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15 February 2016

The struggle for health at work: the Italian workers’ model of the 1970s as a source of inspiration

In the context of workers’ struggles in Italy at the end of the 1960s, a totally new approach to workplace health and safety issues arose. Emphasising prevention rather than compensation for work-related injuries, this movement quickly spread throughout different European countries. Can these experiments inspire union-led prevention strategies today? Historians, sociologists, ergonomists and trade unionists debated this question on 9 and 10 February in Brussels, at a seminar convened by the ETUI.

In Turin at the beginning of the 1960s a group of trade unionists, doctors and workers launched an investigation into conditions at the pharmaceuticals plant Farmitalia where the workforce had been complaining about its working environment. Following the investigation, the collective demanded the replacement of all harmful chemical substances used in production at the factory. At a time when workers exposed to unhealthy working conditions focussed their demands primarily on securing bonuses, this was already a small revolution.

But the workers of Farmitalia took things even further. They were determined to become involved in risk analysis and prevention; and they demanded a say in the work organisation which they believed to be the cause of their health problems.

This approach was to be reproduced in other Turin enterprises, notably at FIAT, and, in the context of the social unrest and labour struggles that marked the end of the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s, it spread throughout Italy. Trade Unions united around these demands, while the movement was joined also by intellectuals, prominent among them the doctor and occupational psychologist Ivar Oddone. At the start of the ’70s, 3000 people gathered in Rimini to talk about working conditions in the factories. Unions set up a ‘research and documentation centre on work-related risks and injuries.’ By the time it ran out of steam at the end of the decade, this wage of mobilisation had led to fundamental changes in the Italian healthcare system.

The Italian model of workers’ struggle for health had a major impact in several countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In France, the Italian workers’ slogan ‘La salute non si vende’ (Health is not for sale) was taken up by Les Cahiers de Mai. This magazine, created after the events of May 1968, published a letter from striking workers of a battery recycling plant denouncing the working conditions which, as a result of massive lead exposure, left them with health problems.

The Italian model of a coalition between scientists and workers was adopted in various guises in other countries too. In the Netherlands, its influence led to a movement to establish Science Shops (‘wetenschapswinkels’), the purpose of which was to supply information and educational materials to people lacking the means to conduct their own research projects. In Denmark, the Work Environment Action-Group of Workers and Academics was set up in 1975.

In the United Kingdom, the magazine Hazards served as a bridge between socially committed scientists and the world of labour. Yet it was this same country that fell victim, at the beginning of the ’80s, to a political and ideological current that was to weaken many of these pioneering experiences of labour democracy.

The archives of the Italian labour movement’s struggle for health, currently being digitised by the Trade Unions in collaboration with the National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work (INAIL), will soon be made publicly available. This material could, hopefully, give fresh impetus to the trade union struggle to promote workers’ health and safe working conditions.

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