Italy: Dramatic strikes at Alitalia and Fiat

“Just the tip of the iceberg”

May Day 2004 was celebrated across Italy as usual with trade union demonstrations and open-air concerts in all major towns and cities. The largest event on 1 May, at which the leaders of the three trade union federations spoke, was at Gorizia, right on the border with Slovenia, and aimed at celebrating the extension eastwards of the borders of the European Union. In Milan also, hundreds of thousands marched in a ‘Europe Day’ demonstration to focus on the fight against casualisation and low pay.

But this year’s May Day comes at a time of heightened tension in Italian society, which have seen some of the most dramatic strike struggles in Europe.

Mounting demands for the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq have been fuelled by the capture of four Italians in the country and the brutal killing of one of them. Italy has seen millions-strong protests demanding an end to the war and occupation of Iraq. So strong is the feeling that centre-left party leaders have been forced to talk about following the example of the new Spanish government and withdrawing troops immediatedly. Mixed feelings, however, greeted the call last week by the families of the hostages for a peace march to St Peter’s in Rome, without party banners and without any demands on the government. Centre and left politicians participated along with a few tens of thousands of people.

Widespread indignation has been created by the government’s ban on the live transmission of the traditionally biggest May Day music festival in Rome. Neither the union organisers nor the masses of young people who attended the event accepted the pretext that speeches made there could have endangered the lives of the Italians in Iraq.

Of even greater concern to the government and the trade union leaders, in the past weeks and days, has been the explosion of anger and solidarity across Italy in relation to two major strike struggles that have gripped the country.

Fiat workers’ anger explodes

The 5,000 workers of Fiat Melfi, in the South of Italy, are in the third week of a solid strike against a wage that is 20% lower than that of workers in any other Fiat factories and against “murderous” shift patterns (which include 15 consecutive nights without a break). An unprecedented unity in action has been forged in the face of extreme obstinacy on the part of the Fiat management. Workers from a number of different trade union organisations at the plant have taken the conduct of the struggle into their own hands. Practically every worker is involved in direct elections of the representatives from the shop-floor and a “permanent assembly” at the plant reviews every stage of the struggle. Although the mass pickets have been at least temporarily lifted, the strike continues and is voted on at the beginning of every 8 hour shift.

On Tuesday, 5 May, they are taking their struggle to the headquarters of the company in the capital, Rome. There they will be joined by workers from other Fiat factories around the country, which have also been involved in lightning strikes and walk-outs in solidarity with the fight at Melfi.

On Monday, 26 April, after more than a week of mass picketing to stop busses carrying scabs from entering the plant, a vicious police attack was launched, clearly acting, as one of them told reporters, on orders from Rome. There were nine days of friendly relations between the local police and striking workers. One of them, the provincial secretary of the Cgil police union, said: “We know they are our brothers, relatives, demanding fundamental rights”.

Then the paramilitary Carabinieri charged in, lashing out with batons left, right and centre. Many were injured. Outrage found its expression in an all-out four hour a general strike of engineering workers on Wednesday 28 April. In the Basilicata region, where the Melfi factory is sited, the strike was for 8 hours. Calls for a general strike of all workers for at least a day will get a warm response if management and government continue to refuse the workers’ demands.

Alitalia workers’ strike runs on to May Day

The middle of last week also saw the two day strike at Alitalia – Italy’s national airline – when every one of its planes remained on the round. Airports and runways were blocked by hundreds of workers demonstrating their anger at plans to cut 1,100 jobs directly and ‘outsource’ those of another 2,100. Even after the second full day’s strike, action continued in a number of places with workers expressing a lack of confidence in their national union leaders. On May Day, as many as 224 were idle and the day after, another 54.

The response of the Minister of Welfare, Maroni, the day before talks resumed in Rome, was to announce a halving of the amount of money (from 200 million euros being considered by the government as a subsidy to Alitalia to keep it afloat (after running at a huge loss for ten out of the past eleven years). The same day, Sunday, 2 May – the day after the trade unions’ special celebrations – Maroni launched a wide-ranging plan to shackle the trade unions, minimise the right to strike and even to resurrect the attack on Clause 18 of the country’s labour law. It was this planned ‘reform’ which provoked the mass protest movement of general strikes and demonstrations not long into the three year old government of Silvio Berlusconi. The National Secretary of the metalmechanics union, Fiom, Giorgio Cremaschi, told the newspaper, ‘La Repubblica’, on Monday: “If he reopens this question, he will only demonstrate his fragilità. He can do this, of course, but the government would have to get ready to be overturned”.

Berlusconi’s shaky position

The Prime Minister, at this moment, has little to celebrate, in spite of heading the longest lasting government since the war and also seeing the football club he owns – AC Milan – winning the championship this Sunday. His incapacity to deal with Italy’s floundering economy brings him under attack not only from striking workers, lawyers, teachers, and students, but also from ministers within his own coalition and from the European Commission, by his arch-rival of the centre left in coming elections, Romano Prodi. On the very day of his team’s triumph, the President of Italy adds his voice to the chorus of condemnation bemoaning the rapid collapse of Italy’s share of world trade with an appeal for an immediate change, of course.

What lies ahead

All classes in Italy will be pounded by the gathering storm of class struggle already on a scale not seen for decades, as one of the most moderate trade union leaders, Pezzotta of Cisl was forced to remark last week. On May Day, the theme of all three leaders of the major trade union federations, reflected the militancy welling up from beneath them, and beyond their control. It was the need for maximum unity in the battles with the bosses and the government. In Gorizia, Giuliano Epifani, leader of the largest trade union federation, the Cgil, warned: “Alitalia and Melfi are just the tip of the ice-berg, in view of the huge number of companies in crisis and workers whose jobs are at risk.”

The tremendous struggle of a new generation of workers at Melfi in particular, and their insistance on totally democratic control over the conduct of their struggle, is an inspiration to workers throughout Europe. It has already partially overcome the ‘traditional’ disagreements between the big three union federations, and between them and the ‘unions of the base’. But the battles are far from over. Trade union and left activists in Italy and internationally are called on to give the maximum solidarity to the struggle of the workers at Fiat, Alitalia and elsewhere.

In the coming weeks and months, there will undoubtedly be a further escalation of workers’ struggles – explosions interspersed with pauses for breath and for reflection. The trade union leaders should call for solidarity action in the form of full-blooded general strikes of all workers in Italy for 24 hours, as a minimum. They should link such a call with the battle to defend all pension and other rights, including Clause 18, once more in the firing line.

For a workers’ government

In the coming weeks there will also be political battles in connection with the European and provincial elections taking place on June 12. A clear alternative programme of socialist demands is sorely needed in the battle with the parties of big business and the rich. The largest workers’ party in Italy, given the capitalist and reformist nature of the ex-Communist Party, now called the Democrats of the Left (Ds), is Rifondazione Comunista (Rc). Unfortunately, its leadership has decided to go into the coming elections supporting the ‘Olive Tree’ coalition. This not only includes the Ds but the Margherita (‘Daisy’) party. One of this party’s leading lights is Montezemolo, head of the Ferrari motor company and a cousin of the Agnellis who have owned Fiat for decades since its foundation and made their family fortune at the expense of its super-exploited workers. This Montezemolo has just been elected chair of the bosses’ organisation, Confindustria!

In relation to Fiat, as well as applauding the determined fight of the workers, the Rc leaders are now, correctly, calling for the nationalisation of this flagship company which employs more than than any other private company in Italy (and thousands more worldwide). The Rc should, however, include in its programme a clear call for public ownership under democratic workers’ control, not only of Fiat but also of Alitalia (at present 63% state-owned) and all the major companies in Italy. It should link the strike struggles of today with the vital need for a government made up of elected representatives from amongst those involved in confronting the present government and those forced to fight against capitalism and all its ills.

As the leaflet distributed on May Day by members of ‘Lotta per il socialismo’ (the CWI’s group in Italy) explained, the Rc should not be afraid to put forward an independent working class and socialist alternative as the only long-term solution to the problems facing workers and young people.

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May 2004