Rome: 3 million fight for workers' rights

Submitted by on 29 March, 2002 - 3:51

Three million workers took to the streets of Rome on 23 March. In what was probably Italy's biggest ever demonstration, they protested against government plans to scrap job protection laws. A general strike has been called by Italy's three trade union federations for Tuesday 16 April.

Liberazione, the newspaper of Italy's socialist party Rifondazione, called Saturday's demonstration "extraordinary". The day would go down in history.

But this is just the start of a battle between unions and government. President Silvio Berlusconi wants to scrap a law known as Article 18, which protects the job security of workers in firms with more than 15 employees - more than 40% of Italy's workforce. Along with Tony Blair, Berlusconi is leading moves within the European Union towards a more "flexible", less secure labour market. If the Italian unions can derail his plans, it will be a victory for workers across Europe.

The 16 April general strike will be the first full-day general strike in Italy for nearly 20 years. The last was in 1982, over the scrapping of the link between wages and prices, although there was a four-hour general strike during the 1994 Berlusconi government over economic restructuring.

Just three days before 23 March, though, it looked as if the demonstration might be called off. On Tuesday 19th, Marco Biagi, an economics professor and government advisor who had drafted the changes to Article 19, was shot dead by a left-wing terrorist group. The "Red Brigades for the Building of the Fighting Communist Party" said they had killed him in order to shift forward the class struggle and to put autonomous proletarian political interests on a strong base.

The government immediately called on the unions to call off any actions. The leaders of the moderate federations, CSIL (which has a Catholic base) and UIL (social-democratic), wavered. But CGIL, the biggest and most left-wing of the unions - formerly dominated by the Communist Party - decided to press ahead with its mass demonstration on Saturday 23rd. It added a slogan condemning terrorism and cancelled a carnival which had been planned to run alongside the demo. And three million people took to the streets.

The response from Berlusconi's allies was panicked and furious. Several government ministers tried to pin the blame for Biagi's killing on the unions. Reform Minister and leader of the right-wing Northern League Umberto Bossi said the terrorists were "the children of an exasperated protest from the trade unions". Defence Minister Antonio Martino called the demonstration "a threat to democracy". The unions - CSIL and UIL now firmly on side again - refused to join talks with the government and employers‚ organisation Confindustria until the ministers apologised. But a sheepish apology from Berlusconi himself was derided as too little, too late; the unions walked out and the talks were cancelled.

Already there is sniping from Berlusconi's coalition partners. The demonstration has given a massive boost to the Italian left, which lost last year's general election badly and has not revived since. CGIL leader Sergio Cofferati is being hailed as something of a saviour, and indeed the CGIL leadership thus far appears to have been both principled and tactically clever. But the government is very determined. To back down after Biagi's murder would, to them, seem like a victory for the terrorists. The unions will have to hold their nerve if they are to win this battle.

Confindustria is due to meet in Parma on 12-13 April, and Berlusconi will speak to this bosses'‚ conference: there may be more protests here before the general strike. But the test will come on Tuesday 16th.

Trade unionists and socialists in the UK would do well to watch events in Italy. Last Saturday's demonstration shows what can be done by a trade union movement with a leadership prepared to take on the government and lead its members in a fight. And this is a fight for workers across Europe: to defend our rights against the neoliberal agenda of the EU. Its first demonstration has more than matched the mobilisations around the French strikes of 1995. This is a model for a European workers' movement.

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