Italy: General strike against Berlusconi crisis measures

The CGIL, the main trade union federation, has called an 8 hour general strike for 6 September

Against the background of intensifying economic and political crisis in Italy, the CGIL, the main trade union federation, has called an eight hour general strike for 6 September across every sector of the economy against the emergency cuts being pushed though parliament. The Italian ‘unions of the base’ have made a general strike call for the same day.

This strike should really be a natural consequence of the draconian budget cuts and harsh attacks on workers’ hard-won rights such as the right to strike. And yet, that is not the case. In the space of a few hours, the CGIL went from a cosy relationship with the other (right-wing, pro-employer) union federations, CISL and UIL, and the bosses’ organisation, Confindustria, which included having a common document to the government, proposing the privatisation of public companies, the balancing of the budget to be written into the constitution and the ‘modernisation’ of trade union relations, straight to a general strike against everyone and everything.

It is not possible to pretend that nothing is happening or to find a coherence and continuity in these two positions. Either someone has been right or someone else has been glaringly mistaken. Those who have been right, including Controcorrente, have always maintained that the current phase leaves no economic or social room for manoeuvre for any pro-capitalist government. For them, to eliminate deficits, there is no alternative to the policies which, country by country, are being implemented throughout Europe. Those who, like us, maintained that the 28 June union agreement was no ‘umbrella’ or ‘guarantee’ in the face of attacks on workers’ rights and on national contracts, and that the CGIL was merely accepting a concept of representation and trade union democracy which totally subordinated it to the other unions, were also correct on this.

On the other hand, those who thought that the June agreement was a good compromise, necessary for ‘getting back into the game’ and thus influencing more favourably the government, the ‘social partners’ and the other unions, were clearly wrong. More generally, those who think that we are in a phase like any other in which a change of political landscape could bring about a new stage of ‘advanced compromises’ (to use union jargon) are still mistaken. And unfortunately mistakes have to be paid for.

The general strike and after

The general strike is certainly important and we are all working hard to make it a success. But we know that to arrive at this point suddenly is not the same as if the decision had been taken consciously and been well prepared, above all when there is no clear idea about what to do afterwards and what the line of the CGIL is. We already know (at least from the political stirrings of ‘palace insiders’) that the strike will not result in changes to the budget being discussed that day or to the government falling.

We also know that the so-called ‘responsible’ opposition will only offer weak support to the CGIL and maybe not even that. We have seen how they have failed to denounce the attacks against Article 18 (which gives workers some rights against unfair dismissal) and the First of May holiday. What’s more, the CGIL leadership have sent media messages of conciliation, suggesting the ending of hostilities with CISL and UIL and with Marcegalia, the president of Confindustria. Sometimes a collective photograph full of smiles and handshakes is worth a thousand words. Now, if possible, the CGIL is even more ‘in a corner’ than before, having previously made big concessions and signed documents and agreements.

So what should the CGIL do the day after the general strike? Should they do what they did after the 6 May strike and drain the struggle of its potential through agreements, as they have in recent weeks? Should they put up with the umpteenth structural reform of trade union and worker/employer relations, hoping that a change in the ‘political landscape’ will take things back to where they were before Berlusconi and Sacconi (the minister of labour)? Only the uncritical conformism of the current leadership majority could cover up the total lack of concrete results in recent years and the absolute failure of their perspective which won support at the last CGIL union congress.

The only seriously practical alternative is to draw a clear line behind which the whole CGIL will group together its members. It needs to prepare for a period – which will not be brief – of active resistance. It needs to be capable of creating and stimulating alliances with all those sectors hit hard by the many aspects of an Italian version of the capitalists’ Europe-wide economic policies which entail worse pay, worse working conditions and the cutting off of future prospects for large layers of workers and young people.

Then the leaders of the workers’ movement should see the match through to the end with consistency and without wavering. As with 6 May, this strike will probably see an energetic expression of opposition, will be thought-provoking and will raise expectations. We have to make sure that these do not become dispersed and turn into disillusion and passive resignation.

Of course, being right is not enough. Those who see the need to achieve a real turn-around in the whole organisation of the CGIL, need to use the opportunity – before, during and after the general strike – to conduct a determined struggle for alternative, combative policies against the Berlusconi government and the bosses’ system.

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September 2011