Most of the information in this article has been gathered from sources such as Il Manifesto and the European Counter Network (a computer network).
In June 1991, 1000 radical grassroots activists from all over Europe gathered in Venice at a meeting called "Build a Europe of the Movements against the Europe of the Bosses".1 The Europe of the bosses was getting richer than ever one year later, 31 July 1992, when the Italian trade unions signed an agreement with the government which abolished what was left of the scala mobile, which is the name given to the mechanism of (partial) wage protection against inflation. This was part of a general attack on working-class conditions which will find full expression in the economic measures approved for 1993 by the Amato government, which aim to cut public spending by around 93,000 billion lire ($1 = 1,000 lire).
The government is freezing recruitment in the public service, stopping any new wage negotiations, ending free health care assistance for sixty-percent of families, and imposing new taxes on houses. The measures attacked a welfare state which, contrary to popular belief, is almost non-existent in Italy compared with other European countries such as Britain or Germany.2
However, the Italy of the bosses, which needs to impose these measures in order to comply with the Europe of the bosses designed with the Maastricht Treaty and in order to satisfy the criteria for monetary union, has found a strong line of resistance in the factories, offices, schools, and streets of Italy's major cities. After the traditional hot summer, a promising hot autumn started to lay down the basis for "a Europe of the movements".
In September, spontaneous strikes broke out in many factories and the demand for a general strike was increasingly heard at the grassroots. The unions were reluctant to call for a national general strike, but in the attempt to dilute the protest they were forced to call a series of regional general strikes, which carry less political weight. Their diluting plans were, however, disappointed.
On 22 September, at the start of the week of protestation in Florence, there were 100,000 demonstrators on the streets during the regional strike in Tuscany. Bruno Trentin, secretary of the ex-"communist" CGIL union, is bombarded with volleys of bolts, eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, etc., and he is forced to end his speech very quickly. Later, union representatives were to talk about a provocation and minoritarian "autonomist extremists", in an attempt to minimize the incident and recuperate credibility. But the fact is that although the "bombardment" came from a well-organized section of the square, the entire square did not attempt any defence of the people who are supposed to be their leadership. This was a sign of deep rooted mistrust.
The trade union leaders got the message - the next day at the public meeting for the regional strike in Milan they came prepared, with transparent plastic shields! A leader of the "socialist" UIL union was only able to speak for four minutes before being forced to leave the stage. The self-organized workers, including the Struggle Committees of Breda Fucine, COBAS Ansaldo di Sesto S. Giovanni3, COBAS Alfa Romeo, and the Federation of United Metal Mechanic Workers, held an alternative rally. Another tactic was used in Turin (80,000 in the streets) on September 25th, where there were great expectations for an impressive turnout by FIAT workers. For the first time since the defeat of the early 80s and after weeks of direct foreman intimidation,4 Fiat-Miafori was stopped. The union tactic this time was to begin the rally well before the workers had a chance to enter the main square. This, however, did not save the union speakers from what by this time had become the traditional volleys of vegetables and bolts. The rally was concluded in a rush, with half of the "participants" still having to enter the square and looking around disoriented in search of the traditional ending. When the empty stage was taken over by a group of rap musicians from the social centers,5 the riot police launched a violent attack, making arrests, beating people up and smashing the musical equipment. The collection which was organized on the spot to compensate the band realized three times as much as the damage caused by the cops - an encouraging indication of the growing solidarity among different sectors of the demo.
Many other demonstrations were held, with similar outbursts of anger directed at the unions' collaborationist policies in Naples (80,000), Bologna, Bari, Genova, Parma, Padova, Venezia, Taranto, Brescia, and Bergamo. What was clear at the end of the week of agitation was that workers were demanding a countrywide general strike. it is also important to emphasize that the street protests against the unions were indicative of a big gap in the meaning that the union officials and the grassroots gave to strike action. For the union leaders and the exponents of the PDS (ex-"communist" party), the strike is not against the policy of austerity as such, but against its "unfairness" which leaves most of the tax evaders once again protected against sacrifices. However, for the grassroots the most important unfairness is the fact that once again they are being called to pay what they are not prepared to pay under any conditions.
SECOND ROUND: OCTOBER 2ND
3 million workers participated in the national public sector strike. Meanwhile, it was time for the general strike of the central Italian region Lazio. In Rome, the unions were very much prepared this time. Meetings were held between unions and the ministry of internal affairs to organize ways of controlling the rank-and-file anger. The result was the deployment of a security force including 10,000 riot police and union stewards. The police attacked indiscriminately - in many occasions following information provided by union stewards. The clashes began as soon as workers started to gather for the demo early in the morning, and continued through the day as union stewards and riot cops attempted to isolate the groups of workers that were behind anti-government and anti-union banners. Piazza San Giovanni, where the demo was supposed to end in the traditional rally, was completely militarized. To avoid the by-now traditional volleys of vegetables and bolts, the unions this time chose a topographical strategy. Between the big stage set up of the rally and the first rows of the workers there were about 200 meters of empty space, symbolizing the moral and political distance between the workers and the union bureaucracies.
Despite the fact that large numbers of workers were being prevented from taking the square by the police, and despite the violent beating of people who fell to the ground (sometimes 20 against one), the contestation was carried on. The image of the union which resulted was an image of total de-linkage from the real needs of the workers they claim to "represent". In the afternoon, about 20,000 workers responded to the appeal of the COBAS and marched without incidents throughout Rome, ending with a rally in which numerous workers spoke and called for further mobilizations and opposition to government, official trade unions, and bosses.
Meanwhile, news that many union stewards (traditionally coming from the ranks of volunteer union members) had been paid for their services increased the embarrassment of union bureaucrats.
On October 13th the unions called a four-hour national general strike. They did it without due notice, so that the public sector workers could not legally participate (by law public sector workers have to give 15 days notice before striking). The attempt was therefore to prevent solidarity between workers in the private and public sectors, where the presence of self-organized workers (COBAS) is strongest.
In the days before the strike, the unions made every effort to direct it not against the government but against the maneuvering in the economy. The risk for them was the possibility of the government falling, and then an ensuing political instability which would make management of the cuts impossible. Many workers were angry because they wanted an 8-hour general strike. There was also a lot of frustration in the public sector, as workers there wanted to participate. Before the strike there had been numerous spontaneous strikes, mostly in the North, but also in the South. There were many road blocks as well as railroads being occupied. Many internal demos in Fiat-Miafori car plant, a tactic not seen in that factory for the past 15 years. Although the unions called the strike, they were forced to follow the workers. These spontaneous strikes were happening at the same time as the government was voting "la fiducia" for the financial law. (??) The workers' slogans were different from those of the unions. They were calling for the repeal of the shameful agreement signed by the unions on July 31st, which abolished the scala mobile at the eve of one month factory shut-down for summer holiday. Many public sector workers in Bologna and Milan took part in the strike, in defiance of the ban.
Some days before the general strike in Rome, there was a meeting of autonomous workers in order to prepare a self-organized general strike. After the demos in Rome on October 2nd, in which the police attacked students, a self-organized demonstration was made there by high-school students, university students and workers. The banner at the head of the march read: "Self-Organized Students and Workers Against Government, Bosses, and Unions" It was a success.
At the moment, the unions are in deep shit. Numerous internal meetings were held to decide where union speakers might be able to speak in order to make it appear that the situation was still under control. Trentin (ex-"communist" ideologue) was unable to speak in Bologna where the presence of the PDS is still strong. In Milan, the union leader was hit by a bolt in the face. In Naples, COBAS, Autonomists and members of the "Communist" Rifondazione stopped the official rally and organized an alternative rally on the other side of the square, followed by an unauthorized demo through the streets of the city. THere were also disturbances in Padova and Florence.
The number of volunteer stewards in the unions is declining. They are forced to recruit stewards from among the unemployed for 50,000 lira a day ($45). Morale among union bureaucrats is low. They have lost all credibility. In Bologna groups of workers came with musical instruments to play popular songs, and also a requiem for the unions. What Del Turco (CGIL) told the journalists after being booed down in Palermo is emblematic: "Imagine if there weren't this trade union in Italy. Who would be able to channel and moderate the workers' anger?"
That's right! Who is able to channel it now?
1 For a review of this international meeting, see the pilot issue of London Notes, June 1992.
2 For example, in Italy there is no income support or unemployment benefits, although the "cassa integrazione", that is generally about 80% of wages for the laid-off, run out after aftera while and has to be renegotiated. Minimum pensions are of the order of 400,000 lire ($ 350) a month.
3 COBAS are grass-roots workers' committees rejecting the moderate policies of the official trade unions. They are controlled from below, with mass assemblies taking the important decisions. They are especially strong in the public sector and in the past years have resisted the state's plans for restructuring. The railways sections of COBAS have been at the heart of numerous strikes since 1988, while the schools COBAS were to the fore in action to win a much improved contract for teachers in 1989-90. They are now starting to spread also in the private sector.
4 In the second week of September, for example, two workers were suspended for reading the left-wing newspaper Il Manifesto.
5 The past years have seen a growing spread of underground groups in Italy which play on black american rap rhythms and Italian lyrics with heavy political content. This culture is closely tied with that of the "autonomiste communisti