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February 11, 2011

COMMENT: Rome calls Fiat boss

It's a fair bet that Sergio Marchionne cannot be best pleased at having his weekend disrupted by being called to Rome tomorrow

It’s a fair bet that Sergio Marchionne cannot be best pleased at having his weekend disrupted by being called to Rome tomorrow.

A Saturday in Rome close to Valentine’s Day sounds romantic enough, but the outspoken Fiat boss is having his unscheduled trip to the Italian capital after being summoned following his comments Fiat could transfer its HQ to the US, perhaps even at Chyrsler’s Auburn Hills.

The much-travelled Marchionne has popped up in San Francisco and Chicago of late and will now hotfoot it to Rome.

It’s not just any old meeting in any old building either. Italy’s most powerful politicians have ordered the Fiat chief to the heart of the country’s political elite – the Palazzo Chigi – home to the Cabinet members.

None other than the Italian Prime Minister, his economic minister Giulio Tremonti, industry minister Paolo Romani, labour minister Maurizio Sacconi and cabinet under-secretary Gianni Letta will be ranged against Marchionne, who it’s fair to say, has ruffled some pretty important feathers.

The meeting is bound to generate huge media interest – on top of the massive furore that broke this week in Italy – with Fiat’s powerful unions hanging on to every word.

Fiat’s unions are sometimes portrayed as dinosaur relics living in the past – although some of them would vehemently object to that description.

But no less than the government itself has highlighted how worried Marchionne’s comments have made the labour bodies in terms of potential job losses should Fiat re-locate, giving an indication of just how big a deal this is in Italy.

And speaking to just-auto from Rome the economics ministry raised another pertinent issue that strikes at the heart of the debate, namely that of new working practices.

Fiat has driven some pretty hard productivity bargains of late – some would argue long overdue – but nonetheless it has secured some far-reaching changes that have taken substantial pain to achieve.

“Now we discover after one month he [Marchionne] is going to change his ideas,” the ministry said. “It’s a bit strange.”

Fiat has succeeded in persuading most of its unions – apart from FIOM – that such productivity deals were essential.

Those deals caused ructions on their own. What price even more union unrest if Fiat shifts to Detroit?

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