by Lucy Clement
On 5 July the Italian government, bosses' organisation Confindustria and the two moderate union federations, CISL and UIL, cut a deal. The most militant union, CGIL, rejected it. News of the deal was met by a walkout by car workers at Fiat and by meetings and protests in dozens of factories.
Under the deal, the unions agreed to the suspension of Article 18 of Italy's labour statutes for three years. Article 18 protects workers in firms with more than 15 employees from unfair dismissal. The government had wanted to scrap it entirely: the three-year suspension was, supposedly, a compromise. A deal on tax involves a cut in the top rate of tax from 45 to 33%. The social security deal cuts the equivalent of employers' National Insurance Contributions. Every concession is made by the workers: every gain goes to the rich and to business.
Fortunately there is opposition to the spinelessness of the UIL and CISL leaders. CGIL is planning a new general strike for the autumn, and it is collecting signatures - five million are needed - to force a referendum to save Article 18.
Playing a key role in the referendum campaign is Italy's united left party, Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation). Rifondazione was arguing for the referendum tactic before the deal was signed, proposing a series of referendums on social and environmental issues. The campaign provides a political counterpoint to the industrial action being organised - there are to be a series of short regional general strikes in the run-up to the next national general strike - and is a means of engaging the unemployed, students and those who work in the black economy in the unions' struggle.
CGIL is demanding:
- no cut in top rate of tax
- no two-tier education system and no expansion of religious teaching in state schools
- the levelling up of unemployment benefit to European levels
- no cuts to the equivalent of employers' NICS
- stop attacks on immigrants
- a meaningful development plan for the South, where youth unemployment currently stands at 51%.
Can the unions do it?
The last General Strike - a united effort between the three union federations - was hugely impressive. A demonstration in March called by the CGIL attracted three million people. Public opposition to the Berlusconi government crystallised around the killing of demonstrator Carlo Giuliani by police during last summer's anti-G8 protest at Genoa - and has been carried into the strike movement. Rifondazione argues that, without the Genoa protests, this year's demonstrations and strikes would not have been so powerful.
Berlusconi has also been feeling the heat. On 3 July one of his key allies in government, Interior Minister Claudio Scajola, resigned after he was caught making disparaging comments about assassinated Labour Ministry advisor Marco Biagi. The left had been pressing for Scajola's resignation for almost a year over his handling of the policing at the Genoa protests, and although that was not the issue which finally brought him down, the fact he is gone is a source of some satisfaction to the left - and leaves Berlusconi one credible ally down in his coalition.
However, Berlusconi remains determined to be Italy's Margaret Thatcher, to take on the unions and win. The fact that he has pulled off a deal with the moderate unions is undoubtedly a problem - although March's three-million strong demonstration in Rome was called by CGIL alone after the other unions pulled out under government pressure, and shows that CGIL can act effectively alone.
Rifondazione describes the political situation as promising, welcoming CGIL's attitude of no compromise. It is calling for greater links between the unions and Italy's growing anti-capitalist "social forum" movement - and for a co-ordinated campaign between European unions for a minimum EU wage and a maximum 35-hour week. If the Italian workers can take on and beat Berlusconi, they will be well-placed indeed to lead that fight.