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Italy. What were once automotive factories are now co-working spaces for startups. Where has the knowledge and talent of Turin’s laid-off working class gone?

Travel through Turin, then and now

Turin. Gate No. 2, Mirafiori Production, 2 p.m., exit from morning shift. I’m here with a vestige of the original il manifesto: Gianni Montani. I recruited him in the field in 1971, and from union laborer he became a journalist but, for us, he was much more than that.

I remember a Central Committee of the Manifesto-organization dedicated to understanding the nature and the modalities of the new labor struggles, preambled by his detailed report in which he explained to us how the huge Fiat enterprise was working, department by department. That was politics then; this is what they were talking about, not the elections.

A few days ago, while I was attending the National Congress of the Knowledge Network, the Association of High School and University students, I remembered that meeting we had.

Because of the difficulties of those who, in spite of all their good will as these students had, try today to relate to work: Then we had a great and homogeneous workers’ class; today we have a mucilage of precarious and broken work-related semi-characters that not even a thousand Gianni Montanis would be capable of describing.

I wanted to come back here after so many years of absence, in order to start talking about Turin during a full electoral campaign.

Almost half a century has passed, and I’ve got a lump in my throat. Back then, a river of tens of thousands of people was coming out from the gates I, now, have in front of me. The plaza in front of the gate was happy and angry — carts full with oranges, drinks, everything. But it wasn’t just a small market, it was the agora, the main place of politics, filled with clusters of people, fliers, newspapers, fights between the new and the old left, southern accents, which were still extremely fresh.

Here at No. 2 as well as at the other gates, the politics focused on extremely real things: the proletarian conquests.

Marchionne-gray style coverall

On the other side of Viale Agnelli there were bars and stores, now the horizon is closed by a vestige of the Olympic games, the huge, rust-colored building hosting an ice rink. It only makes the plaza more desert and quiet, just a few workers on Layoff Benefit Funds who come here walking their dogs as a habit.

The workers — very few (not even 13,000 but each of them works just three days a week) — come out a few at a time after having passed through the “impartial” which, now, is electronic (the control which must discover whether someone has stolen a factory component, called like that because the people controlled are chosen randomly). Almost all of them have white hair. The average age of those working on body parts is 51 years.

They all look different than back then because Marchionne wanted the coverall not to be blue any longer, but light gray, equal for all, technical laborers and engineers, only a small label defining the respective category (and, naturally, the salary level, but that one is not on sight). The third class one, the one of those who, once, were by the assembly chain and that I remember well because our salary at il manifesto was, more or less, equivalent to €1,200 monthly.

Marchionne is a democrat; it’s a known fact proven by his shirt. But the women — their numbers are much bigger now than they were once — are protesting against that coverall: gray gets dirty. This is why blue was used.

Giovanna Leone explains it to me, in the old apartment building not far from there where, now, the Italian Federation of Blue Collar Workers’ V Lega Mirafiori is headquartered, in Corso Unione Sovietica 351, an address known by everybody as the “USSR.” The historic Mirafiori Section of the Italian Communist Party, located a few steps from there, in Via Passo Buole, has disappeared. The location now hosts the “Wine bar with wines from casks and bottled wines from the Piedmont region.”

And, of course, no more former secretaries around: Giuliano Ferrara, at the end of the ‘70s (and, in fact, it can be seen in the documentaries reporting Enrico Berlinguer’s visit when, in 1980, he told the struggling laborers that the party was on their side). Neither was Fassino, who was also responsible in 1980 and is now the mayor.

Together with Gianni, we walk along the entire Fiat perimeter, 10 km of streets around the factories, almost all of them having been destined to functions other than the ones they had in the past, not only because technology has changed, but also because the production has enormously decreased. Some of it has moved to Melfi, a lot of it to Poland and Serbia. Here — but still for a very short time — the Mito, the new Levante SUV, is going into production.

Many are the annexes already sold to other enterprises; on the front side, you can read: “Wine Fair,” “Equilibria,” “Style Center.” On the large elevated track where the tests were carried out (and Factory Council meetings were held) now the shows organized by the Fiat Village dealership are held.

Who bought who?

At the junction point, the elegant apartment block: What the hell is managed here? The FCA is, by now, housed in Amsterdam and in London. The evasions scandal is not The Panama Papers, but the relocations allowed by the fact that, after having liberalized the movements of capitals, the E.U. has not provided a fiscal unification.

The impression, from Turin, is, anyway, that it’s not Fiat who bought Chrysler but the contrary.

This in spite of the fact that the new edition of the Italian Alfa Romeo has been presented in Palazzo Chigi with much rumor. Because the new models of the future, the technologically advanced ones, aren’t made here.

No, I’m not complaining about loss of sovereignty, nor have I come here to get lost in the Amarcord. I don’t want the technology not to have changed the factory and for everybody to be still anchored to the terrible assembly chains. I came here to try to understand where the 100,000 Fiat workers have gone. In other words, where are all those surrounding the automotive industry, who are not digital beings but physical ones?

It’s not just a strictly economic question — whether they do work or not and, therefore, whether they receive a salary or not. That working class with its mechanical and political knowledge has given Turin its identity for more than a century, an identity designed on the role played as tip of the diamond of industrial modernity.

They gave the city rhythm, which, today, is, surely, much more beautiful. The museums are more attractive than the chimneys and so are the flourished flowerbeds, the restaurants, the tourists, the life. It became a “Turin to be drank,” to borrow the expression used for the shining Milan under Craxi’s times. And Fassino manages it very well.

But those 100,000 workers have become invisible, swallowed by nothing. The city does not provide for them, nor their bodies, nor their heads, nor those of their children, once students of the prestigious Fiat School, now most of them owners of the 4 million vouchers counted in the city in 2015 (and already increased by 65 percent in 2016), precarious workers in fast-food shops sprouting like a jungle.

Even in Ivrea the situation is like that: The historical administrative building in Via Jervis, where one of the most advanced IT productions was launched, the Olivetti, today, is occupied by a huge call center.

At CGIL, comrade Passarino gives me the data on workforce. It’s very difficult to interpret because of the way in which they are compiled by the statistic offices, and because many are not officially unemployed but in Temporary Layoff Fund, or in Delayed Layoff Fund, or in Extraordinary Layoff Fund or with solidarity agreements, all of these shock absorbers at the end of the race (the end of the line a lot before being entitled to retirement) and which, anyway, cannot be used anymore because the rules have changed. To use them is no longer convenient to the company, layoff being the convenient solution.

In brief, it’s enough to say that, in Turin, the unemployment level reaches the national average (it was 6.2 percent in 2004, now it’s 11.9 percent) and that the teenage one, at 44.9 percent is even above it. The most recent report, coordinated by the Einaudi Center, talks about a “missed suffering” and about a share of school abandonment similar to the one found in Southern cities. The also leave because they are precarious — in this case also above the average — and so do the researchers and the university staff: The phenomenon affects everyone, whatever their level or qualification. With a decrease in work volume of the under 30 which, in six years, has reached 59 percent, the European Union’s exhilarating objective for 2020 — “an inclusive and sustainable growth” — seems like science fiction.

Turin is becoming a poor city. “In the south they are used to it — an old comrade tells me, almost confessing himself — we are not.”

Inventions without investments

Is the inheritance of this automobile workmanship involved in an innovative project, or has it been simply sent to the cemetery? I walk around the city looking for an answer.

The two universities — the state owned and the polytechnical — take up the obligation: The first one invests many energies in creating inventive groups of many possible functions allowed by the use of new technologies, and I spent a whole afternoon listening their proposals and understanding their researches.

I’m in contact with the 31st floor of the new, very tall Intesa SanPaolo skyscraper (from which everything depends in Turin, so much that it would be rather worth it to vote for members of its board than for City Council) where 100 employees are awaiting to understand the future customers’ news. At the poly, there’s an incubator functioning in a similar role. And inside of it there is the only healthy child of the failed marriage between General Motors and Fiat. After the precocious divorce, it became only American, held by GM.

It’s the Power Train, the city’s most precious piece. Even the CGIL has contributed to creating a similar container in Moncalieri, looking to collaborate with the university and local entities. Very well.

The fact is that, if there aren’t investments aimed at creating inventions, the ideas remain on paper. The proud Turin business community as, also, a great part of the Italian one seems, instead, busy dealing with something else.

The Agnelli, for example, has placed most of its capital in Exor, one of the biggest U.S. insurance groups. An investment safer than the fluctuating automotive industry. For what’s related to the government, there are no industrial plans, neither here, nor anywhere else.

Work has been impoverished

A plan would be needed instead, a new idea for Turin, a project coordinated with other European countries. Instead, there isn’t: The most important companies have been unincorporated and acquired, step by step, by foreign groups who took away the most prestigious pieces.

The innovation that has reduced the number of workers is not here in Turin. On the contrary, it’s the work that has become impoverished. And the growth — especially related to the tertiary sector — is, anyway, not enough to compensate it. I’m not talking qualitatively, which is obvious, but also quantitatively.

The horizon in Turin is now designed by the saw-shaped roofs of the ancient industrial warehouses. It’s not like in Milan, where the de-industrialization happened decades ago, and in an age when the economy was still working.

Here the shuttered factories still occupy the land, and they are many. Now they are trying new destinations, and some of them are housing startups and co-working spaces. At Tool Box, the restructuring of a pavilion is fantastic, with high architecture, colors and even a kitchen with 3D printed models, and the printer. You can get access to a long table and your own computer for €100 per month. It’s a provisional work station in which you enjoy connection with others. With €250 per month, instead, you can access tables with a fixed workstation. There are many open-sky spaces and small offices. Inside, people are working to build their own startup: all of them aspiring “company men” or women. Uber’s reign, you might say.

It’s hard to understand what they are doing. We only know that the startup’s death toll is very high. On a wall, some sort of dense mural newspaper hosts friendly ads: professionals offering legal counsel, a panel on “Protecting yourselves: illness and retirement,” from noon to 1 p.m.; “Freelance care,” from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., etc.

Near it, the aspiring entrepreneurs show their proposals, with pictures I read: “M.P.: I listen, I inform others and inform myself, I smile, accept and salute and create imperfect objects”; “G.B.: I reassure, comply with and greet warmly”; “T.M.: I deal in politics and communication strategy, but I swear I’m a good guy.”

I appreciate the self-irony, but an old movie by Nanni Moretti, Ecce Bombo, comes to my mind. (Do you remember it? The one in which she, having to explain how she makes her living, answers, “I do things, see people.”)

Fassino’s great mistake

Right: How can he offer himself as mayor without offering a project that would be proper for a city like Turin? Fassino’s great mistake is having let himself be charmed by Marchionne, of having believed the magnificent and progressive destinies of capitalism, of not having prepared an autonomous transformation of the city.

The long thinking, the alternative awareness serves also in the administrative elections. And, naturally, you also need to avoid subjecting yourself to the drifting of the national politics.

I have in my pocket — I took it from home among my old books and I carried it with me on this trip to Turin — a small book printed in 1969 by Feltrinelli; it’s called Fiat Is Our University: Inquiry among the Young Workers. It was lead by “factory groups” from a few high schools and universities in Turin, about 100 pages filled up with news.

On page 82, a third-class worker says, “I think that, in 1969, the worker should work much less, the more so because of the automation going only in favor of the owners and not of the workers but, for this to happen, we need to change the society.”

It might be antiquated, but today the project seems even more real. It cannot be put beside, not even by an administrative electoral campaign, even though it can’t be realized in the next five years. But if we lose the horizon, instead of being modern, we remain trapped in the middle ages.

And this — this thing, too, besides what is immediate — is what makes the difference in Turin in the town hall. And its candidate, Giorgio Airaudo, is the only one who seems worried about it. Not just because he’s the best but, also, because he gave himself the issue of representing that very large piece of society for whom being museum users is not enough.

Representation is “good politics” first of all. The “left-winger” adjective depends on those who are represented.