Breaking the Siege: When Class Struggle Meets Literature

An attempt at chronological mapping for a moment of cultural turmoil

The Working Class Literature Festival (Festival di letteratura working class) at the Gkn plant in Campi Bisenzio was held between March 31st and April 2nd. A few thousand people took part in it, and I will try to elaborate a chronological narrative of the event.

___In October 2021 I attended the Working Class Writers Festival in Bristol. It was probably the very first, biggest working-class literature festival ever, although it was and still is mostly concerned with the anglophone scene (a small group of Swedish writers and myself were the only invited authors from continental Europe). According to what I’ve been told, Finland is the only place where they actually have working-class literature festivals, but they are small events limited to Finnish authors.

___A few months earlier, on July 9th 2021, I am in Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, where I join a protest march in support of Gkn workers, who were fired with a WhatsApp message. On the stairs in front of the church I hear the workers’ representative, Dario Salvetti, telling journalists: “We’re ok with telling our story, but we are not here to do just that, we are here to write history. We’re here to make history.” These words impress me, and I feel they resonate with what I’ve been trying to do in terms of narrative for at least a decade – taking back the words we need to tell our stories, telling one’s story so that it won’t be told by others.

___From the factory collective the Progetto convergenza culturale[1] is born – and they start thinking about having cultural events in the factory’s parking lot. Because yes, workers have cultural interests too – people write, draw, play music. Culture isn’t just for those who own cultural capital and a good amount of spare time.

___So, after a year of material and imaginative fighting, workers suggest we publish a book for the Working Class series. It will be written by them, the tile will be Insorgiamo (Let’s rise), and the first copies will be sold during the upcoming demonstration on March 26th,2022. A collaboration starts between the Working Class series and Convergenza culturale.

___This collaboration becomes a concrete project and sets an aim: organizing the first Italian festival of Working-Class Literature. We will do it in the Gkn plant. We speak about the project with some publishers, but they are clearly not interested in spending their dough in this craziness. We decide to fund ourselves from the bottom, because, unlike Bristol, we have no sponsors in the publishing business. In Bristol they had Hachette, Random House, and other British houses – they gave them 60 thousand pounds. We have unemployment benefits. Fuck benefits, we will use crowdfunding.


___Tens of emails, phone calls, messages to all of Europe. A lot of positive responses, a few negative ones. We end up with a truly intersectional program, intertwining class policies and identity policies, individual rights, and collective ones (gender, ethnicity, but also disability and sexual orientation). The result is a plurality of working classes, as opposed to one monolithic entity.

­­­___February. The program is done, we can launch our crowdfunding campaign, which surpasses our expectations – we collect almost 12 thousand euros.

___March. We start thinking about ways to get people in touch with the festival – we reach out to community centers, mutual aid associations, Arci clubs in the metropolitan area of Florence to activate that net of connections historically created by the workers’ movements. We hold presentations, performed readings, fundraising lunches.

___We speak on Zoom once every three days – publishers, support group, Convergenza culturale, Arci, Collettivo di fabbrica. It’s a big mess, because the dispute schedule is overlapping with the festival’s. Yet, there’s no other way: in two months the workers will be in – after that, who knows.

___We cannot focus on the festival alone. The workers’ energies are also focused on the upcoming demonstration, which is much needed for an initial push. The workers have been under siege for months. The new owners, who have to reindustrialize, are not doing their job. Politicians are silent. No progress is made at the ministry.

____We also try to understand whether some big names, actors or musicians, can take up the stage and do a reading from Joseph Ponthus’s book. Some are supportive, they apologize for not being able to join the festival due to shooting necessities, but they still ask if they can read our books. Others just won’t answer. Eventually, this will all come to something.  

___March 25th, the day of the demonstration. There are 12, perhaps 15 thousand of us in Florence. Yet, there is an overall feeling of tiredness. I come out of the march feeling less enthusiastic than other times. During all other demonstrations, we felt like we had overthrown a phase of the fight. I think to myself – this time’s different. Maybe, however, it’s just because I’m tired.

___March 27th, Monday. We enter the decisive week. We are getting closer. Online meetings. Microphones, interpreters, canteen workers, mixers, amplifiers, the stage, t-shirts, tote bags…little by little it feels like everything’s in its own place. The workers are proud of the stage they assembled and of how well-kept the factory is – they cleaned the restrooms, mowed the grass in the outdoor areas – the place is as good as home. It is their home. We prepare the banners and posters. We printed ten thousand of them. I have handed out at least a thousand myself during the demonstration, explaining what the whole festival is about – I speak so much I’m voiceless by the end of the march.

March 28th, Tuesday. I have a zoom meeting with a Dutch university. A professor asked me to speak about working-class literature to her students. One of them says she’ll come to the festival from the Netherlands. A German journalist who works for the public broadcast service says she’ll also be there to do a reportage.

March 29th, Wednesday. Interviews all day.

March 30th, Thursday. In the morning we are at Palazzo Vecchio for a press release. “il manifesto” and “Repubblica” are already writing about us. Other online media platforms are doing the same. We get messages from a lot of people who say they’ll be there. In the afternoon Giulio Calella (Alegre) and I are on Rai Radio 3 to speak about the festival on Fahrenheit. Claudia Durastanti joins us on the phone. Afterward, we go to the factory. We start building the bookshelves with the volunteer university students from Rome. We do things meticulously, joyously and slowly. It takes hours. The stage, at least, has already been assembled by the workers. But there’s still plenty to do.

Children interview people at the Working Class Literature Festival

March 31st, Friday. I have breakfast and go out for the papers. We are on “Repubblica” and on the “Corriere fiorentino” – there are threats to sue those who will take part in the festival on two of the most important newspapers. We’re surely catching the public eye. I park and enter the factory. First stop – Barcollo[2], the workers’ small bar, where I find people in the midst of their morning coffee-and-cigarette ritual. We exchange a few words about the legal threats – we are astonished. This is what happens when you try to bring together literature and working class – they threaten to report you. We have a meeting, and end up choosing to set up the festival in an unused space, so that we won’t be any trouble.

We have a long day ahead, but the workers are completely relaxed, much more than the activists. Everything must be ready in two hours. Two hours? How can that be? I say, thinking we will need at least eight. Maybe we can make it in an hour and a half, they answer. In the meantime, a forklift is moving a table full of books which some students have set up the day before. In three minutes, they dismantle and reassemble all the stuff it took us three hours to build. They fix up the stage in five minutes. This is what we’re talking about when we talk about the working class.

At lunchtime, I’m tired already. I woke up at 6 after a sleepless night to be on air with Rai Radio Uno at 6:40. I don’t know what’s going on, there are technical issues and I can’t hear anything, just a metallic sound. I’m improvising, talking in the dark, trying to make out questions from the voice coming intermittently from the studio. Later, I get messages from people, enthusiastic about what I said. Whatever.

Lunch at the canteen, conviviality, sharing the bread, here is the original meaning of compagni,[3] cum panis, with bread. In the afternoon, everything’s in its own place. We manage to come up with something that looks almost trendy and cool, with boxes made of recycled paper, but we do it because we have to, not out of a sense of fashion. I see a guy weight-lifting with a drive shaft and I think of the terrible waste of capital it is to make money on the stock exchange market crushing productive companies. We keep adjusting the lights, our sound technician, Massimo, is a worker who’s had to find a job at another company, but he keeps supporting his comrades’ fight and can really do miracles – we’re good as far as sound is concerned. People come in from Radio Wombat to prepare podcasts of the various talks, and we also manage to get radios for simultaneous translations. There’s an hour before the festival opens and I take thirty minutes to sleep. I only manage to lie down but can’t really fall asleep at all. I’m too anxious. 

At 5:55 I go back in – there are only fifty people. If this is our crowd, we’re done. I go in, go out, decide to wait a little longer for the opening talk. At 6:15 people start lining up to enter the festival. And so it begins. At 6:50 I speak in front of an astonishing number of people – I’ve never spoken in front of such a big audience. At 7:30 the canteen is overcrowded. There’s a two-stories long queue, workers go back and forth from the shopping mall to buy more food, we make a few sandwiches and hand them around at the refreshment points. After dinner Mayakovski’s ghost joins us through a monologue performed by Wu Ming 1 – it comes with music and it works perfectly. Then, there’s the play which has been adapted from Amianto. During the performance, the light goes out twice (I’ll be told afterward that it’s because we had too powerful spotlights), and each time the actor makes up a trick to solve the issue.

Towards the end, a spring storm forces us to stay inside, altogether. Then we go out, ready to see each other the following day…


What did we do?

What followed can’t simply be a report. It was hands shaking, hugs, children playing in the factory’s field, applauses, tears, emotion, and a sense of connection no one was expecting to feel. We go on like that, progressively, day by day. We reach the peak on Saturday, with a huge amount of people joining, the canteen manages to spread the work on three shifts, the festival seems to work fine without us, it’s a self-activating machine, we are simply there, watching, taking care of it with our look, for a second. Then, we keep it working – phone calls, interviews, reservations. The volunteers sort the guests between hotels and stations, I shake hands with people coming from abroad, from Germany, the Netherlands, the United States. Everyone’s asking: what’s going on? And we all ask back: what’s going on? There’s only one answer: we are trying to break the siege, all together.

We look around, there’s a huge crowd. There aren’t enough chairs. There are people standing in the back, on the sides, sitting down under the stage. At one point that line is presided by the workers’ kids, who instead of sitting in the prole area (the space we devoted to children) decided to see what’s going on in the adults’ area. Then I’ll go to the prole area, where people are talking about Sherlock Holmes and Karl Marx. About why we must go to school and to work. Difficult questions, which we all ask ourselves even after we’ve grown up. I go around a bit: the restrooms are clean; the volunteers are doing miracles. There are fifteen hundred people and no hitches. Happy cooperation, we are ecstatic – we think then that factories could really work through self-management, under the workers’ control. What was that Godard movie? Tout va bien.[4]

Things are so great that we get a message by Ken Loach through an English activist. Mira reads it in English and in Italian. We’re beyond getting surprised, at this point.

On the last day, the sun is shining. The performances are moving. The workers’ stories are now on stage. I’berva is a war machine. Matteo from Convergenza Culturale never wants to appear on stage but without him, we could never have done this. Sometimes he asks Mario to replace him, and this time he shows up holding his little son – who’s so beautiful everybody’s just looking at him. From the canteen, we get trays of food which immediately disappear. I meet poets-workers, university researchers, porters, journalists. Families with strollers. I listen to Alessandro Portelli saying that in life he would have liked to write but had no stories to tell. The workers and the oppressed gave him a voice, not the other way around. I bump into Francesca outside, she has tears in her eyes. What did we do? We still can’t believe it.

At the end we close with an extract from the play by the Gkn workers. I’berva says they will take it to Brussels, we’re international. Dario tells of the day they got the text messages firing them. Of how the workers spontaneously met outside the factory and sent away the thugs of a security company who had tried to occupy their home. There’ll be no screws leaving the factory. Yet, many lives have entered it.[5] Another worker tells a funny, pantagruelic anecdote about a colleague, but the story is a sad one. I hear a couple, husband and wife, crying behind me. Tears, anger, emotion, pride, all come and go in waves. Tiziana tells her story, a moving one, about sexism inside the factory, and of how she was demoted from her status of corporate employee to that of worker: together with I’berva’s and Dario’s, her story reminds us that behind every theory about the end of the working class there are living and breathing people in flesh and blood. The applauses are loud. I think of David Graeber when he said that with its imaginative and creative powers the working class can take care of itself. Telling working-class stories is fundamental, for it allows us to restore pride, to reaffirm our existence. To resist humiliations. Dario explains it very well when he tells of how they tried to eliminate blue overalls in favor of white ones – replacing blue with white was obviously functional to destroying the symbolic power of the color blue, but also to making people feel dirtier while working, thus losing their pride in manual labor (after five minutes wearing white as a metalworker you’ll obviously be covered in dirt and see and feel it all day, and it humiliates you for who you are).

The festival ends with the same feeling you get leaving a party. It’s been fight, joy, revolution. It’s been an act of cultural reappropriation. It’s been an April Fool’s joke on capitalism. A prank by crazy workers who tried to put their hands on culture. We’ll do it every year.

[1] The Cultural Convergence Project

[2] The name of the bar plays on the first person singular of the verb barcollare, Bar – collo, literally “to stagger, to falter.” Implications for the Italian reader are many: barcollo ma non mollo (I’m faltering but I won’t fall) is a popular idiom; people barcollano when they are very tired, or when they’ve had a few drinks.

[3] Comrades.

[4] Literally “everything’s fine.” The Italian title translates the original French in Crepa padrone, tutto va bene, thus adding an initial ‘exhortation’ to death addressed to the masters.

[5] Untranslatable pun in the original. Here Prunetti plays on the word vite, which in Italian is both “screw” (la vite) and the plural of “life” (le vite).

Photo by Andrea Sawyerr

Traslated by Serena Demichelis