Huge success of October 18 CGIL general strike marks an important turning point in Italian politics

On October 18 the CGIL called a general strike without the support of the other two main trade union federations, the CISL and UIL. The latter actually opposed the strike and did everything to make sure it would not be a success. The bosses were also belittling the strike. Unfortunately for them this general strike was a huge success. There were demonstrations in 120 towns all over Italy and at least 1 million workers took part in the demonstrations. According to some reports the figure could even be close to 2 million.

On October 18 the CGIL called a general strike without the support of the other two main trade union federations, the CISL and UIL. The latter actually opposed the strike and did everything to make sure it would not be a success. The bosses were also belittling the strike. Unfortunately for them this general strike was a huge success.

There were demonstrations in 120 towns all over Italy and at least one million workers took part in the demonstrations. According to some reports the figure could even be close to two million. The basses immediately attempted to play down the success by saying that no more than 30% of the workers took part. Angeletti and Pezzotta, leaders of the UIL and CISL joined this chorus. But one interesting statistic is sufficient to expose these blatant liars. The ENEL, the Italian Electricity Board, recorded a fall of 58% in the consumption of electric energy on the day of the general strike. This proves that the claims that about 70% of the workforce actually took part in the strike are more than founded.

250,000 on demonstration in Milan

In Milan alone there were 250,000 workers on the demonstration. This is a remarkable turnout, especially if we consider that in the Lombardy region (of which Milan is the regional capital) there were a further 14 local demonstrations.

What is even more striking is that the total number of striking workers as far more than the actual membership of the CGIL. In fact in many factories more workers came out for this strike than in the previous general strike which was called by all three trade union federations together, CGIL, CISL and UIL.

In the transport sector participation was huge. In air transportation there was an 85% turnout, on the railways the turnout was about 80%. Most of the schools were closed. But the teachers and student did not simply stay at home; they turned out on the demonstrations to support the workers as a whole. There was also a very high turnout in the public sector, in the hospitals and ministerial offices.

It was also quite clear that a significant layer of CISL members were also on strike and many turned up on the demonstrations. On the Milan demonstration there were CISL flags. There were also a lot of rank and file activists of the DS party (the right wing of the old Communist Party), who clearly expressed their anger at the antics of D'Alema, ex-Prime Minister and party leader).

CGIL becoming a focal point of opposition

Some of the comments on the demonstration reflect the mood that is developing. "If it were not for the CGIL we would have no opposition in this country." A CISL shop steward explained why he was on the demonstration: "because the ideas of the CGIL are the right ones." There were workers there who had recently resigned from the CISL: in protest.

All this shows that far from being "isolated" it is the CGIL that is in tune with the real mood that is developing among the Italian working class.

The success of this strike underlines one fact: the old politics of consensus between the bosses, the government and the unions is now much more difficult to impose. The past twenty years have been years of backtracking by the unions. They have made one concession after another. This was particularly acute during the Olive Tree government. Then the DS were in a coalition with a series of small bourgeois parties (centre parties as they like to call themselves) and carried out a policy that Blair would have been proud of. We could even go so far as to say that Thatcher herself would have been proud.

All this was done on the basis that it was a necessary sacrifice in order to get the economy working and then get back to carrying out genuine reforms in the name of the working class. In reality it was a one-way process. The workers gave and got nothing in return.

This explains the defeat of the Olive Tree in the general elections. But what a significant symptom of what was to come was the fact that in those elections there was a higher level of abstentions in the working class districts. This showed that the workers w ere dissatisfied with the "Centre-Left" Olive Tree government, but were not prepared to vote for the right.

The coming to power of the Berlusconi marked the beginning of a new period of class conflict. The workers had had enough. They were no longer prepared to make concessions. Some thought that the bosses could still continue to lean on the trade unions, as the previous government had done. But this was a pipe dream. The fact that this year in Italy there has been a 500% increase in the number of strikes compared to last year says it all.

All contradictions coming to the surface

The pressures of world capitalism are bringing to the surface all the contradictions within Italian society. On the one hand the bosses need to go the offensive and destroy what is left of all the past gains of the working class. On the other we have the working class which is not prepared to take any more. All this is now expressing itself through the CGIL. The more the CGIL leaders move to the left the more the class gathers around it. It is the CGIL that is attracting support from the ranks of the CISL, not the other way round.

The bosses and the government have tried to hold back the tide by leaning on the leaders of the CISL and UIL. They signed the so-called "Patto per l'Italia" (Pact for Italy) excluding the CGIL. All this has achieved has been to further strengthen the CGIL in the eyes of the working class. The leaders of the CISL and UIOL are calling on the CGIL to "rebuild trade union unity" on the basis of accepting the "Patto per l'Italia". The rank and file workers are saying that trade union unity can only be built by opposing it.

All this is having political repercussions. The DS are already divided. There is a wing around D'Alema that is pushing for the party to move to the right. This is out of tune with his own rank and file. A left has emerged in the DS, albeit still in its early formative stages, and still based on the idea of reforms within the capitalist system. Nevertheless it is symptomatic of the process taking place. The more the workers pile on the pressure through the CGIL the more these left elements are strengthened within the DS. Cofferati, the ex-CGIL general secretary, who has just retired after two terms, is now preparing to become the focal point of opposition within the CGIL. Let there be no doubts about it: Cofferati is no revolutionary, he is not a Marxist. He supports the EU and the Maastricht Treaty. He raises the idea of possible reforms within the limits of the capitalist system. But he is being forced into opposition against the openly right wing social democratic leaders of the DS. There is more and more talk along the lines that "we cannot keeping looking to the Centre". As Fabio Mussi of the DS expressed it: "I think that this idea [of competing at the Centre] is a mistaken one… We therefore need to gather together all those forces that are opposed the illusions in neo-democratic centrism." Thus the DS are being pulled both from the left and from the right. In the long run this could lead even to a split in the DS, with the right wing being vomited out. Such a right wing split would probably attempt to stem the tide by going over to some sort of national government. This would free the rest of the party to move leftwards.

Workers making up for lost time

The pressure is not going to die down. The question of article 18 of the Workers' Statute has not yet been settled. There is the forthcoming battle over the budget, which will unite workers even further. There is the dispute at FIAT where thousands of workers face the sack or lay-off. And there is the threat of war in Iraq. At the end of the demonstration in Turin, the new secretary of the CGIL, Guglielmo Epifani, called on everyone to meet up again in Florence, referring to the European Social Forum in November. This means that the CGIL is becoming a point of reference also for the youth who have taken part in the anti-globalisation movement over the past few years. All the ingredients are present for the coming together of the youth and working class in a potentially explosive mix.

The workers and youth of Italy are making up for lost time. They are moving forward in a gigantic leap. The potential for Communist ideas once again gaining the ear of the Italian working class is demonstrated by the fact that in Turin the workers gave a hug applause to Bertinotti, the leader of Rifondazione Comunista (the left wing of the old Communist Party). This is ironic considering the fact he has been responsible for leaving the party totally unprepared for such a movement. He had shifted the whole emphasis of the party's activities towards the antiglobalisation movement, ignoring what was developing within the working class. In spite of this it is quite clear that the party has the potential to play a role, if only it would abandon its attempts to shift away from genuine Communist, i.e. Marxist ideas.

The real world will teach. The ranks of the CGIL, of the DS and of Rifondazione Comunista are about to experience a new period of intensified class struggle. They will learn very quickly in these conditions. All ideas and tendencies will be put to the test. In the last analysis they will be forced to conclude that no amount of compromises at the top will solve their problems. They will put to the test Cofferati and the left of the DS. They will put to the test Rifondazione and its leader Bertrinotti. On this basis the genuine ideas of Marxism will be seen as the only way out as the only solution. That is why we believe that the journal Falcemartello, the voice of the Marxists in the Italian labour movement, will have a key role to play in this process.