Dell’arte della Guerra (On the Art of War)

on the art of war1

In August, 2009, four workers of the Innse heavy metal fabrication plant in Milan climbed atop a 60-foot crane and threatened to jump off if the company owner carried out his plans to shut down the plant and sell off the machinery. They remained on their perch for eight days.

The factory originated in 1931 and fabricated manufacturing equipment, including for several years producing for the Lambretta scooter — rival to the Vespa —and parts for the Mini Cooper automobile. Fourteen months before the workers staged their crane occupation, the company announced its plans to close because it could make more money by selling the equipment than using it to produce. Also, the landlord of the property was anxious to clear the land and join in on the local boom in apartment development. For the first five months after the announced closing, the approximately fifty workers took over production and kept the factory running until the police forced them out. For the next year, and right up to the time the four workers took to the crane, workers and their supporters occupied the area outside the factory to try to block further dismantling.

Most of this information —and this is only skeletal —is not supplied in the film as well as we might expect in a typical documentary. Instead, the film allows the four workers to individually explain their actions, and they do so in a way that warrants the title selected by the filmmakers: On the Art of War. If these workers apply the warfare metaphor to their workplace, it has a long history, classically expressed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto:

Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants.

More recently, Sidney Lens chose to title his 1973 book The Labor Wars; he didn’t call it “labor history” or “labor conflict.” In a slightly less combative tone, economist Richard Edwards wrote a minor classic that described the workplace as “contested terrain.” But, do the workers themselves see it this way?

Looking first at the U.S. experience, when workers have faced plant shutdowns, they have made a compelling argument for their right to jobs: “We’ve been loyal to the company,” they’ve said. “We made them their profit, and now they owe us jobs. Jobs means purchasing power, and that is good for everybody.” Employers offered equally forceful arguments: “We cannot compete with foreign producers; Wall Street won’t invest in us; and workers should retrain for work in the new economy.” We have seen the usual outcome: the shutdowns continue; after valiant protests the workers seek work in the lower-paying, non-union service sector; and union membership nose-dives.

But Innse workers took a different approach. Jobs were certainly a demand, but they were not the demand. What they called for was complete worker control of the factory. Of course, they had achieved this when they temporarily ran things themselves. But, their notion of workplace control meant more: it was not just about production and jobs. For example, when told by the owner that the factory equipment was not their property, they claimed that after working for thirty years, their work had long-ago paid for it, so it was rightfully theirs.

This is a notion born in the perspective of work as contested terrain. The art of war is these workers’ program for direct control, a program they will lay out in detail with crisp and clear language filmed mainly in parts of the company’s previously-demolished buildings that resemble, of course, a war zone. You will witness workers who understand and embody class struggle and class consciousness. As one worker explains, “We propose this structure [for action] for workers in all factories!” They will certainly inspire us to think beyond jobs, pay and productivity, and help us see work as a truly human activity.