Italy: Protests against neo-liberal attacks

The workers and young people of Italy are locked in a mighty battle with the Berlusconi government. 100,000 marched through the centre of Rome last Friday, 15 February, in a demonstration organised by the unions of the base – Cobas, Cub, Rdb and others. This was more than twice the number expected, once the leaders of the three major union federations (Cgil, Cisl and Uil) had called off the public sector general strike originally planned for that day. If they had gone ahead, it was anticipated that no less than one million would have been on the streets of the capital.

But late at night on 4th February and without reference to the members involved, the Cofferati (Cgil), Pezzotta (Cisl) and Angeletti (Uil) signed a deal which they claimed answered 95% of the demands in the sector. In fact, it left most grades of workers in the schools, hospitals, public transport etc. with far from adequate wages, conditions and job security.

Colourful procession

As the colourful and noisy procession made its way out of Piazza Repubblica, it was clear that its ranks were swelled by large numbers of discontented members of the largest trade union federation – Cgil. There were not only rank and file members of Cgil from the public sector, dissatisfied with the deal done behind their backs. A representative of call centre workers organised in its telecommunications section – Rsu – spoke from the platform at the end of the demonstration, demanding a fight over the scourge of "precarious" short-term contract working that is sweeping Italy.

The congress of the Cgil in Rimini less than a week before had agreed to follow up on the recent 2 hour and 4 hour general strikes with all-out general strike action. This Tuesday, February 19, a joint meeting with the other trade union federation leaders will be held to try and get agreement over how to fight the wholesale attacks of the Berlusconi government.

One of the biggest issues is the attempt of the reactionary bosses’ government to abolish article 18 in the 1970 labour law – won through the struggles in the late 1960s – which gives workers at least a modicum of defence against "unjust" sackings. With recession hitting Italian industry hard and the cuts proposed in welfare and education, this article has taken on critical importance for both sides.

Private sector

Whole groups of workers in the private sector, including in Fiat and Mediaset (Berlusconi’s TV station) were on the Rome demonstration. There too were firefighters threatened with a form of militarisation of their jobs. Rome metro workers brought the system to a halt for four hours to take part in the protest. Other demonstrations took place elsewhere – in Sardinia, Sicily, and cities in the industrial North.

Contingents of students from numerous schools joined in enthusiastically with their banners and leaflets declaring: "Hands off public education!". A coordinating meeting of their network has been called for February 20 to plan further action.

The tens of thousand of protesters sang, chanted, blew whistles and demanded the resignation of the Welfare and Education ministers and the president of the Cabinet himself.

Cobas, Cub and co. have been conducting a militant campaign for all-out strike action in the private and public sector together. They have linked the fight back against Maroni in welfare and Muratti in education with the fight of immigrants and young people especially against racism and against war.

The day before the national protest demonstration in Rome, railway cleaners and porters had brought the whole mainline railway system to a halt for four hours by sitting on the tracks. This was part of their continuing struggle against massive redundancies and worsening conditions involved in the outsourcing of their jobs.

The trade union leaders are under enormous pressure to take more decisive action to defeat the Berlusconi government. The ’Cavalier’ himself was entertaining Tony Blair in Rome on the day of the demonstration and said that there was no turning back on article 18. In their meeting Berlusconi and Blair agreed joint proposals for a "radical" liberalisation of European labour laws. Berlusconi’s aides later spoke of a new "axis" to liberate Europe from "over-mighty trade unions". It was an interesting turn of phrase as the pre-Second World War alliance between Italy’s then fascist dictator Mussolini and Hitler was also called an "axis".

The rank and file of Cgil are demanding that, if the more moderate union leaders do not come on board, their federation should go it alone anyway. No hiding behind their timidity and their inclination to collaborate with the government and the bosses. All three have called for a mass demonstration on Saturday, March 9. This too, must not be allowed to act as substitute for properly prepared strike action. Delay now could let slip a huge opportunity to transform Italian society from top to bottom.

The tycoon prime minister faces growing opposition from inside his own camp and not least from magistrates. They have taken to the streets to demand that the charges against him for large-scale fraud and corruption be allowed to proceed uninhibited.

Concerted struggle

A concerted struggle now by workers and students alike, could unseat the cavalier himself. It would put on the agenda a political struggle on the part of the Party of Communist Refoundation (Prc) and all the forces involved in the present protest movement to replace his rule with a government capable of satisfying every one of their demands.

700 leaflets of the CWI were distributed on last Friday’s Rome demonstration and 60 copies sold of a pamphlet on the class struggle in Italy.

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February 2002