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The IWW in Turin: “Militant History,” Workers’ Struggle, and the Crisis of Fordism in 1970s Italy

  • Nicola Pizzolato (a1)


This article analyses how in the 1970s a segment of Italian radical activists belonging to the tradition of operaismo (workerism) appropriated and interrogated the history of the International Workers of the World (IWW) using it as a tool of political intervention in the Italian context. Following the upheaval of the ‘Hot Autumn’, the IWW provided to the Italians an inspiring comparison with a militant labour organisation in times of changing composition of the working class and of transformation of the organisation of production. The importance of this political use of the past lies in the way it illuminates the particular context in which these activists operated. In the course of the 1970s, Italian radicals responded to the normalization of industrial relations by joining groups that endorsed a political line tinted with Leninism and advocated a revolution led by a vanguard of militants. This was in contrast to the tenets of shopfloor-centered strategy and grassroots and shopfloor participation typical of operaismo. The – eventually – failed attempt of the ‘militant historians’ to revive, through their distinctive interpretation of the IWW, that political tradition sheds light on the success of the backlash against shopfloor working class militancy at the end of the decade, when vanguard groups had become marginal in the factories and reformist unions lacked a political clout to oppose company restructuring and relocation. This article is based on articles, memoirs and interviews that are evidence of the politically-driven debate about the IWW among Italian radicals. It improves on the existing historiography of the Italian labour movement by resisting its teleological impulse to explain the backlash on the 1980s as an inevitable outcome. It also contributes to the burgeoning transnational labor historiography; it challenges methodological nationalism in the study of workers’ insurgency by charting the influence of US history far beyond its borders and across time, adopting a transnational approach that is, unusually, both geographical and a diachronic. This story tells us more about Italian history than it does about American history, but it is testimony to a far reaching influence of American history and to entanglements that crossed borders through the work of the activists, scholars, and translators who acted as transnational vehicles of ideas and political practices.



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1. “Si tratta probabilmente del problema più noto in Italia di tutta la storia del movimento operaio americano.” Ortoleva, Peppino, “Classe operaia e potere politico in USA (1860–1920)”, Primo Maggio 3–4 (1974): 3756 .

2. Shor, Francis, “Gender and Labour/Working Class History in Comparative Perspective: The Syndicalist and Wobbly Experience in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand”, Left History 11 (2006): 118–36; Shor, Francis, “Left Labor Agitators in the Pacific Rim of the Early Twentieth Century”, International Labor and Working-Class History 67 (2005): 148–63; Peterson, Lany, “The One Big Union in International Perspective: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 1900–1925’ in Work, Community, and Power: The Experience of Labor in Europe and America, 1920–1925, ed. Cronin, James E. and Siriani, Carmen (Philadelphia, 1983), 4987 ; Burgmann, Verity, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia (Melbourne, 1995); Cole, Peter and van der Walt, Lucien, “Crossing the Color Lines, Crossing the Continents: Comparing the Racial Politics of the IWW in South Africa and the United States, 1905–1925”, Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 12 (2011): 6996 ; Chester, Eric Thomas, The Wobblies in Their Heyday (Santa Barbara, 2014).

3. van der Linden, Marcel, “Transnationalising American Labor History”, The Journal of American History 86 (1999): 1078–92. In the same issue, see also David Thelen, “The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History,” 965–75. See also Tyrrell, Ian, “Reflections on the Transnational Turn in United States History: Theory and Practice”, Journal of Global History 3 (2009): 453–74; AHR Conversation: On Transnational History”, with Bayly, C. A., Beckert, Sven, Connelly, Matthew, Hofmeyr, Isabel, Kozol, Wendy, and Seed, Patricia, American Historical Review 111 (2006): 1440–64; Tyrrell, Ian, Transnational Nation: United States History in Global Perspective Since 1789 (Basingstoke, 2007).

4. Ian Tyrell, Transnational Nation, 2.

5. Dubofsky, Melvin, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (Chicago, 1969); Weinstein, James, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925 (New York, 1967) and by the same author, The IWW and American SocialismSocialist Revolution 5 (1970); Conlin, Joseph, Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies (Westport, CT, 1969) and by the same author, Big Bill Haywood and the Radical Union Movement (New York, 1969); Tyler, Robert L., Rebels in the Woods: The IWW in the Pacific Northwest (Eugene, OR, 1967); Thompson, Fred, “They Didn't Suppress the Wobblies”, Radical America 1 (1967) 15 ; Foner, Philip S., History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4 (New York, 1965). See also Kornbluh, J.L., Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, (Ann Arbor, 1964) and the memoir published in that time: Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography (New York, 1973). The Italians were also reading, in translation, Renshaw, Patrick, The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States (New York, 1967).

6. Introduction to Beyond the Nation: Pushing the Boundaries of US History from a Transatlantic Perspective, ed. Fasce, F., Vaudagna, M., and Baritono, R. (Torino, 2003), 11 .

7. Ibid . On the political use of American history in Italy, see Vaudagna, Maurizio, “American History at Home and Abroad”, Journal of American History 81 (1994): 1157–68 and by the same author, American Studies in Italy: Historical Legacies, Public Contexts and Scholarly Trends”, History of Historiography 51 (2007): 1763 .

8. Ferner, A. and Hyman, R., eds. “Italy: The Dual Character of Industrial Relations”, in Changing Industrial Relations in Europe, (Oxford, 1998) (with M. Regini).

9. Lichtenstein, Nelson, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, 2002).

10. Contini, Giovanni, “The Rise and Fall of Shop Floor Bargaining at FIAT, 1945–1980” in The Automobile Industry and its Workers, ed. Tolliday, Steven and Zeitlin, Jonathan (Cambridge, 1986). See also Contini, Giovanni, “Politics, Law and Shop Floor Bargaining in Postwar Italy” in The Automobile Industry and its Workers, ed. Tolliday, Steven and Zeitlin, Jonathan (Cambridge, 1986).

11. Longo, Biagio, “Meno salario, più reddito: la cassa integrazione”, Primo Maggio 5 (1975): 1833 .

12. These arguments are expounded in a series of key texts, such as Tronti, Mario, Operai e capital (Torino: 1966); and the edited collection of Panzieri, Raniero, Spontaneità e organizzazione : gli anni del ‘Quaderni rossi’, 1959–1964 (Pisa, 1994); see also Wright, Steve, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London, 2002); and Trotta, Giuseppe and Milana, Fabio, eds., L'operaismo degli anni Sessanta. Da ‘Quaderni rossi’ a ‘classe operaia’ (Roma, 2008).

13. Pizzolato, Nicola, “Transnational Radicals: Labour Dissent and Political Activism in Detroit and Turin (1950–1970)”, International Review of Social History 56 (2011): 130 ; see also Cleaver, Harry, Reading Capital Politically (Austin, TX, 1979), 5976 .

14. For an overview, see Glaberman, Martin, ed., Marxism for Our Times: CLR James on Revolutionary Organization (Jackson, MS, 1999), xixxvi .

15. A. Negri, “John M. Keynes e la teoria capitalistica dello stato nel ’29” in Operai e stato: lotte operaie e riforma dello stato capitalistico tra rivoluzione d'Ottobre e New Deal, ed. A. Negri, S. Bologna, G. P. Rawick, M. Gobbini, L. Ferrari Bravo, F. Gambino (Milan, 1972).

16. Negri, Antonio, Books for Burning. Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy (London, 2005), xxxiii–xxxiv.

17. See the introduction of Ferdinando Fasce to Musto, “Gli IWW e il movimento operaio Americano,” Altronovecento 15 (2010), (accessed January 26, 2017); Bock, Gisella, “L'altro movimento operaio negli Stati Uniti: l'operaio massa e gli Industrial Workers of the World, 1905–1922”, in La formazione dell'operaio massa negli USA 1898/1922, ed. Bock, Gisella, Carpignano, Paolo, Ramirez, Bruno (Milan, 1976); Haywood, William D., La storia di Big Bill (Milano, 1977); Ortoleva, Peppino, “Industrial Workers of the World” in Storia del Nord America, ed. Bairati, Piero, (Firenze, 1978); John, Vincent Saint, L'IWW. La sua storia, struttura e metodi  (Milano, 1971); Flynn, Elizabet Gurley, La ribelle (Milano, 1973); Smith, Gibbs Morgan, Joe Hill (Milano, 1973); Musto, Renato, Gli IWW e il movimento operaio americano (Napoli, 1975); Jones, Mary Mother, L'autobiografia di Mamma Jones (Torino, 1977); Chiappetta, Giuseppe, IWW. Storia e considerazioni critiche (Milano, 1978).

18. Renshaw, Patrick, Il sindacalismo rivoluzionario negli Stati Uniti (Bari, 1970); Allsop, Kenneth, Ribelli vagabondi nell'America dell'ultima frontiera (Bari, 1969).

19. Cartosio, Bruno, “Gli emigrati italiani e l'Industrial Workers of the World”, in Gli Italiani fuori d'Italia. Glie emigrati italiani nei movimenti operai dei paesi d'adozione (1880–1940), ed, Bezza, B. (Milano, 1983), 359–96; Dadà, A., “Dadà, Aspetti del sindacalismo rivoluzionario statunitense: l'Industrial Workers of the World”, Ricerche Storiche, a. XI, 1981, 1 , 131–66; Gabaccia, Donna, “Worker Internationalism and Italian Labor History, 1870–1914”, International Labor and Working-Class History 45 (1994): 6379 . See also Levy, Carl, “Currents of Italian Syndicalism before 1926”, International Review of Social History 45 (2000): 209250 for a specific case of an Italian Wobbly returning to Italy.

20. Wright, Steve, Storming Heaven. Class Composition and Struggle in the Italian Autonomist Movement (London, 2002): 191–96.

21. Cartosio, Bruno, “Note e documenti sugli Industrial Workers of the World”, Primo Maggio 1 (1973), 4344 .

22. Cartosio, “Note e documenti,” 49; Vincent St. John, “Political Parties and the IWW,” ca. 1924. Dated as 1910 in the Cartosio article. Full text in the URL (accessed February 5, 2015).

23. Tronti, Mario, “La fabbrica e la società”, Quaderni Rossi 2 (1962): 30 .

24. Cartosio, “Note e documenti,” 52: “Dal momento che la lotta di classe era, ogni giorno, la realtà. E sul modo di intervenire nelle diverse realtà di lotta la creatività degli organizzatori e militanti IWW diede la maggiore prova di sé.”

25. Tait, Serena, “Alle origini del movimento comunista negli Stati Uniti: Louis Fraina teorico della azione di massa”, Primo Maggio 1 (1973): 21 .

26. Bologna, Sergio, “Composizione di classe e teoria del partito alle origini del movimento consigliare”, in Operai e Stato, ed. Negri, Antonio et al. (Milano, 1972), 1324 .

27. Ortoleva, Peppino, “Composizione di classe e crisi dello stato”, Primo Maggio 3–4 (1974): 56 .

28. Preface to Glaberman, Martin, Classe Operaia, Imperialismo e Rivoluzione negli USA (Torino, 1974).

29. Dulles, F. Rhea, Storia del movimento operaio americano (Milano, 1953); Gordon, C. S., Parker, V. D., Fattori di pace sindacale negli Stati Uniti: studi e rapporti su industrie americane (Roma, 1960); United States Department of Labor, Quarant'anni di conquiste del movimento operaio americano (1913–1953) (Roma, 1954); Brumm, J. and Reedy, T., Il movimento sindacale negli Stati Uniti (Roma, 1952). For a brief historiographical discussion, see Classe operaia e potere politico in USA” in Primo Maggio 3–4 (1974).

30. Glaberman, Classe Operaia. For these connections, see also Boggs, Grace Lee, Living for a Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis, 1998), 140 .

31. Operai e stato; Rawick, G., Lo schiavo americano dal tramonto all'alba (Milano, 1972). See Cartosio's preface for the theme of the autonomy of the slave. Through the same connection, it published the book of another member of the group, James Boggs, whose La Rivoluzione Americana, a study of black activism in the 1960s, had been published by Jaca Books (Milan) in 1968.

32. Pizzolato, Nicola, Challenging Global Capitalism: Labor Migration, Radical Struggle, and Urban Change in Detroit and Turin (New York, 2013). Interview with Bruno Cartosio, Futuro Anteriore, 7–8.

33. Archivio Storico Fiat, Fiat: le fasi della crescita (Torino, 1996), 129–38.

34. Pansa, Giampaolo and Romiti, Cesare, Questi anni alla Fiat (Milano, 1988), 10.

35. “Inflazione Italian 1975,” Worldwide Inflation Data, (accessed May 16, 2015).

36. Alemanni, , Ferigo, , Gheddo, , Lattes, , Rispoli, , Sburlati, , and Serafino, Autoriduzione: cronache e riflessioni di una lotta operaia e popolare: settembre-dicembre 1974 (Sapere, 1974).

37. Marazzi, Christian, “Moneta e capital finanziario”, in Genealogie del futuro. Sette lezioni per sovvertire il presente, ed. Roggero, Gigi and Zanin, Adelino (Verona, 2013), 72.

38. Ramirez, Bruno, “The Working Class Struggle against the Crisis: Self-Reduction of Prices in Italy”, Zerowork 1 (1975): 142150 . Villani, Luciano, “Neanche le otto lire. Lotte territoriali a Roma (1972–1975)”, Zapruder 32 (2013): 2239 . “Gli aumenti del metano, l'autoriduzione e le nostre proposte,” Centro Piero Gobetti, Fondo Marcello Vitale, Subfondo Valentina Donvito, folder UA2, Lotte per la casa, Torino, 1969–75; Cherki, Eddi and Wieviorka, Michel, “Autoreduction Movements in Turin, 1974”, in Autonomia. Post Political Politics Semiotext(e) 3 (1980), 7280 .

39. For this comparison, see the introduction by Peppino Ortoleva for Davis, Mike, “Il cronometro e lo zoccolo”, Primo Maggio 7 (1976): 29.

40. Berti, Lapo, “Astrattizzazione del lavoro”, in La tribù delle talpe, ed. Bologna, Sergio (Milano, 1977), 125139, at 127.

41. Comito, Vincenzo, La Fiat: tra crisi e ristrutturazione (Roma, 1982). Berta, Giuseppe, Conflitto industriale e sistema d'impresa alla Fiat, 1919–1979 (Bologna, 1979).

42. The statistics for absenteeism were marked by a steady increase in Italy (and elsewhere) throughout the early 1970s, going up from 155 million hours in 1968 to 219 million hours in 1971. At FIAT, absenteeism almost tripled between 1968 and 1973. See Assenteismo e cicli di lotte in Italia”, Primo Maggio 6 (1975–76).

43. Lapo Berti, “Astrattizzazione del lavoro,” 128.

44. One workerist describes the 1977 upheaval in this way: “The 1977 movement was something completely different. It was a new and interesting movement because, firstly, it did not really have roots in previous movements, or maybe it did, but in a highly complex manner. It clearly had another social basis, different from both 1968 and 1973. It had a social composition based on youth who had broken with or rejected the political elites, including the elites of 1968, including therefore the groups of Lotta Continua, or even of Autonomia Organizzata. So, it broke not only with the traditional communist movement, but also with 1968. It broke exactly with the vision of communism, while, at the end of the day, also the workerists thought of themselves as being the “true communists.” The ‘77 Movement absolutely did not want to be “truly communist.” Cuninghame, Patrick, “For an Analysis of Autonomia: Interview with Sergio Bologna”, Left History 7 (2000) 96.

45. Luca Meldolesi, ‘Per lo sviluppo della tribù: un commento’, in La Tribù delle talpe, 140–48; see also Berardi, Franco, La nefasta utopia di Potere Operaio (Roma, 1998).

46. Meldolesi, ‘Per lo sviluppo della tribù’, 147.

47. Renzacci, Raffaello, “Lottare alla Fiat”, in Cento… e uno anni di Fiat, a cura di Antonio Moscato (Bolsena, 2000), 54.

48. Atti del convegno operaio di Lotta Continua”, Bollettino interno 2 (1976 ca); Bobbio, Luigi, Lotta Continua, storia di un'organizzazione rivoluzionaria (Roma, 1979), 156–58. For a long time, the internal division of the LC caused by the “35 hours” issue continued to be debated. See “Intervento del compagno Mario di Novara,” in Lotta Continua, August 28, 1976, 2.

49. Tesi n. 4, “Le tesi, le relazioni politiche, lo statuto,” Primo Congresso Nazionale di Lotta Continua, Roma, gennaio 1975, Centro Documentazione M. Grassi, Roma. See also Cazzullo, Aldo, I ragazzi che volevano fare la rivoluzione. 1968–1978: Storia critica di Lotta continua (Milano, 1998), 248–52.

50. De Luna, Giovanni, Le ragioni di un decennio: 1969–1979. Militanza, violenza, sconfitta, memoria (Milano, 2011), 120 and Bobbio, Lotta Continua, 130.

51. Wright, Steve, “A Party of Autonomy?” in The Philosophy of Antonio Negri: Resistance in Practice, ed. Murphy, Timothy S. and Mustapha, Abdul-Karim (London, 2005).

52. Atti del seminario di Padova”, in Comitati autonomi operai di Roma, Autonomia operaia, (Roma, 1976), 5051 .

53. Ibid. Lo sciogliemento del Gramsci, 54.

54. Musto, Renato, Storia degli IWW. Documenti (Napoli, 1975), xviii and xix.

55. Both the network and the newsletter went into decline and eventually ceased operations in the 1980s. A short account of this group is available at (accessed March 11, 2016).

56. Fasce, Ferdinando, “Gli Industrial Workers of the World: La classe operaia Americana tra spontaneità e organizzazione”, in Le Lotte sociali negli Stati Uniti alla fine del Diciannovesimo secolo (Firenze, 1974), reprinted in Wobbly! L'Industrial Workers of the World e il suo tempo, ed. Cartosio, Bruno (Milano, 2007), 1770 .

57. Interview with Bruno Cartosio in Borio, Guido, Pozzi, Francesca, and Roggero, Gigi, Futuro Anteriore: Dai “Quaderni Rossi” ai movimenti globali: ricchezze e limiti dell'operaismo italiano (Roma, 2002), attached CD-ROM, 5.

58. Sergio Bologna, “Amo il rosso e il nero, odio il rosa e il viola” in Tribù delle Talpe, 156; Mario Tronti, “Lenin in Inghilterra,” Classe Operaia, February 11, 1964.

59. Musto, Storia degli IWW, xl.

60. Tranfaglia, Nicola and Mantelli, Brunello, “Apogeo e collasso della ‘città-fabbrica’: Torino dall'autunno caldo alla sconfitta operaia del 1980’ in Storia di Torino, ed. Tranfaglia, Nicola (Torino: Einaudi, 1999), 829–62.”

61. Revelli, Marco, Lavorare in Fiat (Milano, 1989); Arisio, Luigi, Vita da capi. L'altra faccia di una grande fabbrica (Milano, 1990).

62. Serneri, Simone Neri, ed., Verso la lotta armata. La politica della violenza nella sinistra radical degli anni Settanta (Bologna, 2014).

63. Tranfaglia, Mantelli, “Apogeo e collasso della ‘città-fabbrica,’” 838–849. Though deeply rooted in historical memory, in retrospect this connection is questionable. Of the sixty-one workers dismissed by FIAT for political violence in 1969, only one was eventually identified as belonging to a terrorist group. See Neri Serseri, ed, Verso la lotta armata.

64. For the decline of trade unions’ clout in the 1980s, see Berta, Giuseppe, “L'arena delle relazioni industriali negli anni Ottanta: le occasioni mancate” in Gli anni Ottanta come storia, ed. Colarizi, Simona (Catanzaro, 2004), 345–46.

65. Polo, Gabriele and Sabattini, Claudio, Restaurazione italiana. FIAT, la sconfitta operaia dell'autunno 1980. Alle origini della controrivoluzione liberista (Roma, 2000); Galli, P. and Pertegato, G., Fiat 1980: Sindrome della Sconfitta (Roma, 1994); Annibaldi, Cesare, Impresa, Partecipazione, Conflitto. Considerazioni dall'esperienza Fiat. Dialogo con Giuseppe Berta (Venezia, 1944).

66. Introduction to Beyond the Nation: Pushing the Boundaries of US History from a Transatlantic Perspective, ed. Fasce, F., Vaudagna, M., and Baritono, R. (Torino, 2003), 11.

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The IWW in Turin: “Militant History,” Workers’ Struggle, and the Crisis of Fordism in 1970s Italy

  • Nicola Pizzolato (a1)


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