed effort, and that, more generally, in situations like this we’re talking about collective rights, which are not abstract but extremely concrete, one might say.”
“Situations like this” are a sad classic of recent times: one day, out of the blue, a company executive comes in and tells the workers that they are no longer needed, that their value can be measured against the prospective savings – here, more or less 20%, by rough estimates – on the cost of producing a single cylinder for earthmoving equipment, like bulldozers and excavators. What do you do when something like that happens? You can only fight.
“This factory, which is now called Caterpillar but which used to be Sima, is an institution here,” continues Professor Giuliodori. “It has existed since the 1920s, it made Jesi grow and was the driving force behind many battles during the Fascist period and afterwards. My father was the secretary of the Chamber of Labor in Jesi, I cannot remain indifferent: the way they treated these workers is unworthy of a civilized country.”
When the unions met with CEO Jean Mathieu Chatain on December 10, they expected to talk about making the conditions of the precarious workers more stable, but instead they weren’t even given a chance to respond after they were informed it was all over. Caterpillar was saying goodbye and leaving. To add insult to injury: the workers were given sweatshirts celebrating the plant’s 25 years in business.
“This morning made us open our eyes,” says Sergio Grilli, class of 2003, a 5th grade student. “We understood that this battle is also ours. Actually, it is ours more than anything else: it’s not only the families of the 270 workers who are involved, but also us, who are preparing to face a world that is like this.”
A world where Jesi has been “little Milan” for decades, when the dreams of the upper middle class were within reach, where the people who rose to prominence really made their own way in the world, as opposed to Fabriano, where the Merloni family reigns over everything, or Ascoli Piceno, where the factories arrived only thanks to the money from the Cassa del Mezzogiorno. Jesi isn’t like that at all: success, they say here, is all the result of the sweat of the brow, and of an inspiration embodied by the local heroes Roberto Mancini and Valentina Vezzali.
The crisis has not spared these parts either. Caterpillar, when it was still called Sima, was at risk of shutting down twice between the 1970s and the 1980s. In both cases, however, the city fought along with the workers. Now the situation is identical: the workers’ sit-in receives visits every day, and that of the Cuppari students is only the latest. And while the game is now being played almost exclusively at the institutional level, the struggle is not at all neglected: strike after strike, protest after protest. And, why not—lesson after lesson as well.
Union representative Donato Acampora spoke to the students during class. “I don’t know what’s waiting for you in the future,” he told the students, “but work isn’t just about bringing home the bacon, it’s also about being a community, like you are in school. I hope you end up doing great things – If you become managers, don’t be like those who come before the employees of a company and tell them through a megaphone that the workers are really great, but the factory is closing down anyway.”
It’s about being a community: at school, in the factory, in the local territory. “What’s happening is serious,” concludes young Sergio. “Closing Caterpillar means our entire town loses value.”
When Sima was at risk of bankruptcy, it survived because nothing else was talked about in Jesi, it was the center of every discussion, the focus of every event. It’s not just a question of building cylinders and pistons for an American multinational, or for any other master. If anything, it is about doing everything together, piece by piece, for the rights conquered and which need to be defended and for the rights still to be conquered. That’s where the real lesson is.