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Italy: Millions strike and march against Berlusconi

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On 25 November the three largest trade union confederations in Italy (CGIL, CISL, UIL) staged a half-day general strike against the Berlusconi government’s new cuts, outlined in the budget for 2006. The government refused point blank to enter into negotiations with the unions over the package.

Millions of workers struck; public transport stopped for four hours; schools had their timetables curtailed; post offices and banks closed; hospitals provided only emergency services; and dustbins remained unemptied. All three federations reported that 80 to 90 per cent of workers obeyed the strike call. It is the sixth half-day or one-day general strike since Silvio Berlusconi came to power in 2001. Big demonstrations and rallies took place in all the main Italian cities, shouting anti-Berlusconi slogans.

The budget “reforms” include:

a $3.1 billion cut in state aid to the regions next year
loss of 100,000 short-term jobs in public administration
cuts to the arts and entertainment sector
a lack of measures to promote development, especially in the south of the country
falling public sector investment
no increase in funds for unemployment benefits or other form of social support.

The draft budget, which is currently going through parliament, contains spending cuts worth about $16 billion (£11 billion). Economic growth this year is only 0.2%. In reality, Italy is in recession, real inflation is high and real wages are falling.

One of the most controversial measures in the budget will mean a cut in state transfers to regional government of about $3 billion. The Economist has described Italy as the “real sick man of Europe", though of course advocating more of the neoliberal medicine, which is poisoning the country

Berlusconi, who is facing re-election on 6 April, loftily dismissed the strike as a “trite ritual that has no effect".

Unfortunately, thanks to the leadership of the unions and the reformist left (Democratic Left – DS – and Rifondazione Comunista – RC), this is far too near the truth for comfort. Of course a general strike by millions of workers, even for half a day, might seem like a revolution in Blair’s Britain. But in Italy there have been six such one-day general strikes, since 2001 when Berlusconi, the richest man in Italy, came to power.

Five years of shameless plunder, cuts, falling wages, and servility to George Bush and involvement in his wars. Five years too of resistance, important sectoral strikes, like those of the metalworkers. Five years which included the Genoa 2001 protests and the mass strikes which followed it, the European Social Forum in Florence, and 15 February demonstration – one of the three huge turnouts in Europe and real militant attempts to block the war effort at bases and ports.

The militancy of Italian workers and youth are scarcely to be questioned. Yet in Italy too the main problem is the discrepancy between this militancy, the mass involvement in politics and the appalling leadership.

Despite the six days of action, the leaders of the unions and the left parties have made no attempt to really oust Berlusconi. They may shout: “Buffone!” at him in parliament, but who is the buffoon? He is still the prime minister, and they engage in marching the workers up the hill and back down again, at a slightly less than annual schedule. Above all these leaders, Guglielmo Epifani of the CGIL and Fausto Bertinotti of RC, have done and will do nothing to oust Berlusconi on the streets and in the workplaces.

Of course RC and the CGIL leaders will object that the electorate will chuck out Berlusconi in the spring anyhow. But even if this proves to be true, he has had five years to destroy the social and economic gains of the Italian workers. Secondly, the l’Unione coalition, headed by Romano Prodi, the father of the neoliberal Lisbon agreement, will not be the radical reformist government they are promising their supporters. Already Prodi has dodged any commitment to bring back all the Italian troops from Iraq at once. His government will carry on with “reforms” alright, but not the ones the unions are talking about!

In Rome on 17 November the leaders of the CGIL, CISL and UIL opened negotiations with l’Unione on its electoral programme. “We have indicated our priorities. We have many common objectives and we are all concerned about the level of employment and production in our country,” said Guglielmo Epifani, “We agree on the need to work at a project of extensive reformism.”

The dire economic situation of Italy, the pressures of Italy’s budget deficit, and the need to cut and cut again to meet the demands of the European Union Stability Pact will give him all the excuses he needs to play the role of a “social liberal” (social reformer in words, neoliberal in deeds). Bertinotti and RC say they will hold him to being an “anti-neoliberal".

Like they did with the Olive Tree coalition in the late 1990s? Italian trade unionists, many of whom distrust Prodi, and Rifondazione’s own members, many of whom voted against the coalition, should oppose the class betrayal, which this new coalition – Olive Tree Mark II – represents. They should prepare to fight Prodi as hard as they did Berlusconi.

But, above all, workers need a political alternative that breaks from the ritual of half-day general strikes with no decisive objective. They need an all out general strike to smash the neoliberal “reforms", a major wage hike protected by a restored scala mobile (sliding scale) but on a working class cost of living index, to get all Italian troops out of Iraq immediately and to close of US and Nato bases, and to install a workers’ government, based on mass democratic co-ordinations, created to run the general strike.

Both the post-modernist pantomime of the horizontals (Disobedienti) and the bureaucratic reformism of the RC repeatedly squander the militancy of the working class and the youth. Both are based on a cowardly refusal to take on the ruling class for fear it will resort to the fascism of the 1920s, or the strategy of tension of the 1970s. But if you do not fight to win, to win everything, then you will lose everything. The workers and the youth deserve and desperately need a revolutionary communist party- a section of a new Fifth International.