By Fernando D'Alessandro
The general strike in Italy on April 16 was a huge success, as could be expected after the demonstration of nearly 3 million in Rome earlier this year. 13 million workers came out on strike. That is actually more than the total trade union membership of CGIL, CISL and UIL combined. There was a 90% participation in the strike. Two million workers came out on demonstrations in 21 cities all over Italy. these were the biggest regional trade union demonstrations ever seen in Italy.
There were 350,000 in Bologna, 300,000 in Rome, 200,000 in Milan and 400,000 in Florence where the main speaker was Cofferati, the general secretary of the CGIL. But even in the smaller towns there were big turnouts: 100,000 in Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily; 30,000 in Ancona and even in Potenza in the deep south 30,000 workers marched through the streets.
The strike did not only affect industry. Hotel workers, government workers, bank workers, transport workers, all came out. In the hospitals in Rome about 90% of the staff were out. The airports were also affected, as anyone who was trying to fly to Italy could testify. The country was brought to a standstill.
Now the question being asked is what effect will this have on the Berlusconi government. There is a "conciliatory" wing of the government around Fini that is hinting that they should try to lean more on the CISL and the UIL. In fact one of the tactics of the government has been to try to divide the trade union front by "isolating" the CGIL. The CGIL went ahead on its own and called the massive 3 million-strong demonstration. Rather than the CGIL being isolated it was becoming clear that it was the CISL and UIL who were out of touch with the mood of the workers. Also the CISL and UIL leaders know that if they do backtrack they could lose ground to the CGIL, which has already begun to happen.
The position of the government now seems one of open confrontation with the unions. The overwhelming majority of the Confindustria, the Italian bosses' union, has come out with a hard line. They want the government to adopt a hard-line "Thatcherite" policy. The unions, especially the CGIL, are saying that unless the Berlusconi government withdraws its proposals to abolish article 18 of the Workers' Statute they will not sit around the negotiating table.
Enormous pressure is building up for a major confrontation between the working class and the government. Cofferati, leader of the CGIL, is under enormous pressure. He has been pushed to the left and now has enormous support among the workers of Italy, because he is seen as leading the fightback. This is the same leader who up until recently was seen as a "moderate" and had been collaborating with the previous "centre-left" government. This process of radicalisation within the main trade union federation in Italy confirms what the Marxists have always maintained about the mass organisations. Under the pressure of the working class they can become radicalised whatever their past position may have been.
Now, it is clear that these trade union leaders cannot be trusted, but the problem is that there is very little room for manoeuvre now. The bosses are on the offensive. Italian capitalism is weak. It must attack the workers and their rights, won over decades of struggle. They must try and become "more competitive" on the world market.
The problem Berlusconi is facing in applying his "Thatcherite" policy is that he is provoking all sections at the same time - all sections of the working class, but also the youth and the students. He is creating a united front against him.
Now that the strike has been so successful, the confidence of the workers will be growing. Pressure will mount to raise the stakes. Already some trade union leaders are raising the idea of applying methods of struggle, such as the work-to-rule. This would mean only doing what is strictly necessary to abide by one's work contract. This would mean slowing down production dramatically, without losing out on wages. The metalworkers' union, the FIOM, is also preparing for new strike action.
The position is one where both sides find it difficult to back off. If Berlusconi does not deliver for the bosses his government could enter into a crisis. But the unions, especially the CGIL, also are under enormous pressure. Everything seems to point to a new "Hot Autumn", in the traditions of the Italian working class.
The period we are entering will be one of heightened class tensions. At the moment the CGIL in particular is riding a huge wave of support, but the situation that is opening up is one where all the organisations of the working class will be put to the test. History is coming full circle. After many years of defeat and compromise the Italian working class is on the offensive. It will show the way to the rest of Europe, and the world. This is only the beginning!
April 16, 2002
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