Italy: Hot autumn in prospect

‘Unione’ government plans pension ‘reforms’ and job ‘deregulation’

Last April’s Italian general elections brought victory to the ‘Unione’ – the centre-left coalition headed by Romano Prodi. Yet, the strong determination of workers and youth to get rid of former rightwing prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was cooled, somewhat, by the involvement of the ‘Rifondazione Comunista’ (RC – the party of Communist Refoundation) in Prodi’s neo-liberal government. This is shown by the feeble appetite of workers to give support to the ruling coalition government, which is almost identical to the ‘Olive Tree’ government (1996-1998). Many people still have a fresh memory of the drastic attacks and privatisations of the Olive Tree coalition.

The weakness of the new government is absolutely flagrant: during the first two months since his investiture, Prodi has had to call for no less than seven confidence votes! Since its creation, the government tried to focus all attention on its foreign policy: the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq, the re-financing the military contingent in Afghanistan, and sending Italian troops to Lebanon. However, this strategy did not succeed in covering up the Italian domestic situation, which, on the social plane, promises to be very turbulent.

The Italian economy flounders: public debt has gone up to 108% of GNP and the budget deficit reached 4%, last year. The European Union and the IMF push Italy to get down to the official 3% limit set by the euro-zone authorities. Although the unions and others (generally the RC), demand this target is spread out over two years, Prodi decided to abide by the strictures of the European capitalists. The Finance Minister – a former official of the European Central Bank and one-time top administrator at Fiat – will surely not refuse this, nor will he make the capitalist class pay for the effort to meet the EU’s demands. On the contrary, the bill will be entirely passed to workers and pensioners.

Because of “unexpected tax income”, the budget cuts were revised down, to between 30 and 35 billion euros. The government seeks to make up the difference through ‘reforms’ in the pension system, in education, in health care and in public administration.

The pension question will be the first burning issue on the agenda. The employment minister, Damiano, wants to increase the pension age to 60 years (conditional on 35 years work), with the aim of creating more ‘flexibility’. That means flexibility that is good for those who still continue to work after they reach the pension age, but punishes those that stop working earlier. In the aftermath of this ‘reform’, the pension age will be increased further to 61 years (in the year 2010), and to 62 years (in 2014).

Unions’ response

The unions gave an immediate response to these plans, with the following statement: “Up until now the pension system rested exclusively on the sacrifices made by the workers; if the government wants to decide on its own to make budgetary cutbacks, it will have to confront resistance in the streets”. But the unions still need to pass from words to action. While Cub and Cobas (‘unions of the base’) talk about a holding a general strike in October, the CGIL union federation is already preparing the ground for compromise, declaring “conceivable” an increase in the pension age for professional workers, if not for manual workers. The current situation indicates the major union federation leaderships are getting ready to yield to the demands of the bosses. But they will try, at the same time, to glean some concessions for the workers in the heaviest manual jobs (just as union leaders tried in Belgium, last year).

But the pension reforms will not be made without doing damage inside the government. The RC still projects itself as the great ‘defender’ of pensions. Fausto Bertinotti, the ex-secretary of the RC, and current President of the Chamber of Deputies, declared that attacking pensions is a “social crime”. Likewise, other government ministers (RC and Greens) are in revolt. This time, Prodi will not be able to benefit from a confidence vote: the RC deputies will not go along with it, any more.

Another sensitive subject is the issue of temporary jobs, which involve about 8 million workers in Italy. The ‘deregulation’ of jobs – creating ‘non-permanent’ contracts – is accompanied by the undermining of safety in the workplace. In the last two weeks, alone, 8 workers lost their lives in work accidents. The Unione’s original programme talked about repealing Law 30 and the Biaggi law (the equivalent of the French law on equal opportunities). But now only “remodelling” is still mentioned. However, after a scandal concerning the abusive exploitation of workers’ renewable contracts in the country’s biggest Call Centre, workers’ anger will now express itself nationally, in a demonstration at the end of October. At the same time, the entire teaching profession is threatening to go back on strike. The reason for this is the lack of investment in education and the precariousness of teachers’ employment.

So, everything leads to the stage being set for new class confrontations over the next few weeks. The outcome of these struggles will depend on the attitude of the trade union leaderships, and the amount of pressure the union rank and file is able to put on the union leaders. But the course of the struggles will also depend on the position the RC takes, during this process. In the end, only a party that defends the interests of young people, workers, and pensioners, with clear socialist policies, and by fighting every neo-liberal attack, can lead working people to victory.

This article was first published in Alternative Socialiste, newspaper of the Mouvement pour une ‘Alternative Socialiste’ (CWI Belgium). English translation by Simon Van Haeren

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