Three-hour general strike forces concessions

Italian workers are determined to defend their pensions, writes Toby Abse

The general strike of Monday December 12 - the first involving all three major trade union confederations for six years - even if it was, unfortunately, only a symbolic three hours at the end of the working day, is the first clear indication of serious working class resistance to the vicious neoliberal austerity measures being imposed by Mario Monti’s unelected government of bankers and technocrats.

It is very heartening that this strike appears to be the beginning and not the end of a confrontation between the three union centres and the government over pensions. An eight-hour public-sector general strike has been called by the CGIL, CISL and UIL for Monday December 19, and is planned to involve all the workers in public transport and essential services who were excluded from participation in the December 12 walkout, even if its limitation to the public sector will mean that it will not have the same direct impact on industry as this week’s strike.

It is clear that the pressure from below, from the working class itself (or at least from the more militant sections of it), on the rival trade union bureaucracies is absolutely crucial to the transcendence - however temporary and partial it might prove to be - of the long-standing division between the more combative CGIL and the more collaborationist CISL and UIL, which not only had regular meetings with Berlusconi and his ministers behind the back of the CGIL, but were quite prepared to reach agreements with the employers at the CGIL’s expense. The most notorious recent ‘no-strike’ deal was struck in the Fiat plants and this excluded FIOM - the CGIL’s engineering affiliate, which generally takes a position well to the left of CGIL general secretary Susanna Camusso - from any official representation inside the company. Originally the CISL and UIL had called a two-hour general strike of their own for December 12, without consulting the CGIL at all. The CGIL had reacted to what it regarded as a devious and demagogic attempt to wrong-foot it by calling an independent four-hour general strike for the same day. Eventually on December 7[1] the ludicrous scenario of two parallel and partially overlapping general strikes was averted by a meeting between the three general secretaries - Luigi Angeletti (UIL), Raffaele Bonanni (CISL) and Susanna Camusso (CGIL) - which reached a compromise on a three-hour joint general strike and a common set of demands to the government for alterations to the austerity package.

It is significant, both in terms of Monti’s style - which is more thoughtful and far less gratuitously confrontational than Berlusconi’s - and in terms of the balance of forces, that the new prime minister, together with his ministers, were willing to meet the three union leaders, as well as Giovanni Centrella of the more rightwing UGL (a confederation whose origins can be traced to unions close to the now defunct neo-fascist MSI) on December 11 for talks designed to avert the general strike. There was some talk of concessions on both the upper threshold for those pensions that would still benefit from the traditional system of indexation in 2012, and on lowering the rates of IMU/ICI (house tax) for poorer families. However, given what Monti presented as the absolute necessity of keeping the total austerity package at €30 billion, it was far from clear what further cuts or additional taxes would be introduced to cover the gap created by the proposed concessions, which in practice meant that there was a certain fuzziness as to precisely what was on the table.

Moreover, Camusso, who sent out a stream of tweets from the meeting[2] - very probably in order to avoid any shoddy compromise by Angeletti and Bonanni - made it clear in a subsequent interview with La Repubblica that a revision of pension indexations and of the IMU on first homes were not enough: “And we have also said this. There is a problem of quantity in the budget, but also one of quality. There are incomprehensible marks of unfairness - think of the abolition of the norm that permitted you to retire after 40 years of work.”[3] Camusso also emphasised: “We face a situation of extreme gravity for society. Workers and pensioners are the categories being made to pay over the odds for this crisis. But this is unfair - they are always hitting the same people, with recessive effects on the economy. What has changed is something you ought to ask the CISL and the UIL. Our judgement on the unfairness also applied to the previous budgets. We had great hopes of this government. Certainly it has regained authority at the European level, but on the other hand it has made ‘the usual suspects’ pay for the crisis. It is truly mistaken.”

When asked if she would exclude the possibility of a general strike to follow the December 19 public sector action, she responded: “We exclude nothing. But for now we have not decided on any new initiatives.” She also expressed profound scepticism about the explanation offered by Monti and his ministers for not introducing a wealth tax - they needed time to study such a move, but if they had announced their intention, it would have “provoked a flood of capital abroad”. Camusso commented that this seemed more like “an excuse to mask the fact that they don’t want to introduce it”.

The CGIL general secretary made it clear in her Repubblica interview that she had also not been reassured by Monti and his team that there would be no attack on article 18 of the workers’ statute of 1970. The previous day welfare minister Elsa Fornero, responding to a question from the well-known leftwing journalist, Lucia Annunziata, about article 18 had said: “It is a question which I will not answer.” Such weasel words are a clear indication that she plans to mount a further vicious attack on the working class, no doubt accompanied by further floods of tears. She has already announced, “Having modified the pension system, we must now act so as to make the labour market inclusive.”

It is very evident from the similar tone of the reports in both La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera that Fornero has in effect let it be known off the record that she intends to try to get a trade-off between article 18 and article 19, which establishes the rules about union representation in individual workplaces. Article 19 was modified, in favour of the employers, by a referendum in the mid-1990s. It now says that only a union which has signed an agreement with the company that applies in an individual factory has the right to represent workers in that factory. Previously, the trade unions with a greater number of members in the factory had an automatic right to have delegates, regardless of whether there was an agreement or not. The current rules have practical consequences, as can be seen from the exclusion of FIOM from the Fiat plants, despite the fact that it represents the majority of the workforce.

Fornero appears to be offering the unions a return to the original wording of article 19, under which the right to have delegates is linked to the number of members the union has in a particular factory, in exchange for a surrender on article 18. This would mean that from now on employees sacked “without just cause” would merely get some financial compensation instead of being reinstated. As even Repubblica - which is in favour of the ‘reforms’ - has to concede, article 18 was “devised to reduce the very widespread (and never totally suppressed) tendency among Italian enterprises to choose their employees on the basis of their political or trade union opinions”.[4] Or, as we might put it, abolishing article 18 would give the employers enormous scope for the victimisation of committed trade union activists and open the way for the employment of scabs and members of yellow unions - the situation that prevailed in Fiat and elsewhere between the start of the cold war in 1948 and the workers’ upsurge of the late 1960s.

The December 12 general strike was a great success and was accompanied by demonstrations involving thousands of people all over Italy, from Milan, Genoa and Turin in the north to Naples, Palermo and Bari in the south. Most of the demonstrations involved all three confederations, but in a number of cities in the traditionally ‘red’ region of Emilia, such as Bologna, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Ferrara, the division between the CGIL and the others persisted, with the CGIL organising demonstrations in city centres, whilst the CISL and UIL confined themselves to workplace assemblies.

In Naples, one banner proclaimed: “Italy is a republic based on the spread”, parodying the article in the 1948 constitution - “Italy is a republic based on labour”. In Florence, banners bore slogans including “Poor pope - the Vatican should also pay!” and “Neither Monti nor Tremonti - let the workers govern”. Whilst the Florentine demonstration included some banners from the CISL and UIL, the extreme left had a large presence, with a huge portrait of Marx prominently displayed. In Rome there was a demonstration outside parliament involving all the main unions, and the banners included those of Rifondazione Comunista and the anti-corruption Italia dei Valori party,which, unlike the ex-‘official communist’ Partito Democratico, gave total support to the strike. Antonio di Pietro, leader of Italia dei Valori, described it as a “sacrosanct strike”, because “as things stand, the pensioners will pay, but not the former prime minister, and not even the tax evaders, who, since they have never been punished, have quadrupled their thefts in the last 30 years”. Amongst the placards outside parliament was one proclaiming, “Yes to the wealth tax - yes to cuts in the salaries of parliamentarians and their fabulous pensions”.

The strike has to some extent been effective in forcing further, albeit limited, concessions from the Monti government. For the coming year, the threshold below which pensions will be indexed has been raised from €936 per month back to €1,400, so that 78% of pensions will still be index-linked. However, this only applies to 2012 - as from 2013 the threshold will descend to €936 again. Some concessions have also been made in respect of those born in 1952, who will become 60 next year. Instead of making some of these wait an additional six years for their pension, they can now retire after 35 years of employment (men) or 20 years (women), once they reach the age of 64. There has also been some modification in the new IMU (house tax) for first homes, with graduated reductions for every child; a modification that seems to owe more to Catholic social teaching than to more secular conceptions of social justice.

There have also been a few minor measures slightly increasing the burden on the wealthy. There will be a one-off 15% ‘solidarity contribution’ on pensions above €200,000, and some increase in stamp duty, which La Repubblica tries to present as the feared “wealth tax”.


1. Gad Lerner ascribes this initiative to the weakest of the three confederations, the UIL (‘Se il sindacato torna a fare il suo mestiere’ La Repubblica December 11.

2. The four key messages on Twitter, as reported by La Repubblica, were:

20.49: Monti says that the budget is fair as it is. He says wealth has been hit.

20.50: Monti says the situation is serious, the pension reform guarantees fairness between the generations and that the strike is an instrument of democratic life.

21.50: Camusso replies to Monti: the budget is profoundly unfair, and hits only lower earners and pensioners.

21.54: Grilli says IMU is all right as it is. At this point, with the static positions of the government, we don’t understand what is to be gained from the discussion of the budget.

3. La Repubblica December 12.

4. La Repubblica December 12.