italy: Italy brought to a halt

1,500,000 take to the streets on day of general strike over pensions.

Friday, 24 October, saw Italy brought to a standstill by a unified general strike called by Italy’s three main union confederations – CGIL, CISL and UIL. The four-hour stoppage was called against Berlusconi’s counter-reform of Italy’s public pension scheme.

At the moment the vast majority of Italian workers use a public pension scheme into which they have to contribute for 35 years before they can retire. Under the proposed reform, Italian workers are expected to contribute to their pensions for 40 years before they can retire. This gross attack means Italians are expected to work for an extra five years to keep the same pension. Nothing is being offered in return by the government, who claim it is an economic necessity. There is almost a feeling of ’d‚j… vu’ as it was ten years ago, in 1994, when a million workers coming onto the streets of Italy brought down Silvio Berluconi’s first centre right coalition government over the same issue.

This Friday, the strike hit all sectors and about one hundred different demonstrations were held all over Italy with about one and a half million taking part. This number must also be seen in the context of much of Italy being covered in torrential downpours keeping the numbers down.

All sectors were affected by the strike – the highest being the public transport sector which saw 95% of workers come out. This was followed closely by electrical workers, which saw 90% take part. 85% of teachers took part. Public workers and bank workers saw 80% come out while 70% of postal workers went on strike.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled and transport across the straights of Messina (between Sicily and the Italian mainland) was almost completely shut down. 95% of trains were stopped for the strike as well as 100% of local busses, trams and metros.

Of the regions, Veneto in the far north, Tuscany in central Italy and Puglia in the heel of Italy had the highest participation with 90% of workers taking part in the strike. All the other regions saw 80% participation apart from Calabria with 70%.

This proves that as far as opposition to this government’s anti working class policies goes there is no north south division. All of Italy from Veneto to Sicily struck and demonstrated in tens of thousands.

Industrial workers were to the fore with 70% of FIAT workers from Miafiori and 90% of FIAT workers from Termini Imerese coming out. The workers of FIAT, and especially Termini Imerese, have been locked in a struggle of survival over the last year. All over Italy factories were deserted as the workers took to the streets. Interestingly over 70% of young (and often immigrant) workers in McDonalds took part in the strike.

The biggest protest took place in Milan where 200,000 came out to express their opposition. In Bologna 70,000 took to the streets under umbrellas to hear Epifani the leader of the CGIL speak. Unfortunately Epifani has been stressing that this is not a political strike and even that the downfall of Berlusconi in 1994 was caused by the actions of Lega Nord (one of Berlusconi’s coalition partners) rather than the mass mobilisations against the attack on pensions in 1994.

The coalition in 1994 actually collapsed after Umberto Bossi led the Northern League out of the coalition but it was the pressure from social struggle which led to his abandoning the government. And as in ’94 yesterday in Veneto, Lega Nord’s "territory", we saw some of the toughest opposition to the pensions counter-reform.

In Rome 150,000 took part in the demonstration, which was addressed by the leader of the moderate CISL trade union. The leader of the main opposition party the ex communist Democrats of the left, Fassino was present, voicing opposition, as was the leader of the Rifondazione Comunista, Bertinotti.

There was some tension in Naples where the leader of the moderate UIL trade union confederation spoke. Many angry workers, who hadn’t forgotten the moderate union’s betrayal on the struggle to defend article 18 of the labour law and other issues, shouted abuse at him and some were pushed away by his security men but there was no violence.

All three trade union leaders promised further action if the government doesn’t back down. All over Italy there were massive demonstrations, in the industrial heartlands of Turin and Genoa 70,000 came out in each city. In Florence in central Italy another 70,000 came out and an estimated 100,000 took to the streets in Sicily according to local television.

Going by recent history, this will most likely be the beginning of the struggle over pensions rather than the end. Berlsuconi is unlikely to back down just yet but after Friday it is obvious Italian workers are prepared to go much further. All general strikes are political and the trade unions should not be afraid to say so. Berlusconi has proved again and again his policies are contrary to the majority of Italians and the unions could do worse than call for his resignation.

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