Tide turning in Italy: Open conflict between right-wing government and trade unions paves the way for a general strike

The political and social position in Italy is developing at a fast pace. After several years of social truce under the centre-left coalition government, a sharp conflict is developing. Although we are still at the beginning of the process, we can say that its consequences will be far-ranging, and that the struggle that is now opening will affect all layers in the society and will provoke an earthquake in the Italian workers' movement, in the unions and in the left in general.

The political and social position in Italy is developing at a fast pace. After several years of social truce under the centre-left coalition government, a sharp conflict is developing. Although we are still at the beginning of the process, we can say that its consequences will be far-ranging, and that the struggle that is now opening will affect all layers in the society and will provoke an earthquake in the Italian workers' movement, in the unions and in the left in general.


The first Berlusconi government, elected in 1994, lasted only ten months. After the first shock caused by the lightning rise of Berlusconi and Forza Italia, the workers began to react. In the Autumn of 1994 a massive wave of strikes against an all-out attack on the public pensions system caused a crisis in the right-wing coalition, which split and in the end forced Berlusconi to resign.

However, the potential which emerged in those struggles was derailed by the trade union bureaucracy, which was able to stop the movement halfway, without finishing the job. On the contrary, the trade union leaders opened the way for a coalition between the main party of the Italian left, the Pds (now Ds) and several bourgeois parties of the "centre".

In 1996 the centre-left coalition, supported by the Prc too, won the election. The workers voted them into office with the idea of finishing the job that they had begun in 1994 and to give the right-wing parties a final blow, preventing them from regaining the government.

The following years were marked by a growing disillusionment towards the coalition. The most negative feature was the full involvement of the trade unions under the banner of the "concertazione" ("social partnership"). The trade union leaders at that time, particularly the CGIL, liked to talk about the "friendly government", but it soon became clear that the government was friendly only towards the bosses. The government introduced a massive casualisation in the labour market, massive privatisations, attacks on public education, attacks on immigrants, and so on.

The growing disillusionment put a strong pressure on the Prc, which was seriously weakened because of its involvement in the coalition's policies (the Prc supported the government from outside, that is it had no ministers in the government itself, but the Communist MPs were necessary in order to give the coalition a majority in the parliament). In the end, the Prc withdrew from supporting the government in October 1998, but it paid a heavy price with a split to the right which involved about one third of its membership and two thirds of the MPs.

The following two and a half years were nothing but a continuous decline for the coalition, which moved further to the right, supported the imperialist war against Yugoslavia and sunk slowly, but inexorably. Every local election, every major political event marked a new step towards the inevitable defeat. By the beginning of 2001 the victory of the right-wing was already a fact, even before the elections were held. After discrediting their party to unheard levels, the leaders of the Ds brought the disaster to perfection by giving the leadership of the coalition to Francesco Rutelli, a third-rate adventurer who moved from the extreme "secular" and "anticlerical" Radical Party of the 70s to became notorious for his genuflection before the Vatican (and its businesses) as Mayor of Rome during the year 2000 Jubilee.

Not surprisingly Berlusconi won easily and the Ds had the worst result in their history.

2001: Beginning of the turn

Many on the left, including many leaders and theoreticians of the Prc thought that the ebb of the workers' movement was going to last for a long period, not to mention forever. They talked without end of the globalisation, of "post-Fordism", of the casualisation, of the "fragmentation", in an effort to find "scientific" and objectives reasons for this ebb.

All these ideas were proved to be false in a very short space of time.

Given the growing crisis of the centre-left coalition and of the trade union leaders, the bosses began to move to the offensive. They took advantage of the services of the trade union leaders for 4 years and then they just threw them away like a squeezed lemon. The Confindustria drew up a very hard programme which amounted to demanding a complete free hand for the bosses over almost everything, from the labour market to immigration, from the pension system to the schools and universities. This programme was adopted by Berlusconi just before the elections, and to this he added some demagogic commitments about the war against poverty.

This change in the attitude of the bourgeoisie sent many alarm bells ringing in the trade union headquarters. Particularly the CGIL begun to understand that if implemented, such a programme meant a complete marginalisation of the trade unions, the end of social partnership (with all the privileges connected to it, as far as the trade union bureaucracy was concerned), and a serious blow to the CGIL. Further worry was caused by the fact that the government was clearly trying, not without success, to split the trade union front by having separate bargaining and agreements with the two other main trade union federations, CISL and UIL.

Slowly, cautiously and reluctantly, the CGIL leaders began to move and prepared to end the social truce.

In July Fiom-CGIL (the metal workers federation of CGIL) broke with the other unions and refused to sign the new national agreement for that industry. After the break they called a one-day strike of metal workers on July 6. Despite the fact that the other unions boycotted the strike, the response was enthusiastic: more than 200,000 workers turned to the streets in a defiant and optimistic mood.

The main point to understand is that this partial turn of the CGIL gave voice to the accumulated discontent, anger, rage and frustration which during the previous years had been growing in the workplaces, but found no expression and was stifled by the trade union bureaucracy itself.

This new mood affected not only the young workers, but the students and the immigrants. Many of the older left-wing militants paradoxically saw Berlusconi's victory not as a demoralizing event, but as a way to come out from the disaster made by the centre-left governments. During the electoral campaign quite often we met trade union members, shop stewards and left-wing activists who said things like this: "If we are not able to break this social partnership, let the bosses and the right wing do the job. After all, if they win, the trade unions will be forced to react. Moreover, 'our people' in the government are doing so bad and are becoming so removed from us, that it's better if they go back to the opposition." Of course most of the people who reasoned like this, turned out, in the end, to vote against the right wing. But this mood explains why after Berlusconi's victory the mood was not of demoralization or defeat.

The subterranean change in the consciousness of the masses erupted like a volcano in the "Genoa days" of July 2001. The anti-G8 demonstrations acted like a catalyst, like a magnet which attracted people from the remotest corners of the country. Everyone who wanted to express their opposition to the present state of things turned to those demonstrations. Not only students, middle-class people and intellectuals - who were the main force in the very early days of the movement - but young workers, the unemployed, trade unionists, and the bulk of the Prc ranks took part in these demonstrations.

The savage repression staged by the police further inflamed the situation, and opened a real abyss between the people demonstrating and the leaders of the Ds. While for instance the Fiom CGIL and the left wing of the CGIL turned to the demonstrations and gave it official support, D'Alema and Fassino acted like open traitors by calling off their party's support on the evening of July 20, a few hours after the killing of Carlo Giuliani. Given the circumstances, this sounded like a green light for the government to go on with the repression, which they did with enthusiasm on the following day.

Despite this betrayal, 300,000 people turned to the demonstration of July 21, many of them from the Ds rank and file. The Ds left wing confirmed its support for the demonstration. It must be remembered that the last time the police killed a demonstrator in Italy was in 1977; the present generation has no real knowledge of the meaning of state repression; many were scared, but they jumped on the trains to Genoa. This mood spread further in the following week; on July 24 and 25 about half a million people demonstrated in about 100 different towns and cities, in an almost spontaneous way, in protest against the government and the police.

A rising tide

After the summer break, the process of mobilisations and radicalisation went on steadily. During the summer the government announced its programme. Among the long list of reactionary measures, some caught the attention of millions of people: the abolition of all taxes on inheritance (with great advantage for the rich); an open attack on the judges which are putting on trial some of Berlusconi's close collaborators; the open alliance with the illegal economy and the mafia; the shameless defence of any privileged section in society, starting with the prime minister himself - all this is having an effect and worries the cleverer strategists of the ruling class.

But it is the social content of the government's policy which is igniting the powder-keg. Berlusconi is trying to destroy the main achievement of the 70s, that is the so-called "Statuto dei lavoratori", won after the struggles of the hot autumn of 1969, which is treasure for the Italian working class. In particular article 18 of that law states that if a worker is unjustly sacked the employer must reinstate him. This law has been the main defence for trade union activists, shop stewards, women, ill people and so on. It is this article that the government wants to abolish.

Moreover, the government is introducing a further attack on public education, opening the school system to privatisation and discussing a very harsh class division in the schools, which if implemented would turn the clock back to the 50s, not to say to the epoch of the fascist school.

A further aggravation of the previous immigration law is also being discussed; the main point is to link the permit to stay to the job; that is, if an immigrant loses his job, after 6 months he will be kicked out the country. This amounts to making the immigrant a slave.

The last months saw an increasing movement of opposition against this policy. These are the main events:

November 9: 100,000 demonstrate against the war (on the same day Berlusconi calls a "USA day" in which about 40,000 people participate).

November 16: Second national strike of metal workers, called by Fiom CGIL; 150,000 demonstrate in Rome.

November-December: National school students' movement against counter-reforms. Highest point is in Rome, 50,000 or more demonstrate against education minister Letizia Moratti on December 20.

December 14: Public sector strike called by CGIL-Cisl-Uil with overwhelming support.

After the government announces the attack on article 18, CGIL-Csil-Uil call for a two-hour national strike, with no demonstrations, but with meetings in the workplaces. Despite heavy criticism for this mild response, many workers strike and in the meetings express their will to fight openly against this attack.

Further strikes are called in January on a regional basis culminating on January 29 with more of 500,000 workers on the streets in 8 different regions.

January 19: 100,000 people, at least half of them immigrants, demonstrate in Rome against the new racist immigration law.

Apart from these main struggles, many different sectors are struggling for their demands: airport workers, transport workers, teachers, and so on. We can also detect the beginnings of a process of trade union organisation amongst young casual workers in the new economy: call centres, telecommunications and so on.

One struggle is worth mentioning. The railways are trying to sack 3,000 cleaners, and to heavily cut the wages for those who will remain. These workers, a very isolated and exploited layer, staged an all-out strike and blocked the main railway station for several days, threatening to "set them on fire". Despite a load of propaganda about the "poor passengers and travellers being hostages of these extremists and egotistic workers," the government did not dare to send in the police and was forced to stop the sackings for three months and reopen negotiations.

Splits in the unions?

After the successful strikes of January, the CGIL held its national conference at the beginning of February. General secretary Sergio Cofferati in his summing up said that if the government insisted on article 18, the CGIL was ready to prepare a general strike. This statement caused a general stirring in the workplaces and in the trade union rank and file, and a split between the different trade unions.

Berlusconi's plan was to come to a separate agreement with Cisl and Uil, in order to isolate the CGIL and to force Cofferati either to retreat, or to go on strike under unfavourable balance of power. Cisl, the traditional catholic union federation, was a key element of this plan. But things turned out quite differently from what the prime minister expected. In effect it was Cisl who suffered more from this position, and they had to take an ambiguous stance, saying that they were prepared to go on with the negotiations, but that if the government insisted on article 18 they would break the negotiations and take strike action. CGIL broke from negotiations and on February 21 declared a programme of mobilisation culminating with a one-day general strike on April 5. This is provoking a further wave of local strikes and demonstration, showing the willingness of the workers to strike and the inability of Cisl and Uil to stop the movement; moreover, it is worth noting that the public sector, once the stronghold of Cisl, thanks to its close links with the old Christian Democratic Party, is now moving to the left. CGIL won the shop stewards elections last autumn, and the different "rank and file" alternative unions (Cobas) has a certain strength in that sector, particularly amongst the teachers. This strength was proved with a 80,000-strong demonstration in Rome on February 15, organized by the Cobas.

Given this position, it will be very difficult for Cisl and Uil to keep their stance, as they will seen as scabs and saboteurs, and it is still not excluded that they will be forced to participate in the general strike.

The programme proposed by the CGIL is as follows: 8-hour strikes to be organised at the local level with pickets, local demonstrations, meetings, and so on; public meetings with "political forces", that is the opposition parties, to raise support; a national demonstration in Rome on Saturday, March 23, with an attendance of at least half a million people; general strike on April 5.

With this mobilisation, Cofferati an the CGIL are in effect putting themselves forward as the main opposition force to the government. All other forces, from the anti-globalisation movements to the students, are lining up with the CGIL and will add their forces to the mobilisation.

Political effects

The conflict between the government and the CGIL is having profound political effects on the Ds party and the Ulivo coalition as a whole. The Ds had their national congress just few months ago, and profound differences surfaced in the party. There are now three main factions:

  • Morando's faction, openly liberal which got about 3% of votes in the conference.
  • D'Alema-Fassino faction, around 65%, which elected Fassino as general secretary.
  • The left wing, headed by Cofferati, Giovanni Berlinguer and some defectors from the previous majority like former ministers Salvi and Melandri.

For the first time, the CGIL leadership is not linked with the majority of the party, but supports the left minority. This position is clearly unstable; the majority of D'Alema and Fassino cannot solve the deep crisis of the Ds, and Cofferati, although a minority in the congress, is now emerging as the only leader capable of giving the leadership needed to stage a serious struggle against Berlusconi. Given the climate of increasing class struggle, it is most likely that new and deeper division will emerge in the Ds, and splits both to the right and to the left are now a real possibility. There is an open debate in the left-wing press about the possibility of Cofferati forming a new "Labour party", splitting from the Ds.

The crisis of the Ds is part of a general crisis of the opposition parties. The relationships between the different parties of the Ulivo coalition are increasingly tense and Rutelli's position as leader of the coalition is now questioned by the Ds leaders.

In the last weeks we have also seen the development of a wave of protests and demonstrations against the government's attacks against the judges and against the mixing up of Berlusconi's personal TV business and the State TV networks. This movement has got a clearly petty bourgeois composition and outlook ("Legality", "Democracy", "Justice" and "Freedom" - all of them in capital letters, of course! - are the main slogans), and is clearly aimed against Berlusconi but it is also criticising the leaders of the Ds and the Ulivo, which were openly attacked and even ridiculed during these demonstrations, the biggest of which saw 40,000 people in Milan last Saturday. "D'Alema, say something which sounds left!" was one of the favourite slogans on the placards held by the demonstrators, quoting the well known left-wing director Nanni Moretti, who in turn attacked sharply D'Alema, Fassino and Rutelli during a meeting in Rome.

These demonstrations are a further indication of the stirring and instability which is now affecting an ever-widening layer of society. This is the turn we have been predicting for several years, and is part of an international process which is developing under our eyes, from Argentina to South Africa, from Korea to Greece, Spain and Italy. Western Europe has been in the last few years in the rearguard of the class struggles internationally, but is now beginning to awake. On the background of the most serious economic crisis in 30 years - not to say 60 years - Italy could reveal itself once more as a relatively weak link in the chain of international capitalism, and Europe in particular.

For the first time in many years the slogans of "people's power" and "workers' power" were heard on the demonstrations. A new generation is now entering the arena of class struggle and on this generation the forces of Marxism will be built in the next years. In future articles we will deal with the role of the Prc and the possibilities and dangers posed before the communists by this new situation.

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