Italy: September 2002 – a new period of struggle

The Summer months in Italy saw only a temporary suspension of the open warfare between the classes provoked by the hated Berlusconi government. Now, with the World Cup and the August holidays well and truly in the past, battle has resumed.

Protests over prices rocketing since the Euro was introduced, similar to recent ones in Greece, have forced the Prime Minister to promise a freeze on certain utility prices. This did not stop another widespread ‘shoppers’ strike’ on September 12. Two days later, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the Piazza San Giovanni in Rome, in response to a call by film director Nanni Moretti against government interference in the functioning of the courts and of the media. While the participants of these ‘girotondi’ or linked arms demonstrations are predominantly from the middle layers of society, they express the depth of discontent with the present government and have gathered support from sections of workers and their organisations.

Strikes have taken place in transport and manufacturing, including at Fiat where thousands of jobs are under threat as the company shows a debt of E35billion. (FIOM members (engineers in the Cgil trade union federation) at the main Turin factory are also having to fight for their right even to hold assemblies to discuss the issues involved). And the struggle over article 18 of the labour law continues.

The Cgil is aiming to collect five million signatures in order to force a referendum to stop the undermining of the protection given to workers by this clause. A general strike is planned to take place when the attack on article 18 is made in parliament in October. Any number of other issues could also see mass protests in the next few weeks – wages, pensions and, of course, war.

The 28th September sees a national demonstration organised by the Communist Refoundation (Rc) which will undoubtedly rally opposition to US imperialism’s plans for war against Iraq. Berlusconi, along with Blair and Aznar, is one of the keenest supporters of US president Bush but there is a strong tradition of hostility to American imperialism in Italy. At exactly this time last year, half a million people walked the 23 kilometres from Perugia to Assisi in the biggest demonstration world-wide against the attacks on Afghanistan. Another ‘Hot Autumn’ of strikes and protests is anticipated.

Over the Summer, the Italian media has understandably been preoccupied with the national disasters of floods, droughts and the big money TV/football scandal which delayed the start of the season for two weeks. It was also taken up with a national discussion over who rules Italy – the street or parliament? It is neither, but a government increasingly resorting to decree and dictat and, when necessary, using its parliamentary majority to push through important decisions without debate.

The back-ground

The first year of Berlusconi’s second government was marked by a whole series of mass struggles on the part of workers, immigrants and young people. In the period January to March, even before the April general strike, hours lost through labour conflicts were 585% up on the same period in 2001! By May/June a state of dead-lock seemed to have been reached or "Muro contro muro" ("Wall against wall"). The Cgil, rather than follow up on the massive general strike of April 16 with even stronger action, had gone for a rolling programme from mid June to early July of strikes in regions and sectors. The leaders of the other two union federations – Uil and Cisl – had broken ranks again and gone into talks with the government.

When they actually signed the infamous ‘Pact for Italy’, or ‘Evil Pact’ as it was dubbed by the movement, on July 5, they provoked spontaneous walk-outs nation-wide with many members of their own unions joining the protests! Having experienced the elation and the power of the 13 million strong united general strike, many members of the two moderate federations have left their organisations in disgust at the leaders’ actions and gone over to the Cgil or possibly become non-unionised.

The signing of the pact represents a step too far for members who still held out hope that they could transform their organisations into democratic fighting bodies. Within the Cgil itself, according to rank and file members, there is still a long way to go in establishing truly democratic practices – regular members’ meetings, election of officials, control over actions and income of officials etc. But throughout the past tumultuous year, the Cgil leadership has been forced to respond to huge pressure from the membership to engage in battle. In the process, Sergio Cofferati its leader, was propelled into the position of chief protagonist and leader of the whole opposition movement against Berlusconi.

It was he who headed the 3 million strong protest in Rome on Saturday 23 March when the Circus Maximus was a ‘sea of red’. (And what better place to give a thumbs down to the government policy, as one radio journalist commented!). Then came the general strike of 16 April that brought Italy to a halt and drew in not only layers of the middle class and intelligentsia but even conscripts and other forces of the state.

After that, the full vengeance of the ruling class seemed to be focussed on the figure of Cofferati. He was vilified and demonised by government ministers and by Berlusconi’s kept media and more or less accused of being behind the murder of the government economic adviser, Marco Biagi, in March. It also pictured him as the movement’s knight on a white charger, aiming to topple ‘The Cavalier’ (Berlusconi) himself.

Although due to step down from the post of Cgil General Secretary at the end of July, Cofferati agreed to stay on for an additional two months, both to defend himself against the attacks and to pursue the struggle over article 18. For months now, he has been widely tipped to become a significant leader of the presently much-divided ‘Olive Tree’ opposition coalition – either at the head of the Democrats of the Left (DS) or a new party combining elements of the DS, like those around the Aprile Association, and other parties. While he is himself no ‘Left’ in that he accepts capitalism as a system, such a development would arouse the hopes of millions of workers involved in the present struggle. They would push a new government to at least try and carry through some reforms. But such a government, remaining on a capitalist basis, like the last centre-left government, would turn sooner or later to implement capitalist solutions to problems in the economy – cuts in public services, privatisations, deregulation etc.

For the moment, Sergio Cofferati has passed up the offer of a safe Senate position and insists he is returning to his job at Pirelli. He will also continue the work he does for a union foundation that takes up social issues. What better place to bide his time while preparing for a more political role in Italian society!

There is speculation, too, that, Nanni Moretti, the prime mover of the ‘girotondi’, will move to establish a new opposition party. He has vociferously protested, along with the Florence professors and other leading figures of what they like to call ‘civil society’, that the existing opposition around the Olive Tree coalition parties has been inept, divided and inadequate. The leaders of the DS and Margherita (Democratic) parties have been deeply divided over both domestic and foreign policy issues. Called by Cofferati in July to take a stance over the Evil Pact, they still remained non-committal and vacillating. D’Alema and others have even expressed disapproval for the 14 September demonstration declaring that street protests play into the hands of Berlusconi!

But even before this Autumn, the issues at stake in the battles with the Berlusconi government have gone far broader than those related to article 18 of the labour code. It includes the struggle against cuts in all spheres of public spending (except defence) and the trampling underfoot of a swathe of basic democratic and even, in relation to immigrants, civil rights. Nevertheless it is article 18 that became the focus of a major trial of strength between Italy’s working class and the right-wing coalition government. The clause, gained in 1970 as a result of the huge class battles of that era, gives some right of redress to workers unfairly sacked from their jobs. If they are part of a work-force of 15 or more employees, they can win reinstatement if a tribunal finds in their favour. The government seems as set on trying to undermine this provision as the Iron Lady, Maggie Thatcher was on imposing the infamous Poll Tax in Britain in the ‘80s. But, as the experience of that era demonstrated, with mass struggle and defiance, the most obdurate of government’s can be defeated.

Economy in trouble

In the context of an economy growing at a mere 0.1% in the first and second quarters of this year and a deepening crisis in manufacturing – cars, textiles, ‘white goods’, telecomms and IT – the capitalist class has been demanding a greater degree of job ‘flexibility’ (freedom to sack at will).

For an embattled working class, on top of the deregulation, privatisation and attacks on public services already under way, this was the last straw. They already suffer one of the highest levels of joblessness in Europe (at least 10% on average and up to one third of the adult population in areas of the South). Only 1 in 10 of those out of work in Italy receive any form of public assistance. Those in work risk life and limb through widespread neglect by the employers, in the pursuit of profit, of health and safety procedures. In 2001 there were nearly 1 million accidents at work – more than 1,300 of them fatal. On top of this is the scourge of casualisation and precarious working and the condemnation of at least 25% of Italy’s work-force to slave in the ‘underground’ black economy.

A recent IMF study says the figure could even be as high as 40% and that 27% of Italy’s GDP is produced by the ‘submerged’ economy where employers escape any kind of fiscal or social control. At least 10% of 14-19 year-old children are known to be at work and 3% of 7-14 year-olds. More and more families are falling below the poverty threshold. And all this before any further cuts in public spending and the relaxation of the protection afforded by article 18. No wonder there is a battle!

Ruling class divided

The government and the bosses’ organisation – Confindustria – representing predominantly medium sized companies, argue that a relaxation of the rights embodied in article 18 are the only way to keep existing companies in business and to bring ‘black’ working into the daylight of legality. They are trying to sugar the pill by, at the same time, pushing for some kind of ‘amortisation’ or state benefits scheme that they claim would ease the pain of being on the dole (without costing the bosses anything extra in taxation!). But workers in their millions on the streets – young and old, with or without secure jobs – made their response crystal clear: "No touching Article 18!".

Some of Italy’s more far-sighted industrialists like the now ailing Fiat boss, Giovanni Agnelli, together with certain capitalist politicians have clearly been afraid of major social conflict being provoked by the reckless approach of the ‘upstart’ media tycoon at present heading the government. They certainly do not want to see the battle over article 18 lost, but they dislike even more the prospect of an elected government being toppled by mass action. Seeing Berlusconi as a liability, they would probably favour a palace coup – a change of leadership organised from within the confines of the ruling class, without letting the ‘masses’ feel their power to decide what happens in society. Unfortunately for them, there is no one at present in the palace to carry out such a manoeuvre! While they may be squabbling and jockeying for positions and advantages, his partners in crime are also not reliable accomplices for the more sober elements of the ruling class.

Instead, they may be pinning their hopes on the magistrates relentlessly pursuing Berlusconi over long-standing and serious charges of bribery, fraud and corruption. Although the possibilities are narrowing, in spite of his army of 80 lawyers and his control over the media and parliament, it is still possible that he could be convicted. A constitutional crisis could well ensue, possibly boiling over into street demonstrations and clashes between those who are for and those against Berlusconi’s removal in this manner.

What the ruling class in Italy fears most is a return to the situation in Italy at the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s when the working class was challenging for control over society as a whole. And well they might!

The world situation is very different today, after the collapse of the bureaucratically controlled planned economies and the shattering in confidence in the viability of socialism as an alternative to capitalism. nevertheless there are in the situation in Italy today many elements of the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 and the prolonged period of struggle that followed. Tensions within and between the classes can flare up at any moment. The ruling class and its political representatives have been divided over how to face up to the economic and social crises. Millions of workers have been (and still are) involved in strike action and mass demonstrations. But indicating a profound discontent in society, and drawn into action by the strength of the workers’ movement, whole layers of the middle class have also been taking to the streets and getting involved in strike action.

A row blew up in the early Summer over the banning from state television (RAI) of three of the country’s favourite TV presenters and their programmes – Santoro, Sciuscia and Biagi. First they were taken off the air for the period of the local elections and now – in the case of two of them – permanently. If he gets away with this, Berlusconi with his own Mediaset empire, will be virtually in control of 90% of all TV broadcasting as well as large swathes of radio and newspaper publishing. Even a paper edited by his wife has felt it necessary to carry some words of warning against government excesses.

In any society, a certain amount of public satire, lampooning of ruling figures and even serious criticism have acted as a safety valve for the expression of opposition towards government. To block all such outlets is a dangerous policy. To use a position of power to blatantly obstruct the functioning of the judicial system is also bound to arouse the anger of the middle classes. By the end of May, Italian magistrates were themselves involved in a series of one-day strikes in protest at parliamentary control over the courts.

The head of government – the richest man in Italy – has been engaged for years in a bitter battle with the magistrature – especially in Milan – over his attempts to avoid conviction for fraud and corruption. So far he has succeeded in staying out of the courts and out of prison by manipulating laws and by prolonging the procedures as long as possible to try and go beyond the period of limitation of litigation after which a case will automatically fall! (And he rejects any suggestion that he has taken lessons from the great renaissance schemer, Machiavelli!).

Other clashes involving magistrates blew up in May and June when courts found police guilty of beating and torturing anti-globalisation protesters both in Naples in March of last year and in Genoa in July. When they ordered the arrest of 13 police officers in Naples, fellow police officers formed their own kind of ‘girotonda’ in protest, locking themselves together round the law court building with hand-cuffs. A number of the country’s police chiefs and high-ranking right wing politicians raised their voices in anger and then officers were allowed to stay free while their fate was decided.

In Genoa, 48 police officers were rounded up. In their trials it has come to light that their so-called ‘evidence’ against the G8 protesters with which they justified the bloody raid on the Diaz school on the night of 21 July was totally fabricated. "A fragile mountain of lies against the anti-globalisation movement was crumbling", said La Repubblica. Hundreds of anti-globalisation protesters have had all charges against them dropped. A deep split has opened up between those police who at least want to look as if they respect human rights and those who throw all caution to the wind.

To try and hold the line against a social explosion that could get beyond the control of the forces of the state, the supposedly non-party and largely ceremonial head of state – President Ciampi – often feels obliged to try and redress the balance of the most extreme pronouncements of Berlusconi and his cronies. He is himself a businessman and sometimes defender of reactionary ideas, like the commemoration in Rome of the role of Mussolini’s troops in North Africa, and supporter of a tough against immigrants. Nevertheless, on some issues like media freedom and police behaviour, Ciampi has felt obliged to try and rein in the ‘Cavalier’.

The ruling clique of the rich, the powerful and the reactionary – on issues like immigration and crime as well as on the issues of workers’ rights and social provision – can go too far. Over-confident that their majority support in parliament can decide everything, they can quite easily provoke a new wave of mass struggle. Whether this could lead to its downfall, and, more important, to the ending of capitalist rule in Italy, depends, as always, on whether the powerful movement, still driven by the most ‘traditional’ layers of the industrial working class like the engineers in the car factories, can produce a leadership with a programme and strategy for victory.

It is one thing to keep the movement in readiness through assemblies and discussions of all that is involved in taking on the capitalist government in a fight to the finish. It is another to delay and diminish the action and allow the enemy to gain the initiative. The trade union federation leaders, including Sergio Cofferati of the Cgil, declare quite openly they are not interested in bringing down an elected government, although this is precisely what resulted from the mass protests against Berlusconi the first time round in 1994.

The tensions are so great in the present government that, however solid it purports to be, cracks can open into gulfs between the component parties and the whole parliamentary fortress can crumble. Berlusconi has already lost three ministers . In January Foreign Minister Ruggiero resigned over the government’s attitude to Europe. (Berlusconi has relished playing this role as well as that of Prime Minister!). A culture minister resigned over the plan to sell off historic monuments and buildings. In May, Berlusconi’s right hand man, Interior Minister – Scajola resigned over a disparaging remark he made about a murdered government adviser. (It seems likely that anyway, sooner or later, he would have been forced to resign over the police brutality in Genoa.)

The Finance Minister, Tremonti, may well be next, reprimanded as he has been by the European Commission over fiddling budget figures to cover the size of the government deficit which probably now stands at around 2.2% of GDP. The national debt is now the equivalent of 110 % of GDP and the government, while pushing through budgets favouring the rich, has stalled on a number of other promised ‘reforms’ for fear of setting off new protests.

If the struggle does not revive and develop, the boss’s government will come back onto the offensive. In this situation, a strategy for victory must be drawn up by the trade unions and left forces. The trade union and left party leaders are in danger of frittering away one of the most favourable opportunities for workers to take control of their own destiny. As Lotta per il socialismo – the Italian group of CWI members – explains, referendums and signature collecting can be an auxiliary but not a substitute for a mass campaign of industrial struggle.

The party best placed to give a lead, the Party of Communist Refoundation (Prc) embodies in its programme the tenet that capitalism itself needs to be replaced with a genuinely socialist alternative – based on public ownership and democratic control. What better time to campaign for a government made up of representatives of workers and poor people than when those very people are involved in their millions in a mighty movement of general strike proportions?

The mighty desire of the majority of the population to be rid of the Berlusconi government was indicated quite clearly in the devastating set-backs for the right in this year’s local elections. This was in spite of almost half the eligible voters not voting and not seeing the polls as a way of effecting any important change in their lives. They had remained unimpressed by Berlusconi’s grand gestures – the hosting of the NATO pact signing ceremony with Russia at which all the food was in one of the three colours of the Italian flag or his announcement just before the election of a ‘Pharoesque’ project to build a ‘golden’ bridge to link Sicily to Italy.

Communist Refoundation

During the local election campaign this year, the Rc participated in alliance with centre-left parties though not generally tied to supporting their programmes and actions where elected. However, in some areas, much to the discredit of the Rc, local elected representatives have already been involved in implementing cut-backs and other ‘neo-liberal’ policies rather than conducting a fight for more resources.

In response to the results in the first round of the French elections Fausto Bertinotti praised the mobilisation of ‘citizens’ against Le Pen and spoke of the need for the "refoundation" of the Left. But it is still not clear whether his party will remain independent of the centre left parties in any future elections or enter another coalition which would compromise their socialist stand-point.

At the height of this year’s strike movement, instead of putting themselves at the head of a campaign to bring down the government, the Rc leadership mobilised its members onto the streets in a signature collecting ‘referendum’. Ambiguous in its declarations about the need to "defeat" the Berlusconi government its petitioning campaign appeared to be an alternative to mobilising for victory. (The referendum would not, anyway, be held until 2003!).

The policy change indicated at the Rc Congress in Rimini confirmed that they are allowing the broader movement with its ‘diversity’ – from a class as well as a political point of view – to take precedence over the ‘traditional’ socialist ideas of the working class movement. The Rc leadership has used the widespread hostility to ‘traditional’ politics, along with attacks on Stalinism, to mask a rightward shift. A strategy for winning a majority of the working class is lacking.

They have down-played the ‘traditional’ methods of the working class – the strike and the general strike. And this just when these methods were at their most effective in drawing all layers of the population into what could have become a fight to the finish with the capitalist class. In relation to Fiat, although their emphasis may have changed, they originally made the point in their paper Liberazione that they were specifically NOT calling for nationalisation and workers’ control but for the government – the Berlusconi government – to use its ‘golden shares’ to save the company!

The way ahead

The one day warning protest in Italy in April was precisely that – a warning to the government that if it attempted to touch article 18 there would be further action which could paralyse the government. To continue the campaign, mobilising committees, rallies, assemblies, leafleting campaigns etc. are vital. Even this government can be forced to back down on its ‘flagship’ policies. But a capitalist government, especially in the present economic climate, will come back again and again to try and enforce its will.

A clear socialist alternative is vital. No truck with the parties who pursue policies in the name of the working class but in the interests of the capitalist class. No trust in trade union leaders who talk left and act right! For a clear, independent struggle of workers and youth against Berlusconi and his class.

For a shorter working week and a decent minimum wage. Wage increases to keep pace with inflation (restore the scala mobile). Extend article 18 to all workers. Open the books of ‘failing’ industries and demand they be taken into public ownership and run by the workers involved.

For a struggle to get a government of the workers and youth who reject in their millions the government of Berlusconi. For a socialist programme of nationalisation of all the big privately owned companies in Italy under democratic workers’ control and management. An end to poverty, war and exploitation! For a new society based on mutual respect and collective cooperation world-wide.

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October 2002