Italy caught between the crisis of reformism and the rising mass movement

Italy is feeling the full brunt of the world economic crisis. Industry almost came to a complete halt in January, with hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs. This is provoking a very angry mood within the working class. The FIAT workers are presently in the vanguard of this process, but it is spreading to all layers of society.

The Italian political situation in the context of the economic crisis, a radicalisation to the right on the part of the government, the crisis of reformism, a split within the trade union bureaucracies and a growing movement of the working is a particularly explosive combination that is building up to a situation of an insurrectionary nature in the future, such as we have seen in Latin America.

The crisis of overproduction has hit the car industry hard all over the world. Photo by Escape Vehicle on Flickr.
The crisis of overproduction has hit the car industry hard all over the world. (Photo by Escape Vehicle on Flickr)

But let us take things step by step. The crisis is global, but the effects it produces in Italy are particularly severe.

Between December 12 and January 12 industry came to a virtual standstill. Never had we seen such a freezing of industry for a whole month, with 900,000 jobs being lost (especially among casual labour) and millions of workers have been laid off for ten to fifteen weeks on wages of less than 600-700 euros per month.

Production has been massively affected by the crisis, in particular hitting very hard the FIAT group, the leading company in Italy that together with its supply industries, makes up 12% of Italian GDP. As a result, 58,000 workers at the FIAT group have been laid off and the prospect has been raised of closing two of its five plants located both in Southern Italy (at Pomigliano d'Arco in the province of Naples and Termini Imerese in Sicily).

What we are facing is a classic crisis of overproduction. To give an idea of what is happening in the car, suffice it to say that while there is a FIAT plant in Brazil, which alone produces 700,000 cars a year and one in Poland that produces 400,000, while in Italy there are four factories of the same size and a much larger one, the Mirafiori plant in Turin, which together produce 600,000 cars (with a forecast for 2009 to 50,000). Each of these five plants alone could ensure a level of production of between 600,000 and 800,000 cars. Capacity utilisation stands presently at approximately 30% of existing productive capacity.

The workers of FIAT in Pomigliano have taken militant action in defence of their jobs. They were supported at demonstrations by workers from all over the region.
The workers of FIAT in Pomigliano have taken militant action in defence of their jobs. They were supported at demonstrations by workers from all over the region.

The Berlusconi government has allocated €2bn in incentives for scrapping cars, a measure that will allow FIAT to make a profit out of the crisis without guaranteeing any future to the workers. Indeed there is no industrial plan to secure existing jobs and the incentives exclude production at the Pomigliano and Termini Imerese plants. Despite €3bn profits made by FIAT in 2008 the company is refusing to spend a single euro in guaranteeing the wages of the workers. The most outrageous thing is that while production has been stopped for 20 weeks at Termoli plant (Campobasso) the engines plant is working 17 shifts a week with workers forced to do overtime.

On February 27 there was a local area strike in Pomigliano to defend jobs at the FIAT factory. This strike had a mass character, involving not only the FIAT workers on the demonstrations (with delegations of workers from FIAT factories all over Italy), but also industrial workers from the entire region. (see video from the demonstration)

No factory, no school, no shop was open in Pomigliano on that day. Apart from the industrial workers, there were also students, shopkeepers, artists, self-employed professional and even the local Bishop, the nuns and the altar boys.

It was a genuine mass struggle of all the local people who closed ranks around the workers of the town. Such was the level of participation that even the reactionary Pope Ratzinger had to mention the struggle at Pomigliano in his sermon the following Sunday. The local Bishop went a lot further, speaking from the union platform he attacked "those who to protect their profits want to the workers to pay for the crisis."

At that same rally, Gianni Rinaldini (Secretary-General of the FIOM-CGIL, the metalworkers’ union), who made the concluding speech, said, "there will soon be a national demonstration of all the workers of the FIAT group in Turin," and just as he finished saying these words a massive roar of applause rose up from the crowd.

The general picture

The conflict at FIAT has erupted at the same time as there is an open split between the official trade union confederations. Whilst the CISL, the UIL and the UGT (the latter being a right-wing trade union) have all signed a deal with the government and the Confindustria [bosses’ union, equivalent to the CBI in Britain] that does away with national collective bargaining agreements and replaces them with a system that is more akin to the corporative model than with genuine trade unionism based on class conflict, the CGIL has refused to sign such a deal and has called a national demonstration on April 4.

The CGIL is under threat from the Berlusconi government and the employers and has been trying to react by calling mobilisations. Photo by rete studenti massa on Flickr.
The CGIL is under threat from the Berlusconi government and the employers and has been trying to react by calling mobilisations. (Photo by rete studenti massa on Flickr)

In the build up to this, there have already been several sector strikes including the February 13 joint strike of the FIOM-CGIL [metal workers of the CGIL] and the CGIL Civil Service union, which saw the participation of over 500,000 workers on a national demonstration. On March 18 it will be the turn of the teachers.

The CISL, UIL and UGL have been signing a series of separate and outrageous deals and have also taken steps towards accepting the new anti-strike bill that has been presented to Parliament by the government, which if approved would create a situation similar to that which exists in Britain where 90% of strikes are de facto illegal.

The line of the social contract and social partnership, accepted over the last 15 years by the CGIL itself, is creating a situation where the very existence of the main Italian trade union [the CGIL] is being threatened by Berlusconi and the Confindustria. And of course the bureaucracy of the CGIL cannot accept this.

That is why the CGIL apparatus is trying to react, but the only way it can do this is by adopting more radical slogans, basing itself on the militancy of the workers' movement. But it has difficulty in doing so because its officials are not the same as those of the 1970s and they are not used to organizing social conflict. This therefore opens up a struggle within the CGIL over which strategy to adopt.

On the one hand there is Epifani, the General Secretary, who is desperately – but unsuccessfully – seeking an agreement to return to the policy of social contracts with the bosses and the right-wing government. On the other hand there is another wing led by Rinaldini (FIOM General Secretary) and Podda (Secretary of the CGIL Civil Servants) who are pushing for a shift to the left within the CGIL, a shift similar to that which took place inside Rifondazione Comunista at its Chianciano congress last summer after the disastrous experience of the Prodi government.

Enormous room for the Left

The PD and its new leader has refused to support the mobilisations of the CGIL, leaving the union without any party to refer to. Photo by framino on Flickr.
The PD and its new leader has refused to support the mobilisations of the CGIL, leaving the union without any party to refer to. (Photo by framino on Flickr)

The PD [Democratic Party] has been shaken by two regional elections (in the Abruzzo and in Sardinia) where Veltroni’s party [the PD] lost more than 10 percentage points. This led to the resignation of Veltroni and the election of his deputy, Dario Franceschini, to the position of General Secretary with a 92% majority within the party.

Dario Franceschini, to give readers an idea, is a politician who comes from the old Christian Democracy (DC). However, the only alternative candidate, Parisi (who got 8%), stands even further to the right (coming from the DC faction of former premier, Romano Prodi). There was no candidate from the former DS, the social democratic party that emerged from the dissolution and split of the old PCI [Communist Party] in 1991.

What remains of this old social democratic bureaucracy within the PD, which is now in all essence a bourgeois party, suffered yet another defeat. Or, to put it more precisely, it did not even give battle, seeing that it was not even able to bring the party to support the struggles that the CGIL has been organising since October.

The main problem that the CGIL is facing today is that it has no political party as a point of reference, which is something that it has never had to deal with throughout its whole history and this just at a time when it is facing the fiercest ever attack from the government and the bosses.

The PD has refused to support the CGIL’s mobilisations, it does not adhere to the ESP (European Socialist Party), and it supports privatisation, the anti-strike laws and austerity measures. However, it goes much further than this, in that it seeks to outdo the right-wing government in its racist policies and also in its destruction of the environment. The PD is a party of big business that manages public contracts through its banks and cooperatives both in local councils that it controls and also where it is the opposition, all in full agreement with the right-wing Berlusconi government. It is in fact a party that is steeped in corruption scandals in every corner of the country with many of its representatives under arrest.

The challenge that faces Rifondazione Comunista today, together with other smaller forces of the left is the following: to sink deeper its roots within the working, to base itself on class conflict, to give voice, leadership and representation to this movement that is unfolding, to build up sufficient critical mass (not forgetting that last April the whole of the Left lost its parliamentary representation) such that the party can become a new point of reference for the working class and for a new militant trade unionism, led by the CGIL and also by that varied number of split-away unions (the Cobas) who for the first time marched side by side with the CGIL on both December 12 and February 12.

A new era is opening up in Italy and the present electoral and parliamentary balance of forces (which is heavily weighted in favour of the right-wing parties) should not blind us to the upheavals that are being prepared in this country where the Italian working class will certainly play the leading role.

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