ITALY: Towards a final showdown with Berlusconi?

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BY DICK NICHOLS

BOLOGNA — What did it take to get up to 3 million people — of all ages, from widely different social backgrounds and from every corner of the country — to the March 23 demonstration in Rome against billionaire media boss Silvio Berlusconi's government (the biggest demonstration in Italy's history)?

There were four basic ingredients: a deep anger and fear that has taken hold of the great mass of the country's working and professional classes; the undefeated tradition and culture of Italian working-class struggle and popular resistance; a sharp rise in social protest that not even conservative trade union leaders and moderate politicians could ignore; and amazing organisation.

The immediate catalyst was the Berlusconi government's plan to “reform” article 18 of the labour code. This article, which has long been in the sights of the peak business council, the Confindustria, obliges employers of firms with more than 15 workers to rehire unjustly dismissed workers. Picture

Only one of Italy's three trade union confederations, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) — traditionally aligned with the former Communist Party of Italy but now critical of its main heir, the Left Democrats (DS) — thought the issue worthy of national protest.

In “normal” circumstances, the CGIL might have mobilised a couple of hundred thousand, but Berlusconi has given millions of Italians a lot more to be angry about. The Berlusconi administration — which unites the Italian political right, including the ex-fascists of National Alliance, the racist-separatists of the Lega Nord (Northern League), the neo-liberal true believers of Berlusconi's Forza Italia and some former Christian Democrats — has embarked on a crusading neo-liberal restructuring of Italy's labour laws and its social welfare, health and education systems.

This agenda is being implemented alongside virulent anti-refugee rhetoric (“Italy is in danger!”), populist attacks on the European Union for being anti-Italian and, since September 11, dire warnings that trade union-sponsored resistance is “the stream in which the terrorists swim”.

Fear and loathing reached a new pitch after the March 20 murder of the architect of the proposed changes to article 18, professor Marco Biagi. The execution was claimed by the suspicious-sounding “Red Brigades”. (The original Red Brigades, responsible for the 1977 assassination of Italy's Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro, have long disappeared).

Opposition

However, the new opposition to Berlusconi builds upon that which led the resistance to the policies of the previous centre-left Olive Tree coalition governments of the Olive Tree, led first by Romano Prodi and then by DS national secretary Massimo d'Alema.

The political and parliamentary centre of this opposition has been the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC). The extra-parliamentary resistance embraced a vast spectrum of movements, ranging from urban “social centres” to rank-and-file union structures such as Cobar (and radical sectors of the CGIL). It included migrant and refugee support networks and the many committees and campaigns against neo-liberal globalisation, now formalised in the powerful Italian Social Forum. The 300,000-strong demonstration in Genoa against the June G8 meeting showed the strength of this movement.

This rising social rebellion — which has put pressure on the left flank of the CGIL — combined with Berlusconi's frontal attack on trade unionism drove the CGIL to act, even though the confederation had been passive during the Olive Tree's neo-liberal privatisation and labour market “reforms”. CGIL national secretary Sergio Cofferati has been converted into the recognised leader of the anti-Berlusconi movement and the CGIL into the key element of the disparate anti-Berlusconi alliance.

The CGIL leadership was also forced to forefront by the abject performance of the parliamentary opposition, totally reluctant to envisage an extra-parliamentary resistance to Berlusconi. The issue has struck deep into the main component of the Olive Tree opposition alliance, the DS. At the last DS Congress, for example, the left opposition, to which Ciphered belongs, won up to 30% of the delegates' votes for a platform that approved social resistance.

The CGIL leadership decision to proceed with the March 23 demonstration forced the reluctant Olive Tree leaders to endorse the mobilisation. This legitimised the protest in the eyes of the ranks of the DS. Many members of the two other trade union confederations, the Christian Italian Confederation of Labour Unions (CISL) and the Olive Tree-linked Italian Union of Labour, also mobilised even as their leaderships refused to support the demonstration.

Rome protest

To bring the enormous crowd to Rome's Circus Maximus, organisers had to hire 200 special trains and 1600 coaches. For the 3000 who made the trip across from Sardegna there were two ferries. All Italy was there, from the northernmost region of Friuli to Basilicata in the south. And not only were those used to demonstrating there, but so were hundreds of thousands who were attending their first demonstration. Since it was Italy, 47 different film directors were there to film the spectacle, producing 350 hours of footage!

The protest was made up of six different marches. It was overwhelmingly composed of working people. Demonstrators were not just drawn from older unionised industries, such as the car building and engineering industries, but younger workers from call centres, and the information technology industry took part.

Clearly, Berlusconi's claim that the unions only represent the old and that opponents of changes to article 18 were taking jobs from their sons and daughters had fallen on deaf ears.

“This was the hidden Italy”, the PRC daily Liberazione stated. “The Italy that always emerges when the enemy threatens the basic gains of working-class and popular struggle.”

The Berlusconi government belittled the protest, claiming that only 700,000 attended, and accused the CGIL of undermining the “constitutional order”.

The Berlusconi government remains on the path of confrontation. This has forced the CSIL and UIL leaderships, usually happy with the slightest grounds for avoiding confrontation, to join with the CGIL and call a general strike for April 16.

PRC leader Fausto Bertinotti, interviewed in the DS daily L'Unita, has proposed a united campaign, in which the new labour legislation should be opposed in parliament by a united caucus of all anti-Berlusconi MPs. He has also proposed a referendum campaign to extend article 18 to all firms. Bertinotti also proposed a discussion on the prospects for left unity in the new context created by the mass anti-Berlusconi struggle.

These proposals will be at the centre of the PRC fifth congress debate, which takes place in Rimini on April 4-7.

[Dick Nichols is a national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance and member of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Party. He is presently in Europe.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 10, 2002.
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