Marching in defence of article 18

Last weekend’s mass mobilisation in Rome was inspiring, writes Toby Abse. But will trade union militancy be enough?

The enormous demonstration, generally estimated to have been one-million-strong,1 organised by the leftwing CGIL trade union confederation2 in Rome on Saturday October 25 shows once again the continuing strength of working class resistance in Italy.

The CGIL - Italy’s largest union grouping - had conducted an all-out mobilisation, laying on well over 2,000 coaches from every region of Italy, as well as chartering seven special trains. In addition many thousands of workers, students and pensioners found their own way to Rome. Despite the high levels of unemployment - first and foremost youth unemployment - at levels not seen since 1977; despite the continuing and seemingly endless recession;3 and despite prime minister Matteo Renzi’s transformation of the Partito Democratico (PD) into a bulwark of neoliberal ideology, the Italian labour movement will not allow article 18 of the workers’ statute to be abolished without a serious fight. The 1970 workers’ statute was a major gain for the workers’ movement and, even after labour minister Elsa Fornero’s modifications in 2012, still gives workers on permanent contracts in larger workplaces some degree of protection against arbitrary dismissal.

The lack of any real will by the other two major trade union confederations - the Catholic CISL4 and the secular, centrist UIL5 - to defend their own members through a joint campaign may well have delayed the start of the CGIL’s autumn offensive. CGIL secretary Susanna Camusso quite understandably felt obliged to spend time making a final appeal to her counterparts about the virtues of trade union unity against the bosses, but ultimately she was quite prepared to go it alone - the earlier struggles against the attacks by Fornero and then prime minister Mario Monti in 2012 had taught her how unreliable the other confederations’ leaders were as allies.

The demonstration seems to have healed some rifts within the CGIL itself, creating a greater degree of unity between Camusso and Maurizio Landini, the secretary of FIOM, the engineering workers’ union, than had been the case for some time - the last CGIL congress had been dominated by very public wrangling between FIOM and Camusso, largely because FIOM felt she had put insufficient effort into defending their right to organise in Fiat plants. The ruthless Canadian-Italian Fiat boss, Sergio Marchionne, had removed that right as part of a sweetheart deal with the engineering affiliates of the less militant CISL and UIL, in an attempt to replicate the industrial relations of the 1950s.

Whilst Landini may be more prone to rhetoric about general strikes and even factory occupations, Camusso had been far more consistent in her detestation of Renzi, with whom Landini naively imagined some dialogue was possible. This was an egregious error that reflects very poorly indeed on his judgements about the identity of the class enemy - something of which Camusso always has an instinctive grasp. Camusso’s loathing for the arrogant young neoliberal seems to have the same visceral intensity as the hostility she felt towards the patronising and self-righteous former university professors, Monti and Fornero, back in 2012.

In her speech from the platform in Piazza San Giovanni she did not mention the prime minister by name, but said: “If somebody [ie, Renzi] thinks this is a little flickering flame, he is wrong. And he should not delude himself that it will be enough to ask for a vote of confidence in parliament, because we are here and we will be here again - with coordinated strikes and with the general strike!” Since large sections of the demonstrators had been chanting “Renzi, Renzi, vaffanculo6 on their way to the square, the opening sentences went down very well with the crowd, and the mention of the general strike was greeted with thunderous applause.

However, it should be pointed out that, contrary to the hopes of some of the more militant trade unionists, FIOM members in particular, she did not actually name the day - even if a well informed journalist from the centre-left La Repubblica forecast it would be scheduled for late November or early December.7 It may well be that Camusso felt it would be better to delay discussing the practicalities of a general strike with her affiliated unions until after the meeting scheduled for Monday October 27 between Renzi and the trade union leaders to discuss the budget (a meeting that she subsequently described as “surreal”, when her call for a wealth tax to finance job creation was predictably ignored by a government dead set on implementing cuts at the expense of the poor).

After all, there are some CGIL leaders with illusions in Renzi - most notably Carla Cantona, the leader of the three-million-strong pensioners’ union, the SPI. Cantona, although she admitted “a sort of solitude in respect of a party that stays on the other side”, still publicly opposed the notion of a general strike from the platform at the demonstration. It has to be said that pensioners are far better organised in Italy than in the UK because of the close ties between the SPI and the CGIL, which give the former a strength that our own Pensioners’ Convention lacks. As a result the SPI did play a significant role in the march, but it should be emphasised that the correspondents of both La Repubblica and the centre-right daily Corriere della Sera were struck by the huge number of young people on the demonstration.


This completely undermines the mendacious narrative propounded by Renzi at his Florentine weekend gathering at the Leopolda. The premier, in total defiance of reality, claimed that the CGIL demonstration was a gathering of veterans, suggesting that they were the sort of people who tried to put gettoni (metal tokens that used to be used in Italy’s public telephones) into iPhones or imagined that digital cameras required rolls of film.

Renzi’s utterly despicable attempts to undermine any notion of class solidarity by stressing generational divides or playing on the gap between those on permanent contracts and the more casualised sectors of the workforce is increasingly reminiscent of British Tory cabinet ministers. However, in the Italian case such ‘divide and rule’ tactics have only limited success. It is quite clear that many of the young people on the demonstration were students, unemployed or precariously employed, rather than full-time workers on permanent contracts in large workplaces, but there is still a widespread realisation that article 18 has a symbolic value for the whole class, even if its protection does not extend to the whole class (and even at the height of Italian working class power in the 1970s it never did).

One of the most impressive signs of the CGIL’s complete transcendence of petty sectionalism and the conscious overcoming of the division between blue-collar workers and those employed in the cultural industries was the prominence on the platform of both the workers of the Thyssen Krupp steel works in Terni, whose German employers have made 500 redundant, and the members of the orchestra and chorus of the Rome Opera, which faces 180 redundancies. The Opera chorus sung ‘Nessun dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot and met with an enthusiastic response from the crowd. As the tenor, Fabrizio Menotta, told La Repubblica, “I would never have imagined that something like this could have happened to me in my life. But there is not much difference between tenors and blue-collar workers - this country is dismantling both culture and industry.” He went on: “Do I feel a privileged person? My own privilege is exercising a beautiful trade. Our strikes? It is the only means we have to say to everybody that there is a precise project: the Rome Opera is only the first case. Here they want to kill off culture.”8

Press observers remarked on the sea of red banners in the Piazza San Giovanni. This was not the only sign of continuity with the traditions of the workers’ movement. The classic songs of the Italian labour movement - ‘Bandiera rossa’ and the partisan anthem ‘Bella ciao’, along with the favourite song of the 1968ers, ‘Contessa’, were all sung by hundreds of thousands.

It would have been impossible to find a more marked contrast to the spurious modernity of Renzi’s contemporaneous gathering at the Florentine Leopolda, which was dominated by enough “filthy rich” men to have gladdened the heart of Peter Mandelson. The most repellent of all Renzi’s courtiers and chief financial sponsor of the annual Leopolda gatherings is former Morgan Stanley merchant banker and current managing director of the private equity fund, Algebris (which Renzi’s predecessor as PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani, alleged uses the Cayman Islands as a tax haven), Davide Serra, who seized the opportunity to advocate a total ban on all strikes by public-sector workers. Other honoured guests included Andrea Guerra, former managing director of Luxotica; the king of cashmere, Bruno Cucinelli; Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli; and Oscar Farinetti, the founder of the upmarket food chain, Eataly.

After these smug and self-regarding capitalists had recounted their success stories from the platform in a manner that Samuel Smiles would have adored, Gennaro Migliore and 11 other parliamentary defectors from the soft-left Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL) chose the Leopolda to publicly announce their adherence to the PD. These shameless renegades did not appear to be remotely discomforted by the very public boycott of the Leopolda event by the PD’s vestigial left wing - and indeed by not particularly leftwing PD veterans like former Christian Democrat Rosy Bindi. Renzi personally denounced Bindi by saying, “You can call the Leopolda ‘embarrassing’,9 but I will not allow that ruling class to take back the PD and take it back from 41% to 25%.”

Whilst quite a number of the PD minority boycotted the Leopolda and in most cases participated in the CGIL demonstration, the chances of a substantial split seem to be fading. Only three PD senators walked out of the chamber rather than give Renzi a vote of confidence over the Jobs Act motion, which in effect, despite its calculated vagueness, gave the neoliberal premier a blank cheque to scrap article 18. The one PD parliamentarian who may break before long is the maverick, Pippo Civati. He was the third-placed candidate in the primary that enthroned Renzi as party leader, and is a younger figure of Renzi’s own generation who was once close to the prime minister. By contrast traditional ex-‘official’ communist apparatchiks like Gianni Cuperlo seem prepared to accept any humiliation to remain within the party.

Although SEL, Rifondazione Comunista and an assortment of other small communist groups all participated in the great gathering in the Piazza San Giovanni, the lack of a substantial united political force capable of representing the working class in the way Rifondazione did between 1991 and 2008 remains a serious weakness in the defensive struggle around article 18. Militant trade unionism alone is not enough.

Camusso’s genuinely social democratic outlook is both her strength and her weakness - she is a trade union bureaucrat who genuinely wants to defend the working class and, unlike the apparently militant Landini, has no desire whatever to be accepted as an insider by the neoliberal political establishment, which she loathes with every fibre of her being. She is nonetheless a trade union bureaucrat, which means she may flinch in the end. That is what she did in 2012 following pressure from the PD under Bersani. But then the PD still had some organic link with the working class, of course - a link which Renzi’s followers now want to remove altogether.


1. See, for instance, the banner headline of the mainstream centre-left daily La Repubblica on October 26: “Un milione con la Cgil, sara sciopero”. Sources close to Renzi, anxious to minimise the demonstration’s importance, later came up with a lower figure of 200,000.

2. During the cold war years the majority of the CGIL’s leadership group had been aligned with the Partito Comunista Italiano, with a minority supporting the Partito Socialista Italiano.

3. Italian government forecasts for growth rates in the coming year are regularly being revised downwards and Italy’s oldest bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, failed the European Union ‘stress test’ a few days ago.

4. Historically this was tied to the old Democrazia Cristiana throughout the cold war period.

5. This used to be linked to the old Partito Socialista Democratico Italiano and the US Republicans during the cold war, recruiting large numbers of civil servants. In so far as it had any presence in industry, it was regarded as a yellow union - particularly in Fiat’s Turin factories.

6. “Renzi, Renzi, fuck off.”

7. La Repubblica October 26 2014.

8. At one stage during the Leopolda gathering last weekend Renzi engaged in one of his habitual attacks on intellectuals. Many have remarked that, although Renzi churns out poorly written books, he rarely reads anything of significance - all his ‘cultural’ references are to low-brow television programmes, in particular those found on Berlusconi’s channels.

9. Bindi’s phrase, which clearly hit home.