Wildcat strikes in Italy: A turning point in the class struggle

Italy has been rocked by a number of strikes during the last six weeks. The municipal transport workers have been in the forefront, together with those at Alitalia. A new mood of militancy is developing among the Italian working class.

Italy has been rocked by a number of strikes during the last six weeks. The municipal transport workers have been in the forefront, together with those at Alitalia (Italy's national airline).

On December 1, the official transport unions called a four-hour general strike of the municipal transport workers. In Milan, however, the workers went further than this. In fact the strike took on the dimensions of a wildcat action. Instead of sticking strictly to the four hours, as the official unions would have wanted, the workers decided to make it an all-day strike, paralysing the bus, tram and tube services from dawn to dusk.

The rage of the workers exploded because of the continually worsening conditions over the last few years. Labour casualisation has been widely introduced. Most of the young workers are very badly paid - about 800 euros a month - and have to work very long and tiring shifts. The monthly rent for an average flat in northern Italy can easily be up to 500-600 euros.

For the last two years there has been no renewal of the collective bargaining agreement. Wages have stood still in a period where inflation has been soaring. This is the case of local transport workers, but workers in other sectors are facing a similar situation. Real wages have fallen over the last three years by 5% to 15%, depending on the different sectors.

Alitalia management launched a so-called rescue plan involving the loss of 2,700 jobs. So far Alitalia is losing 400 million euros a year. As usual it is the workers who are being asked to pay for a crisis that is not of their making but of the capitalists.

This ongoing local transport dispute and the crisis at Alitalia are not isolated cases. They reflect something deeper. They are symptoms of a more widespread and deep crisis of Italian capitalism. Italian industry is losing ground in the world market. The crisis at Fiat last year and the collapse of Parmalat clearly demonstrate this.

This recent dispute of the local transport workers is not a mere repetition of previous disputes. They are revealing a greater willingness to struggle and a very militant and determined mood on the part of the workers. There are some new developments in these disputes. The workers have shown that they are no longer prepared to abide by the instructions of their official trade union leaders. In Italy the trade union leaders had developed the technique of calling two-hour or four-hour strikes. These were regarded by the leaders not as a means of achieving victory, but more as a means by which the workers could "let off steam". It was more a safety valve than a means of struggle.

The big protest movement against the Berlusconi government started in late 2001. Throughout this period the workers have show a great level of militancy but they never dared go against the "instructions" of their leaders. The trust in the leadership was very big, and to some extent it still is. But now some sections of the working class have started to think things through. "If we don't take serious action, no one is going to take notice of us. Only if we take action that seriously harms the system and stop everything, will anyone pay attention." That is the thinking of thousands of workers in Italy today.

During the 1990s a whole number of anti-strike laws were passed. For instance, it is now illegal to strike in certain periods of the year; the unions have to give notice well in advance when a strike is to take place, and so on. However, during the month of December of last year, the local transport workers broke these laws on several occasions. The workers massively took part in every strike, on December 1, then on the 15 and again on the 19. Through these strikes the workers have rediscovered their own strength. The workers of the ATM (the name of the local transport company in Milan) have become a beacon for the workers of the rest of the country.

On the day of the first strike, on December 1st, all the media came together unanimously in condemning the workers. In this they revealed their true colours and their deep hatred for the working class. There were plenty of articles about these "uncivilized" workers. This shows that the media is merely a tool in the hands of then bosses. They are not impartial when it comes to the crucial interests of the bosses. What is really "uncivilized" is the fact that men and women have to live on these poverty wages. Instead of meeting the reasonable demands of the workers, many government spokespersons and representatives of the Confindustria (the bosses' confederation) have been discussing making changes to the law that governs the right to strike. The changes they are proposing would make it practically impossible for million of workers to go on strike.

What is even more scandalous is the fact that the majority of trade union leader actually joined this chorus, and put the blame on the workers instead of the bosses!

But none of this was able to stop the strike wave. On the contrary, throughout the country local transport workers defied orders to return to work. In Italy there is a law that allows the authorities to order ("precettare") striking workers back to work. This law was introduced under Mussolini's Fascist regime, but was kept on the statute books even when the regime had been overthrown. It remains a useful tool in the hands of the bosses and the state. Normally, once such a law has been brought into play, the workers would return to work. Not to obey such an order involves risking at the very least a fine of more than 250 Euros and a possible jail sentence of anything between six months and two years. But this time the workers defied the law. Their anger has gone beyond any respect for the legalities of the situation. When the workers decide that they have had enough and they flex their muscles as a class there is no law that can stop them! They cannot arrest all the striking local transport workers!

The workers were further enraged when the official trade union leaders signed the collective bargaining agreement on December 19. This agreement provides for a monthly wage increase of 81 Euros (gross) with a "one-off" payment of 790 Euros in compensation for the two years in which the workers have gone without any increase in wages. The CGIL, CISL and UIL trade union leaders justified their signing of this agreement with the argument that the local transport companies would in actual fact like to do away with collective bargaining altogether and that they also have huge debts.

This is an incredible argument, for it is based on the idea that public transport should work according to the laws of the market. But that is missing the point, for public transport is a service that should not be based on the profit motive. In ant case, in spite of pleading poverty and lack of funds when it comes to the wages of the workers, in Milan the ATM managers found the money to increase their own wages by a net 12,5%. Furthermore, it is a known fact that some municipal transport companies had invested their profits in the stock market, buying Cirio and Parmalat shares! Now these shares are not worth the paper they are printed on. This dispute has brought to the surface the real nature of present-day capitalism. It has shown millions of workers that the capitalists are prepared to destroy public services merely to maximise their own profits.

The day after the agreement (December 20) the workers again went on strike spontaneously. In some cities the local trade union leaders had initially managed to hold the workers back, promising them they would reach a good deal. This was the case in Rome for instance. But when the workers discovered what had actually been signed not one single bus or train went out onto the streets for the rest of the day.

The workers were thus showing concretely their total rejection of the agreement. The bosses were hoping that the Christmas break would have the effect of dampening the mood of the workers. On the contrary, although the workers accepted a kind of "cease-fire" over the festive season, once the New Year celebrations were over, they returned to the struggle with renewed determination. On January 9th, a national strike called by the SULT, COBAS and RdB CUB (smaller trade unions that split from the main three trade unions some years ago) saw the participation of the overwhelming majority of the workers. Participation was indeed very high: 100% in Bologna, Venice, Genoa, Naples; 95% in Rome and Milan, over 90% in Florence and Trieste, and so on.

Just to give one detail that demonstrates the growing politicisation and militancy of these workers. The supporters of FalceMartello went to the depots and participated in several rallies expressing their solidarity and support for the transport workers. This was the only left force to do this systematically and consistently. In Bologna, for instance, 50 copies of Falcemartello were sold in front of the depots. This would not normally have been the case in the past. Workers are thinking things through and are looking for an alternative to the position of the official trade union leaders.

As we write today, January 14th, another spontaneous strike action has been taking place. The local transport workers were out again in Milan on Monday and Tuesday of this week. This latest strike also spread to Genoa and Brescia. The authorities again ordered the workers back to work according to the law. However, while in the other towns the workers were intimidated by this action, and thus returned to work, in Milan the workers stayed out. The latest news we have is that now a local agreement has been reached in Milan and the workers have returned to work. We will comment on the details of this agreement in the next few days.

The workers are gaining in confidence day by day. This dispute, together with the one at Alitalia, clearly represents a turning point in the class struggle in Italy. All sections of society are looking to the local transport workers. There have been several reports of passengers expressing solidarity with the workers. In Brescia, a big industrial town in northern Italy, ordinary people have been seen applauding the bus drivers on strike. The class instinct of the masses is stronger than the propaganda of the media. The ruling class is also looking with fear at this movement. The Berlusconi government is adopting a very tough stance towards these workers. These right wing politicians know that if they let the local transport workers win this could open the gates to a period of radical class struggle like that of 1969-74.

The main obstacle to a victory of the local transport workers is the lack of any fighting spirit on the part of the present leadership of the workers movement. No one can blame the workers. They are showing a tremendous determination to fight.

It seems that now, under pressure from the ranks, the unions are to hold a ballot on the agreement before the end of January. The result is already clear: there will be a massive "no" vote. But it would not be the first time that a ballot is held and the trade union bureaucracy simply ignores the result. The trade union leaders see it as a way of buying time and tiring the workers out. Therefore the workers have to rely only on their own forces. Some lessons have to be drawn. The main task now is to build an opposition inside the trade unions. An alternative to the bureaucracy must be built in every workplace. Spontaneity may be a good thing, but it also has its limits if you are to organise a struggle at national level.

The trade unions have an important role to play, but the present bureaucracy that dominates the leadership cannot be trusted. Workers' delegates must take part in the negotiating process at all levels. The first thing the workers need to do, therefore, is to elect their delegates at provincial level, and these must then coordinate at regional and national level. From such a body a delegation would be elected to take part in the bargaining process. It would also be controlled by the rank and file at all times. Such a delegation would consult the ranks through regular assemblies, and any agreement between the management and the workers would only be finalised when the majority of workers accept the final deal.

Furthermore, there should be coordination between the struggle of the local transport workers and that of the Alitalia workers, or for that matter, with any section of the working class that is under attack. The problems are the same everywhere. The government is on the offensive against the whole of the working class. It intends to make the workers pay for a crisis that the capitalists have provoked. It plans to take on one section after another. We must learn from the past. The bosses prefer to take on one section at a time. That way they think they can isolate each section. We must not let that happen. 'Unity is strength' must be our motto.

After every betrayal of the official trade union leaders, there are some on the left that openly raise the idea of splitting from the old trade unions and establishing a new trade union movement. This is not the solution. In local transport there are already 35 different trade unions, and the CGIL, CISL and UIL still organise 74% of the overall trade union membership. The task is therefore to take the struggle into the official unions, to democratise them, and arm them with a fighting programme. This is the aim of the supporters of the Marxist paper FalceMartello, who have intervened since the beginning of the dispute putting forward a class programme.