Berlusconi lays his cards on the table: Another general strike in Italy this autumn?

Right-wing premier Berlusconi has announced his plans to modify article 18 of the workers' statute (law protecting workers' rights) so that it does not cover workplaces with less than 15 workers. CGIL leader Sergio Cofferati declared that his union would reject all modifications and would do all in its power to stop such changes being implemented. Strikes have already taken place, and it is clear that the Italian working class will be in an even more combative mood by the autumn. Berlusconi's anti-working class measures combined with the effects of the current economic downturn are an explosive mixture.

The Berlusconi government finally laid its cards on the table on July 18 by declaring that in all workplaces with less than 15 workers, new employees would not be covered by article 18 of the Workers' Statute (the law that obliges employers to give workers their jobs back if they are unfairly dismissed). The company would not have to re-employ the sacked worker, but would be able to simply pay him or her compensation of between two and six months' wages. In exchange, the government has promised 700 million euros for increased unemployment benefits (which would be up to 60% of one's previous wages during the first six months of unemployment, dropping to 40% and then 30% in the last few quarters).

The general secretaries of the CISL and UIL unions, Savino Pezzotta and Luigi Angeletti, have said they are satisfied and have now signed the agreement with the government. They added that they will have to consult their membership, but this is going to take place after they have already signed the agreement! Therefore it will be simply a bureaucratic manoeuvre. The chairman of the bosses' organisation "Confindustria", Antonio D'Amato, said: "We would have preferred a more wider reform, but at least we have begun to eradicate this typically Italian disease that has distorted the market so much."

The government's intention was underlined by the deputy minister Maurizio Sacconi who explained that there was going to be a complete overhaul of labour legislation, the scrapping of the 1970 Workers' Statute and the introduction of a new "Labour Statute" (it is no coincidence that the word "workers" has been replaced by "labour").

In response, the CGIL leader, Sergio Cofferati, declared that his union would reject all modifications to article 18 of the current statute and that if the other unions didn't, the CGIL would do all in its power to stop such changes being implemented.

Cofferati added that the government's plans, even though they only propose the freezing of article 18 for three years at the moment, would result in the creation of two sets of rights; one for already employed workers and one for newly employed workers.

The destructiveness of this type of division has already been seen in the last few years when bosses were given ample freedom to introduce all sorts of "rubbish" contracts for new workers, often with the complicity of the trade unions. However, after fives years' experience of job insecurity and the rising wave of militancy since last summer, this new generation of workers is participating massively in the current struggles.

The campaign of regional strikes

On June 20, the CGIL started a campaign of 4-hour strikes in the regions of Campania (Naples) and Lombardy (Milan) against the proposed changes to article 18. This round of strikes did not have the same massive effects as the previous strikes. It is difficult to get reliable figures about the participation, but the demonstrations were in general smaller. But once the agreement was signed between the bosses, the government and the CISL and UIL the mood changed once more. The campaign of regional strikes ended on July 11, after the agreement had been signed, with the strike in Emilia-Romagna (Bologna). This was a huge success with large demonstrations all over Emilia-Romagna - 70,000 in Bologna alone, with big turnouts in all the other provinces (Modena, Reggio Emilia, etc). In the coming period, we will certainly see more unrest in the workplaces.

The government is still attacking the CGIL and Cofferati accusing them of creating a "mood of hatred" which is "helping terrorist organisations". These attacks have had the effects of increasing even further Cofferati's authority and of radicalising the conflict. There is now talk of a new general strike in the autumn.

In some towns of Lombardy such as Brescia, the FIM (the CISL metal workers' union) has called local strikes together with the FIOM (the CGIL metal union) but has still not called a region-wide general strike despite the secretary Sandro Pasotti's declaration that "we will oppose any changes to article 18."

Many workers approve of the CGIL's principled position and are angry at the behaviour of the CISL and UIL, who have sold out for a packet of peanuts. In this case, the "peanuts" are Berlusconi's promise to co-opt the unions that approve the changes into a series of quasi-autonomous government agencies set up to fight unemployment and the black economy.

Interestingly, the government's text on article 18 is based heavily on a proposal made by D'Alema, the leader of the Left Democrats (DS), when he was prime minister. As with the health and education sectors and the deregulation of the jobs market, Berlusconi has used much of the "dirty work" carried out by the former Olive Tree government in order to go much quicker and further with his counter-reforms.

Opinions within the Olive Tree alliance on the government's proposals continue to be very much divided today. Enrico Morando, on the right wing of the DS party, has said: "Both the DS and Margherita parties [a mix of smaller bourgeois parties that were part of the Olive Tree coalition] believe that if there is not a big increase in unemployment benefit, no changes can be made to article 18." However, the Margherita party, which is divided over whether to formally break its ties with the Olive Tree alliance and its support for the CISL union, has "suspended making a decision" on Berlusconi's proposal for the moment.

The regional general strikes called by the CGIL undoubtedly have received a massive echo but this has not proved enough to stop the government or the leaders of the CISL and UIL. In order to do this, the CGIL should have called another general strike in June, setting up strike committees in each workplace in order to discuss the details of the government's text and demanding that article 18, instead of being withdrawn, should be extended to all sections of the workforce. This would have shown in practice that the CGIL has learned from its errors of the past ten years (i.e. the social contracts, etc) and is ready to change its policy. The series of regional strikes has not taken the initiative away from the government, which has now signed an agreement with the bosses, the CISL and the UIL.

Although the CGIL is being pushed further and further to the left its leadership is not doing everything it should. For example, it has proposed that a referendum be called against the agreement when it will actually be implemented by the parliament. This is clearly a diversion from the struggle, as it involves collecting half a million signatures and then voting in the year 2004. But this will not stop the general process of radicalisation taking place.

The CGIL leadership is being forced to take up a more and more militant stance. The most likely perspective is that they will be forced to raise other issues in order to justify an all out conflict against the government and the bosses. So the questions of wages, of casualisation and so on will probably be taken up by the CGIL leadership.

This situation is also having interesting repercussions inside the DS (Democratic Left). The conflict between the CGIL and the government is causing serious problems inside the DS and the Olive Tree coalition as a whole. The conflict between Cofferati and D'Alema is growing. It amounts to a struggle for the leadership on the DS party. Cofferati (whose mandate as CGIL general secretary will end in September) is touring the whole of Italy, participating in dozens of meetings to rally his supporters. At the beginning of July he participated in a mass commemoration of those who died in the events of July 1960 (7 workers were killed by the police). In his speech, in a clear attack on D'Alema (without naming him), he criticised those leaders of the left who always talk about winning over "the centre" but who as a result lose votes to the left without winning any support from the centre! These are indications of a new song that these leaders will be singing in the next period! The divisions inside the DS are growing day by day and up to now Cofferati and the left wing of the party have been on the offensive. The outcome of the conflict is still unclear, but a split cannot be ruled out. The alternative is a compromise at the expense of Fassino and the right wing of the party. They cannot escape the pressure mounting up from below among the working class in general.

It is clear that the Italian working class will be in an even more combative mood by the autumn. Berlusconi's anti-working class measures combined with the effects of the current economic downturn (GDP is forecast to grow no more than 1.4% for 2002 as a whole) and the crisis at big groups such as Fiat (15,000 to 25,000 workers are to be sacked in the next few months, if those employed at Fiat's subcontractors are also included) are an explosive mixture. The enormous confidence that most workers had in Cofferati in April will change into a more levelheaded and sombre attitude. They will be demanding the struggle be taken to a higher level. New layers of activists will soon be "getting their hands dirty" in the political and union battles that lie ahead. This process will be long with many ups and downs, but there is not doubt Berlusconi, even in the next few months, will have much to worry about.

This article is also available in Spanish.