It had risked not to reach the eightieth year of its long history when Bontempi, a well-known factory producing music instruments, was rescued by its own ex-workers. When their firm closed down they didn’t give in. They have formed a cooperative joining Legacoop, becoming entrepreneurs in their fifties and new owners of the factory. Toy instruments are still manufactured by 34 workers in this historic factory on the border with Marches. Their dream is to be able to re-employ all their ex-colleagues one day, even if unfair competition from China took the most part of their production away and today’s electronic keyboards are not made in Italy any more. In the meanwhile, in an environment in which many companies close down and unemployment increases, just very few people know about the values and dreams guiding these workers along their way to the ransom.
Texts, photos, video and editing by Angela Zurzolo
Translated by Libero Bruno
MARTINSICURO, Val Vibrata. It’s 1984, enormous green machines wolf down plastic grains in the plants in via del Lavoro 14 (Labour’s street, 14). Next to them, 400 men alternate at the assembly lines, putting in their crafts, their laborious arms and their wakeful minds. It’s Bontempi, the factory of music toys. It’s so big that many prefer using a bicycle to cross it. Also Marcello took his bicycle to run to a girl who appeared suddenly one day in Spring. He, a toys tester and she, a new worker in the electronics department. It’s love at first sight. A lunch together at the canteen and then a marriage which lasts since more than thirty years with two daughters attending the university by now. Marcello grows a pepper-and-salt beard. He wears a cap and a blue waistcoat with red dressings after the fashion of a toy-maker. His hands bear witness of a life spent in factory. He’s 57 years old and remembers well the moment in which lights went off on the motionless machineries and rusty bicycles. Silence reigned in the factory.
In 2003 THE FIRST SHOCK. “There was an anomalous failure” reports Sergio, one of the workers. He adds: “Because we could feel that the business was still alive. In fact we managed to start again in just two months”. After a revival attempt, nevertheless the end comes in 2013. Bontempi Spa is on the brink of failure again. Everybody must go into liquidation. The factory closes. In three years Bontempi would have been scored 80 years of activity.
ALL OVER? “My children went to school and my wife was unemployed. Everybody was telling me “being 53 you are too old now” so explains Giovanni, a programmer. Also Mauro felt a finished man without a salary, but with a family to be maintained and facing an uncertain future.
THE ECONOMIC CRISIS and changes in the market disrupt the region. Many went bankrupt in the area. From 2008 to 2015 the total number of bankruptcies in Abruzzo doubled. About 10.000 firms failed in 2016 with a 6% decrease compared to 2015 according Cerved watch.
FIBRE FROM ABRUZZO Pierluigi, a competitive 57-years-old man, suffered from company disasters many a time. In 1980s he worked as a solderer in a company in Colonnella, district of Teramo. “It declared bankruptcy”, Pierluigi explains, “there was a plenty of job orders but then the entrepreneur used to squander all the profits so he closed down in the end”. Thus, he began manufacturing toys at Bontempi 25 years ago.
He and his colleagues faced the same nightmare in 2003 and once again 2013. But this time they managed to organize a fast reaction. In four months, they will set up their idea of creating a cooperative composed by ex-workers in order to save the factory i.e. a workers buyout. “I didn’t want any more that others could decide about my life” Pierluigi told. This while mounting one by one, in a few seconds, the colourful keys of the little silver trumpets manufactured in his factory. China is going after them with a cut-throat competition, “Therefore we must excel in quality and quantity at the same time” He explains. “We are like a football team, we are doing well together because now that we are the owners we are much more productive”.
WORKERS BUYOUT STARTS 34 amongst the last 100 ex-workers continue to work today. They occupy 18.000 of the original area of the plants of 32.000 square metres. “In 2013, after the liquidation, they thought to build a firm in order to merchandise imported products at Potenza Picena, in the place where other Bontempi’s premises already were. Giancarlo Pieroni, president of Industria Abruzzo coop explained us. “When analysing Chinese estimates we understood that there could be still competitiveness in the branch of traditional toys. These are bulky and transportation costs will affect final price. Hence the idea to form a cooperative and rescue at least a part of the production, selling our toys to our trade firm which then exports them to 70 countries all over the world”. They initially rented a branch of the company and then created the cooperative. Once composition with creditors had been regularly closed, Industria Abruzzo coop purchased the machineries at a price of 250.000 euro.
OBTAINING CREDIT IS VERY DIFFICULT Shareholders are compelled to sign guarantees. After that they can obtain a 180.000 euro financing: “Cfi, a company promoting cooperatives, enters capital stock with 40.000 euro, while mutual fund Coopfond shares in with 130.000 euro” Told us Mr Pieroni. Of 100 workers, however, just 34 could enter the business because it was impossible to continue to produce electrophones. It has been a bitter choice, which divided friends who had been previously working side by side. Marco, an employee, remembers: “There are still unemployed people out there and this is something we always have at heart, hopefully we’ll be able to hire people again one day”.
Several of those green machineries which produced toys, pianolas and organs at Bontempi are shut down these days. Of the once thirty machines dedicated to the moulding process more than a half are now inactive. In order to safeguard the stability of the cooperative, a diversification of production is being taken into consideration. The idea would be that of trying with other plastic materials to hire further among ex-colleagues. Nevertheless, the manufacturing firm produces mainly toys and wind and percussion instruments, with a total of about 50 thousand articles a month. Summing it up, only toys.
“NO MORE ELECTRONICS” Workers say wistfully recalling the period from 1984 to 1998 during which they came to produce even pianos. Because Bontempi had purchased and rescued Farfisa, a company crushed by Japanese competition, and thus put into liquidation by Lear Siegler and ended up with 279 workers made redundant out of a total of 649. Nowadays it’s Korea that produces and exports those same instruments also to Italy. “Koreans knocked us off by putting into the market a below-cost piano” said Giovanni, a programmer working here for 40 years. “Even if they were losing out, they chose to compete with ours. In the end we had to stop to produce it and closed down this branch while they continued”. But nowadays the real threat to Martinsicuro’s plant is China. In fact it’s impossible to compete with their cost of labour. So goodbye forever to the production of electronic keyboards and digital pianos made in Italy.
THE MONSTER: COST OF LABOUR IN CHINA Life was not easy for companies producing toys or real music instruments in Italy “As far as I know, there are not many companies in Italy working on the same articles. There was a firm in San Benedetto which produced also a professional organ but it failed” explains Giovanni. The reason is always the same: cut-throat competition from China. “We cost 20 euro per hour and the Chinese only 4. Even supposing that plastic and raw materials costs are the same as for us, costs of labour accounts for 60%”.
LIVIO REMEMBERS WELL BONTEMPI’S BOOM “There were 450 families who lived by working in the factory” He said. Now he has three grandchildren and lives in the nearby Marches: every day he travels many kilometres to reach Martinsicuro. “It has been my job of a lifetime, I came in as a boy and I’ll leave with the retirement” He says. As he began to work, they produced electronic keyboards, saxes, little pianos, wind instruments, guitars with a plastic underneath and a wooden cover, and also electrophones, claviers, pianos, accordions. “And, in the end, batteries, which are the most revenue-making products for us today” Recounts Livio, proud to have helped develop every single product of Bontempi. Production process is elaborate: “We buy plastic material in grains, transforming it through injection moulding machines to realize pieces for the assembling of toys” He explains. “Then we bring them to the assembly lines where we assemble, test and package”.
EDOARDO is a young storeman ma but he’s currently helping at the batteries assembly. In his interview he says: “I just hope this Christmas will go better for my daughter than last year’s one. She is six and for me she is all my life ”. It is because of her that he continues to work and to believe in cooperation. “The birth of this cooperative has been a very positive thing: before that there were no prospects”.
SANTA CLAUS AND THE FALSE COOPERATIVES A few kilometres away from the industrial area we can find the centre of Martinsicuro. In the little square near the church, other fathers are experiencing the same drama through which Bontempi’s workers have passed: every day we can read in the newspapers about the problems of a well-known foundry in the area under risk of closure, but also about increasing unemployment rates, the arrival of the people made homeless by the earthquake in central Italy, the failures of so many businesses, a municipality in financial ruin.
Today it is a holiday and Santa Claus is strolling with kids around the town giving them some little presents while other Santa’s assistants riding a bike are smiling to the them. One of them says smiling: “I prefer the bike because reindeer feed costs more than petrol”. Another man says he had to live in his car after divorcing from his wife and now he’s unemployed. Little past him we find a young Santa Claus who has been unemployed for years. Now he’s trying to get a job from a pizzeria in the town. He talks about a health problem and his desire to become a politician. He adds he lost his trust in cooperatives because he was victim of two false cooperatives which adopts the cooperative form just to exploit workers. Coccinella, this was the name of one false cooperative, paid him only 4 euro per hour as the Chinese do. Then they changed their name always choosing another name of animal. That’s typical of false cooperatives in Italy.
A MUCH AWAITED LAW WHICH DOESN’T COME YET Alliance of Italian cooperatives presented a bill by popular demand last year, with which they collected 100.000 signatures from all over Italy. Nevertheless a specific law is still wanted. Therefore the toys factory in which workers are struggling every day to create employment doesn’t make headlines and this Santa Claus remains with his doubts. While they will receive Christmas bonus, he is still convinced that every single cooperative exploits its workers for 4 euro per hour. Just like the Chinese against whom Industria Abruzzo Coop’s workers fight every day to survive.