David Loher: Complicity or pragmatism? A labor movement and its fight against the asbestos industry

This post is part of a feature on “How Capitalists Think,” moderated and edited by Patrick Neveling (University of Bergen) and Tijo Salverda (University of Cologne).

This contribution focuses on the decades-long struggle of workers and citizens in an industrial town in Northern Italy against the hazardous asbestos cement industry. It analyses the dividing lines that emerged in these social struggles at two particular moments. First, it examines the trade unions’ struggles for improved safety measures and the subsequent demand to shut down the entire asbestos cement factory because of the environmental risk it represented for the whole region. Second, it analyses the legal struggle that followed, when the social movement brought the claim for justice to the courts, demanding punishment for the former main investors.

In both cases, this contribution examines the minority position within the social movement. It objects to read the minority position as complicity in the maintenance of a capitalist system, only because the demands of this minority position converge with the capitalists’ interests. Instead, it suggests to read it as a pragmatic choice shaped by socioeconomic aspects, personal needs, and aspirations. Marx’s distinction between class in itself (Klasse an sich) and class for itself (Klasse für sich), as developed in Das Elend der Philosophie ([1885] 1972), helps to understand why the temporal convergence of workers’ and capitalists’ interests does not necessarily imply complicity.

Between 1906 and 1986, Casale Monferrato, a town in the Piedmont region then known as Italy’s capitale del cemento, was home to the country’s largest asbestos-cement-producing factory (see Ziglioli 2016). It was one of four different plants owned by the Genova-based company Eternit Spa (see Boggio 2013: 200–208). The factory in Casale Monferrato produced prefabricated construction material: tubes, tiles, tubs, and, not to forget, corrugated roof tiles, which remain iconic symbols for cement asbestos production today. Construction material produced with asbestos cement has almost magical qualities. The naturally occurring mineral makes the products light, acid-resistant, and fireproof. In addition, asbestos fiber is a cheap and abundantly available raw material. In short, it is the perfect material for the construction industry.

But there is a serious downside to it. When inhaled into the lungs, asbestos fiber is extremely harmful (see Castleman 1990: 1–158). It provokes several diseases, notably asbestosis and mesothelioma, a sort of pleura cancer, which is extremely malicious and can already be provoked by exposure to low doses.

Thus, during the entire period of asbestos cement production, not only the factory workers but also the entire population of Casale Monferrato were at risk. Yet, because mesothelioma has a latency period of two to four decades, this industrial hazard has remained hidden from the public eye for a long time, whereas even today, 30 years after the factory closed, the regional hospital diagnoses 50 new cases of mesothelioma each year.


The former office building is the only remnant of the large Eternit factory in Casale Monferrato. At its entrance door, this small cardboard reads: “To the asbestos victims“ (photograph by David Loher, 2017).

The Eternit factory was the region’s most important employer until it closed its doors and went bankrupt in 1986. In its heyday, it employed around three thousand workers. Getting a job at Eternit was highly desirable, as salaries were higher than the cement industry’s average and it was un posto sicuro (a safe job), as the saying went. However, in the late 1960s, concerns about the harmful nature of the asbestos fiber emerged. Initially, these came from within the factory, when workers called for improvement of the working conditions, especially regarding health and safety measures. Starting off as a labor movement, protests turned into a broader social movement once it became evident that the factory was an environmental disaster for the region as asbestos dust polluted the air and asbestos-contaminated waste water from the factory was fed into the Po river.

Thus, when citizens and environmentalists joined the workers’ struggles against the industry in the 1980s, their demand was the closure of the factory. Later, the battleground shifted to the courts when the social movement pressured the public prosecutor’s office to prepare a case against the main investors, holding them responsible for the environmental disaster in Casale Monferrato. This finally led to the so-called processo Eternit, in which the two main investors were accused of provoking an environmental disaster causing death. This trial only started in 2009 and led to a conviction by the first instance in 2012 (see Altopiedi 2015). However, Italy’s Supreme Court (La Corte Suprema di Cassazione) finally overturned this sentence and acquitted the main accused because of prescription of the alleged crimes two years later.

It does not come as a surprise that not only the corporation but also the social movement faced critique during its decades-long social struggle against the asbestos cement industry. To name just a few: workers feared the loss of jobs, citizens complained about the “communist trade unions” that allegedly dominated the social movement, while again others claimed that the past was now in the past and that a conviction in court would not bring back the dead so the case should be dropped.

In the following parts, I examine a minority position within the social movement that challenged its strategy. I focus on two distinct moments in the long history of the social struggle against the asbestos cement industry. First, I consider the struggles calling for the closure of the factory because of the environmental and health risk the asbestos cement production represented for the region. Here, the minority position was voiced by workers, who feared the loss of jobs. Second, I move forward in time to the legal struggle against the investors in the now closed Eternit factory, during which a dividing line emerged between a majority that sought a criminal conviction of the main investors and a minority who opted for out-of-court settlements and compensation payments.

Defeating or defending the industry?
In the 1970s, two new trade union leaders came to power in Casale Monferrato. They were concerned about the terrible working conditions in the Eternit factory. A former worker describes the situation in the factory at that time as follows:

There was a constant layer of dust in the air. The different work processes were not separated from each other, so the asbestos dust floated through the whole factory. And when you returned home after your shift in the evening, your blue overall was completely white. (interview 5 September 2017, Casale Monferrato)

The trade union leaders decided to take action. At first, it was mainly a struggle for better working conditions, and the conflict remained within the factory walls. For example, the trade union leaders began to publish obituaries of fellow laborers at the entrance of the factory, as a kind of a memento mori for the entire workforce (interview 4 September 2017, Casale Monferrato). Through a series of strikes, the workers demanded concrete safety measures in order to increase the safety at work. This included better exhaust air treatment but also benefits like hazard bonuses or early retirements. However, such actions against the factory management did not reflect the position of all workers. Many worried about losing their jobs. Therefore, they replicated the factory management’s position against the trade unions. Calls for better health and safety standards and for replacing asbestos fiber with a less hazardous material were dismissed because they were assumed to increase production costs and, therefore, to damage the factory’s competitiveness in the domestic market.

In addition to this replication of the management’s argument against increased safety-at-work standards, prevalent gender stereotypes within the working class further informed the critical stance against the trade unions’ tactics. The image of the able-bodied male worker as the breadwinner and head of family did not fit in well with the labor movement’s narrative that portrayed the Eternit worker as a victim with his body marked by the hazardous working conditions within the factory. Therefore, even the management’s absurd claim that smoking cigarettes is ultimately more dangerous than working at Eternit gained some credibility among the workers at that time. These two objections of a minority of workers against the trade unions’ tactics was further backed up by the argument that the factory management did indeed take care of the workers. In particular, nonmonetary benefits such as the periodic rations of olive oil for each worker’s household were considered a sign of the management’s benevolence toward the factory’s workforce.

In sum, this example illustrates how a minority of workers bought into the management’s discourse. They supported the management’s strategy against the majority of the social movement. Nonetheless, it remains an open question whether this convergence of interests between a part of the workers and the management can be interpreted as complicity. Before I come back to this question, the following second example highlights another division within the social movement. It focuses on the last phase of the processo Eternit in 2012, years after Eternit Spa went bankrupt and the factory closed its doors.

Compensation or punishment?
In 2012, the processo Eternit against the main investors had already come close to an end when rumors started to circulate in the town that the main accused party would offer compensation payments to civil parties who were part of the trial as joint plaintiffs if they withdrew from the process in exchange. Some workers had already accepted these out-of-court settlements earlier. In general, these deals were not very well regarded by the majority, but they also did not draw a lot of attention. But this time things were different. The defense offered compensation payments to the municipality. In the eyes of the social movement, the acceptance of this deal was considered un patto con il diavolo (a pact with the devil). After the conclusion of that secret deal between the town mayor and the main accused’s defense, the agreement became public. A former trade union leader remembers that moment:

Imagine, we fought for justice for decades. The trial is close to an end. And in this very moment, the town mayor accepts an out-of-court settlement and withdraws from the trial. This was unacceptable for us. It was clear; we have to stop this deal. (interview 4 September 2017, Casale Monferrato)

As a reaction, the social movement organized a series of protests in the town, and finally, the mayor withdrew from the agreement on 3 February 2012 because of public pressure. This was considered an important victory of the social movement by the overwhelming majority. However, there was also a minority who raised critical objections. They argued that even a possible conviction of the accused parties would not change anything. In addition, they voiced their deep mistrust in Italy’s legal system and feared that even in the case of a conviction, a higher court would overturn the sentence later. As the further course of events has shown in the meantime, these concerns were not entirely wrong. They argued that an out-of-court settlement, on the other hand, would have a concrete impact. For example, it would allow the municipality to invest in infrastructure projects.

As in the first case, the question is again whether the support of an out-of-court settlement should be interpreted as complicity of the minority of former workers with the capitalists—in this case, the accused former main investors.

The first interpretation at hand suggests to read both cases presented above as examples of workers’ complicity with the interests of the capitalists. Therefore, they support and maintain a capitalist system and are, to a certain extent, capitalists themselves and thus far the argument. With reference to the first case, this interpretation would suggest that the minority of workers supported and defended an exploitative system against their own interests. And with reference to the second case, it implies that the out-of-court settlements would have undermined the attempts to hold the capitalists liable for the environmental disaster their economic behavior had indirectly produced.

However, there are two problems with such an interpretation. First, it puts too much weight on class consciousness—or the lack thereof, to be precise. This interpretation tends to ignore that the workers occupy a very similar socioeconomic position. “Wrong” consciousness—whatever this might be—might lead to the convergence of capitalists’ and workers’ interests, but it does not transform the later into the former. The second objection is related to the first one. The convergence of interests does not imply the convergence of motives. The minority of workers objected to the demand for increased safety-at-work standards because these workers feared the loss of their jobs. This fear led them defend the industry and replicate the management’s discourse, which claimed that increased safety-at-work standards would imply the loss of competitiveness in the domestic market. But it does not mean that they defended the management’s position per se.

Instead of a schematic interpretation that starts with the assumption of unambiguous class interests that stand in sharp opposition to one another, this second objection in particular is a call for nuanced ethnographic research and analysis. It enables us to trace the alliances and divisions among workers within social struggles. It emphasizes that the different positions within these struggles exceed the simple binary alternative between opposition and complicity. And it examines the diverging claims with respect to the socioeconomic positions of the different actors involved.

David Loher is a research associate at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bern. For his PhD, he studied migration bureaucracies and the governance of so-called voluntary return of young male Tunisian migrants. In his current projects, he is working on the asbestos industry, studying the allocation of moral and legal responsibilities in the context of litigation cases against the industry.


Altopiedi, Rosalba. 2015. “The Italian Eternit case.” In The Routledge handbook of white-collar and corporate crime in Europe, ed. Judith van Erp, Wim Huisman, and Gudrun Vande Walle, 346–360. London: Routledge.

Boggio, Andrea. 2012. “Linking corporate power to corporate structures: An empirical analysis.” Social and Legal Studies 22 (1): 107–131.

Castleman, Barry I. 1996. Asbestos: Medical and legal aspects. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Aspen Law & Business.

Marx, Karl. (1885). 1972. “Das Elend der Philosophie: Antwort auf Proudhons ‘Philosophie des Elends.’” In Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels: Werke. Vol. 4, Trans Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, 63–182. Stuttgart: J. H. W. Dietz

Ziglioli, Bruno. 2016. “Sembrava nevicasse”: La Eternit di Casale Monferrato e la Fibronit di Broni—Due comunità di fronte all’amianto. Milan: FrancoAngeli.

Cite as: Loher, David. 2018. “Complicity or pragmatism? A labor movement and its fight against the asbestos industry.” FocaalBlog, 24 April. www.focaalblog.com/2018/04/24/david-loher-complicity-or-pragmatism-a-labor-movement-and-its-fight-against-the-asbestos-industry.