Italy: the “second wave” brings with it a wave of protests

Italy has been struck by a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to further lockdown measures. With the government doing little to support those faced with infection and unemployment, sections of the working class and middle class have demonstrated in frustration. This anger must be channelled in a positive direction by the workers' movement, whose leaders have so far refused to offer any way forward.

Italy is being hit by a second wave of COVID-19, with the number of infections far exceeding those of last spring. In six months, the government has done nothing to prevent a new outbreak. On the contrary, all activities were kept open, with a barrage of government propaganda that the contagion was lower than in other European countries and hoping to exploit this as a competitive advantage. We can now see the consequences, with 30,000 new infections a day, spread across the country, while in the spring it was mostly concentrated in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.

The economy is plummeting. Italy never recovered from the 2009 crisis. In 2019, GDP was still lower than the pre-2009 levels in terms of real value, and for 2020 the forecast is of at least a -11.2 percent fall. After years of ruthless austerity, public debt had risen to 135 percent of GDP by the end of 2019. By the end of 2020, the government expects it to reach 158 percent of GDP.

In March, a wave of spontaneous strikes forced the government to close down some non-essential production activities, in order to protect workers' health; and to introduce a freeze on redundancies. Although this is still formally in force (and has been prolonged until March 2021), 472,000 jobs were lost between February and July 2020. On an annual basis, the job losses amount to 841,000.

38.8 percent of Italian companies have stated that they are in danger of closing down. This proportion rises to 65.2 percent for the hospitality and catering sectors.

Public subsidies have mainly supported large companies, to guarantee the profits of the millionaires. These companies are also those that are allowed to continue operations, regardless of public health. Waged workers are subject to great pressure, considering the health risks posed by the relaxation of safety measures in the workplaces, and the loss of wages in those sectors that are reducing production, while extra time and intensified working rhythms are enforced in other sectors. The capitalists are wary of a mounting wave of discontent breaking out in open conflict. The workers’ movement’s potential strength is the reason why the government had to introduce a temporary freeze on redundancies.

Those who run small businesses or work without any safety net in sectors that suffer under lockdown conditions, those who are employed with casual contracts, or have lost their jobs and have no hope of finding another one, are thrown into misery and uncertainty with no perspective of a way out. For these sectors, the new (partial) lockdown measures introduced in October represented the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At the press conference announcing the measures, Prime Minister Conte demonstrated his grovelling servility to big business and identified the sectors that were to be sacrificed on the altar of the profits of the few who, even today, continue to accumulate impressive wealth. All the factories, whether deemed essential or not, were to continue production, while shops, restaurants and bars were forced to close at 6pm, and theatres, gyms and cinemas were shut down entirely.

The rage, which has been brewing for years just below the surface, has erupted in several demonstrations, first in Naples and then in other Italian cities.

The protests in Naples

The day preceding the announcement of the Prime Minister's decree of 24 October, De Luca, Governor of the Campania Region, re-elected a few weeks before with 69.5 percent of the votes, spoke live on Facebook to announce the terms of the regional lockdown. De Luca used harsh tones but the truth is that, in the eight months since the pandemic started, he has not lifted a finger to strengthen the region’s faltering health service or public transport. The declaration of a new lockdown, without even announcing the allocation of funds to support the income of the workers and small businesses, provoked an immediate response. After the announcement, spontaneous demonstrations of several thousand people broke out.

The anger that erupted just a few hours after De Luca's speech goes back a long way. The region of Campania, although it retains the highest presence of industrial plants in Southern Italy, has undergone a devastating process of deindustrialisation over the years. As a result of the 2008 crisis, many factories have been abandoned, while others have been downsized, adding to the scourge of unemployment, which is rife. Thousands of these workers found new employment in the tourist sector;in most cases, through poorly paid, seasonal, unprotected, and casual jobs.

Thousands more, especially the youngest, were forced to emigrate to the north of the country or abroad. The impact of the pandemic put an end to all this. Any hope of finding their own individual way out, albeit with difficulty, was dashed. At the same time, the illusions placed by millions of workers and youth in some political formations, and especially in the 5 Star Movement, have been shattered.

The many demonstrations of the past few days are a reflection of the social dynamics in progress. We are seeing unrest spreading among workers of the cultural and entertainment industry, small shopkeepers, tourism workers, bartenders, waiters, entertainers, as well as restaurant, gym and swimming pool owners taking the streets together. A mixed bag of impoverished petty bourgeoisie and some sections of the working class that, despite their heterogeneity, fill the same squares sharing the same demand: if you close us down, you pay us!

These demonstrations were met with a disgusting media campaign, echoed by all the main political parties, denouncing in a chorus that these were protests by unruly people, COVID-19 deniers, stragglers, etc., led by the Camorra criminal cartels (the local variety of the Mafia) and therefore to be condemned. However, what we see in these squares is a different picture: that of a feeling of growing exasperation. The clashes that have taken place, which have involved a minority, are a direct expression of this exasperation. The state has done nothing in recent months to strengthen healthcare and solve the economic problems that threaten the livelihood of a significant layer of the population. However, it has taken them only a few hours to fill the squares with anti-riot police and the army in the attempt to quell the protests.

Protests in the rest of Italy

After the demonstrations in Naples, similar protests quickly spread to dozens of other cities. These demonstrations have been heterogeneous, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of social composition. Generally speaking, wherever there has been mass participation, it was because the demos have connected with some of the most affected sections, such as in Catania, Bari, Trieste and Florence. The reasons for these demonstrations have a material basis. In Italy, the overall reduction in consumption levels in 2020 amounts to more than 133 billion euros, compared to the same period of 2019 (-12.2 percent in real terms) and it is estimated that at least 300,000 jobs will be lost in restaurants, bars, pubs, etc. In the face of this social massacre, the Conte government has earmarked a risible amount of resources and promised redundancy funds, which in thousands of cases still have to be paid to workers.

Different dynamics have developed in other cities. In Rome, the organised presence of Forza Nuova (a small fascist organisation) was evident. However, they managed to mobilise just a few hundred of their acolytes.

By their nature, such demonstrations composed of impoverished petty bourgeois, the unemployed, and casual workers, are politically unstable. The extreme right-wing tries to infiltrate them, but their agitation "against a public health dictatorship" has no connection with the demands and mood expressed by most of the demonstrators, who simply demand measures of public support to escape poverty. Their demands could be forced upon the capitalists and the government with a general mobilisation, connecting their demands with those of the working class. In this situation, the organised workers’ movement should put forward a programme to demand a guaranteed wage for all the unemployed, a freeze on rents and on repayment of debts for small businesses in crisis, and low-interest-rate loans provided by the state through the nationalisation of the banking system. However, this is precisely what the trade union leaders are refusing to demand. They prefer to denounce these demonstrations as "right-wing" and thus avoid having to organise a fight, while they continue to discuss amicably with the government. This leaves room for the extreme right-wing to get an echo, or simply contributes to a return to the temporary passivity of these sectors.

The fundamental element, however, is that anger has now burst through the surface. The development of workers' struggles, which are spreading throughout the country, will be decisive.

Demonstrations of workers in the entertainment and culture industry (theatres, music, dance, circus, etc.) were held in all the main cities, with hundreds of workers participating. This is a traditionally poorly organised sector, which is now involved in a major mobilisation, surprising the trade union leadership that expected a much lower turnout. In the demonstrations, the demand was "it is right to close down to protect health and safety, but we want a guaranteed income".

In recent weeks, school workers mobilised to demand that schools be reopened in safe conditions. On Thursday 5 November there will be a four-hour national strike for the renewal of the national contract for metalworkers, to demand a real wage increase. Workers are guarding the Whirlpool factory in Naples against closure and have staged roadblocks on the motorway. We have also seen the first strikes of nurses, the "heroes" of the spring, who now have to submit to 12-hour shifts once again in overloaded hospitals, thus getting sick with COVID-19. Just as it happened with the March strikes, the current health situation will once again pose before the workers the problem of ensuring safety in their own workplaces, by closing down non-essential activities and putting internal organisation of health and safety under their direct control.

The truth is that only the brake represented by the trade union leadership has so far prevented the present mood from exploding in mobilisations in thousands of workplaces, a movement that could be blocking the entire country. But this resistance will at some point be overcome by pressure from the workers, as it already happened in March, when the strike wave exploded outside of the control of the trade union leadership, which was forced to mobilise and even threaten a general strike against its own will. Exasperation is emerging everywhere. These mobilisations, still fragmented and modest in size, are only an anticipation of what is to come, and mark a process of mass awakening which will completely change the political landscape of the country in the coming period.

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