November 25th, Italy paralysed by general strike - Unite all struggles against the Berlusconi government

Last Friday Italy was shaken by yet another general strike. Tomorrow the engineering workers march on Rome. On Saturday there is a protest against detention centres for illegal immigrants. Last October 25th, 70,000 students protested in Rome. The right wing Berlusconi government is under constant pressure from the workers and youth. It could be brought down today if it were not for the trade union leaders and leaders of the left parties. On Friday, November 25th, Italy was brought to a halt by a 4-hour general strike called by the three main trade union confederations, CGIL, CISL and UIL.

The strike was in protest against this year’s budget, yet another example of the anti-working class character of the Berlusconi government. The budget cuts 500 million euros from social spending by the local authorities, which represents a reduction of 50%. This comes on top of the recession which is drastically affecting the living standards of Italian workers with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. The industrial job index now stands at close to 85 (the figure for year 2000 equals 100), which means 15% fewer jobs compared to 2000.

At the same time the Berlusconi government is planning to privatise the “Trattamento di fine rapporto” (a state-run fund that guarantees workers a lump sum when they retire, based on the number of years that have contributed to the fund). This will force the workers to invest their lump sum in private pension funds which are run by the insurance companies, which just happens to be a sector in which Berlusconi’s companies happen to dominate.

This is the last but dangerous lashing out of a dying government. In one local election after another the right wing has lost votes. In the last regional elections the right lost two million votes to the Centre-Left.

The beginning of the decline of “Sir Berlusconi” was ushered in by the wave of workers’ mobilisations that has taken place since 2002, which we have reported on in several articles on this site.

On Friday we witnessed once again the willingness to struggle on the part of the Italian workers. According to the figures of the trade union leadership between 80 and 90% of the workers took part in the strike. We saw important demonstrations in Milan, Rome, Turin and Palermo, with tens of thousands of workers on the streets. But in many towns, because of the way the trade union bureaucracy organised the strike, the participation in the rallies was low. Limiting the strike to only four hours was like giving the workers a blunted knife. It allows the boss to put pressure on the workers to make up for lost production in the remaining four hours of the day’s work, while at the same time giving workers little time to actually take part in the rallies.

The CISL and UIL even went as far as telling school staff not to come out on strike, while the CGIL limited strike action in this sector to only one hour, with the excuse that the government had granted a wage increase of a miserable 100 euros per month, gross!

In spite of these limitations, this strike comes on top of a whole series of mobilisations. The engineering workers, in dispute over their national collective bargaining agreement, will descend on Rome for what is expected to be a very large national demonstration tomorrow, Friday, December 2nd. We have also seen protest actions on the part of the school and university students against a new attack of the government aimed at dismantling state education. On October 25th we saw 70,000 students march through Rome.

A very intense situation has emerged in Val Susa, near Turin, where the entire local population is carrying out a struggle against a high speed railway line which involves digging a tunnel through to France in terrain which is full of asbestos and uranium, and would therefore seriously pollute the whole area. On November 16th, 80,000 people were out on the streets in this small valley, and they faced the brutal repression of the police, who even attacked local traffic wardens on duty! This is yet another example of how wide layers of the population are seeing from their own experience of struggle that defending a clean environment clashes directly with the interests of the big companies involved in this project.

Yet again we see how these kinds of struggle not only create difficulties for the right wing but they also open up contradictions within the “Unione” (the Union, the new name of the Centre-Left coalition). The local leaders of the DS (ex-CP), the PRC (Rifondazione Comunista) and the Greens are supporting the protest, while the leader of the Piedmont regional council, Mecedes Bresso of the DS, together with the Margherita party (the Daisy, the main bourgeois party within the Union coalition) is fully backing the high speed railway line.

Other internal divisions will emerge over this coming Saturday’s demonstration in Rome against the so-called CPTs (temporary detention centre, where illegal immigrants are locked up). The moderates of the Union simply refuse to support the demand to close them, thus upholding this barbaric method which casts a dark shadow on genuine democratic rights in Italy.

Such internal divisions will multiply once the Union is in government, and they are divisions that Communist activists can work on to break the coalition along class lines.

Seeing their chance to get back into office, the leaders of the DS are trying to succour favour with the bourgeoisie. They want to show that they are trustworthy. They provided the main backing for Prodi in the recent primaries, where the ex-President of the European Commission received a plebiscite of over three million votes (75% of the total cast). They have not opposed the formation of a united list of parliamentary candidates with the Margherita. They have absolutely no intention of opposing privatisation or casualisation of labour which have gone very far in these last few years.

The leaders of the trade unions, together with the leaders of the DS and the PRC are limiting the aims of the recent mobilisations to simply changing the policies of the present government, while in actual fact all the conditions exist to bring it down. But such a step would shift the balance of forces in Italy radically to the left, which is something the bureaucracy within the labour movement wants to avoid like the plague.

Never have we seen such an abyss between the politics of the leaders of the labour movement and the aspirations of the masses. The masses want to see Berlusconi brought down now. They want a genuine government of change, which would raise real incomes and undo all the attacks on the welfare state carried out by the right wing.

It is precisely these diametrically opposed interests which will put enormous pressure on any future Prodi government. The Marxists are working on the basis of this perspective. We intervened in over 30 demonstrations up and down Italy and sold more than 500 copies of FalceMartello. One example suffices to show the mood. In Palma di Montechiaro (Agrigento) in Sicily, the poorest province in Italy, a supporter of FalceMartello and a leader of the local Young Communists, was among the speakers on the platform and he outlined our alternative, a workers’ alternative. Thanks to this we sold all the copies of FalceMartello that we had. The older workers were moved to tears by his speech and felt renewed hope in seeing a new generation which is taking up the mantle of struggle. The task of retying the knot of the class struggle in this country is something which the Marxists will not shirk from.


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