Italy: November 14 general strike marks turn in the situation

The November 14 (14N) day of action in Italy saw a general strike and massive demonstrations the length and breadth of the country. There was a large turn out of students in particular and the day was also marked by severe police brutality, with many peaceful demonstrators attacked senselessly by the police. This is a clear sign of the new period we have entered in Italy, one of growing class conflict as workers and youth begin to react against the draconian austerity measures being imposed on them.

The 14N general strike in Italy really started the day before, in Sardinia, where the workers at big Alcoa aluminium plant in the Sulcis area, forced two ministers of the Monti government to flee from the island, rescued by a police helicopter! One of the ministers was Passera, the Minister of Economic Development, a former CEO of the second biggest Italian bank.

The workers were protesting against the imminent closure of the plant. This is the only aluminium plant that remains in Italy, but it is being shut down by the US multinational because it is no longer considered profitable.

The state has bailed out Alcoa many times and made many concessions to the bosses, granting the company special cut-price energy bills and other state handouts, and the government would therefore be 100% entitled to take over the plant, but this government of the bosses and bankers has decided not to do so. Despite the fact that the 500 workers have repeatedly declared that they are “ready to do anything it takes” (one of their most famous slogans) and have expressed their determination in their two year long struggle, the trade union leaders have never taken up the demand for the nationalisation of Alcoa under workers’control. They have simply left the workers to face their own destiny.

This struggle of the brave Alcoa workers has become a symbol for the Italian working class. It is an indication of the anger brewing below the surface amongst the Italian proletariat. The point is that it reaches the surface with a sudden bang and gets the attention of a mass audience through heroic but isolated struggles.

It was in this situation that the call for the November 14 day of action was issued. In Italy it was concretised in the form of a general strike. This was in fact the first general strike against the Monti government called by the CGIL, the main trade union confederation in Italy.

The CGIL leaders had in fact waited this long despite the fact that Monti has waged the most vicious attack on the welfare state and workers’ rights in the history of post-war Italy, in such a short period of time (the past twelve months). This anti-working class programme has been implemented only thanks to the collaboration of the Democratic Party and thanks to its links with the CGIL leaders, who have deliberately silenced any generalised protest of the class.

This time, however, Camusso, the general secretary of the CGIL, under pressure from her own the rank and file, could not allow herself to be seen just sitting on the fence and watching the strikes in the other countries of Europe. She was forced to call a 4-hour general strike, but some sectors, such as public sector employees, school and university workers and shop workers, extended the strike to eight hours, but this was not enough to guarantee a huge participation on the demos.

The CGIL leadership claimed 50% support for the strike in the workplaces, but it is also very clear that while calling the strike, the same CGIL leaders did not make any serious attempt to organise the strike seriously. Italy has a strong tradition of mass mobilisations, and therefore according to Italian standards, two to three hundred thousand protesters marching in some 100 towns is not a big figure.

At the same time, one has to take into account what has gone before. Under the hammer blows of the draconian austerity measures, the growing unemployment and constant attack on workers’ rights, and with no real lead from the trade union tops, in particular from the CGIL leaders, the workers were stunned, angry but confused as what to do next. Had the CGIL leaders issued a real call to action, combined with a determination to struggle against the bosses’ offensive, the workers would clearly have responded long before now.

The point about yesterday’s general strike, called as part of the European-wide 14N day of action was that it became a focal point for all the pent up anger within the working class and youth. Thus 14N in Italy marks a new stage in the movement. This is also reflected by the radicalisation of the youth, who see no future for themselves in this system. The huge student demos organised on the same day are an indication of this. In Rome alone there were 50,000 youth on the streets. We often say that the youth are a barometer of what is happening in society as a whole, and this is very true of the situation in Italy now.

New cuts in education will be introduced in the new 2013 budget (now called euphemistically the “stability law”) and a new law is in discussion in parliament that will limit students’ rights and will open schools for the profits of the private companies.

“Enough is enough” is what many students must be thinking and on the streets yesterday we saw tens, or even hundreds of thousands of 15-16 year old youth, most of whom had probably never been on a demo before.

The demos were attacked by the police in several cities, and especially in Rome, but this repression is clearly not going to stop the movement. The deliberate attack of the police was probably linked to the declaration of the Minister of Education, Profumo. When the first student mobilisations began in early October he openly stated that what the school students needed was "more stick and less carrot".

Monti is in fact in a hurry to implement other counter-reforms before the end of his government, but he is playing with fire. There is a new national strike of the school workers called for November 24, which will be another day of action for the students, and December 5-6 will be the turn of the metal workers. The FIOM strike will be distributed over two days, depending on the regions.

This youth unrest is happening in the middle of the crisis of the political system. Berlusconi’s party is in disarray. In the recent Sicilian regional elections his party lost three quarters of its votes. We have to remember that Sicily had for a long period been a stronghold of the right wing. However, new episodes of scandals and corruption are in the news everyday, helping to create a mood of mistrust towards all the political parties amongst broad layers of the masses.

So, it was not an accident that in Sicily we saw an unprecendent low turnout in the elecions (only 47%, the lowest figure since 1945 in the whole country) and the rise of the Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S led by a comedian, Beppe Griollo) as the first political party on the island, with 15% of the vote, although in a very fragmented political landscape.

Grillo, a former comedian, has created this populist petty bourgeois movement, picking up some traditional slogans of the left, such as the struggle against privatisation, and declaring himself “ouside the parties and the coalition system”. He was able to intercept an “antisystem mood” which is present in society, in a moment when the class struggle has not erupted yet as a key factor in the situation. To give an idea of Grillo’s clever strategy, he supported the students beaten by the police yesterday, calling on them to “revolt”.

However, given its class character, M5S cannot stick to this “anti-system” commitments, and its Sicilian leader has already said that they will support the new governor of Sicily, a member of the Democratic Party, at least when it comes to a “vote of confidence”.

The pressure on M5S will be enormous and it will be pulled in all directions. It will swing to the left initially, but given its character it will end up being pulled to the right, filling the big vacuum which is being created in the Italian political scene as a result of the disarray, the confusion and the splits which have afflicted the main right-wing parties.

This is due especially to the fact that the most likely perspective for the political election of next spring is a victory of a coalition around the Democratic Party.

A government headed by Bersani (the Democratic Party’s main leader) will be a government of crisis from the very beginning and the truce imposed by the trade union leaders, in exchange for the promise of a change to left after the election will be impossible to maintain.

This likely outcome is putting a big pressure on Rifondazione Comunista as well, which scored a bad result in the Sicilian elections. It was so bad that today the return of the PRC to parliament is not guaranteed at all.

It is a period of big changes in Italian society and politics. All the old certainties are shattered and new scenarios are emerging. An explosion of the class struggle is being prepared by all this, and the Marxists of FalceMartello are preparing their forces to intervene and provide the revolutionary alternative which the workers and youth of Italy deserve.

Source: FalceMartello (Italy)