Commentary. There were decades of near-daily complaints, which all fell on deaf ears. Decades in which everyone profited on the backs of the working class: industrialists, politicians and unionists alike.

ILVA: the death of the ‘at all costs’ production model

A foreseeable demise. That’s how we might describe the fate of ILVA-Italsider-ILVA ArcelorMittal, a symbol of the end of a global story, of the model of large-scale industrial production at all costs: whether to human lives or to the environment.

This story has left its profound mark on the so-called “iron cities”: Genoa, Bagnoli, Piombino, Taranto.

Today as well, as it has been happening repeatedly over the last seven years, ever since the Taranto judiciary first decided to seize the steel plant, people still speak of Taranto as a city “wounded” by the plant’s closure (the word was used on Monday by Prime Minister Conte, and on Sunday by the president of the Puglia region, Nichi Vendola). We still hear the mantra of “we must find a solution” (but if such a solution was possible, what have we been waiting for all this time?). 

We are again confronted with the images of pollution and death, and again we have to face the historical fact that the risks to life and to the environment were not taken into account, neither by those who built and ran the steel mill, nor by the citizens themselves. Acquiescence has been a bipartisan decision, both by politicians and by the unions.

In 1964, even before the completion of the first phase of the construction of the plant, at a congress dedicated to social medicine, the public health official of the city of Taranto, Alessandro Leccese, denounced the likely pollution with benzo(a)pyrene, beryllium and other harmful substances, which was endangering the environment and the health of the citizens. For his trouble, he was at the receiving end of harassment and lawsuits forcing him to defend himself in court. And in the end he was forced to remain silent.

The archives of the newspapers and local periodicals are full of complaints against this distorted plan of industrial development, and concerns about the environment.

Right away, the fishermen were afraid for their sea: by 1962, they were protesting against the irreversible damage that the water-hungry ILVA would certainly cause to fishing and mussel farming. In 1972, they outright rebelled: they blocked the old town center for a whole day, turning their boats into barricades. In 1981, there was a new protest against the steel giant that was killing the sea, but the only thing they got was the flippant reply: “If they can’t make a living by fishing anymore, then we’re asking that the plant hire the fishermen.” A statement that came from a union, no less.

In July 1971, the magazine Taranto oggi domani denounced the high degree of air and marine pollution, locating the highest concentration of poisonous substances in the Tamburi neighborhood. Many studies were conducted in that neighborhood, solicited by the local population and particularly by women, who were fed up with the black dust that was getting everywhere. In 1980, an article in the Corriere del giorno reported on the extraordinary increase in mortality from mesothelioma in the Taranto province in the 1970-79 period compared to the previous decade.

There were decades of near-daily complaints, which all fell on deaf ears. Decades in which everyone profited on the backs of the working class: industrialists, politicians and unionists alike.

One ILVA executive whom I interviewed years ago, while the plant was still state-owned, about the history of the factory and the many workplace deaths, told me: “We were going out during the night, in the surrounding areas, and taking care of the problems… We had at that time—during the early years—a lot of willingness to work together on the part of the court, which would call us together and mediate, because, as they were saying, ‘there’s no use putting anyone in jail…,’ because that would end up being a very long investigation, so [the court] would suggest things like, ‘if [the dead worker] has a brother… he should take the wife in…’”

The land for the construction of the plant had been bought at far above its real value, family members of local politicians had been given cushy jobs, union leaders were also owners of companies supplying goods and services to the plant, and there was plenty of cash flowing to all parties, the Church included. That was his story.

Then, when privatization came in 1995, one of the first objectives of the Riva family was the liquidation of the union and putting an end to all labor disputes. Between 1997 and 2003, older workers were almost all put into retirement, both through early retirement and recognizing their years of asbestos exposure, and young people were hired under training contracts to replace them. 

One of them told me: “During the training period, there was this employer blackmail, which forbade us to join the union or attend union meetings altogether for the first two years. The company did not take kindly to the young men hired as trainees who were taking part in strikes, who were taking sick leave because they weren’t feeling well, or who were taking part in union meetings. That was fear, that was blackmail. They were trying to form a new working class that would never bother them, and, in part, they succeeded.”

The lack of oversight over the working conditions inside the plant—at that time, an issue taken up only by a few activists on the outside—allowed the factory owners to avoid investing in any technological solutions aimed at lessening the environmental impact and improving workplace safety.

Thus it was that the ILVA-Italsider-ILVA ArcelorMittal plant in Taranto, born nearly 60 years ago as a cutting-edge steel plant using the best technology available at the time for steel production, continued to use the exact same production cycle to this day, ignoring all the technological innovations that have become widely used in the rest of the world in the meantime. All in the name of production and profit.

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