Italy: Upturn in economy not enough to guarantee stability

"The Prodi government has never been so weak"

The British Financial Times commenting recently that the European Stability Pact was being "killed" by Germany and France mentioned that the latter’s national debt had risen since 1980 from 35% of GDP to 66% in 2005. But the national debt of Italy has been consistently over 100% of GDP for decades. Economically, Italy still ranks as a ’basket case’, in spite of experiencing an improvement in economic growth and in budget income in the last year or so.

Romano Prodi, once head of the European Commission and his Finance Minister, Padoa Schioppa, who was a leading figure in the European Central Bank are not finding it easy to push through the ’reforms’ demanded by the capitalist class of Italy and Europe. They are still struggling to get the budget deficit below the maximum level prescribed by the Stability Pact and are failing.

Worst of both worlds

In fact, they have got the worst of both worlds. Talk about the ’tesoretto’ – or little extra in the Treasury because of the economic improvement (see earlier article) has raised the confidence of workers. Many strikes have taken place in the first year or so of the Prodi government, whereas under the centre-left, ’Olive Tree’ governments of the nineties there were virtually no strikes. The sop of a €30 – 40 a month increase for the lowest paid pensioners, along with the continued attempts to raise the pension age, has provoked numerous strikes, especially amongst the ever-combative metal-mechanics of Fiom part of the Cgil trade union federation.

The fact that workers in Italy are relatively privileged in being able to retire at 57 is a direct result of the big struggles of the late sixties and seventies. This was a prolonged pre-revolutionary period era which frightened the governments of the day into granting huge reforms to prevent a revolutionary overthrow.

Opposition to attacks on this hard-won ’privilege’ has forced the big federation leaders to threaten general strike action on a number of occasions. Now an agreement seems to have been made but is not yet signed, sealed and delivered. Anger has run high over the government’s attempts to adopt wholesale the ’Maroni’ reforms proposed by the Berlusconi government. Now they are trying to bring them in by stealth – in stages.

The leading personalities involved in forming the new Democratic Party – from the old Communist Party (now in the DS) and the largely ex-Catholic Margherita Party – are to the fore in arguing for the pension reform in their bid to become the best representatives of Italian capitalism. The leadership of the Communist Refoundation Party (Rc) has also been involved in a project to build a new formation at first referred to as the ’cantiere’ or building site and now called the ’Cosa Rossa’ or ’Red Thing’. This in itself has alarmed the best militants and the millions of workers who still look to the Rc to oppose the exigencies of the bosses.

Ex-Rc secretary, Fausto Bertinotti, who now presides over the Lower House in Italy’s parliament, justifies this project as building the second of two "strong legs" on the centre-left to keep out the bogeyman, the ex-prime minister Berlusconi who still heads the centre right. Many fear the complete dissolution of the Rc and the end of what was one of the first new workers’ parties to emerge after the collapse of Stalinism and the move to the right of the leaderships of all the traditional workers’ parties. The leadership denies this, but the words of Bertinotti indicate he has every intention of tying the party once again to participation in government with openly capitalist parties.

It is this involvement in the Prodi government, not just supporting from outside but participating in all its anti-worker, pro-boss and unpopular foreign policy decisions, that has seen the party suffer big electoral set-backs in the recent partial local elections. On June 9 came the humiliation of a total lack of response to an alternative event the Rc leaders organised in Piazza del Popolo on June 9 when even its own youth sections went on the mass anti-Bush demonstration. It was "the square of the people without any people", as one writer put it!

In this context, the pressure building up from workers inside and outside the Rc exploded like a bomb in the form of a furious outburst from the party secretary, Franco Giordano, over Fausto Bertinotti’s declaration of support for the mayor of Rome, Rutelli, to lead the Democratic Party without any reference to the party leadership, let alone the membership!

No to pension ’reforms’

On top of this were a number of public statements from Giordano about how, for a year, the party had been allowing election promises to be paired away, but the line must be drawn on the pensions: no support for the Maroni reforms. When it came to the National Committee meeting of the Rc on July 14th, however, it was Franco Giordano who whipped in the votes for the leadership’s compromises and complained to the press that the majority at over 90% was a bit too Bulgarian (with reference to the over 100% votes given to Bulgarian leaders in the Stalinist era)!

As the government pushes on with the modified ’Maroni’ pension reform using the ’scallini’ (small steps) instead of the ’scalone’ (the big steps), Giorgio Cremaschi, general secretary of the Fiom has likened the attack to the fight in the 1980s to retain the scala mobile or sliding scale of wages to keep up with inflation. The ’scala mobile’ was another major gain of the upheavals of the sixties and seventies but, as Cremaschi has pointed out, once a little bit of such a genuine reform is eaten away, the process is almost impossible to stop.

So controversial is the pension reform that it had to be left out of the preliminary budget proposals voted on in parliament. The major union federations’ leaders, after threatening general strike action on more than one occasion, have agreed to what are now relatively mild reforms. But even they are talking about the days of ’Concertazione’ (collaboration) being over and are calling a national demonstration after the Summer break, around the time of the referendum in September in which all workers will be invited to vote on the pensions deal. Fiom will undoubtedly vote against. Their members at Fiat Melfi have already shown their views with a 12 hour strike against it. Public sector workers and some others are also expected to reject it heavily. But, with the trade union leaders offering no alternative, it is most likely to get majority approval.

Even that is not the end of the issue. A vote will have to be taken in parliament towards the end of the year when the full budget is finally put for approval. Four senators have already declared that they will not support it and the right wing will also be opposed.

"The Prodi government has never been so weak!" Marco Veruggio from the Rc left grouping, Controcorrente commented. Like his party, the government is struggling for survival. He told us also that a crisis has exploded in the Cgil over the pensions issue.

There were 30 votes against at the Cgil meeting and the leader, Epifani, told the National Executive that it was like having a knife in your back; he had signed "out of a sense of responsibility".

But all along, it has been the responsibility of the trade union and Rc leadership to wage a ferocious battle to defend the Italian workers’ pension rights. They should have been mobilising a campaign against the Prodi government and for the Rc not only to pull out but to rally support for genuine socialist and communist policies.

This week the Rc’s paper, Liberazione, was finally due to publish an article commissioned from Marco Veruggio about the ’Cosa Rossa’ entitled: "Unity on the Left; on what basis, with whom and for what?". In it Marco speaks of this undefined ’Red Thing’ which is appropriately vague, dug up as an expression to cover up "the cataclysm that has hit the left".

"A realignment to the left of the new Democratic Party", he writes, "must be sought". But he disagrees with the method of the leadership of the Rc which proposes some kind of box or ’container’, made up of the Prc, the Pdci (Italian ’Communists’), the Greens and the Social Democrats (Sd) – a rushed proposal made purely on the basis of electoral calculations.

The last straw!

"This is where the donkey falls down!" How could there be any agreement amongst these (small) parties on any of the vital issues of privatisation, industry, foreign policy and government. All you would end up with is ’Liberty, Equality and Fraternity!’ This would just be a collection of "all those who call themselves on the left, as Bertinotti has posed it, "Instead of providing an answer to the metal mechanics, striking for a pension at 57 …and against the privatisation of the shipyards".

The letter to Liberazione goes on to examine the problems in Germany of a new formation like the WASG allying with the PDS which has carried through cuts and privatisations. The PDS had even rejected a resolution against Germany’s military missions abroad as well as minimum conditions for coalition governments.

In Italy, the massive programme of the Unione coalition had left out things which were not agreed on. This was, "A key which opened as many doors for the Olive Tree (capitalist parties of the centre left) as it closed for us (in the Rc). But the recent elections had shown that putting organisations into one box had failed disastrously. In Genoa (Marco’s home city) "The votes not only did not increase but drastically fell! Evidently, the voters don’t think that unity, in and of itself, is a guarantee of greater effectiveness". In fact the shipyard workers of Genoa got further in getting commitments from the Council not to approve privatisation by invading the council chamber in their hundreds two days after the election!

Marco’s letter goes on to take up Bertinotti’s term of "going beyond" Rifondazione and likens it to the renunciation of the autonomy of the party when it agreed to go into the government alliance under the openly pro-capitalist Romano Prodi. Going beyond means substituting a ’social-progressive’ content for the centrality of the working class and basing everything on the defence of "the only government possible".

The forthcoming congress discussions in Rifondazione are crucial.

The letter appeals to those who still believe that what is needed is, "A communist party capable of anchoring the Italian left to the social needs of the people, of curing itself of the Stockholm syndrome (of imprisonment in government) and of repairing the tattered relations with workers and the protest movements to take the responsibility of presenting a clear, credible and simple alternative." Rc members are urged to take the opportunity of the local and regional debates leading up to the national Congress next year, to overcome old divisions and make a proper assessment of the party’s disastrous participation in the Unione alliance and in the government.

The future of Rifondazione is at stake and let us remember this was the party set up as a genuine voice of workers in the struggle against the bosses’ system and for a different society based on genuine communist principles.

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July 2007