The Factory and the School: a Conversation with Antonio Lettieri

In the early 1970s), Italian metalworkers included in the platform for the renewal of the national contract the request for 150 hours paid to be used to improve knowledge and culture of workers. It represented a new paradigm in the relationship between manual and intellectual work.

The Italian government has proposed the so-called Citizens' income to allow people in poverty to engage in finding a job. Alternatively, failing that, in training courses. Given the non-secondary role assigned to training, an important issue emerges regarding the presence of the public training system in the process of implementing these rules.

In the early 1970s (1973), when Italian metalworkers included in the platform for the renewal of the national contract the request for 150 hours paid to be used to improve knowledge and more generally the culture of workers, it represented an extraordinary novelty, not only for Italy but also for Europe. Let's talk about the old experience of the so-called “150 hours”, which established a new contractual paradigm in the relationship between manual and intellectual work, with Antonio Lettieri, the former secretary of the Italian metalworking federation (FIOM-CGIL) at that time protagonist of that negotiation.

Claudio Salone
What can you tell us about the genesis of those long gone experience and the possibility that the school, understood in the broadest sense, is also today a tool to recover and enhance the cultural and professional identity, personal and collective towards the workers.

Antonio Lettieri 
It has been almost a half century since the establishment of the “150 hours”, many things have changed and that experience cannot be repeated in the form it took at that time, but perhaps it is useful to go back to the origins of that experience, and try to draw from it valuable indications also for the present, since the 150 hours left a deep mark in the relationship between school and work.

To frame the issue in a correct perspective, I would say that the 150 hours originated in the factories, starting from the critique of the traditional work organization famously theorized at the beginning of last century by Frederick W. Taylor.

The core of the “Scientific management” theorized by Taylor at the turn of the twentieth century was the separation between the mass unskilled work and the skilled work of the classical division between "unskilled" and “skilled" workers – these being a sort of working class élite. Between the two categories stood an impassable wall. For Taylor, mass work corresponded to the scientifically organized task of manual workers without any specific training and competence. Strict obedience to the time and methods fixed in the execution of an elementary task was the essence of the work organization.

Henry Ford developed the separation between skilled and unskilled labor by applying it to the assembly line, inaugurating in 1913 in a firm close to Detroit the modern car industry. On the assembly line, each parceled operation was performed in a very short time, sometimes in a few seconds. There was no need for any work training. Paradoxically, according to the new organization of work, this would have been an obstacle, introducing redundant elements with respect to the elementary tasks to be performed, according to the strict rules established by the management. To paraphrase the famous title of Musil's novel "Men without Qualities", the workers were not asked for any intelligence in carrying out their elementary task.

In recruitment selection, at the most famous Ford factory in River Rouge, near Detroit, uneducated whites, immigrants and blacks were preferred, which gave greater assurance of adaptation to the rigid rules of work organization. This model was imitated in textile factories where women's work prevailed over the looms.

The new work organization allowed an extraordinary increase in productivity and, according to the canons of Taylor and Ford, a substantial increase in wages. Criticisms of this extreme fragmentation and intensification of work have not been lacking. Taylor underwent some sort of trial by a US Senate committee, which accused him of being the theorist and promoter of extreme forms of the workers' exploitation. However, the Taylors’ "scientific management" was at the base of the new industrial revolution and spread rapidly in all the candidate countries for the new mass industrialization. In addition, Lenin, then at the head of the Soviet revolution, pointed to the theory and practice of Taylor's division of labor as a model to be adopted in the new socialist factories to improve economic planning.

How did the Trade Unions react to the emergence of these new models of work organization?

It must be considered that the American Trade Unionism, dominated by the American Labor Federation, led by Samuel Gompers, its founder and president for almost forty years between the two centuries, the Unions did not organize the unskilled workers, but essentially the workers on the basis of their skills.

We had to wait for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal to see the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which redeemed the common mass work, bringing it to the center of the new trade unionism.

The Auto Workers Union (UAW), led by Walter Reuther counted as one of the 100 greatest protagonists of 20th century American history, entered the Ford factories for the first time. But even in this case, bargaining had a fundamental effect on wages and working conditions in the broad sense, but without touching on the fundamental distinction between skilled and unskilled workers and, a fortiori, the dividing line between manual and non-manual labor. The double barrier between skilled and unskilled workers and, even more, between manual workers and employees remained intangible.

This barrier was overcome in Italy with the establishment of a unified hierarchy between manual workers and employees. What were the motives of this innovation that upset the old system of qualification, based on the division of labor of Taylor-Fordist origin?

The revolution of the qualifications system in Italy had at the beginning an almost casual origin: I had dealt with the qualifications system while I was at the CGIL economic studies department. The traditional qualifications system seemed to me to be based on a work division that reflected an ideological division in the working class – first of all, the break between manual and non-manual workers consecrated in the collective bargaining.

It provided not only a different wage and salary structure but also different legislation from the point of view of rights. Ultimately, it was not only a separation in the working place but the premise for a social class division. In definitive, two separate worlds. Yet this was conjectural speculation, devoid of practical meaning and effectiveness in the field of bargaining, given that the traditional and worldwide-adopted system of qualifications was dominant throughout the industrial system.

It happened that, having been elected to national secretariat of the Italian Metalworkers’ Federation (FIOM), directed by Bruno Trentin, I was entrusted with the bargaining in the iron and steel sector where the traditional system of qualifications had been overcome by the adoption of the Job Analysis and Evaluation. Italisider, the most important steel company in Italy and one of the largest in Europe, had adopted at the beginning of the Sixties this system.

On the basis of this sophisticated system of classification, originated in the U.S., the company had subdivided workers into 50 levels or classes: 24 for manual workers, 16 for non-manual, and 10 for middle managers. The subdivision was based on molecular analysis of the workplace.  Each of the fragmented tasks was ranked in term of points according to various elements resulting from the job analysis and evaluation. Finally, the points rating constituted the basis of an overall structure consisting of 50  pay levels.

In my view, it just was an adjourned method that brought the old Taylor’s system to a higher degree of sophistication, making the work division even more rigid through an apparently objective ranking of the worker’s fragmented tasks. In other terms, it was possible to attack the old intangible qualification system starting from the Job analysis and evaluation in one of the more advanced industries in Italy.

In 1970, when the old Italisider contract was to be renewed, it seemed to me that it was the occasion to formulate a platform based on the overcoming of the Job Analysis and Evaluation. The platform was based on the adoption of a radically new classification system aimed at a limited number of levels within each of which both manual and non-manual workers were placed.

The debate about the definition of the platform lasted some months, involving a large mass of workers. In the end, the outcome was the abolition of the Job analysis and evaluation system and its replacement with a new classification based on six levels that included all the workers in relation to their newly defined position in the production process. The dispute was hard and lasted for many months. To end it, the Prime Minister, Emilio Colombo, intervened on the Trade-Union’s Confederations denouncing the heavy financial consequences for the steel sector and its reflexes in a large part of the manufacturing industry.

Nevertheless, the movement could not be stopped. And, finally, after many months of struggle, on Christmas Eve of 1970, the dispute was successfully concluded: the division of workers into 50 classes was abolished and the”Inquadramento unico”, the unified scale on eight levels was established in which the workers were placed in relation to their position in terms of contribution and relevance in the production process, according to the criteria established in the agreement.

The novelty aroused interest and surprise in all European trade unionism. The classical work division had been undermined not only because manual and non-manual workers were placed on the same level along a very short hierarchical scale with equal wages and equal rights for each level. Not less relevant was that the passage from each level to the higher one was planned in relation to a process of enlargement and enrichment of tasks, as well as for the improvement of the abilities of the workers in participating in a larger part of the production process at the same time acquiring a more complex knowledge and active participation in  the innovations of the production process.

This new type of worker classification, born in a technologically advanced industrial sector had a contagious effect. With the renewal of the national contract of 1973, it was generalized to the whole category of metalworkers, then to the entire manufacturing industry and, subsequently, to services and public administration.

Today the origin of that process is barely remembered: the unification of the old worker hierarchies has become a natural intertwining of dependent workers. Many experts in work organization came to study it from all over Europe. And “Temps Modernes”, the French magazine directed by Jean-Paul Sartre, dedicated a special issue to the origins of what was considered a revolution in the traditional system of qualification of work and social class division (1). 

How did the 150 hours become part of this process that together changed the organization of work and the traditional system of division and qualification of work?

Overcoming the old system of qualifications and the new dynamics envisaged between the different levels on the basis of the new and expanded capacity to intervene in the production process widened the need for the acquisition of new knowledge of the production process and the organization of work.

This has paved the way for a new relationship between work and knowledge, opening a new horizon that implied a more complex understanding of the personal position in relation to the production process and the specific meaning of the individual and collective contribution to it. The school had to actively participate in this process of individual and collective enhancement of the relationship between work and knowledge.

The ground for this exchange between work and specific, as well general, knowledge became the basis for the contractual request for a part of working time paid to be dedicated to a process of cultural advancement.

 In this context, the conquest of the "150 hours" that could be dedicated to learning was born: an intellectual commitment associated with work. According to the platform, the time spent learning was 50 percent charged to the company and 50 percent to the beneficiary, who had to spend an equivalent unpaid time to attend the chosen program of study.

During the long and hard negotiations, the counterparty's chief negotiator asked, as a provocative objection, if a company could be forced to pay some free time to a worker who wanted to learn to play the harpsichord.It was a really smart provocation or so it appeared. The answer should have been negative or, in any case, embarrassing. As head of the trade union delegation, I instead thanked him for the question, saying that it finally resolved any doubts about the meaning of the 150 hours. Yes. The beneficiary had the right to claim the use of that time to implement his personal vocation in playing a musical instrument.

The 150 hours had to be considered, in fact, a conquest of the workers, not a beneficial concession of the employer. The worker who acquired that benefit would have been free to choose the field of his cultural commitment. The theme of the harpsichord became the object of curiosity, interest, and debate in the national press. In effect, it would have been an unlikely request and, in any case, the work council of the company would have made a selection among the demands of the workers as not each request could have been satisfied in relation to the number of hours available.

However, the provocation contributed to giving a definitive interpretation of the individual right to request and use a paid free time to improve its education.

Of course, there was a limit to the hours paid by the company in relation to the whole number of dependent workers. The measure was conventionally set by establishing the availability of 150 hours paid for two out of 100 workers engaged during the year in a course of study for 300 hours. But this was a conventional calculation. Indeed, individual demand would normally have been for a more limited number of paid hours to which had to be added as many hours of unpaid study.

Assuming that the individual requests would have been around an average of 30 paid hours from the company, ten out of a hundred workers could have benefited from the new "150 hours" contractual achievement. It was the job of the work council to reconcile requests with the actual annual amount. There were those who resumed the course of studies they had abandoned and those who seek new skills or simply to develop cultural interests.

Schools and universities opened the doors to the organization of courses entitled "150 hours" on a large number of subjects, from industrial history to new technologies, from work organization to the structure of wages, and so on. Never before had teaching been organized to respond to the demand for a mass of workers. Hundreds of thousands of workers, along with unemployed job seekers, participated in these courses over the years to obtain a diploma or simply to update and improve previous studies.

Now, starting from the 150 hours experience, let’s talk about the possible role of the school in implementing the “Citizenship revenue” which is the new government provision for people in poverty, who are looking for a job and are committed to a training course to acquire targeted skills to the acquisition a job.

We must start from the fact that the new “Citizens' revenue" is not conceived as a pure subsidy for the citizens living in a state of extreme poverty. The benefit is subject to research and the will to take on a job suited to one's abilities, according to a "congruity" criterion. The measure has a general character, but it is clear that it will interest most young people, considering that in Italy more than 30 percent of young people of working age are unemployed. It is the highest figure, after Greece and Spain, among the 28 countries of the European Union and is twice the European average.

This being the case, it is certain that not everyone will find a job in a predictable time, either due to an objective lack of jobs or to a lack of training that meets the requirements of specific sectors of the labor market. This is the reason why the “revenue” is envisaged as a counterpart to the commitment both in the active search for a job, and, failing that, in the commitment to undertake a specific training course.

In this way, the role of the school in its various forms comes into play: from the completion of general studies, often abandoned for social reasons, to the achievement of a specific preparation required by the labor market. Faced with such a vast measure that tends to involve hundreds of thousands of young people and adults in a training process, the role of the public education system cannot but take on essential importance.

The difference with the 150-hour experience is however evident. Then it was a question of a free choice of the worker to access a higher degree of cultural preparation with, or even without, a strictly professional purpose. In the case of the “Citizen’s revenue” it is the manifestation of an individual commitment as a mandatory counterpart for the acquisition of the citizenship income paid by the community.

In any case, the connection of income with a training process can be an important lever to help to free the youngsters from marginalization in the suburbs of big cities and from the risk of falling into the trap of crime. It can be considered one of the most important social measure of the current government. However, it is not clear the role of the school institutions in promoting and activating new forms of mass education and training.

One has to hope that new experience will work to free a large number of young people from a lack of adequate education and training congruent with the new labor market. The old 150-hour experience could be an important experience to remember and to take into consideration. However, in many respects, it remains an experience linked to a particular period of the conquest of trade unions and the progress of social policy.
(1 ) Antonio Lettieri, L’usine et l’école, “Les Temps Modernes”, N°301-302, Août-Septembre 1971)

Claudio Salone

Professor of ancient literatures, Rome -

Insight - Free thinking for global social progress

Free thinking for global social progress