Italy - a balance sheet of two years of intense class struggle

The Italian working class is now facing a crossroads. Since the year 2001 Italy has witnessed an uninterrupted series of mass mobilisations, probably the biggest ever in Italian history. But no mass movement can continue indefinitely forever if it does not achieve at least some results. This is the problem which is now facing the Italian working class and in particular its vanguard. After two years of uninterrupted mobilisations, the Italian working class is now facing a crossroads. Since the year 2001 Italy has witnessed an uninterrupted series of mass mobilisations, probably the biggest ever in Italian history. This is part of an international process of reawakening of the working class which is spreading all over Europe. The recent mass strikes in France and Austria are only the last testimony of the breadth and depth of the process which is taking place on a mass scale.

Let us recall briefly the main events in Italy during the last two years. In June 2001 the three main metal workers unions split over the national collective agreement. We have to remember that there are three main union confederations in Italy, the CGIL, the CISL and the UIL. Traditionally the CGIL was always linked to the left parties. Each of these confederations has its own metal workers', chemical workers' sections etc. The CGIL metal workers' union is called the FIOM-CGIL, and it organises the bulk of the metal workers.

In June 2001 the FIOM-CGIL, under pressure from the ranks, refused to sign the agreement and called a national one-day strike on its won which brought 250,000 workers onto the streets.

Following on from that that, we saw the mass mobilisations in Genoa against the G8 summit and mass demonstrations against the war in Afghanistan.

In 2002 there was an explosion of strikes against the counter-reform of the labour code, including two one-day general strikes (April 16 and October 18) and a mass demonstration called by the CGIL in Rome on March 23 which saw around two million workers on the streets.

In July the government managed to split the unions and reached a separate agreement with the CISL and UIL, who accepted a partial setback over the main point of conflict, namely article 18 of the Labour code, which defends the worker against unjust individual sackings. The CGIL refused to sign and called a second one-day general strike for October 18.

During the autumn of 2002 the FIAT workers waged a bitter struggle against 8,000 redundancies and the threatened closure of two plants. In December, FIAT reached an agreement with the government and the CISL and UIL, which was again rejected by the FIOM-CGIL. However, the FIOM leaders refused to give a lead and at the decisive moment left the FIAT workers isolated. This was a defeat, although not a decisive one, which enhanced the confidence of the bosses and of those trade union organisations (CISL and UIL) who were prepared do cooperate with the right wing Berlusconi government.

Between November of last year (the European Social Forum in Florence) and this April the mass opposition to the Gulf war once again filled the streets with thousands of demonstrations, road and rail blocks around the country and a two million strong demo in Rome on February 15. Throughout this two-year period there were a number of different mobilisations, ranging from that of the immigrant workers and the students, to the mass mobilisations in protest against the blatant corruption and arrogance of the Berlusconi clique, and so on.

These mass mobilisations were a clear expression of the fact that the tide had turned after a 20-year period of retreats and setbacks, and that there was now an apparently inexhaustible preparedness of the masses to go onto the streets and protest.

However, now, after two years of mobilisations, we are clearly approaching a crucial point. No mass movement can continue indefinitely forever if it does not achieve at least some results. No mass mobilisation develops in a straight line forever onwards. This is all the more true when the leadership fails to outline a strategy to achieve victory. This is the problem which is now facing the Italian working class and in particular its vanguard.

The problem of leadership

Had it depended just on the will of the masses alone, the Berlusconi government could have been overthrown on more than one occasion. On several occasions the government indeed vacillated. But the leaders of the mass organizations of the working class stubbornly refused to demand the resignation of the government. They did not want to bring the situation to a head and provoke a decisive confrontation. They merely wished to exploit the discontent of the workers and the pressures from below to re-establish their prestige and their authority among the masses. This authority had been badly damaged after the failure of five years of "centre-left" coalition government (1996-2001), and the defeat of the left in the May 2001elections. The union leaders had in fact loyally co-operated with the "centre-left" government and held back the movement in the face of a series of cuts.

The PRC leadership also has it share of responsibility in all this. When we, as the Marxist opposition inside the PRC, raised this question in the internal party debate, Bertinotti's answer was that the time was not ripe for bringing down the government, and that the main aim of the mass movement was just to simply continue to mobilise: "The aim of the movement is the growth of the movement itself".

However, it must be said that the main responsibility lies on the shoulders of Sergio Cofferati and that of the CGIL leadership as a whole. When Cofferati as general secretary of the CGIL, began to call the strikes in 2002 there was a general feeling of relief: at last, most of the workers thought, they have begun to change course, they have understood that we must fight back.

As a result of this call on the part of the CGIL leaders, most of the workers, including the most advanced layers, the shop stewards and so on, trusted the leadership. They thought that their task was to wait for the call "from the top" and to mobilise when called. At the same time there was a general feeling that through the mass mobilisations, and thanks to Cofferati, the Democratic Left (the DS, main left party that emerged from the split of the old Communist Party) was going either to change its policies or to split. Workers felt that one way or another, the right wing faction that had a tight grip over the DS was about to enter into a crisis.

Recent events, however, have shown that things are more complicated than that and that the task of defeating the right wing policies and leaders who dominate the working class organisations is still far from being achieved.

After two years of struggles, the government and the bosses feel that the they have survived the biggest danger. Just one week ago there was a new division among the metal workers' unions, and once again the bosses signed a separate agreement with FIM-CISL and UILM-UIL. This is far worse than the agreement of June 2001, as this contract is not just about wages, but also opens the road for further concessions on casualisation, flexibility, and attacks on workers' rights in the workplaces.

The FIOM-CGIL organised a one-day strike on May 16 [on the latest developments in the Italian labour movement we will publish a more detailed article in the next few weeks, Editor's note]. There is absolutely no doubt that in the workplaces there is anger and bitterness at what the bosses and scab union leaders have been doing. However, this feeling is mixed with anxiety and elements of mistrust in the FIOM leaders. The workers are far from confident that the present leadership of the FIOM is capable of leading this struggle to a victorious conclusion. They instinctively understand that such a struggle, if it is to achieve victory has to be a long and militant one.

On June 15, a referendum is going to take place over article 18 of the labour code. This is the result of a campaign organised mainly by the PRC last year. 600,000 signatures were collected in favour of changing the labour code in order to make it applicable to all companies. The current position is that it only applies to companies which employ more than 15 workers.

While the CGIL has decided to support the referendum (half-heartedly), the majority of the DS have decided that they will call for an abstention (the referendum needs a 50% quorum in order to be validated). The new element is that Cofferati has decided to support this abstentionist position. This move means that after two years of conflict he is now seeking a reconciliation with the DS leadership. In effect it amounts to an open betrayal of his previous positions (when he had declared that the workers' rights must be equal for all). This about turn on the part of Cofferati is provoking a crisis in the DS left wing, which is actually splitting in different directions.

A new stage

Over the last few years it has only been the role of the leadership of the workers' organisations that has saved the right wing government. On this basis the Berlusconi government has gained a breathing space, but the general position in Italy remains one of instability and conflicts at all levels of society. The lessons of the last two years will become increasingly clear to the most advanced workers and youth. They will draw the conclusion that it is not enough to take part in struggles and in strikes, however big these may be. It is necessary to achieve a deeper understanding of the situation. The workers need to take firm control over their own mass organisations. And, most importantly, the workers need to develop correct methods, organisation and programme.

Over the past two years millions of people - most of them very young - have been awakened and have started taking part in political life. They have joined the mass movement and for the first time in their lives have seen the strength of, and the potential for, mass and collective action. The next stage will inevitably be one of critical reassessment of the experiences they have been through. There will be a desire to understand the role of all the different trends and tendencies within the movement. There will be a thirst for theoretical explanations both of world events and of the class struggle they have begun to take part in.

This is therefore a key stage in the development of the forces of genuine Marxism, which can and will get a wider audience among the most active and conscious layers. Thus we are preparing ourselves for a new and inevitable wave of struggles, which may not be very far off.