Italy: General strike and mass demonstrations

Yesterday’s general strike surpassed all expectations as literally hundreds of thousands of angry workers and youth took to the streets in 120 cities across Italy. This was the second general strike in defence of article 18 of the country’s labour law, which gives workers some protection from "unfair" dismissal. But, more importantly, the ‘reform’ is the front line of the battle between the reactionary government of Berlusconi, Bossi and Fini and the Italian working class.


Friday, 18 October, saw a massive response to the call for an 8-hour general strike by the biggest trade union federation in Italy – the Cgil. Below are the first reports from members of the CWI in Italy plus some information taken from the Italian press and initial commentary from the CWI in London. CWI Online, 21 October 2002.

Solo La Lotta Paga! (‘Only struggle pays!’)
Hundreds of thousands take to the streets

The general strike organised by CGIL (ex communist union confederation) and supported by the unions of the base was the first time CGIL had struck without the moderate CISL and UIL unions in forty years. The huge success of the strike will send the moderate unions into crisis. Their members were already angered by their leaders’ betrayal on article 18 and yesterday’s success will send them further into crisis.

In Milan the biggest demonstration saw a quarter of a million workers take to the streets to hear the recently retired secretary of CGIL, Sergio Cofferati speak. Cofferati is expected to turn to politics and aim to win the leadership of the ex-communist Democrats of the Left (DS). This would be seen as a significant shift to the left, even though politically, Cofferati is a firm believer in the capitalist road.

In Turin, 200,000 took to the streets and heard speeches from Fassino, a right wing leader of the DS, and Bertinotti the leader of the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC). In Florence, the city which will play host to the European Social Forum in November, 200,000 packed the streets. In Rome 150,000 marched. In Bologna 85,000 took to the streets, in Genova 70,000 and in Palermo up to 50,000.

Yet again the Italian workers and young people have shown their determination to fight. Yesterday Italy was brought to a standstill, and the strike and demonstrations show how weak the hated Berlusconi and his government really are.

‘Disobedient’ Youth Support the Workers

The Italian youth movement – the ‘disobedients’ (formally known as ‘tutti bianchi’) took symbolic action over the length and breath of Italy to coincide with the general strike. The three days of action began on the 16th of October with a national anti-McDonalds day. The protest was against McDonalds’ treatment of "McWorkers" and the multinational’s environmental record.

The youth who are organised around occupied ‘social centres’ protested on other anti-globalisation issues, such as sweat shops, the environment and the prospect of war in the Gulf. In Bologna, activists occupied a Benetton shop. In Padua and Venice they organised anti-war protests. In Naples they occupied a job centre.

In Milan, an abandoned theatre was occupied. For the general strike in Rome the youth organised a "scioparade" (strikeparade) in support of the workers.

Catania, Sicily goes joins strike

Ten to fifteen thousand striking workers and youth filled the streets of Catania today in a massive show of strength against Berlusconi and his reactionary coalition. Today was the second national general strike in defence of article 18, a law that affords workers and trade unionists some small protection from the bosses. The article is a concession that was won by the Italian working class during the turbulent late Sixties and early Seventies, which allows workers to take their bosses to a tribunal if unfairly dismissed. The tribunal can then force the boss to take back the worker. This also offers some protection to trade unionists.

The CGIL (ex-communist) trade union confederation called the strike even after the betrayal of the CISL and UIL "moderate" unions who made a deal with Berlusconi and Confindustria (the bosses’ organisation) earlier this year. Workers jeered and whistled as we passed the UIL offices.

The government itself is being squeezed between the militant Italian working class, who have drawn a line in the sand under article 18, and Confindustria who are desperate to "free up" the labour market (i.e. cut jobs) to combat the global recession.

For Sicily – a region with high unemployment, Palermo alone with 120,000 (29% of the working population) – article 18 is even more important as workers who loose their jobs here will find them difficult to replace. Last year, the workers of a petro-chemical plant in Gela, a small city in western Sicily, staged a general strike and semi insurrection when the main employer of the city was closing down, forcing state intervention. Today’s strike is even more prevalent as thousands of Sicilian workers face life on the dole at FIAT.

Thousands of youth from the universities and especially the secondary schools turned out. The students used the general strike to protest against the reforms of education minister Letizia Moratti, Italy’s own Margaret Thatcher.

During the march, the students making it clear where they stood ripped a poster of Mussolini down. After destroying ‘Il Duce’, the students continued marching shouting anti-fascist and pro immigrant slogans. At the end of the march about 100 of them made a small attempt to occupy a school but the Carabineri (special police) positioned themselves in the way of the protesters.

The Catania Social Forum also supported the demonstration going further than CGIL in calling for article 18 to be extended to all workers. (The article only covers workplaces with more than 15 employees). Youth from the local Social Centre also made a noisy impact.

The speakers all confirmed their opposition to any reform of article 18 and sent solidarity messages to the workers in struggle at FIAT. Speakers also voiced opposition to the budget, especially any money being used to support Bush’s war on terrorism. One speaker also pointed out that a " war in Iraq will be about controlling 60% of the world’s oil; the war is not for us but for our bosses".

Today’s turnout, huge for a small city like Catania, confirmed the opposition to the reforms and the determination of the Italian working class who will not give up. And if given the necessary leadership they will not only defeat the government on this issue but will defeat the government itself.

Media reports (Preliminary information and comment based on press reports):

"Banging drums, blowing whistles and singing the communist workers’ hymn, the ‘Internationale’, crowds of demonstrators marched through more than 100 towns and cities in a show of force organised by Italy’s most militant union, the Cgil" (International Herald Tribune 19-20 October, 2002). In addition to seriously disrupting the country’s transport and factory production, the protests closed schools, post offices and banks across Italy.

Figures for the size of the demonstrations quoted in Liberazione – the Communist Refoundation (Rc) newspaper – include the 250,000 on the demo in Milan (where Cofferati, the ex-General Secretary of the Cgil was speaking), 200,000 in Turin (home of Fiat) where the leader of the Rc, Fausto Bertinotti, was speaking and in Florence,100,000. In Rome, Liberazione reported 100,000 and La Repubblica says 150,000. Liberazione says 50,000 in Palermo, 45,000 in Puglia, 20,000 in Bari…

"It’s a most beautiful day of strike, with an extraordinary participation in all the demonstrations", said Guglielmo Epifani, the successor to Cofferati as General Secretary of the Cgil, in Turin. He claimed that the figures showed an average participation on the streets of more workers than during the 16 April general strike called jointly with the other two trade union federations.

This is the first strike called by Cgil alone since the ’60s. The action was supported by the unions ‘of the base’ (COBAS & co). Alitalia cancelled 275 flights, railways were running at 40%, local transport in the cities stopped from 9.00 -17.00 hrs. The underground in Rome was shutdown. Travellers on the motorways went free of charge as the toll collectors struck!

In some cases, there were far more strikers than trade union members. At a petrochemical plant at Brindisi, for example, Cgil membership was around 30% and participation in the strike about 60%.

On the demonstration in Milan there were workers with banners from Cisl, one of the two moderate union federations whose leaders had signed the ’Pact for Italy’ in July.

The Cgil christened the strike the ’Strike for Italy’! It was saying ‘No’ to any change in article 18 of the labour law but also to the Finance Law and to the first cuts at Fiat, estimated to be threatening at least 40,000 jobs connected with the car industry already.

In Palermo, Sicily, where the first lay-offs in Fiat are being bitterly fought, the demonstration stretched for at least a kilometre. The stoppage was practically 100% at the shipyards in the area and at other factories. Many schools were closed as teachers and school workers supported the strike. One of the speakers in Palermo was a leader of the ’Movement of the Professors’, putting in a word for the intellectuals and ’civil society’ in the campaigns against Berlusconi and his latest manoeuvre in parliament (aimed at avoiding conviction for corruption!).

The presence on the demo in Naples of the president of the (ex-’communist’) Ds (Democrats of the Left), Massimo D’Alema, was signalled by the shout of a leader of the local ’No Global disobedients’: "There’s a neo-liberal infiltrator in our procession!" This refers to the record of the pre-Berlusconi centre-left ‘Olive Tree’ government, which had started the wave of deregulation, privatisation and cuts that led to its failure to defeat Berlusconi in the election of May 2001.

The Ds has also been riven with divisions over its attitude to war (in Afghanistan and now Iraq) and over the signing of the ‘Evil Pact’ by the moderate unions. The leadership has obviously decided to show support for the militant campaign being continued by the Cgil. As reported above, the Ds General Secretary, Piero Fassino, was on the demonstration in Turin.

The strength of the general strike, though belittled by the government and the bosses and given little coverage in the international media, will put pressure on the moderate leaders of the Uil and Cisl union federations to come back into the struggle. Huge pressure is building up over the wage contracts, in the face of inflation, and over the budget and the promises of improvements for the poverty stricken and jobless South.

The Cgil has explained that Berlusconi’s budget and financial policies, as well as his labour reforms, are aggravating an economic slowdown and could end up putting 280,000 people out of work. In particular, the crisis that is engulfing Fiat at present is of enormous significance. It tests the government’s commitment to allow free market capitalism to run its course, with brutal, devastating results. It would provoke even more hostility to the Berlusconi government, including amongst parliamentary representatives from his coalition.

The unions in Fiat have been organising almost permanent protest and the Communist Refoundation has come out for nationalisation. But this crisis demands a vociferous and widespread campaign of resistance and a convincing explanation of how genuine nationalisation would have to be under the democratic control of workers in the industry and outside and would pose the question of the ownership as well as the management and planning of the whole of the Italian economy.

The general strike raises again the need for a clear political campaign to bring down the Berlusconi government and replace it with a government of workers and young people convinced that capitalism offers no future for them and turning to socialist ideas for a real solution.

Clare Doyle, CWI London, 21 October 2002

More news and analysis will follow, including reports from CWI comrades on the demonstrations in Rome, Florence and Naples.

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