Italy: March against article 18

Saturday 23 March will be one of the most memorable days in the history of Italy. Three million people made their way towards the Circus Maximus, not far from the world-famous Coliseum, at the heart of the ancient city of Rome. One million of them were from Lazio, the region of the capital, including many like the Saturday shift at the local Fiat factory, who had taken eight hours’ strike action to be there.

Workers and their families from the length and breadth of the country journeyed to the demonstration by every possible means of transport. More than 9,000 coaches were hired (some having to be brought in from outside Italy) and 61 special trains. Five planes were chartered and four ships bringing thousands from Sardinia and other Italian islands.

Six separate marches of numberless different trade union, political and cultural organisations set out from different starting points across the city. Young and old were there, factory workers, office workers, public employees, students, teachers, pensioners. One group of women walked with their hands in cardboard stocks, another group of workers drew a small carriage with a very thin passenger in it all pointing to the fate of workers once their rights have gone. There was even a group of traffic police with a placard bearing their own grievances against the Berlusconi government!

A steady stream of individuals and groups of friends was joining in as every minute passed. After as long as six hours in the bright sun and brisk wind, the vast crowd still filled every street and open space around the vast Circus Maximus, itself filled to capacity. Here the orators’ stage jutted into the vast crowd like a small ship in a flame coloured ocean.

The dramatic aerial photographs in the Italian press bear witness to the sea of red that engulfed the city. La Repubblica’s account of the day refers to the reappearance on the demonstration with a vengeance of the traditional red of previous times: "The red caps, the red flags, placards and posters, the red coats, jackets, pull-overs, shirts, bibs, badges, flowers, hair ribbons, and the scarves wound around necks or heads" (24 March 02). There were the red banners of the unions, of the Rifondazione Communista, of the Democrats of the Left and even of Cobas in spite of the fact that its leaders, like those of the two moderate union federations, had inadvisedly decided not to support this particular protest.

The message this mighty demonstration gives to the Berlusconi government and to many governments beyond the borders of Italy is: "Watch out! The people will have their way and it will not fit in with your plans!"

This magnificent show of strength surpassed all expectations. Berlusconi had attempted to use the assassination of one of his economic advisers to intimidate the movement. But if anything, this probably swelled the numbers determined to be there! (Whenever the prime minister tries to poor cold water on the mass campaign against him, he gets an opposite reaction. His new taunts about "general strike" being a misnomer for the next stage of the struggle, because: "It’s a partial strike, a very partial strike", are guaranteed to ensure a far greater response to the call. Individuals and groups of people who were hesitating, will decide to prove him wrong by coming out solidly on the day!).

Italian workers will never forget the ‘strategy of tension’ employed by elements of the ruling class and its apparatus. It culminated in 1980 in the killing of more than 80 people by a bomb left by fascists in Bologna railway station. Although it seems the Red Brigades, in an e-mail, have claimed responsibility for Biagi’s murder, many Italians will not rule out the possibility of reactionary elements in today’s Italy resorting to similar tactics – a political murder that can be pinned on the left and the workers’ movement as it gathers momentum and threatens their survival.

Berlusconi talked of the strike struggles providing "the water in which the terrorists can swim". The organisers of Saturday’s demonstration, the Cgil, held a minute’s silence for the man who was actually the author of the government’s package of attacks that was announced in Barcelona, including that on article 18.

On the evening of Wednesday 27 March, there were mass demonstrations in a number of cities, called by the unions to show their opposition to terrorism. As many as 100,000 participated in a candlelight procession in Rome. Of course, the labour leaders should combat the accusations that those who fight the government on the industrial and political level are in any way responsible for terrorism.

It is absolutely necessary to explain that individual acts of terror do nothing to further the struggle of workers. Marxists oppose them as the actions of a few, attempting to substitute themselves for collective action by the working class. They may be the result of frustration, of desperation or even the work of provocateurs. Whoever carries them out, but they can dismay and disorient the movement as well as giving the state a green light to step up repression against all who organise opposition to government policies.

The best response is to condemn the government’s own terrorism against the movement (not least the Genoa debacle) and show a determination to lead the struggle to a victorious conclusion. Instead of toning down the political slogans on the march, the Cgil leaders should have been shouting even louder about the crimes of capitalism and its defenders – about a system which leaves whole swathes of the population jobless and condemns human beings to a life of misery, driving them into crime or even to suicide.

The world’s press have deliberately suppressed the real significance of Saturday’s demonstration, presenting it as a vast wave of protest against the murder of Biagi and against terrorism in general. On the march itself, which had been planned for a number of weeks, there was no such feeling. There was only an overwhelming mood of totally united determination to say ‘No’ to the plans of the Berlusconi government. Every man woman and child on the demonstration was there to say that nothing will deter them in the fight for their rights and for their future.

Berlusconi had accused the Cgil of preparing a strike of "Fathers against their sons". On the demonstration were all generations demanding an end to his government’s attacks. One of the most impressive elements of the protest was the high level of participation of immigrants of European, African, Asian and even Latin American origin. Speakers from lorries got rapturous applause for their demands for an end to all racist attacks and immigration laws.

cwi The youth of the schools, the universities and the social centres were there – swaying to the music of the sound systems, singing the songs of the Italian resistance and revolutionary movements and joining in the chants of "Hasta La Vittoria…Siempre!" There too were the actors, the intellectuals and broad layers of the middle class, themselves angered by the behaviour of ‘The Cavalier’ at the head of the government and also attracted by the determined spirit and the gathering strength of the workers’ movement.

As yet it is too soon to see if the hated Berlusconi government will fall or the tycoon Prime Minister himself be removed. Saturday’s mighty demonstration has deepened the polarisation in Italian society and also seen a new bout of squabbling between the allies in the Berlusconi thieves’ kitchen. Some sections, with the support of the president, Ciampi, are urging caution.

The main union leaders – of Cgil, Uil and Cisl – were invited by the prime minister to round table talks on 26 March with representatives of the employers and his government. But they refused to go, citing Berlusconi’s inadequate apology for the unacceptable behaviour of some of his ministers.

Umberto Bossi leader of Lega Nord and two other junior ministers – Sacconi and Martino – have inflamed the already extremely tense situation. Using different phrases but with the same aims in mind (not least that of putting pressure on Berlusconi not to back down), they have publicly accused the trade unions of being a danger to the institutions of Italian democracy and of direct responsibility for the murder of the Labour Ministry adviser!

Instead of attending the talks, the leaders of the three trade union federations -– met and agreed on a date for the all-out 8 hour general strike – 16 April. The temperature is rising in the battle to defend what the workers of Italy have won through the struggles of the past. They have seen the future that the Berlusconi, Aznar, Blair ‘BAB axis’ has in store for them and they have no intention of going down that road. Their leaders are being dragged into conducting a make or break struggle.

The battle over article 18 of the labour law is of vital importance in the context of a worsening economic situation in Italy and world-wide. If it is amended in any way, let alone abolished, it will give the green light to employers to sack workers and continue the process of deregulating the whole of the Italian economy. As it is there have been widespread incursions of short-term contracts, flexibility and precarious employment into both private and public employment.

On top of this is the swingeing programme of attacks on welfare, public education and transport, all embodied in the programme of the Berlusconi, Bossi, Fini government. The Rome protest was called by the largest of the trade union federations – the Cgil – as a part of its preparations for a one-day strike originally due on April 5. Its conference decision for such action had been taken in spite of the other ‘traditional’ unions – the Cisl and the Uil – being opposed.

Such has been the pressure from below, encouraged by the militant campaign of the unions of the base, including Cobas, Cub and others, that the Uil and Cisl leaders have also been pushed into supporting the idea (while being opposed to the Cgil mass demo.).

It seemed possible that after the magnificent show of united protest on Saturday, the government could make at least a temporary retreat on article 18. However, to date, both sides appear intransigent and heading for a major collision. If there is no last minute concession from Berlusconi and Co., the general strike, called by all three of the big union federations, will go ahead on 16 April. There is no doubt, now, that it will receive overwhelming support.

What comes after that is of enormous importance. The trade union leaders may hope that an 8 hour national stoppage will act as a safety valve to let off the steam of anger that has built up in Italian society – in the middle as well as the working class. They prefer, Cofferati of the Cgil included, to sit at the negotiating table rather than to organise mass action. They have even been talking about the general strike in April being a quiet and peaceful day on which workers’ express their anger by staying at home. After March 23 it is very unlikely that workers will go along with this!

The best way to organise for a demonstration of the real hostility that has accumulated against this government and the bosses’ system would be to ensure there are pickets at every work-place (even where the strike is going to be 100% solid) and mass demos. in every town and city of the country. This would need to be prepared by committees of action elected in the factories offices and schools and linking up on a local and national scale. If the one day stoppage did not achieve the goal of getting the attacks withdrawn, it would be necessary to propose and prepare for more determined action.

It cannot escape the minds of those who remember, or have learnt about, the revolutionary events of 1968 in France, that a one-day strike does not necessarily end at that. The one called for May 13 by the ‘communist’-led CGT, marked the beginning of the biggest and longest general strike in history. This was a movement that, if its leaders had had a strategy for achieving socialism, could have finished off de Gaulle and French capitalism for good. Such an eventuality would have inspired workers throughout the world to take similar action and genuine socialism could have been the system chosen by the working and poor people throughout the globe.

In Italy, today, the combativeness and the anger against the rich and powerful has perhaps reached a higher pitch than in France before the May events. And undoubtedly a workers’ movement of the proportions being reached in Italy, with a skilled leadership could channel the energies of the youth involved in the anti-globalisation and other movements into a concerted drive to replace capitalism with "something much nicer". However, it is also true that there is less of a general acceptance that socialism is a viable alternative.

It is the task of the militants of the trade union and labour movement in Italy, especially those who look to the Rifondazione Communista to put forward this aim as a realisable task of the socialist/communist movement. There are many in Italy today who will be wanting a return of the Olive Tree (centre left) coalition as an alternative to Berlusconi and his right wing cronies in power. They seem to be the only viable opposition and will be enormously strengthened by last Saturday’s massive demonstration.

cwi Cgil leader, Cofferati – the ‘man of the moment’ who made the main speech at the giant rally on the 23 rd – is expected to move into the leading position of the Democrats of the Left (DS) when he ‘retires’ from the union position a couple of months from now. He could well be leading the centre left coalition to power in a very short space of time. Many are hoping that this would mean a new Olive Tree government which would be different from the last which actually paved the way for Berlusconi coming to power at the elections in May 2001. It had ended up carrying through vicious neo-liberal policies.

But even if the DS moves somewhat towards the left, in a new partnership with the capitalist ‘centre’ Margherita Party, it attempt some real reforms, under pressure from below, but given its own record and the class nature of its main coalition partner, it will not challenge the capitalist way of doing things. Leaving capitalism intact, even a government led by an experienced trade union leader would prove incapable of fulfilling the aspirations of the workers, the middle class and the young people who vote for it.

Communists and socialists in Italy, especially a party with the mass following of the Rifondazione, must offer a real alternative. In the present climate, it can be entirely possible to win the majority of a politically aroused population to the idea of a government drawn from the workers and other layers involved in the current struggles. With clear explanations of the realities of class society, a majority can also be convinced that it is necessary to get rid of capitalism completely.

Only on the basis of socialist democratic planning of publicly owned resources can all the basic necessities of workers’ existence be achieved. Also, only on this basis, can the dreams of the young and idealistic be realised – of ending pollution and the destruction of the environment, ending poverty and war world-wide and bringing about a harmonious society without classes and without any form of state oppression.

The three million who were in Rome last Saturday and the millions more who will be involved in the general strike when it comes, have already given hope to workers around the world that a determined fight can bring victory. They, like the people of Italy, will be looking to the future with a new confidence that the indignities and deprivations that the bosses’ governments bring them can become a thing of the past.

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March 2002