Italy: Ruling class celebrates ‘victory’ but workers’ anger grows

Why did workers vote in favour of an agreement which attacks their pension rights?

There was a double celebration in the ranks of the Italian ruling class last week. In a referendum organised by the three main trade union federations a majority of workers had voted in favour of an agreement on pensions and workers’ rights. A few days later, Walter Veltroni, Mayor of Rome, had been crowned leader of the new Democratic Party which was formed by the two main parties in the Prodi government. (See further article) However, neo-liberal policies of the ruling class are not being pushed through completely unopposed. The referendum revealed deep-seated anger amongst important sections of workers.

An unsurprising result

According to the leaders of the confederal trade unions – Cgil, Cisl and Uil – more than five million workers and pensioners participated in the referendum with 82% voting in favour and 18% against. The trade union leaders described the ’yes’ vote, which they were campaigning for, as a "crushing victory" and a "clean sweep". But the ’protocol’, as the agreement is commonly called, will mean that by 2013 workers will have to work five years longer before being able to claim their pensions. It also offers virtually no improvements to the lives of millions of ’precarious’ workers on short-term contracts while "detaxing” overtime payments for the bosses. This is at a time when the latest budget will slash corporation taxes by 5%.

So why did workers vote in favour of an agreement which attacks their pension rights and leaves the scandal of precarious working intact? In reality, the outcome of the consultation was completely expected. As one union organiser told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera: "We organised the referendum, we announced the results, do you expect any surprises?". Those who opposed the deal were denied the right to campaign for a ’no’ vote during the referendum. Meetings were held in many of the larger workplaces throughout Italy but the only speaker allowed was one putting forward the union’s official position in favour of the agreement.

Pensioners – a fifth of those voting, according to the trade union leaders – voted 90% in favour of the protocol which actually had nothing whatsoever to do with them as it only affects those still in work. The majority of the press lined up behind the trade union leaders. "If the yes vote doesn’t win," threatened Epifani, general secretary of the main trade union federation Cgil in the newspaper La Repubblica, "the government will fall".

A million vote ’no’

workers protest

Despite the undemocratic nature of the referendum and the avalanche of propaganda in favour of the protocol, one million workers rejected it. 53% of the metal workers, who represent half of Italian industrial workers, voted against even though two of the metal workers’ unions, Fim and Uilm, were recommending a ’yes’ vote. The Fiom however, an ’autonomous’ section of the Cgil, came out from the beginning in opposition. In the big workplaces with over 1,000 workers, a majority voted ’no’. In the giant Fiat and Ferrari factories, for example, both of which are linked with Montezemolo, the president of the bosses’ union, Confindustria, workers overwhelmingly rejected the protocol. The votes in favour, on the other hand, were predominantly in the smaller and non unionised workplaces and where no workplace meetings had been held.

In the course of the mass meetings workers vented their spleen at the Prodi government which is so blatantly rewarding the bosses while they themselves take home poverty wages (the lowest in the eurozone). Five million 20-35 year-olds, disparagingly referred to as "big babies" by the Finance Minister, Padoa-Schioppa, still live with their parents because they can’t afford to live independently. Two thirds of these earn less than €1,000 a month and one third less than €500!

However, the union leaderships, including the Cgil, have totally capitulated to the pressure of the Prodi government and Confindustria. It is no accident that immediately following the announcement of the referendum result, Epifani visited Montezemolo who congratulated him on a stunning victory.

Sections of the ruling class, drawing confidence from the ’yes’ vote, are making plans for further attacks on workers’ conditions, in particular the extension of contracts from two-yearly to three-yearly. An attack against article 18 of the labour law, which gives workers some protection against dismissal, is not ruled out.

The leaders of the new Democratic Party are pushing for a single, tame trade union federation which can hold back the workers and open the way for the implementation of more neo-liberal attacks. However, the accumulated anger is already bursting to the surface among some sections of workers. Shipyard workers have been on strike against privatisation, Vodafone workers against job losses and outsourcing and strikes have been called in the public sector over wages and conditions.

Building a fighting leadership

It is possible that in the wake of their ’victory’, the leadership of the Cgil will step up their witch-hunt against opposition within the union, including against the Fiom itself. Epifani has declared that there will be no "settling of accounts" but several other Cgil leaders have called for organisational measures to be taken, in particular against the most outspoken Fiom leader, Giorgio Cremaschi.

Workers need to prepare to oppose any attacks against Fiom or any other section of the union. The opposition which already exists needs to be strengthened and consolidated with the goal of democratising the union and electing a new leadership capable of expressing and representing the interests of the workers rather than those of the bosses. The struggle for trade union unity is an important one, but it should be a democratic and combatative unity that develops from the struggles of the rank and file in the workplaces and communities.

Sociologists and commentators have written extensively recently about the end of the working class in Italy. The referendum, however, demonstrated the falseness of their theories. In the big factories the workers clearly voiced their opposition to the bosses neo-liberal agenda; one million voices that could be the springboard for renewing the trade unions, building a fighting leadership and also laying the basis for a new workers’ party in Italy.

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October 2007