Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/251/24768
13 million-strong Italian general strike
A Day Like No Other
AS ALL the first-hand reports make abundantly clear, 16 April 2002 in Italy was a day like no other. The first eight-hour general strike in the country for 20 years was solid. The response to the strike call surpassed all expectations.
Just over eight million workers are members of a union yet over 13 million people struck work - in car factories, airports, government offices, call centres and supermarkets.
Toll booths on the motorways were vacated and no boats, buses, planes, trains, trams or taxis moved once everyone was delivered to the mass demonstrations across the country.
At the stations every train was announced as 'suppressed' and all buses parked up at the depots carried signs saying 'on strike'. At Ancona, just to make sure nothing moved from the port, "No Global" activists organised a 'blockade'.
Vital emergency services were maintained but doctors as well as other workers involved donated their day's pay in solidarity with the strikers. In Rome, soldiers, including many conscripts and at least one NCO and a major, held a vigil at the gates of the prime minister's Chigi Palace to demand a better deal!
At courts in Milan, sections of the Carabinieri and police refused to work normally. Prison officers also took industrial action and one worker at the stock exchange told journalists he was "working blank"!
Theatre workers and artistes joined the demonstrations. TV stations were almost all blacked out. Even the workers on the soap operas went on strike. Three newspapers from the Berlusconi stable appeared - printed at a scab firm where trade union activists have recently been sacked.
Another one - Libero - was sent to Switzerland for printing but the workers there refused to do the work of their striking brothers and sisters in Italy.
At least three million people turned out for the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the major cities across the country. In Palermo organisers claim there were 100,000. On average in the whole of Sicily 95% of workers went on strike. Thousands also marched in another Sicilian city Catania.
On the island of Sardinia, there were 50,000 on the streets - another 50,000 in Padua and up to 150,000 in Turin, home of Fiat.
In Florence, as probably in most regional capitals, there were far more demonstrators than inhabitants! Here Cofferati, leader of the biggest trade union federation, Cgil, made a fighting speech. "We will be on the field (of battle) for as long as is necessary. Let the government and employers take note that we will not stop until our objectives are achieved."
At a mass demo in Milan, Cisl federation leader Pezzotta called the attempt to modify Article 18 of the labour law: "Not a reform but a counter-reform. If comparisons are being made with Thatcher and Reagan," he insisted, "we do not accept as our model the social economy of the market."
In Bologna, where the unions claimed 350,000 demonstrators, the secretary of the moderate Uil Federation, Angeletti, waxed militant: "We proclaimed the strike and the country came to a standstill. Berlusconi says that the country does not understand him but it is he who does not understand the country he represents!"
At least 200 coaches, numerous trains and cars brought strikers from outside Rome to join the hundreds of thousand on the streets. There were giant effigies of Berlusconi as Napoleon and even the Pope. One poster, referring to Berlusconi's chastisement of fathers for striking against their sons, read "In the name of the Father, and of the Son... or of the Confindustria (the bosses' organisation)"!
THE FESTIVE mood undoubtedly stemmed from the feeling that, especially after the three million strong demonstration in Rome on 23 March, the government was on the run.
The government would just have to scrap its swathe of neo-liberal attacks on jobs, education, welfare and hard-won and basic democratic rights.
The "cavalier" himself - Berlusconi, prime minister and richest man in Italy - has tried to say he's happy to see trade union leaders round the table again. Some of his right-wing allies in the Polo government coalition, along with representatives of medium-sized business in the Confindustria are still baying for Thatcherite measures to 'reform' the economy and pass on the crisis of the capitalist system to Italy's working class.
On the other hand, bigger employers like Agnelli of Fiat and others, fear any further escalation of "social conflict".
This gargantuan battle - still basically between the working class on one side and an obdurate government of the rich on the other - is set to continue. It has drawn in not only students and young unemployed who are angry about injustice on a world scale as well as in Italy.
It has also drawn most layers of the middle class to the side of the unions, not least over issues of media freedom and manipulation of the law and the courts by the prime minister himself.
The government's unfulfilled promises have lost it support even among those who voted for its parties in the first place. Opinion polls show a falling away of support. The ruling class is unclear on whether to proceed through concession or repression and the thieves of the bosses' government are constantly falling out with each other.
The seeds of a pre-revolutionary situation are there in the upturned soil of Italy's present crisis. Some talk of scenes and moods not felt since 1969.
Giorgio Cremaschi, national secretary of the combative metal mechanics section of the Cgil said in Naples: "This is an exceptional day of struggle. The industrial zone of Pomigliano was empty as only in 1969".
The last time there was an eight-hour general strike was in 1982 when the sliding scale of wages (the scala mobile) came under attack from the Spadolini government.
In 1994 a four-hour general strike and mass demonstrations brought about a swift end to the first Berlusconi government. Today, in spite of the huge Rome demonstration on 23 March and this historic general strike, many Italians still lack confidence in being able to get rid of the government.
The leaders of the big federations keep assuring the ruling class that they have no intention of trying to unseat the democratically 'elected' media and business tycoon prime minister. While the government still hopes to split the more moderate Cisl and Uil away from the Cgil, all three insist on no change in the protective rights of article 18 in the labour law.
The Cgil has added other demands, defending welfare services, pensions etc. and young people on the demonstrations have linked their protests against the government with their anger against the US and Israeli governments for their murderous policies in Afghanistan and in Palestine.
Challenge the system
THE UNIONS of the base - Cobas, Cub, Rdb etc. - and left organisations like Rifondazione Communista (RC) have gone onto the offensive over article 18, demanding it should be extended to cover all workers, not just those in workplaces with more than 15 employees.
In many places, they marched separately from the "Confederals", but in some places fused into one sea of united protest. In Naples, where more than 200,000 were on the streets, the streams of the two demonstrations - Cgil and Cobas - merged into one huge flood of protest, resolving many 'inbetweenies' dilemma!
The euphoria of such a festive day will take a long time to wear off. Even in Milan, with the horrific plane accident two days later, no-one who was on the demonstration will ever forget it.
At first, many feared a terrorist attack, and that it would immediately be used by the government to stop the strike movement in its tracks, just as victory seemed so assured. Many remember the 'years of lead' in Italy that followed the mass movements and strikes of the late sixties and early seventies.
But with the movement still at its height, what is needed is a clear lead to channel the anger and energy of Italy's workers, unemployed, pensioners and young people into a challenge to the Berlusconi government and to the system of capitalism that it defends.
If he or his government are replaced and a centre left government comes to power, huge hopes and illusions will be invested in it, in spite of the anti-working class policies adopted by the last 'Olive Tree' alliance.
A new version would involve a DS (Democrats of the Left) revitalised and pushed to the left by the movement. DS is widely expected to be under the leadership of Sergio Cofferati whose period of office at the head of the Cgil is coming to an end.
Such a government would no doubt try to implement real reforms to benefit the people currently struggling against Berlusconi and his cronies.
Huge hopes would be invested in it but, as before, it would not base itself on a programme to end capitalism. It would be forced, sooner or later, to bow to the capitalist system's dictates and implement public spending cuts, privatisation etc. just as Blair and Jospin have already done in Britain and France.
ON THE great strike day of 16 April, members of the Committee for a Workers' International from seven different countries took part in demos in six cities across Italy.
They had the privilege of experiencing first hand the power of a mass movement that is inspiring workers and frightening capitalist governments around the world.
In Florence, Milan, Genoa, Rome, Naples and Bologna thousands of copies of a leaflet produced by the comrades of Lotta per il Socialismo were distributed. It took up the demands of the movement for extending article 18 and rejected the idea that arrangements being proposed for paying unemployment benefit would be any kind of compensation for tampering with the labour law.
It also called for the movement's leaders to step up the struggle by organising further action, including a two-day strike if necessary. It now seems that the three major union federation leaders may opt for a programme of rolling strikes in May.
It is unlikely that, even if they were in the major factories at the heart of the Italian economy, this tactic could maintain the full momentum of the struggle. Nor would it keep involved those 13 million who came out so solidly for the eight hours.
The CWI/Lotta per il Socialismo members argued for taking the struggle onto the political plane - to fight for an end to the Berlusconi regime but also to the rule in society of big business and the banks.
A socialist alternative - of public ownership and democratic planning - would be the only way of eliminating the perennial problems associated with capitalism that constantly afflict working people, pensioners, young people, the sick, immigrants and the unemployed.
These historic events in Italy have brought home sharply the need to build a mass party which fights for a government of workers, young people and the poor and struggles to replace capitalism with socialism.
The Italian working class is setting an example for all to follow. May it complete the task of defeating the hated Berlusconi government and open the road to victory over all the enemies of the working class - in Italy and internationally.
"The Working Class is Back"
WE PRINT below reports from some of the huge demos where the CWI/ Lotto per il Socialismo intervened with leaflets and pamphlets.
IN MILANO more than 300,000 were on the cgil-csil-uil demo, more than 80.000 on a special Cobas and Milano social forum demo and maybe around 5,000 on a demo of Attac.
One worker surprised us by saying: "I'm glad that Berlusconi is trying to smash Article 18." I asked why. He replied: "This attack on our rights has led to a union of working people we haven't had for the last 20 years. Now the working class is back, the people feel united."
Nearly everywhere you meet people like this. A group of young workers were cheering when they heard how many people had gone out on strike.
After the plane crash in Milano on 18 April, the situation became a bit difficult. One of the people we are discussing with works on the same floor as the plane crashed.
A group of workers and students, active around Attac and the Cobas union, were quite suspicious saying "Maybe this was an accident, but remember: the 1980 bombing in Bologna" (later found to be fascist-inspired).
Angela, Malena, Holger
"IF BERLUSCONI takes away my pension I'll go to Rome and kill him myself" said one pensioner demonstrating in Genova. This reflects the deep anger of workers, youth and pensioners who marched and rallied there.
The city completely shut down. From 9 to 5 no buses or trains ran, even McDonalds and fashionable boutiques did not open even after 5.30pm. All heavy industry was closed. Berlusconi has unleashed a massive force.
Much is at stake. Many commented that Berlusconi is carrying out the work of Thatcher and that this battle is Italy's miners' strike - make-or-break time for Italy's working class.
The trade unions are the only force in Italian society capable of defending workers rights. However, Cgil leader Cofferati, while one of the most radical leaders, has a far from unblemished record, signing deals detrimental to workers in the recent period. He is being forced to the left by massive pressure from below.
THE MANY different demos in Rome did not bring confusion and division as one might think. There was an optimistic mood all over, with young people wearing Che T-shirts in cafes and on the streets and working-class people discussing the situation everywhere.
On the 50,000 strong demo organised by Cobas, RC etc., the most combative group were the thousands of school students at the tail of the demo. It was an impressive paradox that they were the ones singing the workers' song "Avanti popolo", whereas older workers would tell us that workers should learn the methods of the new young movements!
Some students and workers chose this demo instead of the official students' or unions' demos elsewhere, saying that this was more combative.
Our discussions after the demo ended lasted hours. Participating in such a big event was a real morale-booster.
Rolandos and Christine
A Good 'Strikeometer'
FIGURES SUPPLIED to the union leaders for electricity consumption on the day of the general strike provided an impressive 'strikeometer'.
The National Grid said the level of consumption on Tuesday was the same as on a normal Sunday.
Demand for electricity fell 20%. Consumtion on 16 April at 13.00 hours was at 28,455 Mw. The Tuesday before, at the same time, it had been 37,919 Mw and on Sunday 25,052 Mw!
From an article in RC newspaper, Liberazione
NUMBERS ON the 16 April demonstrations in Italy's main cities according to the unions:
Roma 200,000; Milano 300,000; Bologna 350,000; Firenze 400,000;
Torino 150,000; Napoli 150,000; Palermo 100,000; Genova 60,000.
In The Socialist 26 April 2002: