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Fiat shaking labour in Italy

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Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne is shaking up labour relations in Italy by strong-arming unions as he aims to create a global megagroup with US automaker Chrysler.

“Marchionne is making labour relations in Italy take a sharp turn,” labour law professor Maurizio Del Conte of Milan’s Bocconi University told AFP.

The Canadian-Italian credited with rescuing the group from the brink of bankruptcy in 2004 said he would go ahead with a massive investment plan to double car production in Italy only if unions agreed to longer working hours and shorter breaks to keep plants running 24 hours a day.

“We want to run the plants, there’s nothing obscene about that. Here in Italy it seems like we’re asking for the moon,” Marchionne said recently.

In a country where once-powerful unions are now seeing their influence wane, Marchionne has gone as far as to suggest the scrapping of the national steelworkers’ collective agreement governing labour relations.

While more moderate unions voiced willingness to negotiate, the hardline FIOM union called the idea the “most serious attack on workers’ rights since 1945.”

Marchionne, who has also been the chief executive of Chrysler since Fiat acquired 20 percent of the US automaker last year, is hoping the two companies will be able to produce six million cars per year by 2014 compared with the some four million produced today.

Marchionne identified Italy as a weak spot for the group, noting that it was the only place in the world where Fiat had lost money over the past year and a half.

“Italy’s industrial network, as it is, cannot compete,” Marchionne said at a meeting with unions and government representatives at its headquarters in Turin, northern Italy, last week.

The Canadian-Italian maverick industrialist said Fiat would invest 20 billion euros (26 billion dollars) to double car production in Italy by 2014, but only if unions embraced his vision.

“By now, he is perceived (by unions) as a brute who says ‘my way or the highway’,” said industrial historian Giuseppe Berta.

The company and unions have clashed over working conditions at a southern plant where one of Fiat’s best-selling models — the Panda — is to be built once the production line is repatriated from Poland.

Soon after, tensions arose when Fiat announced it would produce a new model in Serbia instead of at the group’s flagship Mirafiori factory in Turin.

“His strategy goes beyond Italy,” Del Conte said of Marchionne, adding that “by now, Fiat is not only Italian but American.”

Fiat is Italy’s leading private employer with a domestic workforce of some 80,000.

Marchionne met Friday with US President Barack Obama at a Chrysler plant near Detroit, the midwestern hub of the US auto industry.

Obama’s government bailed out the automaker in 2009, orchestrating its tie-up with Fiat.

Source: AFP

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