Italy: Trade unions and the future

Interview with Giorgio Cremaschi, National Secretary of the Metal Mechanics (Fiom)

Below we publish an interview conducted by CWI members with Giorgio Cremaschi, National secretary of Fiom, the metalworkers’ branch of the Cgil (Italian General Confederation of Workers) – the main trade union federation in Italy. He is a leading member of ’La Rete 28 Aprile’, a left current within the Cgil that hosted a festival of a few hundred activists near Parma, North Italy over the last week-end in August.

Keith Gibson was a guest speaker at the event to give the Italian audience details of the struggle at Lindsey oil refinery earlier this year, where the wages of Italian and other migrant workers were established at the same rate as British workers. He spoke twice. On the first day he dealt with the strike and standing in the ’No2EU’ campaign coming after speakers from recent epic struggles in Italy like that at Innse, Milan. The next day Keith spoke about how the way the strike was conducted at Lindsey had prevented the far right from getting a foothold amongst workers there. He was speaking alongside Italian trade unionists who spoke about the rise of the Northern League and how to combat it in the workplace.

On both days there was a debate of Rete28Aprile members on how to approach the up-coming congress of the Cgil.

Trade unions and the future

Giorgio, were you happy with the debates and discussions at the festival over this week-end?

Yes, we have done a good job. It was difficult but there was a real discussion, during which different positions were expressed and debated.

We are small, but the most radical current within the Cgil, and today we had the opportunity to collaborate with others, such as ‘Lavoro e Società’ and other fractions of Fiom. Even if they have more moderate positions, an alliance with them could have significant weight within the life of the union.

Naturally, when we think about making such alliances, there always exist risks and opportunities. The main risk for us would be the risk of losing the identity of ‘la Rete’ and of blurring from some of our goals. Some comrades think that this risk is too great, but I think that the majority believe it would be worth it.

What will this alliance mean concretely?

We hope to arrive at the Cgil congress with two counterposed documents, which give an expression to the two different tendencies present in the union. In this way, members will be able to vote, via secret ballot, for either proposition and delegates will be elected proportionally to the number of votes.

With this process, in certain areas or sectors, it will be possible to win a majority in opposition to the national leadership’s position and to have a left majority in some of the Cgil’s structures.

Following this week-end of discussion, do you think that in this document of the left there will be clear points about democracy in the union?

The question of democracy is crucial for us and all agreements we make are not only for our own members but for all the workers. Therefore we feel that every important decision of the union must be made by a secret vote of all the workers.

The other important element of democracy for us is inside the union itself. We want more power for the delegates from the base and more power to the different areas. We want more transparency and internal reform of the union.

What about the salaries of the union leaders?

In our opinion, the wages of the leaders must come close to the average wage of the workers they represent.

You have been personally involved in the struggle of the Innse workers. Could you could speak a bit about it?

I have been indirectly in touch with the Innse workers for 11 months, but during the last 10 days, I have been personally involved. For 10 days, we have been together with Rinaldini (Fiom) in front of the gates, because for us, when struggles are taking place, as a union leader you have to show your face.

The strength of this victory has been in the workers’ unity and determination, but the fact that we were physically present by their side surely increased their weight, giving them a greater visibility in the media.

This was a very significant victory, but unfortunately, one swallow does not make the spring.

Even if the general mood is pessimistic, and workers’ strength seems to have been weakened, can we foresee new struggles?

Certainly, including generalised action. For example, on the issue of the ‘national contract’, October will be the starting point for a big struggle against separate agreements for different sections of workers. We want to put an end to such an idea, so we must struggle continuously, including possible general strikes, until we make it impossible to implement.

How do you see the future?

Italy has been in a social and economic crisis for a long time, and the collapse of the left and of the ‘centre-left’ Prodi government allowed the return of Berlusconi, in the absence of any opposition.

Unfortunately, this is the consequence for the left when it plays the game of the right.

For the future, we, as the union left, have clear objectives: to save the Cgil and to prevent it being neutralised by Berlusconi.

We strive to stop the Cgil from becoming a federation like the uil and the Csil, prepared to make deals with the bosses and the government at the workers’ expense. If we succeed, this could be a starting point for other struggles.

On the purely political plain, for a new departure, we must be patient and go beyond the grudges and wounds of the fragmented left.

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September 2009