A post-Covid-19 reckoning
Despite the presence of social democrats in his government, Mario Draghi is more than willing to preside over an anti-working class offensive, writes Toby Abse
Mario Draghi’s ‘national unity’ government - whose main political components are the Partito Democratico (PD), Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), the Lega and Forza Italia - has begun the attack on the organised working class that I predicted when it was sworn in back in February.
The two most obvious examples are the ‘Simplification’ decree that Draghi’s cabinet endorsed on May 28, and the forthcoming end of the Covid-related block on sackings that was announced a few days earlier.1 However, the general drift towards a ruthless neoliberal approach was obvious from late April, when a rather reckless and premature decision was taken to proceed with a gradual reopening of bars, restaurants, shopping centres, gyms, sports grounds, cinemas and so forth (virtually everything apart from discos, whose previous reopening had proved so fatal in August 2020). This was despite the fact that the infection and death rates were still much higher than those of the UK at that time, and the percentage of the population that had been vaccinated was much lower than in the UK, US or Israel.
This phased lifting of Covid-related restrictions was presented as a “reasonable risk”, but what was never openly admitted by Draghi and his allies in the mainstream media was that the loss of thousands more, largely elderly, lives2 was regarded as a price worth paying to increase the profits of the industrialists and, it has to be added, of those vocal sections of the petty bourgeoisie whose ever-more tumultuous street protests and occasional outright defiance of restrictions on the reopening of restaurants, etc were being encouraged by the Lega - whose leader, Matteo Salvini, had openly aligned himself with ‘no mask’ extremists in summer 2020.
Roberto Speranza, the left social democratic Liberi e Uguali (LeU) health minister, has always tried to act as a restraining influence on the more extreme advocates of rapid reopening - the contrast with the UK’s callous and totally incompetent health minister, Matt Hancock, could not be more marked. Although Speranza received some degree of backing from most of the PD and M5S ministers, the Lega, Forza Italia and Draghi’s hand-picked technocratic ministers in charge of the economy, infrastructure, ecological transition and digital transition did their best to undermine him.3
Draghi eventually made a public statement (probably an insincere one) supporting Speranza, when the Lega - which Draghi was so eager to get inside his government in February - joined the neo-fascist opposition party Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) in calling for the health minister’s immediate resignation. However, Draghi had done a great deal to weaken him by very abruptly sacking two key officials, who had done an enormous amount to help Speranza during the earlier phase of the epidemic when Giuseppe Conte was prime minister. Domenico Arcuri, who had long experience in managing state-controlled industries, was replaced as commissar for the pandemic emergency by general Francesco Paolo Figliulo, who allegedly had considerable experience in army logistics. During his daily inspections of vaccination centres and the like, the general always wears full army uniform, including a rather ridiculous feathered hat, emblematic of his regiment. At any rate in Italy, Figliulo’s every word is treated with reverence by establishment papers like Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, and only the pro-M5S Il Fatto Quotidiano mockingly dubs him ‘The Generalissimo’.
However, such obvious stupidity was unlikely to get Figliulo sacked, given that Draghi’s judgement would have been in question if the Generalissimo had shared the fate which the neoliberal prime minister has in mind for so many blameless Italian workers from July.
Before discussing the imminent wave of mass redundancies and the reaction of the trade unions, I will say something about the ‘Simplification’ decree. This is very closely linked to the ‘National Recovery and Resilience Plan’, as it is officially known. The recovery plan is based on the money Conte secured for Italy at the July 2020 European Union summit, in the face of sustained and intense opposition from the ‘Frugal Five’ (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Austria4), and more covert resistance by the Germans.5 Conte was only able to get this money, which will be secured by marketing a version of the very euro bonds that the Bundesbank had opposed for years, by building a coalition of Mediterranean countries that included France.6
This alliance with the French must be seen as a considerable diplomatic achievement by Conte, given not just the traditionally dominant Franco-German axis in the EU, but also the way that Luigi di Maio, the foreign minister in the second Conte government, had, during his period as joint deputy prime minister under Conte’s first administration, done his best to alienate the French government in 2019 by publicly consorting with the most extreme rightwing elements among the Gilets Jaunes.
Since the July 2020 EU summit, the proportion of the recovery fund allocated to Italy seems to have shrunk slightly from the original $206 billion. More significantly, a number of cast-iron conditions have crept in - not just in terms of the speed with which Italy must spend the money, but also a number of ‘reforms’ Italy must implement in order to receive the grants and loans involved. The latter include a demand by the EU Commission for more deregulation. This to some extent explains the ‘Simplification’ decree and the uglier provisions it contains. Although Conte himself did come up with an earlier version of that decree, commentators interested in workers’ rights, environmental protection or both all regard Draghi’s version as even worse.
Since Conte spent his last months in office completely bogged down in fighting a losing battle against Matteo Renzi’s treachery, it is hard to judge whether he would in other circumstances have made more of a stand against neoliberal fanaticism, since he comes from the very quarters (Frugal Five, right wing of CDU/CSU) that opposed the very idea of the recovery plan in July 2020. But perhaps he might have done so, given his reliance on Nicola Zingaretti’s social democratic wing of the PD, and the left social democrats of Roberto Speranza’s LeU. In any event, Draghi, as the man behind all the Italian privatisations of the 1990s, and the co-author - with the outgoing head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet - of the notorious August 2011 letter to the Italian government stuffed with neoliberal demands, was only too happy to deregulate.
The ‘Simplification’ decree removes many environmental safeguards, and has recently been attacked by both the Italian Greens and Legambiente (Environmental League) - Italy’s main environmental pressure group - for doing so. Whilst this sort of environmental deregulation does in itself put workers’ health and safety at risk - since any chemical pollution of the air, soil and water supply is likely to have very adverse effects on workers, whether in their workplace or in their places of residence (the latter are all too often near oil refineries, steelworks, chemical plants and the like), it is the decree’s provisions about sub-contracting that have given rise to most trade union concerns.
Although pressure from the main trade union confederations - the CGIL, CISL and UIL - in the last days before the May 28 cabinet meeting, which finalised the terms of the decree, secured some concessions - particularly the removal of the provision that said contracts had to be awarded to the contender that offered the lowest possible price, regardless of other considerations - the decree is still full of potential hazards.7 It is bad enough that the legal limit on the proportion of the total contract that can be awarded to subcontractors will now rise from 40% to 50% for the time being, but what is worse is that from October 31 there will be no limit.
Obviously, even if the Italian government speeds up the tendering process to ensure that the first tranche of EU cash arrives this summer, the bulk of the contracting and subcontracting is bound to occur after October 31. This change is in accordance with a recent - and absolutely appalling - EU Commission decree on subcontracting. Some safeguards for workers’ rights - such as sub-contractors having to pay the same salary as the original contractors, and having to conform to nationally recognised wage rates for the relevant sector - have now been inserted into Draghi’s ‘Simplification’ decree, but how enforceable they will be is another matter.
Apart from the likelihood of subcontractors paying lower wages, forcing workers to work longer hours and demanding an intensified work rate, regardless of health and safety, there is another danger that, whilst not unknown elsewhere in sectors like construction, is particularly prevalent in Italy. This is that subcontractors could easily be a front for organised crime groups, particularly the Sicilian Mafia and the Calabrian Ndrangheta. Needless to say, this point has been made very forcefully by anti-Mafia associations in civil society, such as Libera, but Draghi’s cabinet - or more accurately its key members in charge of the recovery plan - seem to be turning a blind eye to it.
Given that such criminal groups have a record, going back many decades, of killing particularly militant trade unionists and intimidating the workforce of any company they control, it is now quite possible that a fair proportion of legally employed workers would be in no stronger position than the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who supply the bulk of the agricultural labour force in the fruit and vegetable sector in Sicily and the south.
The lifting of the block on sackings after June 30 now seems almost certain. The main trades union confederations had called for the kind of extension that Conte had granted them on a number of occasions during the Covid pandemic, in the belief (or hope) that by October 31 a general reform of Italian welfare benefits would have cushioned workers who had lost both Covid-related layoff pay (Cassa Integrazione) and any chance of returning to their old jobs. The PD labour minister, Andrea Orlando, who belongs to the party’s social democratic wing, had attempted to devise a compromise, which, while not giving the unions as much as they wanted, would have at least protected workers until August 28. Orlando’s scheme would have cost the employers nothing, since the state would have continued to have borne the full burden of paying the Covid-related layoff pay, provided the employers undertook not to sack the workers before August 28, and thus to theoretically keep their jobs open for the time being.
Orlando brought the proposal to a Cabinet meeting, which endorsed it, and Draghi gave no indication of dissent from this decision at his subsequent press conference, at which Orlando explained it in public. Then the daily paper of Confindustria, the Italian CBI - Il Sole 24 (roughly the equivalent of the UK’s Financial Times) - ran a front page with the headline, ‘Orlando’s deceit’, and the myth was created that Orlando had somehow sprung the idea on his colleagues - or inserted it into a decree behind their backs.
What became clear within a week was that the EU Commission, including the former PD prime minister of Italy, and current EU economics commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni, was right behind the Confindustria. It published a document singling out Italy for attack over its Covid-related block on sackings over the last 15 months. The trade union confederations have nonetheless continued to call for an extension of the block until October 31, and have lobbied what they assume to be the two most sympathetic of the major parties within Draghi’s coalition: namely the M5S and PD.
Whilst the unions have the full support of Speranza and all the left social democrats of LeU, such solidarity has only a symbolic importance. Although immediately after a meeting with the union leaders M5S seemed to back an extension of the block - which, after all, is clearly associated with Giuseppe Conte’s second premiership - after a subsequent meeting with Confindustria’s leaders they appeared to back down. At the moment of writing, they seem to support an extension until September 1.
Whilst a meeting between PD secretary Enrico Letta and the union leaders came to a premature end when the unexpected news of the sudden death of Gugliemo Epifani, a former CGIL general secretary, was announced, Letta’s subsequent comments suggest that the most he will push for is a continuing block on sackings in certain limited sectors, such as textiles, shoe manufacture and fashion, where the employers acknowledge greater economic difficulties.
It ought to be pointed out that the decree (Sostegni B), within which the June 30 deadline is contained is only due for parliamentary discussion in mid-July, so that even if parliament eventually amends it to reinstate the block in certain sectors for a limited period, ruthless employers will have a wonderful window of opportunity to carry out mass sackings.
The previous prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, had extended this block several times under trade union pressure, which was one of the main reasons why Confindustria (The Italian CBI) was so eager to see his government brought down.↩︎
The daily death rate on May 28 was still 126. While it fell below 100 on most occasions in late May/early June, for many days after the lifting of restrictions it was still 300 or more.↩︎
Andrea Orlando, the social democratic PD minister of labour, and Dario Franceschini, the PD culture minister, were more reliable allies within the cabinet than the ‘ex-Renzian’ and rabidly Atlanticist PD defence minister, Lorenzo Guerini.↩︎
It is worth noting that a number of these governments are led by nominal Social Democrats, but they are as vehemently opposed to any egalitarian redistribution mechanism within the EU as their more openly rightist Dutch and Austrian counterparts.↩︎
Angela Merkel’s decision to address an EU summit earlier in the year, at which such proposals were first mooted (in German, rather than in the English that has become the EU’s lingua franca), is a clear indication that German nationalist reluctance to move towards EU-wide fiscal federalism is not the exclusive domain of that wing of the CDU/CSU that looks towards the AfD rather than the SPD as allies in the near future.↩︎
My point here is that the so-called PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) would have had no chance of shifting the Germans without French help.↩︎
Although Maurizio Landini, the general secretary of the leftwing CGIL, was prepared to threaten the Draghi government with a general strike against the original version, his more moderate counterparts in charge of the CISL and UIL were lukewarm about this idea and cannot be depended on in any potential future strike designed to extract further concessions.↩︎