ITALY: More than 2 million march in Rome

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BY VITTORIO LONGHI

ROME — Italy is getting ready for a massive general strike, the first for 20 years, against Silvio Berlusconi government's labour law "reform". On April 16, at least 11 million workers will strike.

This general strike call follows a series of huge demonstrations that reached a climax on March 23. On that day, under a sea of red flags, 2-3 million people filled the streets of Rome and the Circus Maximus for a big protest against greater labour market "flexibility".

The numbers were swelled also in protest at the assassination of Marco Biagi, a university professor working for labour minister Roberto Maroni, which occurred a few days before the demonstration. The assassination was clearly meant to discredit the trade unions and left opposition parties by linking them to terrorism and violence.

Berlusconi's ministers suggested that it was CGIL and those who demonstrated on March 23 who constituted the real threat to democracy and that the unions might have been complicit with the terrorists who carried out the killing.

Biagi had been threatened on the phone many times and he had told the labour minister about them. Inexplicably, he was deprived of an armed escort in Bologna, where he lived with his family. He was shot just outside his house.

No-one expected such a huge, peaceful and colourful march, surely the largest in Italy in the last 50 years. The impressive participation of people coming from all over the country was even more significant, considering that the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) had organised the rally on its own, without the help of other two trade union federations confederates.

"Your presence here is the best answer to the insanity of terrorism, it's the strongest answer in the defence of democracy and its rules", said CGIL leader Sergio Cofferati. He pointed out that "the murder happened while workers' and citizens' mobilisations in support of their legitimate and essential needs were growing", therefore, the "terrorists' target was much more devious and profound".

Berlusconi claimed the marchers came to Rome for the day because "someone had offered them a free trip, a free lunch and a chance to visit the museums". But it sounded like a clumsy attempt to exorcise his fear of the movement. A similar rally against pension "reforms" in 1994, during his first seven-month government, largely contributed to his fall.

The massive participation in the demonstrations against Berlusconi and his government shows that Italy is going through a crucial moment. While it is imprecise to talk about fascism, there has been a slide towards an authoritarian regime.

After only 10 months in office, the multi-billionaire prime minister has attacked the judiciary's autonomy and overseen a kind of police state against protests and civil dissent, as he showed in Genoa. He has a monopoly of information through the ownership of private television and government control on state channels.

Berlusconi's government recently passed legislation that was supposedly to deal with conflicts of interest for businesspeople who enter government. After the law was passed, the magnate emerged free to maintain control of all his media holdings. He was required to part with just one asset, the underperforming Milan football club. The law cancelled the conflict and preserved the interest.

Add to that the government's continuous attempt to pit Italian workers against migrants. A new xenophobic immigration law is the worst expression of a widespread racism being sown by the separatist Northern League (NL) in the fertile ground of Italy's industrialised north.

The "Bossi-Fini" law, named after the NL's minister for devolution Umberto Bossi and deputy prime minister Gianfranco Fini, decrees that the issuing of visas will depend on the immigrant being employed on short-term contracts with Italian companies. When the contract expires, the worker has to leave. With an amendment made for domestic help, useful to wealthy families, the Bossi-Fini "slavery" law also makes it harder for immigrants to reunite with their families and for refugees to get temporary visas.

Moreover, if illegal immigrants are found in Italy for a second time after having been repatriated, they will be immediately jailed for up to four years. The building of four detention centres has already started.

In his March 23 speech, Cofferati said: "We are children of the idea of solidarity. In our history, those who worked were fighting to acquire rights and leave them for the next generations. [The government and employers] propose exactly the opposite: they want silence from those who work so as to deny rights to those who will enter the labour market next."

As the centre-left daily La Republica wrote, the CGIL union leader "offered a different idea of reformism, faithful to the values and the historic identity of the left, but well grounded in society and a capacity to dialogue with everyone".

Cofferati, a member of Left Democrats (DS), has denied that he intends to enter parliamentary politics at the end of his term as CGIL leader in June. However, the idea that Cofferati could become a leader of the Olive Tree centre-left coalition in the 2006 general election is possible.

If Cofferati could reestablish political relations with the Party of Communist Refoundation, it would mean an automatic Olive Tree victory at next election.

From Green Left Weekly, April 10, 2002.

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