The newsreader on the main Italian lunchtime news on 30 November began with the following words: 'This news bulletin will be shorter than normal due to strike action by journalists and technicians in support of today's general strike.
The shop stewards committee at RAI [the Italian equivalent of the BBC] authorises me to say that it fully supports today's action and calls for the government to withdraw its budget and start a policy for real economic development.' The country was at a standstill: trains, buses and aircraft all came to a halt.
The budget passed the week before, the main focus of the strike, was typical Berlusconi. In an attempt to create a populist consensus, he thought cutting all rates of income tax would meet with approval by working class people too. But people aren't stupid - it doesn't take much to work out that 2 percent of £100,000 is far more than 2 percent of £15,000. Furthermore, to finance it all there will be massive cuts in public spending, a total of £17 billion. As one striker in Venice put it, 'They've already cut all there is to cut, and now they're even cutting the money to clean up nuclear power stations. Are we going to be engulfed in tons of nuclear waste?' And in an echo of events in Britain, 75,000 civil servants will be made redundant over the next two years.
This is why the numbers involved were so big: 50,000 protested in Bologna, where an average of 90 percent of trade unionists were on strike, 100,000 in Milan, 55,000 in Turin, 40,000 in Venice, 25,000 in Palermo - there were demonstrations in 70 cities. But as has often happened over the last few years, it was also a generalised strike, in the sense that many demonstrators weren't workers but students, the unemployed and tens of thousands of pensioners. As one unemployed women said, 'How can I pay taxes if I haven't even got a job?' A temporary worker in Milan said, 'I've worked under 58 temporary contracts since July 2000.'
Berlusconi's economic policy has been a disaster for most Italians. Not only is unemployment still very high, for example food consumption and the buying of clothes have declined by 2 percent over the last year. It is the hypocrisy of tax cuts that has enraged so many people. Just four months ago Berlusconi said, 'If taxes are too high, tax evasion is morally justified.' After all, he should know, having recently faced trial for tax evasion. As union leader Savino Pezzotta said, 'We're for just taxation. We're against tax evasion.' Italy is a country where jewellers declare lower incomes than their shop assistants, barristers 'earn' less than taxi drivers, and accountants less than street cleaners. Of the 28 million Italian taxpayers, less than 1 percent declare 'incomes' of over £70,000. Why? Because on average self-employed workers can expect scrutiny of their tax returns once every 70 years.
Despite the huge numbers on strike there are serious problems. Governments used to take notice of general strikes - indeed this has been the fifth general strike against the government in the last two and a half years. But like his hero Margaret Thatcher, Berlusconi refuses to negotiate, and union leaders don't have a way forward. There comes a point in every mass struggle where quantity has to turn into quality. If Berlusconi's 'scorched earth' budget is to be stopped, it will be down to rank and file workers to move beyond inspiring but by now ritualistic general strikes.