One and a half million workers take to the streets during last week's 4-hour general strike

On Friday October 24, about ten million workers took part in a 4-hour general strike called by the trade unions against Berlusconi’s proposed counter-reform of the pension system. 1.5 million people workers participated in over 100 demonstrations throughout the whole of Italy. The strike was particularly successful in the public sector, in education, public transport, and the railways. It indicates that within a short space of time we will be facing a new and maybe decisive turning point in the class struggle in Italy. On Friday October 24, about ten million workers took part in the 4-hour general strike called by the trade union federations Cgil-Cisl-Uil in opposition to the Berlusconi government’s proposed counter-reform of the pension system. According to the trade union leaders, 1.5 million people participated in over 100 demonstrations throughout the whole of Italy.

The strike was a clear success, and while the bosses’ federation, the Confindustria, has tried to play down the figures, the government did not deny the figures, as it was obvious that there had been a massive turnout. The strike was particularly successful in the public sector, in education, public transport, and railways.

The right-wing government, under pressure from the European Union as well as the Confindustria, decided in September to launch an all-out attack against state pensions. The government’s proposal would force all workers to work for at least 40 years (with fully paid up contributions) before they could draw their pensions. Given the fact that the level of state pensions has been falling since 1995, when the previous “pensions reform” introduced the first serious attack, and that in the future they will no longer be able to guarantee a decent income to workers when they retire, the new proposals would also force them to join a private pensions scheme in order to guarantee a reasonable living.

To add insult to injury, Berlusconi resorted to the most provocative manner of “explaining” his views on the subject on September 29. He addressed the nation in an eight-minute message broadcast simultaneously on six different TV channels – three State channels plus three of his own!

This attack comes at a time when there is an already enraged mood among the workers which is spreading on a massive scale. This mood has been fuelled by the continuous attacks of the government and local councils in almost every section of the welfare state, from schools to health care. A general increase in prices which is cutting into in the budget of millions of working class families has also added combustible material to the situation.

A further reason for bitterness and radicalisation is the industrial decline of the country. Industrial production has been falling for the last 21 months and in August there was a further fall of 10%. Crisis, closures and so-called “rationalisations” are on the order of the day and will inevitably provoke very sharp conflicts, as was the case with the Fiat workers last year. All these feelings were channelled and given expression on October 24.

With this latest offensive Berlusconi forced the leaders of the Cisl and Uil to join the call for the general strike. Last year the leaders of the Cisl and Uil had openly scabbed on the struggle against the counter-reform of the labour code. Thanks to their betrayal the government was able to pass a vicious law (law no. 30) which introduces massive casualisation of labour in the workplaces. Now they have been forced to make a U-turn and to join the struggle. Not surprisingly, Uil General Secretary Luigi Angeletti was hissed and booed by thousands of people during his speech in Naples.

After the general strike the government has reiterated its determination to continue with the counter-reform; but given the political situation in the country this is a recipe for further explosions. If this has not already become the case, it is only due to the cautious - not to say cowardly - attitude of the trade union leaders. If they wanted to, they could easily bring down the government, which has already been weakened by divisions and clashes between the four parties that make up the coalition government. But so far the trade union leaders have limited themselves to carrying out minimum mobilisation (just enough to save their faces). One more 4-hour general strike becomes just another demonstration. It expresses the anger and willingness to struggle of the workers, but it does not become an action which can decisively change the position in the country.

However, the trade union leaders do not have the power to do whatever they wish. It is not only a question of what the trade union leaders are prepared to do or not to do. The workers are becoming increasingly impatient faced with a situation that is becoming worse day by day, and there are clear signs of a new militant mood and a change in attitude emerging among the ranks of the labour movement.

There is an ongoing process of radicalisation amongst those youth who are hardest hit by the new laws on casual labour. Call centres, big workplaces in the commercial sector, factories with high concentrations of casual workers are experiencing a process of unionisation in spite of the routinist and passive approach of the trade union apparatus.

Another important element of radicalisation has been the struggle of the metalworkers. Last May Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil, the metal workers’ organizations of the Cisl and Uil, signed a separate national agreement for the 1.5 million metal workers. The agreement, a real slap in the face for the workers, was not accepted by the Fiom-Cgil, which is the biggest of the three organizations. Fim and Uilm stubbornly refused to let the workers vote in a ballot on the agreement they had signed. The Fiom thus decided to launch a struggle to overturn that agreement and to win a decent national agreement.

The tactics proposed by the Fiom leaders are to launch a series of strikes prepared and decided on at local level. The effectiveness of this kind of tactic is more than doubtful, as it means dividing up the struggle. Furthermore, it is clear that the Fiom apparatus is not too enthusiastic about launching such a struggle. Up to now it has clearly failed to give a centralized and strong leadership to this struggle.

But in spite of all the faults and shortfalls of the leadership, the workers are struggling. Anywhere there was a clear call and organization from the local shop stewards, the workers responded with enthusiasm and militancy. They are now turning to more militant methods of struggle, in sharp contrast to the usual way the trade union leaders organize the strikes. Wildcat strikes, sudden short stoppages with no warning and at the mere call of the shop steward, road blocks and so on, are becoming a common feature in this struggle.

Thanks to these strikes, in about 260 factories the bosses were forced to sign local agreements disavowing the national agreement and giving higher wage increases and other concessions.

Up till now the metal workers struggle has still been limited in its scope. The agreement that has been signed only covers around 40,000 workers. Nonetheless it is of extreme significance, as it shows that in the most important section of the industrial working class, the traditional spearhead of the trade union movement, there is a clear process of radicalisation taking place.

On November 7, the Fiom is organising a one-day strike with a national demonstration in Rome. Given the success of the general strike and the general climate, this could mark a turning point in the metal workers’ struggle, which would influence the whole of the working class and trade union movement.
The bosses and the government are now reacting with threats and repressive measures. On more than one occasion the police has been called to intimidate the workers (although the policemen did not seem to be so eager to openly confront the workers on strike). One example of this is what happened a few days ago. One government minister called his colleague the Home Minister to intervene in order to “restore democracy in the factories of Emilia Romagna,” [the region where the struggle is more widespread and solid - Ed]. This reveals both the fears and the shortsightedness of the ruling class. An open act of repression against the workers in the present situation could lead to a real disaster for the government and the bosses.

While we write it is still not clear what the trade union leaders are going to do if - as seems almost certain - the government does not step back. Another general strike before the end of the year is not ruled out. Other layers could also take the streets including the school students, who in many towns took part in the demonstrations of October 24.

We have a weakened government, a growing stirring within society and a preparedness to fight, and an accumulation of contradictions at all levels. All these elements tell us that within a short space of time we will be facing a new and maybe decisive turning point in the class struggle in Italy.