Italy: Monti government arouses huge anger of workers

General strike sets the pace

On Monday 12 December we saw a joint general strike mobilisation in Italy with the three major trade union confederations – CGIL, CISL and UIL calling a three-hour general strike. This was in response to the massive €30billion worth of budget cuts announced last week. The fact that the right-wing CISL and UIL felt compelled to call strike action with the more left wing CGIL after many years of a consensus approach, reflects the angry mood and pressure from below.

FIOM, the metal workers’ union of the CGIL, made it an 8 hour strike because of the particular attacks of the bosses against them. The car giant FIAT is leaving Confindustria, the bosses’ union, and has replaced the national metalworkers’ contract with a separate FIAT contract that considerably worsens working conditions and bans strike action against these changes. (Scandalously CISL and UIL have signed this contract, two days after the strike! Understandably many workers are sceptical about this newfound trade union ‘unity’.)

Bruno Manganaro, secretary of FIOM-CGIL Genoa, explained in a TV interview on the mass demonstration in his city: “Trade union unity is something serious, something that we all value. The unions may have different opinions but in the end it is the workers who decide. If someone prevents workers voting on their future, which is what is happening in Fiat, wiping out the national labour contract, as some are thinking of doing at Fincantieri, making a separate agreement, then this is a joke and workers are not willing to accept it”. To see a video on the La Republica newspaper website of the speach (in Italian) click here

On the day of the strike, noisy demonstrations of tens of thousands of workers took place throughout Italy. The unions’ national leaders spoke at a mass demonstration outside the parliament building in Rome. While workers shouted angrily that they could not live on their present incomes, let alone after cuts, Susanna Camusso, CGIL leader, spoke of the need to ‘amend’ the package simply with some more taxation of the rich. (Mario Monti has felt constrained to move at least a little in this direction as a result of the strike action being taken.)

In Naples a worker commented to reporters: “The austerity measures are scandalous. Politicians cannot ask for sacrifices while keeping all their privileges”. “Closed up in their palaces” they are “losing touch with reality”.

The main slogan that was taken up in all the squares, that could be read on leaflets, posters and banners being carried by the delegations on the opening parades was: "Let those pay who have never paid!". This referred to the imposition of massive austerity measures by the Monti government to ’save’ money when some of the richest businessmen and bankers have shifted their money abroad and pay no taxes. The central demand of the day was to stop the government slashing the hard-won gains of the Italian working class.

The budget ’manoeuvre’

The emergency austerity budget was designed to avoid the risk of default, to give a strong signal to the European technocracy and to reassure international markets. It is being carried through with the bipartisan support of the Democratic Party, previously in opposition, and the People of Freedom Party of Silvio Berlusconi. The package includes, among other things, a VAT increase of 2% from 1 September 2012 and the reintroduction of the IMU (a 0.4 % tax on homes), that was not implemented by either the Prodi or the Berlusconi governments.

But it is on the issue of pensions and retirement age that the government shows its real intention to make ordinary people pay for the crisis. From 1 January 2012 a contributory system on pensions will be introduced for all. It will mean that pensions will be equivalent to a percentage of contributions paid during the whole working life. Moreover, the entitlement to pensions will be extended to 62 years of age for women and 66 for men. It will be necessary to show 42 years of contributions to qualify with the pensions board. The introduction of this new system will force many workers to prolong their working life for two, three or even four or five years in some cases. With regard to cost of living indexing, there will be no adjustment for pensions above €960 per month from next year, and an adjustment of only 50% of the rate of inflation for pensions between €480 and €960.

The budget has been presented to us as a budget done with ‘equity’. Nothing could be further from the truth. This ’manoeuvre’ (special budget) contains very hard attacks against the living standards of working class people in the country. The measures are deeply unfair and will exacerbate the crisis pushing important sectors of the working and middle class into poverty. In response to this manoeuvre, there is particular anger that working class people are paying a high price while Monti, under pressure from Berlusconi’s party, said he has abandoned the idea of a wealth tax.

The fight back

Although there are still no official data from the trade unions about the participation in this Monday’s strike, we can say that it was a real success. There were peaks of participation that exceeded 75% – for example in Tuscany. Among the biggest and most combative contingents on the demonstrations were those of the metal-mechanics. A banner saying "For the freedom of work" with the Fiat logo on it was at the head of the procession of FIOM in the centre of Turin. Behind marched thousands of metalworkers. There was a very high participation in the strike in all factories according to FIOM’s figures – 69% at Mirafiori, more than 50% at Iveco , 70% at Rivalta Hail, Borgaretto 90%, Micro-engineering 95%, including 70% and 90% at the smaller places like Canavese at Moncton.

The FIOM leaflet distributed on a national scale carried four main demands: The cancellation of Article 8 of the budget that cancels collective agreement through waivers, including Article 18 of the Statute of workers on discriminatory dismissals. The defence of workers and jobs and the development of a new industrial policy of quality, with public intervention. The rejection of the decision to abolish the Fiat National Agreement and extend the practice of separate agreements to all 80,000 workers of the Pomigliano Group, putting into question the freedom of trade unions in this country. The defence of the provisions of the constitution in relation to trade union freedoms and democracy, the right to strike, the right to work and the right to national labour contract bargaining. These demands expressed very clearly the feeling of many workers who went on strike.

Desire for change

The organisation of Monday’s strike demonstrates the great desire for change that exists today at the base of society but also the great anger and frustration at the idea of having to always be the ones to pay the price for crises. More strike action is planned for the next few days – public transport strike on December 15 and 16, bank employees will stop work for the afternoon of 16 December and public administration will close down for a whole day on 19 December. But the fact that workers are being brought out on different days and sometimes for just a few hours, means many are questioning the seriousness of the union leaderships. Huge pressure from the rank and file will be necessary to ensure that a determined struggle is waged.

It is certain that the attempt by the government of the bankers and speculators to make us pay for the result of the neo-liberal policies of the last decades will not be allowed to pass without strong opposition at the base of society in Italy. This must and will include the forging by workers and young people of a new political force to take the struggle forward.

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December 2011