Italian Trade Unions Under Fascism

By Gaetano Salvemini

A new economic and political machinery has been invented in Italy by Mussolini. It has been imitated by Hitler in Germany. It has been introduced into Austria after the suppression of the Socialists. In December, 1934, the New York Times announced that former King Alfonso of Spain and the Duke of Alba, “scion of one of Spain’s most distinguished lines,” had declared themselves in favor of the corporative state. In England Sir Oswald Mosley assures his countrymen that they will reach the heights of felicity when they adopt the corporative state. In this country Bishop Joseph Schrembs of Cleveland, an admirer of Father Coughlin, holds up the protection that Mussolini has given to labor as an example to American capitalism (New York Herald Tribune, August 6, 1936).

What are the essential features of the Italian corporative state?

I. The Organizations

Italy is divided into provinces. In each province a single organization may enjoy legal recognition for each group of employers, employees, or professional classes. The law admits the existence of de facto organizations outside the legal ones. But no one has yet dared to form any such de facto organization. Such an attempt would be regarded as a subversion of the national order and would be severely penalized.

Nobody may join the official fascist organization of his trade if the secretary does not admit him, and the secretary may expel any members who, in his opinion, are “undesirable.” But everybody must contribute annual dues to the organization for his trade whether he belongs to it or not.

The fascist organizations are grouped into nine National Confederations: four for the employers, four for the employees, and one for the professional classes.

The presidents of the National Confederations are appointed by Mussolini. The officials of the subordinate organizations are designated by the presidents of the Confederations after consulting the leaders of the Fascist Party. They can be removed by the government if they fail to manifest a sufficient degree of “undoubted national [that is, fascist] loyalty.”

Thus, the officials are not “elected” by the members, but are “appointed” from above. They are accountable not to the membership of their organizations, but to the leaders of the party in power.

In 1927, a few fascists timidly requested that the system of free election for officials be adapted, affirming that there was no longer any danger that men antagonistic to the party in power might gain control of the unions. The Secretary General of the party rejected the proposal, proclaiming that “the system of appointing officials from above, a system fundamentally fascist, had given excellent results, such as that of suppressing every survival of democratic mentality. We are an army of believers, not a mass of organized members.” The request for elective directors was renewed at the beginning of 1930. But the Fascist Grand Council, which is the highest governing body in the regime, denied the request, declaring that “no modification should take place in the system of designating directors, a system which embodies the spirit of fascist legislation.”

II. Who Is Master of the Machine?

So far there would seem to be no difference between the associations of the employers, on the one hand, and the unions of employers or the organizations of the professional classes, on the other. All have their officials appointed from above. But the conditions actually obtaining in the different classes are not the same.

Among the employers there is a sharp division between the big industrialists, landowners, and bankers, and the small fellows. When an official is to be appointed in an association of employers, the big business men—few in number—gather at their business or social meetings, choose their man of confidence, ring up some of the leaders of the party in power, give the name of the best man, and the best man is appointed. For instance, the President of the Confederation of the Industrial Employers today is Count Volpi, who may be called the Italian Rockefeller. It cannot be doubted that he represents perfectly Italian big business.

The small industrial employer, the small shopkeeper, the small farmer, do not take part in this game. They have no voice in the appointment of the officials of their own associations. The directors of the associations of employers are the representatives of those big business men who control the associations of each group—and not of the little fellows.

As regards the workers, there is no difference among them of most powerful and less powerful, of big and small. All are small, all are powerless. They are too numerous. And they are not allowed to meet and discuss their business. They cannot ring up the leaders of the party in power and lay before them their own nominees. The directors of their organizations do not represent anybody: they are merely the men of confidence of the party in power which control their unions.

This holds good for the professional classes also.

In the fascist corporative state big business is an active factor and runs the associations of employers. The classes of the small employers and of the employees and the professional classes are passive elements, subject to whatever their officials think fit. Small employers, workers, and professional classes have in the fascist organizations no greater authority than have the animals in a society for the rescue of animals.

This is a basic point if one wants to understand fascist trade unionism. But the admirers of fascism take good care never to give any concrete information about this phase of fascist trade unionism. If you read a lecture on The Aims and Policies of the Fascist Regime in Italy, which was delivered at the Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Virginia in 1934, and which President Butler of Columbia University prefaced in the monthly publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, you will learn that “each member of an organization casts a ballot in the election which creates its directive body.” Read the recent book of Professor Schneider of Columbia University, The Fascist Government of Italy, p. 81, and you will learn that the trade organizations in Italy are “self-governing,” and they practically afford the only example in Italy “of electionism or of office coming from below instead of from above.” Both of these statements ignore the basic fact: the complete suppression of freedom of activity of rank-and-file members in fascist trade unions.

III. Labor Agreements and Labor Court

When one has formed a clear idea of the legal organizations and their officials, one can fully grasp what is meant when one hears that all contracts concerning wages, hours of work, etc., are drawn up by the organizations of employers and employees and that these contracts are binding on all the employers and workers, whether they are members of the organizations or not. Those contracts are drawn up by men in the confidence of the big employers and by officials who have been appointed from above to control the unions of the employees. The membership of the unions has no say in such matters. If anyone is not satisfied and ventures to grumble, the secretary of his union turns him out of the union, and so all the members who remain within the union become satisfied and contented.

Strikes are forbidden and punished by a severe and progressive scale of penalties, the maximum being seven years’ imprisonment.

In July, 1926, about 1,400 workers, most of them women, went on strike at a factory in Carosia, near Genoa. “Since the fascists have had the upper hand,” said some of these women, “we are isolated and leaderless. The employers have seized the opportunity of reducing our wages by nearly 40 per cent.”

Some of the women, suspected of being leaders of the strike, were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

Lockouts are forbidden as well as strikes. Thus, the fascists claim that capital is put on the same level as labor. But where strikes cannot take place, lockouts become unnecessary. Moreover, the law, while forcing workmen to labor under threat of imprisonment, cannot force an employer to give work if he declares that he can no longer maintain the old wages. The stoppage of work is then not a lockout, but a closing down induced by a “justified motive.”

When the representatives of the employers and the officials who run the workers’ unions do not agree, their dispute is to be decided by the Labor Court, either regarding contracts in course of execution or those in process of formation. The court consists of a judge and two experts, and all experts must be university graduates. In this way the workers are automatically excluded from the court.

The fascists justify the abolition of the right to strike by the following theorem:

“The state is no longer the state, i.e., is no longer sovereign, if it is not able to deal cut justice in conflicts between social classes and categories, forbidding them to exercise private justice, just as this is forbidden to individuals and families.”

But in labor disputes who is the state? In the “corporative state” we find on the bottom rung the men of confidence of the big employers and the officials appointed from above to run the unions of the employees, and on the upper rung we find the judges and experts of the labor courts. On neither of these two rungs have the working people any real representation. Therefore the “state” turns out to be the employing class.

IV. “Brothers in the Fascist Family”

Under the fascist corporative system you are the owner of your land, of your factory, of your sheep, of your shoes, but you are not the owner of your manual work. If your labor is all that you possess, that labor does not belong to you. Officials, whose deeds you may not criticize and whom you may not dismiss, dictate to you as to how many hours a day you shall work, what wages you shall be content with, and what fine you must pay to your employer if you are not industrious enough.

A socialist state would nationalize capital as a means of redeeming the worker from the slavery of wages. The fascist state nationalizes labor and hires it out to private capital at the price which the state itself—that is to say, the officials of the unions appointed by the leaders of the party in power and the judges of the labor court—deems expedient.

A national confederation of fascist unions is what in the United States would be regarded as a colossal company union comprising all the workers in a given trade all over the country.

In Germany the Nazis have devised a slightly different trick for the enslaving of labor. In Nazi Germany there is among the workers in each factory a Nazi group—a “cell,” as they call it. The employer, who is no longer called employer but “leader,” nominates from among the members of the cell the representatives of the workers. These representatives are called “trustees.” The workers of the factory have the right to accept or to reject the “trustees” so nominated, but they have no right to vote on a different list. All that they are allowed to vote on is whether they shall or shall not swallow the list of persons nominated by the employer. If the majority rejects the list, the Nazi party takes the matter into its own hands and the “trustees” are appointed by the leaders of the party. Wages are fixed by the employer. If the “trustees” designated by the employer or by the leaders of the party find that wages are too low, the matter is settled by the labor court, which is analogous to the Italian court of the same name.

Actually, what the Nazis have done is to combine the Italian system, which puts the unions under the control of the fascist patty, with the American system known as the company union, which puts the unions under the control of the employers.

There is, however, a difference between Italian and German unions and the American company unions. In Italy and Germany the official unions have been made compulsory by law, while in the United States, the workers are not legally obliged to join the company unions but may even, if they so wish, oppose them. If they join the company unions and are not satisfied with the results, they have only themselves to blame.

The three systems have this in common: that the aim of the employers, whether in fascist Italy, in Nazi Germany, or in democratic America, is to destroy the independent unions.

In February, 1928, Mussolini described the working of his system in the following words: “I declare that henceforth capital and labor shall have equal rights and duties as brothers in the fascist family.”

V. National “Elections”

When a new Chamber of Representatives is to be formed, the provincial and national officials of each Confederation meet in Rome and draw up a list of their own nominees. The procedure of nomination is as follows: The president of the Confederation, who receives his appointment from Mussolini, in accord with the national leaders of the fascist party, who are likewise appointed by Mussolini, prepares the list of nominees, reads it out to the meeting of the officials, and the latter approve it en bloc by acclamation. The confederations are allotted 800 nominees.

Two hundred more candidates are nominated by bodies of a cultural or charitable nature designated by the government. The method of nomination is the same for these privileged bodies as for the confederations: the President of the body, who has been appointed by the Secretary General of the fascist party, who in his turn has been appointed by Mussolini, announces the names and the meeting accepts them by acclamation. “Authority comes from above.”

The names of the thousand nominees are then “presented” to the Grand Council of Fascism, which is a body of about thirty high fascist personages chosen by Mussolini. The Grand Council draws up the list of the 400 future representatives. But it is not restricted to the thousand nominees. It may also choose persons who are not on the list. Such unlimited discretion makes the “presentation” of the preliminary list a mere farce.

After the Grand Council has “designated” the 400 representatives, the names go to the electorate for “ratification.” For this purpose the whole country forms a single electoral unit. The voter is asked to declare whether he approves or not of the whole list of 400 names. He is at liberty to answer only “yes” or “no” for the whole list.

In other words, the task of nominating the candidates does not belong to political parties, but to the presidents of the confederations and other privileged bodies, who directly or indirectly are appointed by Mussolini. The right to elect the deputies belongs not to the electorate but to the Grand Council of Fascism, whose members are likewise appointed by Mussolini. And the electorate is left with the sole task of saying “yes” or “no.”

When it has to say “yes” or “no,” there is no opposition press, no opposition party organization, no possibility of campaigning against the official list, and no opposition candidates. Whoever refuses to go to the polls reveals himself as an opponent of Mussolini and becomes an outlaw.

On coming into the polling station, the voter receives two ballot papers, a tricolor one with the word “yes” and a white one with the word “no.” The tricolor ballot is printed on paper so thin and transparent that even when folded it can easily be distinguished from the white one. The voter, however, is allowed to retire into an enclosed space and there, in the most absolute secrecy, to put one of the two ballots—the one which he does not wish to utilize—into a box. When he leaves the enclosed space, he must hand over the other ballot, the good one, to the recording officer. The “election” of 1929 resulted in 8,500,000 “yeses” and 136,000 “noes,” while the “election” of 1934 resulted in 10,000,000 “yeses” and only 10,000 “noes.”

In speaking of fascist “elections,” Mussolini’s propaganda agents state that in Italy today voting is no longer done in territorial but in occupational constituencies, and they take great pains to explain that man’s major interest is not residence but occupation, and that the citizen should vote for his own representative within his own class are not according to the chance of his residence. This political doctrine would be debatable, if in fascist Italy the representatives really were elected by the membership of each confederation. As a matter of fact, the nomination if made by the presidents of the confederations and other privileged bodies and the choice is made by the members of the Grand Council of Fascism. All these gentlemen are Mussolini’s appointees. Their operations have nothing to do either with territorial or with occupational constituencies. When the moment come for the voter to answer “yes” or “no,” he gives his answer not in an occupational but in a national, i.e., a huge territorial, constituency, and he must answer “yes” if he does not wish to find himself in jail.

As far as the 400 representatives are concerned, they represent no one and nothing. No bond unites them to any electorate. Those who are constrained to say “yes” enjoy no means for either approving or disapproving them. The so-called representatives are under the military discipline of the fascist party and both in the House and outside must obey Mussolini’s orders.

VI. The “Corporations”

Above the organizations of employers and employees we find in Italy the twenty-two so-called “corporations.”

What are these corporations?

They are bodies, each one of which deals with a given category of industry, agriculture or commerce. For instance, one deals with textiles, another with the production and commerce in wheat, another with the steel industry, and so on.

The members forming these corporations fall into four classes: (1) cabinet ministers and high officials, who are appointed by Mussolini; (2) experts, who are appointed by Mussolini; (3) members of the Fascist Party, who are appointed by the Secretary General of the party, who is in his turn appointed by Mussolini; and (4) so-called representatives of the employers and employees, who are designated by the presidents of the confederations, who are appointed by Mussolini, and who do not have to render any account of their acts to the membership of the organizations, as you would expect in an “army of believers.” Of course, the employers are represented by big business men, while the employees are represented by bureaucrats.

Mussolini is the president of all these councils and designates their vice-presidents. He is entitled to change the composition of the councils whenever he thinks fit and to rid himself of councillors who have become “indiscreet.” If the opinions of the councils do not fall in with Mussolini’s opinion, he is empowered to reject them, and he can even prevent those opinions from being published in the press. The councils are convoked at Mussolini’s pleasure. If he never convoked them, nobody would object and things would go on just the same.

The twenty-two corporations were inaugurated on November 10, 1934, and first began to function in January, 1935. Until now all they have done is to give advisory opinions on minor technicalities; as, for example, what names are to be given to the different types of cheese, so that one may not be confused with another; whether it is possible to use silk produced in Italy instead of cotton imported from abroad, etc. Yet they began to perform miracles many years before they came into the world. If you doubt my words, consult the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and you will find that the corporations are there described as if they were already functioning in reality.

How shall we explain this fact? Nothing is easier. Towards the end of 1926, Mussolini christened the Italian fascist dictatorship as the corporative state. Dictatorship did not enjoy a high reputation in the records of history. Mussolini did not relish the idea of passing down to history as a mere imitator of old discredited experiments. He therefore clothed himself in a brand-new mantle, the mantle of the corporative state, the institutions of which had to supersede the outmoded institutions of democracy. And behold! As soon as Mussolini spoke of the corporative state, all the fascist propaganda agents outside Italy began to describe the corporations, which did not yet exist, and to extol the miracles which they were allegedly performing.

In many countries today there are, side by side with the Ministers of Labor, advisory councils, partly elected by economic groups of the population, partly appointed by the government. They can exercise a remarkable influence on the policies of the governments, since their advice is published by the press, is publicly discussed, and cannot be ignored by the Ministers. If one said that there are today in Italy “advisory councils” on economic questions, that the members of such councils are all in the hollow of Mussolini’s hand, and that such councils are powerless if Mussolini does not agree with them, everybody would at once understand that such institutions are the most futile, bureaucratic bodies that the world has ever seen. Fascist propaganda agents take good care never to explain the mode of recruitment of the corporations and their powers and procedure. Read Professor Schneider’s book (pp. 97-100), for instance, and you will know just as much about the characteristic features of the Italian corporations as you know about the corporations on the planet Mars.

VII. Class Cooperation

That the officials of the fascist unions and the corporations are not “elected” from below, but are “appointed” from above, that the members have no say in the choice of the officials and in the conduct of their unions, that the officials concoct the labor agreements, and that labor disputes are ruled on in the last resort by a Labor Court in which the workers are not represented—these facts alone do not justify us in drawing the conclusion that the workers’ interests are not protected. In a society for the welfare of animals the animals do not elect the officials, nor do they participate in the meetings at which the society’s affairs are discussed. Yet who can harbor doubts as to the good will of the society’s officials and the efficacy of their work for animal welfare?

Thus, before passing a definite judgment on the fascist corporative state, one must first inquire into its results as revealed in the conditions of the working classes. The tree is judged by its fruits. What are the fruits of the fascist corporative state?

Let me give one instance of how the system works.

In March, 1927, the representatives of the rice cultivators and the officials who run the rice weeders’ unions signed a contract to the effect that wages should be cut by 10 per cent. Fifteen days before the beginning of the harvest, the employers announced that they could not pay the wages agreed upon, because after the signing of the contract the price of rice had sunk 25 per cent. They asked for a further cut of 20 per cent. The union officials then offered a further reduction of 2.5 per cent. This was judged insufficient by the employers. When the question was brought before the Labor Court, it authorized only the cut of 2.5 per cent to which the officials had kindly consented, and made the workers give back to the employers what they had already received in excess. Then, after wages had been cut by 12.5 per cent, the daily papers announced that the Labor Court had defeated the employers.

In 1928, the government decided that a fresh cut of 7.5 per cent should take place. During 1929 the price of rice went up 20 per cent, and the growers offered the workers an increase of 1.5 per cent, which the officials of the unions accepted with gratitude. But in 1930 the price fell again and the officials generously accepted a further reduction of 17.5 per cent.

In 1931, the employers requested another cut of 35 per cent. The officials hastened to offer a cut of 20 per cent. The Labor Court granted a cut of 24 per cent. In 1933 and 1934 wages were again reduced. Thus, between 1927 and 1934, the wages of 200,000 workers, mostly women, were cut by from 55 to 61 per cent, according to the different groups of the weeders.

Every time a cut took place, the papers praised to the skies the spirit of “class cooperation” which fascism is fostering between employers and employees. Prince Metternich was wont to say that nothing was more advisable than cooperation between the man and his mount, but one should be the man and not the mount. Under fascist class cooperation the employer is the man and the employee the mount.

VIII. The Standard of Living

The average wages of industrial workers at the end of 1934 were one-half of what they were in 1926, when the corporative state was in its initial stage. The wages of agricultural workers were even less than one-half of what they had been. Meanwhile, the cost of living did not change until the end of 1929. From 1930 to 1934 it did fall, but only by 25 per cent. Thus, in the course of eight years the Italian people lost more than 25 per cent of their real wages. If one adds the losses caused by increased unemployment to the drop in real wages, one realizes the deterioration which has taken place in the standard of living of the Italian working class under the fascist corporative state.

In June, 1931, Professor Bizozzero, an agricultural expert and a one hundred per cent fascist, advised the Italian peasantry to eat little bread and hardly any meat and to return to maize as a staple food, if they wanted to find a way out of their present troubles. “Maize,” as the Cabinet Minister, Signet Acerbo, explained in September of 1932, “serves to feed not only human beings, but also cattle and especially pigs.” The stiff mush made of maize, when it is not varied with bread and meat and not sufficiently salted, produces a horrible disease—pellagra. A fascist professor writes: “Among animals only the herbivorous have need of salt, not the carnivorous. For the carnivorous rich salt is a luxury. For the herbivorous proletariat of Italy it is a necessity.” Lest they should put too much salt in their stiff mush, the price of salt, which in Italy is a state monopoly, was raised in September, 1928, from two and a half cents a pound to six cents a pound. Pellagra was slowly disappearing from Italy during the fifty years of the pre-fascist regime. In 1930, an authority on hygiene, who is also a one hundred per cent fascist, Professor Messedaglia, drew attention to the fact that a case of pellagra had occurred in a zone from which the disease had disappeared, and raised a cry of alarm at the steady fall in the standard of living among the rural population of his district.

In 1935 a fresh increase in the cost of living of from 15 to 20 per cent occurred, but wages remained unchanged. During the spring and summer of 1936 a new increase in the cost of living became apparent. Last September (1936), the American commercial attaché in Rome estimated that living costs had increased from 10 to 15 per cent during the preceding twelve months.

The distress became so unbearable that the government had to order an increase in wages which amounted to from 5 to 10 per cent, according to the different groups of working people. These increases have been heralded as a proof that Mussolini has at heart the welfare of his beloved subjects. The truth is that these increases did not meet the increase in the cost of living which had taken place during the first half of the year.


I hope the reader now understands why Hitler was eager to introduce Mussolini’s corporative state into Germany, why the Austrian clerico-fascists aped it in Austria, why the Duke of Alba and former King Alfonso are enthusiastic about it, and why the Catholic Bishop of Cleveland admires not only Father Coughlin’s radio sermons but also Mussolini’s corporative state. This is no doubt also the reason why Mr. Myron C. Taylor, chairman of the United States Steel Corporation, speaking in November, 1936, at a dinner of welcome for Mussolini’s newly appointed ambassador, assured the latter that all the world is forced to admire Mussolini’s success in disciplining the nation. By “nation” Mr. Taylor did not mean big business. Big business does not like to be disciplined. By “nation” he meant the trade union leaders, writers, workers, journalists and college professors who do not worship big business. These people need to be “disciplined” in the United States too.

Mr. Taylor is no more disturbed than the European admirers of Mussolini by the latter’s syndicalist fireworks and the “revolutionary” institutions of his corporative state. They all know quite well that the fascist corporative state is merely the old capitalist state in its most despotic form, marked by the ruthless suppression of personal rights and political liberties, notably the liberty of the trade unions.*

*For a more detailed account of fascist trade unionism, with evidence substantiating statements made, see the author’s Under the Axe of Fascism, (New York, The Viking Press. 1936).