Italy: 'We Can't Turn Back Now'

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Tom Behan looks at the growing working class struggle in Italy.

'The message to the government from the streets is clear: we've got you surrounded--come out with your hands up.' You could hardly criticise the bravado of Francesco Caruso, leader of the 'disobedient' wing of the Italian Social Forum movement. Just a year ago pessimism dominated the Italian left following the election of Silvio Berlusconi. Then came Genoa. The protests against the G8 saw the coming together of Communist Refoundation (RC), the newly born Social Forum movement, and organised workers--in the shape of the main engineering union and other powerful rank and file groupings such as Cobas.

The movement is still growing today, as was seen by the general strike in April when over 13 million workers (out of a total workforce of 21 million) went on strike. Not only had industry and public transport shut down, so had many luxury hotels, big supermarkets, department stores, cinemas, theatres, museums and universities, as well as the Senate dining room and many branches of McDonald's. Also 90 percent of the workers in Berlusconi's Mediaset empire went on strike. 'The country has shut down,' said CGIL union leader Sergio Cofferati. 'It is like a midsummer's day in mid-April.' One demonstrator even carried a placard saying 'Self employed worker on strike'. Access to many websites was stopped by a screen message saying 'site closed due to strike action'.

A highly politicised atmosphere has developed in Italy over the last year. For example, the 150,000-strong general strike demonstration in Naples was led off by a group of Palestinians. One worker from Florence said, 'We're striking against everything.' As Fausto Bertinotti and Massimo D'Alema (leaders of RC and the Blairite DS respectively) marched together in Rome, the crowd behind them kept chanting, 'Unity, unity!' One effect of such massive mobilisations over the last year has been the understanding, for many working class people, that improvements in their standard of living will be achieved on the streets, not in parliamentary debates.

RC is the party most closely associated with this wave of anger, and has rightly gained advantage from its involvement. At last year's general election RC got 5 percent of the vote and the DS centre-left 16 percent. Nowadays opinion polls put the two parties at 8 and 13 percent. The recent RC congress confirmed the party's deep involvement in the anti-capitalist movement. As MP Nichi Vendola concluded, 'A time of hope has been born. The time of nostalgia is finished.'

But like many left wing parties it has problems with holding on to new members, particularly young people. As leader Fausto Bertinotti said in his final speech: 'What is it about our party which makes us so attractive on the outside but so unattractive on the inside?' RC has undoubtedly gained many recruits from the movement, but in its rejection of Stalinism, a prominent theme at its congress, it also stresses that it no longer wants to be a 'vanguard party'. Translated into practice this means that while RC, correctly, does not want to smother the anti-capitalist movement, it does not try to lead it either--probably demoralising young members. Similarly, at their congress, held just ten days before the first general strike for 20 years, practical involvement in the strike was far more a matter for trade unionists than for the party as a whole.

Since Genoa 'the movement of movements' has created a new generation of activists. The key weakness is that the movement, although it has an inspiring instinct of solidarity, lacks correct leadership. This effectively means the whole bandwagon 'swarms' on from one issue to another. But the stakes are becoming higher--either the rising tide will simply recede through exhaustion or, if caught unprepared for a head-on collision, will crash against the rocks of ruling class resistance.

In many ways Berlusconi's coalition resembles the British Tory government of the 1980s--a government with a large parliamentary majority determined to attack the working class. Two days before the general strike Berlusconi told a meeting of the Confindustria (CBI) to great applause, 'Thatcher toughed it out. If she had given in to the unions, today the UK would be in a real mess.' Berlusconi's government is probably even nastier than Thatcher's. He recently described his alliance with the 'post-fascist' National Alliance as 'unbreakable'.

Not only has an immigration law been passed which introduces a form of 'neo-slavery' in which residence permits are strictly linked to a contract of employment, the welfare minister wants to introduce tax relief for the mortgages of married couples only. Unemployment services are to be privatised, opening the jobless market up to some of the world's largest temporary employment agencies. Even more worrying, the day after the 23 March demonstration defence minister Antonio Martino commented: 'Trade union demonstrations are a threat to democracy--legality must be restored.'

Some employers believe they could win a historic victory. The current battle is over the law protecting workers from arbitrary sacking which was passed in 1970 at the height of the last big upturn in class struggle. Antonio D'Amato, head of the Confindustria, has said that the ending of job security 'is just one of the reforms we want to see'. The bosses want even more deregulation and privatisation, including that of state pensions. However, in the run-up to the general strike some employers, worried about the growing self confidence of workers, are starting to call for a softer line.

It is crucial now to deepen the anger and hit the bosses where it hurts most. That would mean more strikes. As Beppe Benedini, a worker at the Iveco truck factory in Brescia, said, 'Now we've got to cut off production. We've got to hit the Confindustria in the factories.'

The day after the general strike 'post-fascist' leader Gianfranco Fini said, 'We won't give in.' The previous day hundreds of thousands of workers were saying, 'We can't turn back now,' and were calling for more strikes. Class struggle is now centre stage in Italian society.