Fiat Unveils New Panda, Symbol of Change

'Panda made in Pomigliano' has come to symbolize a controversial deal with unions which saved it from closure.

At the southern Italian plant where workers last year were forced to accept tougher contracts to save their jobs, Fiat debuted its new "Panda made in Pomigliano" on Dec. 14. "We answer sceptics, detractors and antagonists with facts," Fiat head Sergio Marchionne said, boasting of a turn-around in productivity at Pomigliano, where production had shuddered to a near stand-still in 2008.

Pomigliano is the symbol of "an Italy which works, an Italy I like," Marchionne said at the factory near Naples, where the Panda has come to symbolize a controversial deal with unions which saved it from closure.

The Italo-Canadian CEO -- who flew in overnight from the United States, where he also runs the group's partner Chrysler -- was cheered by employees as he walked into the factory to dramatic music blared over loudspeakers.

Fiat's president John Elkann, heir of the Agnelli family which owns around 30% of the group, called it a "day of joy," and said the new Panda disproved the myth that the underdeveloped south of Italy was disinclined to work hard.

But as the ceremony began inside the factory, decked out with tiered seats, protesters from Cobas and Fiom -- the metalworkers' branch of CGIL, Italy's biggest union -- gathered at the gates to denounce Fiat's "blackmail."

"We do not thank Marchionne!" one of them cried out.

In June 2010, the factory was the scene of high tension as some 5,000 employees were forced to accept tougher working conditions in exchange for bringing production of the Panda back to Italy from Poland.

While Marchionne has been credited with a remarkable turnaround at Fiat, he came under fierce criticism for damning comments he made about the poor efficiency of the iconic company's plants in Italy.

Only 600 workers still have a job at Pomigliano, which currently produces 100 cars a day. "I'm lucky to be here," one employee said.

"We're going to continue to hire the necessary number of workers to reach our objective of producing 1,100 cars a day," Marchionne said, without specifying what that number would be.

"It's all that I can do, I only make cars," he said, bristling at questions on job losses and the loyalty to Italian workers.

The labor agreement -- which marked a historic turning point for Italy's biggest automaker -- served as the model for a deal at the Mirafiori plant in Turin, as well as one on Dec. 13 which affects all 86,000 workers at Fiat and Fiat Industrial in Italy. This weak's deal, signed by Fiat and all unions with the exception of the left-wing Fiom, includes increased overtime, cuts in breaks, an increase in night shifts and penalties for those who are absent without permission. Workers will receive a one-off bonus of 600 euros ($778) in 2012.

Marchionne said Italy had no choice but to adopt tougher working conditions and insisted on the benefits of his "new work model" which involves "team leaders" and executives in glass-walled offices watching over the production lines.

Marchionne, who gave Italy's new economic and labor ministers a tour of the plant, said the innovations showed "what this country is capable of doing. "Fiat will play its part in Italy's recovery," he said, in reference to the country's urgent bid to boost growth and stave off a debt crisis.

Fiat is the largest private sector employer in Italy. Together with Chrysler, it aims to increase production to six million cars a year by 2014 -- putting the combined company among the top auto makers in the world.

The auto giant makes a wide range of brands, from Ferrari sports cars to the more modest Fiat Punto -- and led the way in revamping low-cost cars into city chic vehicles.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011

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