Italy :Demand for general strike voiced at mass protest in Rome

Metal mechanics’ leaders point to political programme needed

The splendid demonstration of 16 October in Rome has given a shot of adrenalin to many workers and activists, frustrated by years of setbacks, suffered without the leaders of the unions and left parties lifting a finger and always justified with the ’lesser evil’ argument. For years we have not seen such a determined effort, a hive of activity in the circles of enfeebled parties of the left, as we have seen in these last few weeks. The leaders of the left should ask themselves why.

The answer is not difficult. The FIOM (metal mechanics section of the CGIL trade union federation) has shown that you can stand with your feet firmly on the ground and say ’no’ to both Confindustria (the bosses’ organisation) and the government and resist the ’friendly fire’ of the centre-left. You can be part of the working class and at the same time be a point of reference for students, immigrants and intellectuals, and anti-capitalist movements and in defence of democracy.

FIOM has also shown, on 16 in Rome, that you can even bring together in one square all those who have remained on the left without having had exhausting negotiations round a table between generals without troops and without drawing up endless battle plans in which everyone sees what they like and pretend not to see what they cannot digest. They achieved this by using the reputation they have gained through the sustained, judicious and proud use of their strength in defence of their members (and others) against the blows coming from Confindustria and from governments – ’friends’ and enemies. This is just what the Italian left – without exceptions – has not been able to do in recent years and still does not want to do today.

The FIOM : the alternative to a non existing left

Landini and Rinaldini (the FIOM leaders) do not appear to be bluffing when they declare that they do not want to take the place of parties. It is the absence of even a minimal political representation of workers that has forced the section of the CGIL with the most weight and the best history in some ways to play a role as a political substitute, especially in front of a bipartisan attempt at isolation and with a left which, in order to prevent a collision with the PD, looks the other way because – like someone who gets indigestion without having eaten – succeeds in suffering from ’parliamentary cretinism’ without being in Parliament.

The thousands of red flags of the PRC (Communist Refoundation) and the PDCI (Italian Party of Communists) seen on the 16th should deceive no one; these people were mobilised by FIOM, while their leaders, immediately after the ritual call to fight for the defence of the national contract, are back to their preferred fight – that for the reconquest of their chairs. In this situation, FIOM tried to break down isolation in the most logical way: by opening the event to all those who represent interests in some way comparable to those of the metal workers and workers in general, from the student movement to the committees for public water, from the social centres to the ‘purple people’. (See article dated 27 March on this site.)

Inevitably, the final speech of Landini took on more of the characteristics of an address by a political leader or a general secretary of the CGIL than of a union organiser of the metalworkers. This is a comprehensive analysis of capitalist society and its historical cycle: “For 20 years we were told that the market would solve all our problems, but it did not happen”, “Italy is a republic founded on the exploitation of labour”. There is a strategic aim: “A society like this is unacceptable and there is a need to rebel and change it”. There is a programme starting with economic policy and industrial relations – public intervention, voting on contracts and union agreements. But then it goes far beyond that – public ownership of water supply and public provisions, withdrawal of troops from Iraq, defence of the law and constitutional rights. Finally comes an indication of the weapons for the struggle, starting with the demand for a general strike that Landini, consummate trade unionist with a little roguishness, throws out at the end of his speech, just before it is the turn of the Secretary of the CGIL, Epifani.

And when Epifani starts his speech, thousands of people begin to chant the slogan: ‘Strike, strike, general strike!’. At the same time an enormous banner with the same slogan is unfurled at the front of the square. Many, not just the ’isolated fringe’ that the press has been talking about, are whistling at him. So much so that Landini and Cremaschi (also of FIOM) have to put themselves at Epifani’s side so that he can carry on speaking.

The left that continues not to exist

The superb performance of the square has been responded to the by the wretched figure of politics. On the one hand, the Democratic Party (PD) that as usual took refuge in the formula of participation ’in a personal capacity’: an umbrella that covers everyone, from those who called the event ’a large crowd of caryatids, beautiful souls, speculators and political profiteers’ (Francesco Boccia, chair of PD parliamentary group), to those who, like the former secretary of the CGIL, Cofferati, have supported FIOM over the struggle at Fiat, Pomigliano and were in the square on the 16th.

So far, however, nothing to be surprised at. But what about the left? A few days before the event, two leaders of FIOM in Rome, who are also PRC members – Christian Di Nicola and Ciro Risolo – wrote a long letter to the left parties’ leaders, Ferrero, Diliberto and Grassi, asking them for the umpteenth time to take a clear position on the union. They point out that, after having carefully avoided supporting FIOM at the congress of the CGIL, the leaders of the Federation are also carefully overlooking the fact that at the last Central Committee of the FIOM, the document of the right was supported by, among others, the ex ’Lavoro e Società’ grouping which counted among its leaders prominent members of the Federation and of the PRC itself.

The laconic reply of Ferrero (Secretary of the PRC) states that, “The PRC has never taken a stand against the FIOM,” and that he is not answerable for the conduct of ’individual’ members of the PRC or the Federation. So the trick of the ’in a personal capacity’ is not a prerogative only of the PD. We (in the PRC) also just do things ‘ad personam’ and everything is allowed – a position that Ferrero has obviously matured only after contributing in 2006 to delete Marco Ferrando from the election lists for some of his ’borderline’ statements and, two years later, expelling Franco Turigliatto for voting differently from the PRC group in the Senate on the funding of military missions. As Di Nicola and Risolo rightly highlight, the attitude of the PRC in relation to the FIOM oscillates between turning the other way and ’tail-ending’.

Finally, the position taken by Marco Ferrando should be noted. (He is now a leader of the Communist Workers’ Party, separate from the PRC). When interviewed during the 16th protests, he said the biggest problem is “to prevent the sell-out of this demonstration”, implying that the leadership of the FIOM is not reliable, with the typical sectarian reflex of those who, when someone takes a step forward, has to point out that it is not enough and that the shadow of betrayal always hangs over the workers’ movement.

Providing a follow-up to October 16

In fact the real issue now seems to be that all those who have contributed to the success of the demonstration now have the responsibility of providing a follow-up. The 16 October has opened up prospects both on the union and the political side. On the union side, we can say that the event has reaffirmed that both inside and outside the CGIL, there are thousands of workers who are willing to revive the idea of a militant class trade unionism. Inside the CGIL, the impulse provided by the event can help develop and strengthen the internal opposition known as ’The CGIL we want’, overcoming the resistance and doubts in a team made up of few attackers and so many aspiring centre-field players.

It is a task that requires not only an organisational commitment, but also the drawing up of proposals for solving the present crisis from the perspective of workers – something lacking in the CGIL – the adoption of effective fighting weapons. In this case, the points in Landini’s address and in other interventions constitute an advanced starting point and the demand for a general strike is the axis around which it is possible to gather the most advanced sectors of society, from the most militant workers and delegates of the CGIL and the trade unionists outside the federations. It must be discussed with them what it means to make a ’real’ general strike, what are the allies to turn to and what to ask of them.

However, the fundamental ground on which it is necessary to follow up on October 16 is that of politics. This is based on an observation that appears to be shared by the leaders of FIOM – how otherwise can the way in which Landini has been moving in recent months be explained and his insistence on the question of political representation. FIOM has demonstrated exceptional strength and cohesion, but in the long run, if it does not break out of the cage in which political forces are trying to isolate it, it will inevitably be forced to surrender. The twin-track policy – trade union and political – cannot go on forever.

So what are the developments we can expect and, especially, the most desirable? To answer this question, a precondition must be that none of the political forces of the left or projects in motion at present is able to represent the crowd in Piazza San Giovanni. It is not the Federation of the Left, because it responds to a different logic – that of mutual support among former parliamentarians. It lives – whether it realises it or not – in a parallel dimension.

The leaflet distributed in the square on that Saturday is symptomatic because it starts by saying what is fundamental for Ferrero and Diliberto – open negotiations with the PD – and ends with what is needed for workers.

Apart from the content – which is wrong in defining the government as a government of Berlusconi-Marchionne (Fiat boss) (and as if the PD is not full of friends of FIAT) – it is the method that is surprising. How can they be so out of touch as not to understand that politics is so discredited that the only way to restart contact with the base is to present policy as a tool to solve problems and not problems as the footstool for getting someone into Parliament.

Controcorrente chose to be on the streets trying to express the prevailing mood in a simple slogan: “I want a left like FIOM – with the workers, combative and consistent!”. Our aim was to reach a few thousand people – a small but significant sample of those in the square – to launch throw a stone into the pond and see what would be their reaction. It was exceptionally positive. This slogan appeared on page three of the paper, Il Manifesto, and on the Corriere della Sera web-site because it was expressing a widespread feeling.

"I want a left like FIOM"

Birth of ’a party of FIOM

On the other hand, despite the cheers for (the left populist popular left ecologist) Vendola in the square, he is unlikely to be able to give an answer for the crowd in Piazza San Giovanni. It is true that Vendola is launching a takeover bid on the ’people of October 16’ and it is also not excluded that he might temporarily pick up the fruits of this development. But politics is not based on the simple ability to manufacture a line or talk to the masses. If you are not then able to faithfully represent the interests of these masses, you will make little headway. (Obama docet. Obama teaches us!)

It is doubtful whether Vendola – the person called by Emma Marcegaglia (Confindustria’s national president) ’the best governor of the South’, who excites enthusiasm from Vicenza’s Confindustria and declares to the paper, Sole24Ore, that Marchionne should be a little more ’patriotic’ – can at the same time defend the world of work. You could only believe this if you embrace the idea that there is no more class struggle but ’the common interest’. That is exactly what FIOM has proven to be a fable of the ’90s. Besides, if you listen again to the final intervention of Landini and compare it to the copious interviews with Vendola in recent months, it does not run the distance. On the one hand are a few clear ideas, strong and expressed simply. On the other hand, a flood of seductive words, slyly playing on a thread of ambiguity.

Unlike Marco Ferrando, we do not have the anxiety that Landini and Rinaldini will betray. It is anyway not useful to interpret politics through the categories of loyalty or betrayal. Politics, unlike moral philosophy, deals with facts, not intentions. That is not to have an idealised conception of FIOM. It is – like all large organisations and especially in a situation so confused – a complex reality, not without contradictions, in situations very different from north to south and from city to city.

However, one fact is undeniable. The group that has led the union in recent years has made some courageous decisions, even positive innovations with respect to some elements of their own way of doing things and their original policy. It has played an objective driving role in the class struggle. It makes no sense to let Rinaldini and Landini board someone else’s Noah’s Ark (as if they would be so naive), or to give them ’lessons in Marxism’. It does make sense for the political left to open, with them and all the other forces present on 16 October, a frank, open discussion, without engaging in tactical manoeuvres, on how to give political representation to workers and to the movement that is fighting for an alternative.

Whether and in what form it will give birth to what some newspapers have already roughly defined as ’the party of FIOM’, we cannot know. What is certain is that new political formations in other countries, born from the crisis of social democracy and/or the extreme left, have sometimes been formed thanks to the involvement of some sections of the unions – the WASG of Oskar Lafontaine in Germany or the P-SOL of Heloisa Helena in Brazil and more recently the Socialist and Trade Unionist Coalition in Britain, while it is true that a general scheme must take into account the actual conditions of different countries and ours is characterised by a very rigid relationship between political and trade union activity.

The exceptional presence of the red flags of the PRC and the PDCI in Piazza San Giovanni, do not count as evidence of strong roots on the part of those parties in the workplace or a great interest of their leaders in workers. However, it shows that inside them, there are still healthy forces that are ready to be involved in the reconstruction of a left worthy of the name and emphasising the representation of the working world. And that – if we want this left to express a real force and not simply a voice crying in the wilderness – those forces can not be ignored. So they must be safeguarded, kept together, protected against those who want to use them again as a stool for their personal interests or as an ’apparatus’. This is the first step. The second is, if something is actually set in motion, for the Marxists in there to decide to be a driving part and to play a real role rather than, as unfortunately happened in the history of the PRC, deciding to do the commentating and leave it for others to play the match.

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October 2010