Italy: General strike – A day like no other

As all the first-hand reports make abundantly clear, 16 April 2002 in Italy was a day like no other. The first 8 hour general strike in the country for 20 years was solid. The response to the strike call surpassed all expectations. Just over 8 million workers are members of a union yet over 13 million people struck work – in the car factories, the airports, the government offices, the call centres, the supermarkets.

The toll booths on the motorways were vacated and no boats, busses, planes, trains, trams or taxis moved once everyone was delivered to the mass demonstrations being held across the country. At the stations every train was announced as ‘suppressed’ and busses parking up at depots carried signs saying ‘on strike’. At Ancona, just to make sure nothing moved from the port, ‘No Global’ activists organized a ‘blockade’.

Vital emergency services were maintained, by agreement with the unions, but many professionals who felt they could not take strike action donated a day’s pay in solidarity with the strikers. In Rome, soldiers including many conscripts and at least one Marshall and a major held a vigil at the gates of the prime minister’s Chigi Palace to demand a better deal! At the courts in Milan, sections of the Carabinieri and police refused to work normally. Prison officers also took industrial action and one worker at the stock exchange told journalists he was ‘working blank’!

Theatre workers and artistes joined the demonstrations. TV stations were almost all blacked out. Even the workers on the soap operas went on strike. Three newspapers from the Berlusconi stable appeared – printed at a scab firm where trade union activists have recently been sacked. Another one – ‘Libero’ was sent to Switzerland for printing but the workers there refused to do the work of their striking brothers in Italy.

At least 3 million people turned out for the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the major cities across the country. In Palermo there were, according to the organisers, 100,000. On average in the whole province of Sicily, 95% of workers went on strike – from 100% at Italtel di Carini to 80% of civil servants. Thousands also marched in another Sicilain city – Catania. Even on the island of Sardinia, there were 50,000 on the streets and in Padua, 100,000. In Turin, home of Fiat, there were up to 150,000.

In Florence, as probably in most of the regional capitals, there were far more demonstrators than the number of inhabitants – possibly as many as 400,000! It was here that Cofferati, the leader of the biggest trade union federation – Cgil – made a fighting speech. "We will still be on the field (of battle) for as long as is necessary. Let the government and the employers take note that we will not stop until objectives are achieved.

At the mass demonstration in the centre of Milan, Pezzotta the Cisl Federation leader described the attempt to modify clause 18 of the labour law as "Not a reform but a counter-reform. If comparisons are being made with Thatcher and Reagan," he insisted, "We do not accept as our model the social economy of the market."

In Bologna, where the unions claimed 350,000 demonstrators, the Secretary of the moderate Uil Federation, Angeletti, also waxed militant: "We proclaimed the strike and the country has come to a standstill. President (of the governing Council) Berlusconi says that the country does not understand him but it is he who does not understand the country he represents!"

At least 200 coaches and numerous trains and cars had brought strikers from outside Rome to join the hundreds of thousand on the streets. Once again there were the caricatures and giant effigies of Berlusconi as Napoleon and even as the Pope. One of the posters carried on the demonstration, referring to Berlusconi’s chastisement of the fathers for striking against their sons, read "In the name of the Father, and of the Son… or of the Confindustria (the bosses’ organization)!". (At the headquarters of Arzano, the company run by the president of Confindustria himself, D’Amato, most of the staff were on strike. Just three workers went in, whistled and shouted at by their colleagues outside!).

The overwhelmingly festive mood of the day undoubtedly stemmed from the feeling that, especially after the Rome demonstration, the government was already on the run. The government would just have to scrap its swathe of neo-liberal attacks on jobs, education, welfare and hard-won and basic democratic rights.

The ‘cavalier’ himself – the prime minister and richest man in Italy – has tried to say he is happy to see the trade union leaders round the table again. Some of his right wing allies in the Polo government coalition, along with the representatives of medium sized business in the Confindustria are still baying for Thatcherite measures to ‘reform’ the economy and pass on the crisis of the capitalist system to the working class of Italy. On the other hand are the bigger employers like Agnelli of Fiat and others who fear any further escalation of ‘social conflict’.

This gargantuan battle which is still basically between the working class on the one side and an obdurate government of the rich on the other, is set to continue. It has drawn in the students and young unemployed who are angry about injustice on a world scale, as well as in Italy. It has also drawn most layers of the middle class in on the side of the unions, not least over the issues of media freedom and manipulation of the law and the courts by the prime minister himself.

The unfulfilled promises of the government have lost it support even among those who voted for its parties in the first place. Opinion polls show a falling away of support. The ruling class is unclear on whether to proceed through concession or repression and the thieves of the bosses’ government are constantly falling out with each other. The seeds of a pre-revolutionary situation are there in the up-turned soil of Italy’s present crisis.

Some have talked of scenes and moods not felt since 1969. Giorgio Cremaschi, national secretary of the combative metal mechanics’ section of the Cgil said in Naples: "This is an exception day of struggle. The industrial zone of Pomigliano was empty as only in 1969 (Liberazione 17/4/02). The last time there was an 8 hour general strike was way back in 1982 when the sliding scale of wages (the ‘scala mobile’) came under attack from the Spadolini government.

In 1994 a four hour general strike and mass demonstrations brought about a swift end to the first Berlusconi government. Today, in spite of the unprecedented 3 million strong demonstration in Rome on March 23 and this historic general strike, there are many Italians who still lack confidence in being able to get rid of the government.

The leaders of the big federations keep assuring the ruling class that they have no intention of trying to unseat the ‘democratically-elected’ media and business tycoon prime minister. While the government is still hoping to split the more moderate Cisl and Uil away from the Cgil, all three are insisting on no change in the protective rights of article 18 in the labour law. The Cgil has added other demands in relation to defending the welfare services, pensions etc and the young people on the demonstrations have linked their protests against the government with their anger against the US and Israeli governments for their murderous policies in Afghanistan and in Palestine.

The unions of the base – Cobas, Cub, Rdb etc. – and left organizations like Rifondazione Communista, have gone onto the offensive over article 18, demanding it should be extended to cover all workers, not just those in workplaces with more than 15 employees. In many places, the unions of the base marched separately from the ‘Confederals’, but in some places fused into one sea of united protest. In Naples, where more than 200,000 were on the streets there was a small group of distressed academics trying to work out where to be, as they were a bit ‘cgilini’ and a bit ‘cobassini’. Eventually the streams of the two demonstrations overflowed their banks and merged into one huge flood of protest. The dilemma of these inbetweenies was then resolved and they were able to go home as happy as every other demonstrator!

The euphoria of such a festive day will take a long time to wear off. Even in Milan, with the horrific plane accident two days later, no-one who was on the demonstration will ever forget it. At first, many feared a terrorist attack, and that it would immediately be used by the government to stop the strike movement in its tracks, just as victory seemed so assured. Many remember the ‘years of lead’ in Italy that followed the mass movements and strikes of the late sixties and early seventies.

But with the movement still at its height, what is needed is a clear lead to channel the anger and energy of Italy’s workers, unemployed, pensioners and young people into a challenge to the Berlusconi government and to the system of capitalism that it defends. If the government does not back down, there will have to be further, more prolonged strike action. But even if it does make concessions, the Italian working class will see a return to the offensive on the part of Berlusconi and his ministers.

If he or his government are replaced and a centre left government comes to power, huge hopes and illusions will be invested in it, in spite of the anti-working class policies adopted by the last ‘Olive Tree’ alliance. A new version would involve a DS (Democrats of the Left) revitalized and pushed to the left by the movement. It is widely expected to be under the leadership of Sergio Cofferati whose period of office at the head of the Cgil is coming to an end. Such a government would no doubt try to implement real reforms that would benefit the people currently involved in the struggle against Berlusconi and his cronies. Huge hopes would be invested in it but, as before, it would not base itself on a programme to end capitalism. It would be forced, sooner or later, to bow to the dictates of the capitalist system and implement cuts in public spending, privatisation etc. just as Blair and Jospin have already done in Britain and France.

On the great strike day of April 16, there were members of the Committee for a Workers’ International from seven different countries participating in demonstrations in six cities across Italy. They had the privilege of experiencing first hand the power of a mass movement that is presently inspiring workers and frightening capitalist governments around the world.

In Florence, Milan, Genoa, Rome Naples and Bologna thousands of copies of a leaflet produced by the comrades of Lotta per il Socialismo were distributed. It took up the demands of the movement for extending article 18 and rejected the idea that arrangements being proposed for paying unemployment benefit would be any kind of compensation for tampering with the labour law. It also called for the leaders of the movement to step up the struggle by organising further action, including a two day strike if necessary. It now seems that the three major union federation leaders may opt for a programme of rolling strikes in May. It is unlikely that, even if they were in the major factories at the heart of the Italian economy, this tactic would be able either to maintain the full momentum of the struggle. Nor would it keep involved those 13 million who came out so solidly for the 8 hours.

The CWI/Lotta per il socialismo comrades argued for taking the struggle onto the political plane – to fight for an end to the Berlusconi regime but also to the rule in society of big business and the banks. A socialist alternative – of public ownership and democratic planning – would be the only way of eliminating the perennial problems associated with capitalism that constantly afflict working people, pensioners, young people, the sick, immigrants and the unemployed.

The historic events of the recent period in Italy have brought home sharply the need to build a mass party which fights for a government of workers, young people and the poor and struggles to replace capitalism with socialism. The Italian working class is setting an example for all to follow. May it complete the task of defeating the hated Berlusconi government and open the road to victory over all the enemies of the working class – in Italy and internationally.

Numbers on the demonstrations on 16 April in the main cities according to the unions, published in Repubblica 17/4/02

















"Scioperometro (Strikeometer)"

From an article by Castalda Musacchio in Rc newspaper, Liberazione 17/4/02

’Figures supplied to the union leaders for the consumption of electricity on the day of the general strike provided an impressive "strikeometer", used at the demonstration in Florence by Cofferati for the first time in the history of demonstrations. The Directorate of the National Grid said the level of consumption on Tuesday was the same as on a normal Sunday. Demand for electricity fell 20%. Consumtion on 16 April at 13.00 hours was at 28.455 Mw. The Tuesday before, at the same time, it had been 37.919 Mw and on Sunday 25.052 Mw!’

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April 2002