Italy: More than a general strike of 10 million workers

The Italian general strike of April 16, the first in 20 years, was a milestone in the class struggle taking place. More than 10 million workers went on strike and over 2 million participated in demonstrations up and down the country. Prime Minister Berlusconi's ambition is to emulate Margaret Thatcher by inflicting a significant blow on the labour movement, and the CGIL trade union federation in particular. By doing so he wants to bring the other two federations, the CISL and UIL to heel, opening the way for the bosses to make an onslaught on workers' rights.

The general strike in Italy on April 16 was much more than just a major work stoppage lasting eight hours involving more than 10 million workers. It was also a major milestone in a process that started a number of years ago and that has already gone through a number of qualitatively important stages: e.g. the metal workers' general strike on July 6 last year, the anti-G8 demonstrations last year in Genoa on the day following the murder of Carlo Giuliani by the police (and in spite of the government's threats) in which more than 300,000 people took part and finally the national demonstration in Rome organised by the CGIL trade union on March 23 this year in which more than 2.5 million workers, students and pensioners took part.

The mass media are completely ignoring and/or cowering in fear of a whole series of events that show - if seen in their entirety - that only one year after Berlusconi's electoral victory, that there is a growing movement springing up all around the country aimed at defending and extending a number of basic rights: e.g. a decent wage, a decent pension, the right to live free from the perpetual threat of being sacked at any moment (the famous article 18 of the Workers' Statute, approved in 1970, in the wake of the "Hot Autumn" strike movement of 1969, that gives workers the right to be properly compensated or to have their original jobs back if they are unfairly dismissed).

Workers have become more politically aware and more ready to move into struggle over the last few years, particularly after the long experience of the so-called "Olive Tree" government, which was led by the DS party (the largest party to come from the split of the old Italian Communist party) with outside support of the Rifondazione Comunista ("Communist Refoundation") party, in its first years of existence. The "permanent" temporary contract law, employment agencies, reduced wages for newcomers to the jobs market, the scandal of self-employed workers (who had all the duties of employed workers but none of their rights)… were all introduced by the Labour minister of the Olive Tree government, Mr Treu. Consequently, due to the lack of a serious alternative to the Olive Tree coalition's policies, it is hardly surprising that a large part of the working class chose to abstain in last year's general elections in protest.

Nevertheless, the right-wing parties' (Forza Italia, the National Alliance and the Northern League) massive victory in these elections, did not stop the anger and the desire to fight back from building up in factories and workers' districts all around the country. This was precisely the reason for the enormous success of the Genoa demonstrations, which took place barely a few weeks after Berlusconi's triumph at the ballot box. The workers used them as a first opportunity to hit back at the capitalists and the government, despite the CGIL trade union's unsurprising decision not to take part. On the other hand, FIOM, the metal workers' union that belongs to the CGIL federation, did lend its full support to the demonstration.

Berlusconi and Thatcher

Berlusconi says that he wishes to copy Thatcher by inflicting a comprehensive defeat on the most militant trade union, the CGIL. In doing this, his objective is to have the other two main union federations, CISL and UIL, at his mercy so that he can force them into his sham roundtable talks on labour reform. However, it seems that his electoral victory on May 13 last year, in which he got half a million more votes than his rivals (thanks to the new first-past-the-post electoral system), giving him a majority of more than 100 MPs, has gone straight to his head. He thinks that he will be able to beat the labour movement just as easily. However, as we shall see, the reality is very different.

The government has introduced a whole series of laws with the aim of opening up a breach in the minimum rights enjoyed by workers.

Although the plan to take away a worker's right to be reinstated if unfairly dismissed is not intended to apply to those currently in work and only for an experimental period of 4 years, it is a bridgehead designed to create a layer of workers with fewer rights on which the government will be able to base itself in order to apply the same legislation to all workers at a later date.

The proposal to reduce the pension payments for newcomers to the jobs market has the same aim. Firstly, it will force the latter to take out private pension policies if they want to survive after retirement, and secondly it will rapidly create so many difficulties for the state pension scheme that there are bound to be calls for further cuts in state pension payments sooner or later.

The Italian bosses' organisation (Confindustria) and its chairman D'Amato have naturally welcomed these proposals and have been pushing hard for the laws to be passed. However, major splits have recently appeared between the different sections of the bosses as it becomes clearer that they will not be able to achieve their aims as easily as they thought. Capitalist heavyweights such as Tronchetti-Provera, CEO of Pirelli and head of the Telecom Italia group, Benetton or even Agnelli, the boss of Fiat, have made it known that they will only press ahead if this does not cause a major confrontation with the workers. They clearly want to have their cake and eat it!

The General Strike

This is was the first general strike in twenty years and although it did not have the total support of workers in small businesses and shops, it was definitely very significant.

Less than five hundred of the Fiat group's total workforce of 250,000 did not down tools. In some regions such as Tuscany, Piedmont and Lombardy, 90-95% of the workers in large and medium-sized companies went on strike whilst more than 50% of those in small businesses did so too.

Police from the Siulp union, workers from the chemical, textiles and food processing industries, fire fighters, postal workers, teachers as well as civil servants joined the demonstrations. However, the novelty was the presence of a large amount of youth, many of whom are on so-called "junk" temporary, part-time contracts from bogus cooperatives or employment agencies. In addition, there were many workers who had "never been on strike before" or who were prepared to do so now in order to "launch a fightback". This slogan was in response to Berlusconi who had explained on TV that his plans were aimed at defending the future of Italy's children against the "selfishness" of their "privileged parents": "Padri e figli uniti nella lotta/ l'articolo 18 non si tocca" - "Children and their parents united in struggle - Hands off article 18!". Quite correctly, many workers have decided that they want to go further than just defending article 18 and want to launch a campaign to extend its application to businesses employing less than 15 employees (55% of the total workforce in Italy), in which bosses currently have the right to hire and fire at will.

The ten million plus workers on strike and the two million who participated in the 21 demonstrations up and down the country on the morning of April 16 clearly showed the level of opposition to the plans of the government and the bosses. But what happens now?

Perspectives

With their characteristic cynicism, Berlusconi and D'Amato have been trying to talk down the number of workers who really took part in the strike (less than 6 million for the head of the Confindustria, whilst Berlusconi has actually been saying that only two out of ten demonstrators knew what the strike was about!)

The government has stated that it will not lose face by withdrawing its proposals and has on the contrary asked the unions to sit down with them at the negotiating table for a "free and frank" discussion.

Despite the fact that just a month ago both the CISL and UIL unions were saying that they were quite happy to negotiate with the government, all three trade union federations are now saying that "they will not sit down at the negotiating table without the withdrawal of the government's proposals on pensions and article 18". This is due to the pressure from the factories, which is leaving them with no leeway to compromise - but how long will this situation last for?

Berlusconi would like to do what his heroine, Margaret Thatcher, did to the British miners by destroying the most militant trade union, the CGIL. His calls for "negotiations" are nothing but a smokescreen. The only talks that he is interested in are ones that would accept his proposals as, in his words, " reform is necessary - Europe and the electorate demands them."

The trade union leadership, who tried right up until the last moment to pursue their "social contract" policy, now clearly want the withdrawal of the bill to abolish article 18 and now want to begin talks on a general reform of the Workers' Statute. Many bosses would be ready to accept the introduction of an unemployment insurance system in exchange for making it easier to sack workers. The bosses' and the government's aim is clearly to have a permanent weapon available to use against anyone who dares to defend employees' rights in the workplace. Compensation and benefits would be the price to pay for increased control of the workers on the shop floor.

Barely a year ago, both the CISL and UIL federations would have readily accepted these sorts of proposals. In fact, many of the leaders of the CGIL would have also been prepared to consider them. However, the new factor in the equation - that which has stopped any agreement between the government and the trade unions and which forced the CISL and the UIL to follow the CGIL's call for a general strike - is the clear change in the political consciousness of the working class, as shown by its readiness to march in the streets, down tools and defend its basic rights.

There is such a massive participation in the current movement that confidence is very high and few doubt that the government and the bosses will not give in. However, all is not as simple as this. The government will only retreat if the movement creates serious difficulties in the factories and workplaces, undermines the government's electoral support (on May 23, 10 million electors will vote in the first round of local elections) and threatens to break the electoral pact between Messrs Bossi, Fini and Berlusconi.

In order for this to happen, the movement must advance on to a qualitatively higher level. It must move forwards from the trade union level on to the political level. There is a very strong possibility that the Olive Tree coalition, which enabled the bourgeoisie to control the workers' movement for many years through men such as Prodi, Amato, Dini, will break up in the short term. The agitation in the DS party, at whose congress eight months ago D'Alema and Fassino obtained a majority of 64%, is almost at boiling point. Many grassroots members, and especially the millions who vote for the DS, as well as millions of other workers, are all hoping that Cofferati, the CGIL leader, will launch a battle against the party's right wing in the next few months. Interestingly, Cofferati, up to quite recently, had been one of the most cynical leaders of the right wing in the CGIL and has always supported the D'Alema faction in the DS. Therefore, this process will certainly not be a short one. This is because there is much more than article 18 at stake - there could be a complete reversal in the balance of power between the classes in Italy, following a period of 20 years in which the labour movement has been continually on the defensive.