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Fiat workers vote on tough offer to save jobs

June 23, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Pomigliano D‘Arco, Italy , June 23, 2010

Several thousand car workers at Fiat’s Pomigliano D’Arco plant voted on Tuesday in a make-or-break ballot whether to accept tough management conditions on new work practices in return for transferring production of the Panda model from Poland.

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive, has indicated he would close the plant with its 5,300 workers if a sufficient consensus – which he has not defined – did not vote in favour.

Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government and industrialists facing off Italy’s main left-wing trade union see the vote as a watershed in the history of industrial relations as companies like Fiat flex their muscles against a once powerful labour movement weakened by the process of globalisation.

“This is blackmail,” declared Massimo Brancato, Naples leader of Fiom, the main metalworkers union which rejected Mr Marchionne‘s offer. Two other major unions have accepted however.

“If you vote yes you keep your wages, if no you are without a job,” Mr Brancato told the Financial Times outside the plant where workers made their way through a gauntlet of red flags and picketing activists, some from fringe communist parties armed with megaphones, opposed to the deal.

“The bosses are fuelling a war among the poor, pitting Italian workers against Polish workers. We must repel with all our strength this attack of the bosses who would destroy the last bastion of workers rights,” the Communist Workers Party said in a flier handed out to arriving workers.

Mr Marchionne says he is committed to investing 700m euros in Pomigliano, which has mostly stood idle for the past two years, and moving the Panda production line from its super-efficient but over-stretched Tychy plant in Poland.

In return workers must accept shorter breaks, longer periods of compulsory overtime, sanctions against what Fiat defines as unacceptable levels of sick leave, and restrictions on their right to strike. Fiom says the conditions breach labour agreements and the Italian constitution.

Mr Brancato said Finmeccanica, an industrial conglomerate, and Indesit, a white-goods manufacturer, had stated their intention to seek the same kind of contracts should Fiat succeed in imposing its conditions.

Results of the ballot were expected late last night. Even workers opposed to the new contract terms conceded that a majority were likely to vote in favour.

Mr Marchionne’s blunt take it or leave it approach has angered the unions, with Fiom saying its offers to negotiate were rebuffed. The chief executive also sent tempers flying by accusing workers of staging a strike last week at Sicily’s Termini Imerese plant — which is destined for closure next year — only because they wanted to watch Italy’s opening World Cup match.

“I say yes to work but no to slavery. I want to work with dignity,” said Umberto after voting against the plan.

But most told the FT as they filed out with heads bowed that they had voted in favour because they had no choice. “The alternative is closing the plant and losing our jobs,” said one woman. “This is the world economy we find ourselves in.”

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