Behind the lines of the general strike

A report from Italy on the 'part-time protest' over pension reforms.

Dominic Standish

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Topics Politics

A general strike in the twenty-first century is bound to be rather surreal. On 24 October, 24,000 passengers were stranded at Italy’s major airports, as staff went on strike for four hours and 155 flights were cancelled. According to the national train operator Trenitalia, striking railway workers disrupted half of all scheduled trains. In addition, most schools, post offices, public offices and banks were closed for the day. A skeleton emergency staff was maintained in hospitals. And the leading opera house (Milan’s La Scala) cancelled its evening performances.

Red banners, balloons and placards were on display in cities. There were more than a hundred protests in cities all over Italy – and the leading unions claimed big crowds of 200,000 in Milan, 150,000 in Rome, 80,000 in Naples and 70,000 in Bologna.

Yet my eldest son went to school, my bank was open and my wife’s grandmother was fine in hospital. It felt like a very ‘un-general’ strike. Indeed, the leading three trade unions had only called a four-hour strike. The labour, health and social welfare minister Roberto Maroni grasped the mood of the strike when he referred to it as ‘a part-time protest’.

The unions weren’t the only ones playing a somewhat half-hearted role. The principal focus of the strike was the pension reforms sought by Silvio Berlusconi’s government. Although pension reform was a core policy proposal by Berlusconi in the 2001 general election, his government has dithered over introducing legislation for two-and-a-half years. ‘Putting off the hard decisions is making decisions harder and harder’, complained Tito Boeri, an economist at Milan’s Bocconi University.

The reforms have also been watered down. The original plan was to penalise employees who retire early. After many debates, the latest version of the reforms would introduce incentives in 2004 for people to delay retirement. Penalties for early retirement would only be introduced in 2008, along with raising the retirement age by requiring employees to amass 40 years of contributions instead of the present 35 years. Despite the ambitions of Berlusconi, he knows that he is unlikely to be leading the government when the tougher reforms become reality in 2008.

The watered-down pension reforms have been criticised as inadequate. The European Union’s commissioner for monetary affairs, Pedro Solbes, told the Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore that the reform was ‘a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough’. Such claims are based on what appears as a looming pension crisis. The United Nations Population Division has compared predictions of the percentage of people over 60 years old in 2050 with those in 2000 (1). Italy had one of the highest percentages of over-60s in 2000 (24.1 per cent), predicted to rise to 40.6 per cent in 2050. Italy currently spends 14 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on pensions, the highest in Europe.

But as Phil Mullan explains in The Imaginary Time Bomb, contemporary ageing is caused by secular falls in fertility rates, not people living longer (2). And Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe. But even the limited productivity growth Italy is currently experiencing will provide enough wealth to cope with an increasing proportion of elderly people. Other labour market changes, such as raising the employment rates of women in Italy, would also improve funds for pensioners. It seems that the Italian government is stigmatising the elderly and reducing public expenditure.

The Italian trade unions have attempted to deny the government’s claims of an impending pension crisis. ‘There is no pensions emergency. The government… is dramatising the pensions problem’, read a joint statement by the leaders of the three main unions that called the general strike, the CGIL, CISL and UIL. Unfortunately, the unions lack a critique of the pension problem that could help them develop a real challenge to the government’s reforms – and instead have largely accepted the terms of the debate.

The unions have only proposed softening the government’s reforms, such as raising the compulsory 40 years of contributions, to be able to retire more gradually (between 2008 and 2016). Union leaders were keen to emphasise that the industrial action on 24 October was ‘not a political strike’. Their main criticism of the government has been that it does not consult the unions sufficiently.

This is odd given that the government has continually involved the unions in negotiations about the pension reforms. The government is haunted by the fear that opposition to the pension reforms could lead to a repeat of the 1994 crisis (when the last government led by Berlusconi fell after only seven months in power and a strike over pension reform was a contributing factor).

Berlusconi now leads a much more stable governing coalition and his fears that the pension crisis could lead to the collapse of his government appear exaggerated. All his coalition partners have indicated that they are committed to the pension reforms. Nevertheless, Berlusconi recently took the unusual step of making a primetime television address to explain why the pension reforms are necessary.

Berlusconi’s cabinet has approved the pension reforms, but the government has made it clear that there is still room for negotiations. Even when the reforms have been passed as a bill in parliament, the government has signalled its willingness to consider changes. Government minister Roberto Maroni said that after the bill is approved, the government will have 18 months to change the reform for one that different parties would agree on.

While the general strike organised by the unions was limp, the government has been consistently over-cautious. So it came as no surprise when the government responded to the very ‘un-general’ strike by offering further negotiations with the unions to modify the pension reforms. ‘We need to get back to the negotiating table.… There is still time, though less and less of it, to keep talking’, deputy economy minister Mario Baldassarri told the La Stampa newspaper on 25 October. When you can’t make a decision, it’s good to talk.

Dominic Standish is conducting PhD research in Venice, Italy, and writes for many publications on Italian politics (dstandish@europe.com).

(1) ‘World Population Prospects. The 2002 Revision’

(2) The Imaginary Timebomb: Why an Ageing Population is Not a Social Problem, Phil Mullan, IB Tauris 2000 (buy this from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

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