A cry to be heard

Dominic Standish reports from Italy on the confusion behind Tuesday's general strike.

Dominic Standish

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Many sectors of Italy ground to a halt for the general strike on Tuesday 16 April, especially the public sector, airlines, banks and nearly all news reporting. There were huge demonstrations in the major cities of Rome, Milan, Turin and Florence, with 20 smaller rallies elsewhere.

Estimates of the participation rates in both the strikes and demonstrations vary according to whether you believe the government and employers, or the unions. Unions claimed that the walkout at Fiat, Italy’s largest private sector employer, was over 90 percent, while management gave a figure of 48.7 percent. Sergio Cofferati, the leader of the most prominent union, CGIL, said that 400,000 demonstrated in Florence. The city’s prefect quoted 200,000 (1).

Whatever the figures actually were, the strike had a significant impact on the country’s economy in terms of lost working hours. But its political importance is more complicated, with many wondering what the strike was for. Eighty-two percent of Italians do not understand the reform proposal the strike was supposedly challenging, but worry that it is a prelude to drastic welfare cuts, according to a Datamedia poll published on the day of the strike (2).

Officially, the principal reason for the strike was over Article 18 of the 1970 Workers’ Charter. This specifies that employers must reinstate contracted employees fired without ‘just cause’ in companies with over 15 employees, depending on a court’s interpretation of the sacking. The Italian government has proposed reforming this law so that employees are offered financial compensation instead of having their jobs back.

In addition, the government wants to suspend Article 18 for four years in companies with over 15 employees when employers hire a sixteenth or seventeenth employee; when companies move from Italy’s notorious black-market economy into the legal tax-paying sector; or in southern firms that make short-term contracts long term.

The Italian government, led by Silvio Berlusconi, has argued that this is the first step in reforming an inflexible and expensive labour market. Many have compared this agenda to that of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. But the reform of Article 18 represents a tinkering with labour law compared to the widespread assault on workers’ rights in the UK during the 1980s. Even Berlusconi has compared himself to Thatcher, although he admits he lacks her powers. But ultimately, he does not have the balls to launch a full-blooded attack on the working class. If Berlusconi is serious about reforming the labour market, why not start with more substantial changes than Article 18?

In fact, earlier in April, the employers’ association Confindustria bemoaned the failure of Berlusconi’s government to live up to its May 2001 election campaign promises to restructure the labour market. The Confindustria chairman, Antonio D’Amato, urged the cabinet to ‘muster the courage to make unpopular choices’.

If Berlusconi really wants to make labour less expensive for employers, why did his government award a 5.6 percent payrise to four million public sector employees in January 2002? This is far higher than the current annual inflation rate of 2.5 percent, and is beyond the amount allowed by the 2002 Budget. Indeed, real wages across the economy have risen since Berlusconi’s government came to power in May 2001. This has reversed a three-year trend established by the previous centre-left government.

Berlusconi’s reforms will change the reality of employment in Italy for virtually nobody. Article 18 applies to a less than third of employees. Former CISL leader, the late Luciano Lama, in 1985 referred to Article 18 as ‘iniquitous’ because it divides workers and is unjust. In addition, court records show that most people covered by Article 18 who are fired prefer a cash payment to having their jobs back – which is what the government’s reform is proposing.

Even financial analysts have argued that the dispute over Article 18 far outweighs any benefits in terms of a more flexible labour market. ‘The actual reforms he wants to carry out are not that significant’, stated Nigel Anderson, a euro-zone economist at RBS Financial Markets in London, on the subject of Berlusconi’s labour reforms. Meanwhile, Carmen Nuzzo of Schroeder Salomon Smith Barney, believes the reforms ‘are really symbolic’ (3). But what are they symbolic of?

The view from the demonstrators was confused. For some, this was a time to remember battles of the past, when there was a real confrontation between workers and employers and the government. Strike support levels were highest among fiftysomethings, observed Renato Mannheimer, president of the polling organisation ISPO (4).

Indeed, Article 18 was part of the 1970 Workers’ Charter that was a concession by a weak elite against a strong workers’ movement. The confrontations across Europe that began in 1968 ended more quickly in France with the reassertion of managerial power (5). They were drawn out over a 10-year period in Italy. The Italian elite never fully defeated the working class in the 1970s, which is why there is still an organised labour movement.

Lacking the rank-and-file dynamic of the late 1960s and 1970s, only a shell of a labour movement remains. In the leading union, the CGIL, the majority of its 5.5million members are pensioners. While the union can still organise large demonstrations, it is hardly the combative force it once was. ‘We want to defend Article 18 because we are the ones who fought to have it decades ago’, stated Gino Santarini, a retired marble miner aged 70 (6).

Indeed, Article 18 did represent important protection for workers’ rights in the 1970s, when there was a working-class movement. But in today’s atomised environment, Italians perceive work in an individualised manner. Most Italians I spoke to believe that Article 18 is good for employees who are treated unfairly, but is abused by people who skip work and know it is hard for employers to sack them without a big pay-off. ‘It depends on the individual case’, is the comment I have repeatedly heard.

Without a politicised working-class movement, even participating in the general strike was seen in an individual way. ‘We’re fewer than usual’, said a waiter at Italy’s first McDonald’s on Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. ‘Who wanted to strike, did, and who wanted to work, worked.’ (7)

In Bologna, the demonstrations just seemed like an opportunity to come together and have a good time. As rock bands played, 22-year-old Matteo Pallacani waved a Che Guevara flag and said, ‘It’s the joy of being united’ (8).

The general strike was also an opportunity to have a general moan about government policy. A joint union CISL-CGIL-UIL leaflet about the general strike distributed in Veneto region workplaces listed 14 points about government policy from health to education. Inevitably, anti-globalisation protestors also had to have their say, marching from Termini to Piazza Venezia in Rome.

‘We’re striking against everything’, declared Renzo Tonini in Florence. ‘We’re striking for school reform and the fact that taxes have risen for some of us.’ (9) Some have claimed that even the government’s new education reforms are part of Berlusconi’s Thatcherite agenda to sell off state education to private firms. But it is not so simple. The reforms will lower the state nursery and school starting ages, putting considerable pressure on the extensive pre-school private sector.

The unions are pretending this is a battle against Berlusconi’s Thatcherite agenda. Yet their concern seems to be less about the reform of Article 18, than about the desire of the government to initiate reforms without consulting them. CGIL leader Sergio Cofferati’s central demand is that unions remain powerful so that they can maintain a dialogue with government. He has complained, ‘Any government that tries to isolate or defeat the unions is making a fundamental mistake. It is in the interests of democratic governments to have strong and authoritative unions to deal with’ (10).

Italy’s tradition of concertazione has meant that unions have been invited to discuss labour reforms in the past with the government and the employers’ association, Confindustria. Since Berlusconi’s government came to power in May 2001, there has been much less consultation over Article 18 and other issues. Berlusconi’s response to the general strike seems to be that it is better to talk than suffer confrontation, indicating the day after the strike that he is ready to resume talks with the unions. The newspaper owned by Confindustria, Il Sole 24 Ore, ran a front-page editorial announcing the post-strike solution, ‘It is the same thing that Italy’s president and the president of the European Commission have said: “Everyone has to sit around a table and talk”’ (11).

The official script of the general strike was about unions defending workers from being sacked by Berlusconi’s Thatcherite attack. In a world where labour organisations have lost considerable influence in recent years, the principal concern of the unions that called the general strike was that they should be consulted over labour policy. The general strike was little more than a cry to be heard.

Read on:

Mamma’s boys, by Dominic Standish

The Italian gaffe, by Dominic Standish

The Genoa Tales, by Dominic Standish

Dominic Standish is a columnist for the Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune and runs Progress Consulting in the Veneto region of Italy (dstandish@europe.com).

(1) ‘Counting the crowds will be grist for many mills’, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 17 April 2002

(2) ‘Counting the crowds will be grist for many mills’, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 17 April 2002

(3) ‘High stakes over a symbol’, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 30-31 March 2002

(4) ‘Counting the crowds will be grist for many mills’, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 17 April 2002

(5) A History of Contemporary Italy, Paul Ginsborg, Penguin Books, 1990

(6) ‘Italy halted by massive strike over labor laws’, Associated Press and Reuters, International Herald Tribune, 17 April 2002

(7) ‘Strikers hit gleeful chords in massive labor protests’, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 17 April 2002

(8) ‘Millions of Italians stage largest strike in decades’, Associated Press, 16 April 2002, from the New York Times International Index From The Associated Press

(9) ‘Italy halted by massive strike over labor laws’, Associated Press and Reuters, International Herald Tribune, 17 April 2002

(10) ‘Berlusconi faces ‘all-out struggle’ on labour reform’, Richard Owen, The Times, 15 April 2002

(11) ‘After the strike the government goes forward’, Carlo Dell’Aringa, Il Sole 24 Ore, 17 April 2002

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