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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 21:53 GMT
Fiat's rise and fall
Fiat workers protest at the Porta Nuova train station near the Mirafiori plant in Turin
Fiat workers are calling for help

For generations of Italians, getting a job at the Fiat factory was like winning the lottery.


For Italians, Fiat... is a national institution

Vincenzo Borgomeo, Kataweb motoring editor
They knew that governments could come and go, economies boom and bust, shares rise and fall, but Fiat would always remain secure.

Thousands of southerners left their homes and the sunshine to work on the factory floor in the northern city of Turin and entire suburbs sprang up to accommodate them.

"I owe everything to Fiat. It allowed me to have a family, buy a house and educate my three children, but most of all it gave me security," said 48 year old metalworker Mauro, interviewed on an Italian TV chat show.

Anger

Since Fiat announced a drastic restructuring plan to try to keep afloat, there have been protests throughout the country.

A Fiat worker shows his letter of temporary dismissal
The lay-offs began on Monday
But it is not only the 5,600 suspended car plant workers who worry that after 103 years Italy's car manufacturer may go under.

"For Italians, Fiat is not a company run by the Agnelli family, rather it is a national institution," said Vincenzo Borgomeo, motoring editor of Italian internet server Kataweb.

"It was inconceivable that it could fail, hence there is lot of anger. It would be like someone buying up the City or Buckingham Palace."

Influence

For half a century Fiat enjoyed a near monopoly on the Italian car market.

It spearheaded Italy's transformation into the world's fifth largest economy.

It also discreetly influenced the formation of governments and the creation of a myriad of motorways to give Italians somewhere to drive their Fiats to.

Government after government approved import tariffs, tax breaks and ecological incentives to ensure Italians went on buying the 500, the Punto or the Multipla.

"The word Agnelli means lambs but for many Italians the Agnellis were wolves, robbing public resources and gobbling up brands like Alfa Romeo and Ferrari, which Italians identify with much more closely," said Professor Franco Ferrarotti, a Rome sociologist.

Worker fears

When a Fiat plant was opened in 1972, at Termini Imerese, in industry-starved Sicily, the then company president Giovanni Agnelli was greeted like the Messiah.


In the business community... there is a sense that a group which has always had privileged treatment has had its comeuppance

Marco Panara, Affari e Finanza
Today, with the plant marked for closure, furious workers say they feel betrayed.

Some threatened to throw themselves off the factory tower.

"Closing this plant is like throwing us to the mafia," shouted one protestor to the television cameras below.

"We are almost all one income families, there is no other industry. What are we supposed to do?"

Consumer indifference

But not everyone is so distressed that Fiat may be going to the wall.

"In the business community, especially smaller companies, there is a sense that a group which has always had privileged treatment has had its comeuppance," commented Marco Panara, editor of financial supplement Affari e Finanza.

"I don't think consumers are overly concerned about the fate of a brand which couldn't cut it in the market," he added.

"There is more sadness about the end of an era for the Agnellis.

"They were our glamorous international family, the closest we had to royalty, and we adored them because they were not provincial."

Fading appeal

Eighty-three year old patriarch Giovanni Agnelli, is suffering from prostrate cancer and his younger and less charismatic brother, Umberto is asserting himself.

Both of the men's sons died tragically young and there is no heir ready to take over.

While it was still the country's biggest employer, Italians love affair with Fiat cars had begun to fade some time ago.

In just over a decade their market share has dropped from 60% to 30% of the market.

Once foreign cars became reasonably priced, buyers opted for overseas brands as better value.

"Unlike Ferrari which is a symbol of success and speed, Fiat reminds people of their past before we were a nation of conspicuous consumers. And so anyone with money today must drive a BMW or an Audi," said Professor Ferrarotti.

See also:

10 Dec 02 | Business
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11 Oct 02 | Business
27 Jun 02 | Business
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