Introduction: War, Industry, Workers

The Great War was an important turning point for the affirmation of an industrial society in Italy. Between 1915 and 1918 the world of work underwent a sort of new “industrial revolution”, characterized by transformations and lacerating conflicts.[1] With the beginning of the conflict, the state and military apparatus took on a primary role in the reorganization of the productive system in order to sustain an “industrial” war. In June 1915 the Istituto della Mobilitazione Industriale (MI, Industrial Mobilization) was founded and entrusted to General Alfredo Dallolio (1853-1952), in order to regulate the work market, the locating of materials destined to industrial complexes and the control over the working class that was opposed to the conflict. In factories declared “auxiliary” (strategically important) the workforce was subjected to military discipline, to prohibition to abandon the workplace and to surveillance by the Comitati Regionali di Mobilitazione industriale (CRMI, Regional Committees of Industrial Mobilisation); strikes were abolished and disputes between workers and employers were transferred to the Comitati regionali, which were entrusted with the arbitration function. The development of the military industry was impressive: in 1915 “auxiliary” factories counted 125 and in 1918 they went up to 1,976, for a total of 903,250 workers, including 198,000 women (22.9 percent of employees) and 70,000 aged under sixteen (6.6 percent).[2] More than half of the “auxiliary” factories were located in the central and northern regions, and 70 percent of the military industrial workforce was concentrated within the so-called “industrial triangle” Milan-Turin-Genoa, or in cities such as Terni, Piombino, Florence, Sestri Ponente, an aspect which did not fail to trigger internal mobility processes.[3]

Due to the increasing military needs, businesses belonging to the iron and steel, automotive, mechanical-metallurgical and chemical sectors such as Ansaldo, Fiat, Breda, Ilva, Alfa Romeo and Pirelli, grew significantly[4] and created a “new working class” that was dequalified, inexperienced, recruited among peasants, artisans, women and adolescents.[5] Aided by the dismantling of the tutelage legislation (June 1915) and the expansion of the industrial sector, an increasing number of young individuals and above all women – between 1916 and 1917 these categories went from 89,000 to 175,000 workers – entered the war factories; young workers and women were employed mainly in the mechanical-metallurgical sector, in ammunition factories, in the aeronautic industry painting departments and in some tertiary sectors.[6] Although numerically inferior when compared to other countries at war, the entrance of women in sectors traditionally considered as “male” – opposed by entrepreneurs and by the workers themselves, afraid of being sent to the front and that wage and family hierarchies would be overturned[7] – constituted an element of undeniable cultural and social novelty. Besides the change in the working class composition, the war also provoked quality-related transformations. On an organizational level, the intensification of work was not due only to technological modernization, but to the increase in employed labour and process innovations. The simplification of the use of machinery, which went from multi-purpose to being single-use, parcelled production phases into a continuous series, thus giving birth to an increase of productivity via the adoption of piece-work payment systems, the standardization of products and the progressive employment of unskilled workforce.[8]

The Socialist „Not to adhere, Not to sabotage“ Policy

The instauration of the Mobilitazione Industriale was not only an answer to new wartime needs, but also to the fact that in 1914 the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), which was the main frame of reference for working class masses, as distinct from other European socialist parties, had chosen to remain absolutely neutral. On 16 May 1915, the leaders of the party and of the socialist trade union, the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (CGdL), launched the formula “not to adhere, not to sabotage“, coined by Costantino Lazzari (1857-1927), in an attempt to keep the revolutionary and gradualist components united while not giving way to interventionist elites.[9] In the parliamentary assembly dated 20 May 1915, the socialist group voted against the concession of full powers, while strikes were rapidly repressed in the climate of strong nationalism which characterized the so-called “radiant days” of May.[10] The socialist political line, however, revealed itself as ambiguous, a declaration of dissociation but also of powerlessness, given that it impeded the party and trade union from taking a clear position, thus forcing them to suffer governmental initiatives.[11] The socialist paralysis was also caused by internal divisions. Although the party was led by maximalist personalities such as Costantino Lazzari and Giacinto Menotti Serrati (1876-1926), socialist organizations were dominated by the reformist current, in parliament - Filippo Turati (1857-1932) - in local administrations and even in the CGdL led by Rinaldo Rigola (1868-1954).

This meant that, during the conflict, the accent placed on the “not to sabotage” part of the formula was predominant; even the maximalists, who participated in the Zimmerwald (September 1915) and Kienthal (April 1916) conferences, were unable to go further than a moral refusal of war.[12] Therefore, failure to patriotically adhere exposed socialists to a heavily intimidating climate, to the extent that they were repeatedly indicated by nationalists as “internal enemies”, potential “defeatists” and as the object of repressive actions.[13] Certainly, since May 1915, both the socialist party and trade union were forced to deal with the authoritarian approach of the Italian employers, with the militarization of factories, and with the fact that many militants and union organizers were sent to the front.[14] Only during 1917, in a context characterized by war weariness and by the events in Russia, did revolutionary currents mature within the party,[15] balanced however by more moderate and patriotic reformist positions, especially following the debacle at Caporetto. Nonetheless, the 1915 condemnation of the war marked a strong difference between Italian and European socialists and had a very strong influence on workers, with the result that propaganda activities, managed autonomously by militants, continued for the entire conflict.

Unions between Collaboration and Struggle

The war economy strongly conditioned trade union activities; these were subordinated to military productive needs, limited on a contractual level by state regulations and conditioned by entrepreneurial hostility and by changes in the composition of the working class. Trade unions were excluded from negotiations regarding discipline and work organization (particularly important following the adoption of piecework payment systems), while the prohibition of strikes and the introduction of obligatory arbitration limited their operations.[16] On the other hand, war mobilization also determined changes within the trade union “hierarchies”, with the increasing importance of the mechanical-metalurgical sector to the detriment of other categories – construction, typographic – which had been the dominant forces within the Italian labour movement up until the war.[17] In this framework, during the first phase of the conflict the CGdL was therefore forced to suffer a substantial marginalization, given that the trade union was used instrumentally by the Mobilitazione Industriale leaders to mitigate conflicts and facilitate negotiations regarding salary levels; even the composition of controversies within the regional committees was inbalanced in favour of the employers.[18] While the Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI), whose origins were anarchic and revolutionary, refused to cooperate with the government, the socialist trade union – although opposed to the conflict and to state regulation mechanisms – initiated a painful collaboration with the Mobilitazione Industriale.

While the CGdL accentuated its assistential praxis, devoting itself to an improvement of general conditions (provisions, homes, social insurances, taxes),[19] the Federazione italiana operai metallurgici (FIOM), led by Bruno Buozzi (1881-1944), in a difficult balance between collaboration, compromise and conflict, renounced disputes regarding labour organization. When faced with requests for increased productivity, the FIOM aimed to obtain salary increases and the recognition of the presence of the trade union within the factories.[20] On the other hand, as the war dragged on, the use of repression – mainly supported by the entrepreneurial part – could no longer suffice, so even the Mobilitazione Industriale inaugurated a conciliating policy, via the creation of the “Piecework Commission” (August 1916). This body combined industrialists and labour representatives. Furthermore, the Mobilitazione Industriale also included, within its Central Committee, deputee Angiolo Cabrini (1869-1937), a socialist reformist expelled from the party in 1912, who became an important element for mediation between trade union and state bodies.[21] The activities led by the FIOM enjoyed alternate results. Certainly, within the “Piecework Commission”, the trade unions did manage to propose a series of insurance-related and social measures (which were later put into effect during the last year of the war).

However, they were also forced to renounce the eight-hour objective, to accept modest salary increases in exchange for productivity increases and to watch labour repression from a position of powerlessness.[22] A strategy of demands soon proved to be inadequate in a scenario marked by rigid discipline, by a new composition of the working class and by vertiginous inflation, to the extent that it solicited an increase in strikes and a progressive radicalization of the labour forces.[23] In fact, the attempts to defend professional qualifications were met unfavourably by unskilled workforces and gave birth to intense disputes – for cost of living indemnities, promoted by the labour commissions via the “memoriali” (memorandums). In May 1917 these commissions were legitimized and in July worker representatives, although only “moderate” ones, such as Ludovico Calda (1874-1947), secretary of the Genoa Camera del Lavoro and Emilio Colombino (1884-1933) from the FIOM of Turin, were officially included in the Mobilitazione industriale Central Committee; after Caporetto, the CGdL was unable to avoid the patriotic wave while relations between the trade union and the PSI became increasingly critical due to the reinforcement of the maximalist wing and to the influences from the Bolshevik revolution. However, in February 1918, a decree allowed workers to refer to the local Camere del Lavoro, thus giving way to renewed union activities. Thanks to this measure, the FIOM and CGdL union organizers had a greater role in negotiations, although not sufficient to hush up the discontent of the working class.[24]

Discipline and Labour conditions in the factories

As the conflict proceeded, the militarization of “auxiliary” factories, which were transformed into a sort of “barracks”, became increasingly intense. During 1916-1917, absence from work was equated to the crime of desertion, transfers were prohibited and disciplinary sanctions were exacerbated (fines, layoffs, reports to military tribunals, strikers being sent to the front as a form of punishment), while technical supervisors were equated to military ranks. Such measures were exacerbated after Caporetto, when in a climate of forced resistance, between January and October 1918, about one-third of the workforces in “auxiliary” complexes was punished with fines, 25,840 workers were punished with imprisonment, while referral to tribunals of workers subjected to military obligations regarded 1.6 percent of the workforce, i.e. one military worker in every sixty-two.[25] Alongside the rigours of discipline, during the conflict working conditions were particularly harsh for labourers because of overwork, extended work schedules and intensified rhythms. The reduction of protective measures and of operations by the Ispettorato del Lavoro contributed to a clear regression in terms of labour conditions; in “auxiliary” factories, time schedules were significantly extended (from ten to twelve hours up to fourteen to sixteen hours per day), overtime became obligatory, and holidays were abolished. The over-fatiguing conditions were such that the workers, unable to control their labour rhythms, reacted by multiplying their absences, particularly on Mondays (the so-called “lunedianti”), just as worker-peasants had done during the initial phases of 19th century industrialization.

In this scenario, during 1916-1917, injuries redoubled, involving 34 percent of workers employed in mechanical-metallurgical factories, 17 percent in chemical and explosives factories and 9 percent in construction and mining enterprises. In the Milanese Comitato Regionale di Mobilitazione Industriale alone, between January and October 1916, circa half of the more than 94,000 workers suffered an injury; most of the injured were young workers and women, inexperienced labourers, exhausted by the intensified work rhythms.[26] Protective interventions by the Mobilitazione Industriale were rather slow, due to the priority assigned to war needs and the opposition they faced from entrepreneurs. Unlike other countries at war, the problems regarding the prevention of injuries, new phenomena such as stress and “industrial fatigue”, or unprecedented professional illnesses due to the vast use of chemical substances, were hardly taken into consideration. Only from the second half of 1917, when absenteeism rates almost undermined production, did the Mobilitazione Industriale institute a hygienic-sanitary surveillance service for young workers and women (July 1917), obligatory insurances against injuries. Just before and after the Caporetto debacle, the Mobilitazione Industriale also introduced forms of salary regulation based on the cost of living (mobile salary scale) and salary integrations in the case of involuntary unemployment.[27] Harsh work conditions were also exacerbated by the precariousness of life in large cities. Far from receiving “high salaries” – as was polemically stated by the middle classes, which were dealing with their loss of status in the new “wartime society” – workers suffered due to their wages being frozen on pre-war levels and were forced to take on an increasing amount of overtime to compensate for the increased food prices (+ 300 percent between 1914 and 1918). Their conditions in industrial cities, on the other hand, were frequently characterized by scarcity of food and combustible goods, overcrowded accommodation, long queues in shops, tiring movements to get to their workplaces. Due to fatigue and under-nutrition in industrial districts, such as in Brescia, Lombardy, a high level of mortality was recorded among women and young workers, due to tuberculosis and pneumonia; furthermore, an increase in child mortality was also recorded, probably ascribable to an increase in the use of wet nursing or to early interruption of breastfeeding.[28]

At work behind the Frontline

Alongside the growth of the industrial sector, the trench and attrition war led to a noteworthy development of the logistic services that were needed by the army in the “war zone”. The task of coordinating recruitment and of managing labour on the frontline was assigned to the Segretariato Generale per gli Affari Civili, a body reporting directly to the Supreme Command. During the conflict this body, led by general Agostino D’Adamo (1876-1958), managed to employ circa 650,000 labourers from all Italian regions, to be assigned to logistic and defensive operations on the army’s frontline and in the areas behind it. This was a relevant experiment in terms of organized migrations: between 1916 and 1917 more than 210,000 workers from southern regions (Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania) were transferred to the areas behind the front, 122,000 of which came from Puglia alone. During those two years the percentage of workers from the South went from 38 percent to 42 percent of overall recruitment. The work teams were composed of builders, peasant labourers, excavators, miners, elderly individuals and even adolescents (no less than 60,000 units); furthermore, women and girls were recruited from areas near the front (circa 20,000 during 1918). Although the Segretariato Generale had prepared an advanced collective contract to attract workers (relatively high salaries, board and lodging, unemployment indemnity, medical assistance), the authoritarianism of the officials often ended up frustrating its application. Labourers were forced to adapt to harsh conditions while performing dangerous tasks in areas pounded by the artillery, in malaria-infested zones or high up in the mountains. Just as in “auxiliary” factories, the disciplinary regime in frontline worksites was severe and the workers, subjected to the military penal code and lacking any form of trade union mediation, suffered intense exploitation. The inadequacy and inexperience of the labourers, harsh environmental contexts, precarious accommodations and tremendous fatigue determined no less than 30,000 serious injuries and cases of disease and circa 4,000 deaths during the conflict.[29]

Strikes and Workers’Unrest 1915-1918

During the initial phase of the war, the labour movement was disoriented by the rigid discipline and the arrival of new workforces, which initially appeared prone to accepting the tough work conditions and diffident towards the previously formed working class. Exploitation, the repressive climate and increasingly inadequate wages soon led to conflicts. Starting in 1916, it was precisely the “new working class” composed of women and young unskilled workers, antagonistic and less subjected to the disciplinary system, that gave birth to a series of spontaneous and disorganized protests, short-lived and met with hostility by the organized labour movement representatives – who considered them unrelated to their traditional demand-making praxis. However, from 1917 onwards, the worsening of labour conditions led to a progressive re-composition of the working class which manifested itself in strikes and unitary agitations, aiming to obtain minimum wages and equalitarian basic wage rises, to express solidarity towards punished or dismissed co-workers, or to gain recognition of labourer commissions.

These controversies were accompanied by new forms of protest, such as “Italian” strikes, decline of work rhythms and sabotage.[30] During this phase, protests were characterized by a greater level of participation and duration, thus gaining – in light of the revolutionary Russian events – openly political significance, and becoming a form of pressure upon entrepreneurs and, more generally, upon the state itself. Given the CGdL’s “moderate” position, a large part of the strikes were spontaneous and unrelated to trade union organizations. If the majority of the strikes was motivated by the inadequacy of wages (in 1917, 78 percent of controversies), an analysis of the protests has also revealed a sort of “cultural resistance” against piecework systems, asphyxiating discipline, the abolition of holidays, and aiming to re-affirm class solidarity, identity and professional dignity. Another important element was the widespread feeling of “moral revolt”[31] against the state, that was considered the guarantor of rights the workers believed to be sacrosanct, as well as the lacerating “discomfort” deriving from the contradiction between war-related labour and pacifist and internationalist beliefs.[32] These subjective perceptions, following the impact of the Russian revolutionary events, fed the working class’s consciousness and rage and manifested themselves in requests for peace, justice and new social structures based on equity and equality.[33]

A long cycle of agitations began in the spring-summer of 1917, when the discontent in factories belonging to the “industrial triangle” was aggravated by fatigue, war weariness and shortages, and exploded in the popular revolts in Milan and Turin (May and August 1917).[34] The agitations then weakened during 1918, not just because of the full functionality of arbitration mechanisms, but also due to the repressive reactions which culminated, after the Caporetto debacle, in the extension of the “war zone” to the northern regions.[35] Compared to the pre-war period, the number of strikes diminished, but labourer participation increased, category claims overcame specific trade/qualification-related ones and the agitations assumed national dimensions. A large part of the strikes, about 90 percent, lasted less than ten days, yet from 1916, and even more frequently in 1917-1918, longer protests took place, some even lasting more than thirty days. According to underestimated official sources, 782 strikes took place attended by 173,103 participants in 1914, the number then dropped to 539 in 1915 (attended by 132,136 participants), in 1916 there were 516 strikes (123,616 strikers), in 1917 the number of strikes was 443 (168,626 strikers), and dropped to 303 strikes attended by 158,036 participants in 1918. During the four years of the war, most strikes took place in the textile sector (30 percent of total strikes and 43 percent of total strikers) and in the iron and steel, metallurgical, mechanical and naval sector (16 percent of total strikes and 25 percent of total participants). No official data are available regarding strikes in “auxiliary” industrial complexes, but between January and October 1918, lost days of work in these structures amounted to 358,885, more than 50 percent of the total lost days of work in the industrial sector during that year, proof of a noteworthy level of pugnacity among the workers.[36] Furthermore, it is important to highlight women’s participation in the strikes, which went from 34.4 percent in 1915 to 64.2 percent in 1917, and dropped to 45.6 percent during the last year of the war. This participation originated from the specific conditions suffered by female workers, from their low wages, their double occupation in the factory and in their own homes, and from the anxiety from awaiting the return of their loved ones from the frontline. Women, alongside young workers[37] – less punishable and less liable to be blackmailed than adult male labourers – animated the protest and strikes and became an important connection between factories and society, rural and urban areas.[38] After Caporetto, activities by the Camere del Lavoro and the labourer commissions – elected by the entire workforces, both skilled and unskilled, these were future factory councils based on the Soviet model during the “red biennium” 1919-1920 – contributed to accelerate solidarity between workers and their rapid maturation in political-trade union-related terms.[39] In virtue of the greater autonomy conceded to local sections of the FIOM, in 1918 the CGdL consolidated its position among workers. Already in May, the CGdL demanded the reinstatement of political and trade union freedoms, while the FIOM and the USI managed to accomplish a vast organizational operation among metal workers and miners, joining their economic demands to political significance and contents. During this last phase of the war, by voicing a series of demands, including eight-hour working days, minimum wages, unemployment benefits, and by opening its dialogue to the unskilled workers, the FIOM was able to increase its consensus.[40]


The effort made by the working classes was relevant, sustained in difficult conditions, within a highly repressive scenario. The basic features of the war experience can be identified in the authoritarian approach towards the workforces, the intensified production, the relevant straining of the workforces, the geographic mobility and in the general radicalization process of a working class that was undergoing noteworthy changes in its composition. However, the test of war was also a strong accelerator of social processes, which allowed the working classes to emerge strengthened both in identity-related terms and in their role, to the extent of becoming an important interlocutor for entrepreneurs and even for the state’s institutions. A return to the past, characterized by reactionary forms of exploitation, also took place, although in late and sector-related terms, via an attempt to modernize industrial relations by using collective contracts and a series of social measures (welfare funds, insurances, wage integrations). These initiatives served as a prelude for the formation of a welfare state, sealed by the April 1919 law on obligatory insurances.

Collaboration between trade unions, entrepreneurs and the state, collective contract negotiations, social measures such as the claim to compensation for loss of freedom initiated by the Mobilitazione industriale, were all re-used by Fascism in its attempt to give birth to a corporate state. From the point of view of trade unions, the conflict pushed the CGdL and FIOM to address new productive scenarios and changes in industrial relations, in the definition of professional figures and even in labourer mentality. Despite the ambiguity of the demands, at the end of the conflict a relevant re-organizational phase took place, which consolidated the national dimension of the trade unions and accelerated the passage of trade unions from job-related to category-related. Tensions between law abiding-reformist positions and revolutionary ones, already present in 1915, continued during the “red biennium”, exacerbated by the now pivotal role of workers, who – following the repression that they had suffered during the war – now manifested their ambition to gain compensation and generate social change.[41]

Matteo Ermacora, University of Venice

Section Editor: Nicola Labanca

Translator: Benjamin Ginsborg