Italy: Another “Hot Autumnâ€

It’s likely to be another ‘Hot Autumn’ for the working class in Italy this year. The ruling class plans a major attack on pensions. There will be further attempts to cut back workers’ real wages and their industrial power.

Italy’s crisis is different from that in Germany and elsewhere. It has both inflation and a fall in production. For the last two quarters, Italy has been technically in recession with production on its way down, but this has been combined with a high level of inflation, producing what is called “stagflation”.

The ruling class urgently needs to bring down inflation and improve the competitiveness of Italian goods. The favoured method of the past – devaluation – which hits workers hard in the pocket, is now ruled out by the regulations connected with the Euro.

Since Italy’s entry into the European Monetary Union, there have been renewed attempts to bring in the Biagi ‘reforms’ which severely undermine workers’ rights. From 1 September, many new kinds of labour contract will be allowed by law. One is the so-called “job on call” where workers have to wait for calls from the factory to work and are only guaranteed a minimum number of hours (and pay). Another is the splitting of one job between two workers. The government has been trying to get such reforms for two years but now they are pushing them through.

There is likely to be another big struggle when the government tries once more to change Article 18 of the country’s Labour Law, which was won through the struggles in the 1970s. This guarantees that workers will not be fired without just cause if they work in factories with over 15 employees. Berlusconi’s government has now made it possible for a factory to be split up into many small units so that more workers are not protected by article 18. Industrial action is promised against this move in the Autumn. The biggest trade union federations are calling for a general strike on the issue but only for two hours. Much bolder action is needed.

There is mounting pressure on the Berlusconi government, both from the leaders of Confindustria – the Italian bosses’ association – and also from the European Union to cut back spending on pensions and/or raise the age of retirement. There are many disagreements amongst the ruling coalition parties about how to deal with the issue. Some are fearful of clashes on the issue, in the light of the massive opposition to pension reform shown on the streets in France and Austria this year and also in Italy the last time a Berlusconi government tried to introduce pensions reform.

Other struggles continue in Italy. Two of the three major union federations have signed a new national contract for the engineering industry. But FIOM – the metal mechanics’ section of the largest union federation, the Cgil – is still fighting to win their original demands. They are concluding separate deals with individual companies if they come up to this level. They say that, in this way workers themselves can judge the gains and losses. But it is a mistaken policy since it undermines the strength that comes from a united struggle.

Inside the Cgil and the other big unions there is mass pressure from below although that is less noticeable in some of the other unions. The other two major union confederations are practically yellow unions. ‘Unions of the base’ were formed in opposition to the major unions’ bureaucracies. Understandably, because of long and bitter experience of betrayals by the leaders of the ‘Big Three’, the attitude of some of the unions of the base can, unfortunately, tend to be somewhat sectarian.

Politically there is confusion amongst workers because the centre-left ‘Olive Tree’ coalition of the period between the two Berlusconi governments also put through anti-working class laws and neo-liberal economic measures.

At the moment, the leaders of the large left-wing Communist Refoundation (Rc) are trying to make a programmatic agreement with the centre left. Quite a lot of Rc members are opposed to such an agreement with a political coalition which would again attack the working class. Many Rc lefts are collecting signatures for a new party congress to come out against this. At the last congress Rc leaders spoke about everything except a new agreement with the centre left. There are definitely problems with democracy in the Rc!

On the other side of the class divide, some bosses such as the leader of the employers’ confederation, D’Amato, have publicly applauded the leader of the Democrats of the Left (the former Communist Party of Italy). They believe his less abrasive, more long-term approach towards attacks on workers’ living standards would be more successful than a head-on clash.

We have a small group in Italy called Lotta per il socialismo. It has a programme similar to that of The Socialist but with some specifically Italian aspects. We see the working class as holding the key to the Italian situation. The struggles of the metal workers and those against the new laws and pension reform will be of vital significance both in Italy and beyond its borders.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, CWI England and Wales.

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September 2003