No surrender on article 18

Toby Abse reports on the intransigent defence of Italy's Workers' Statute coming from an unexpected source

The replacement of Silvio Berlusconi’s increasingly erratic video Bonapartism - which by the end could satisfy neither the Italian and European elites nor his own mass base - by Mario Monti’s unelected cabinet of technocrats has intensified rather than quelled class conflict in Italy.

President Giorgio Napolitano’s new year message to the Italians - “We will do it: the sacrifices are for our children and grandchildren” - was openly criticised only by the rightwing Lega Nord. By contrast, Susanna Camusso, the general secretary of the CGIL union confederation, for form’s sake endorsed the president’s words, although she adopted a very different tone in her own new year message the following day: “In the next few months there is a risk of growing social tensions. The recession will have a harsh impact on employment and earnings.”

This was enough to cause prime minister Monti to respond angrily: “Nobody has any evidence to claim that there will be social tensions, but certainly if we begin to evoke them from January 1 …” Despite Monti’s furious assertion that Camusso’s concerns had no empirical foundation, she, along with the leaders of the two other main union centres, the CISL and the UIL, had drawn the nation’s attention to some stark factual data: namely that 230 enterprises, employing about 300,000 workers, were in crisis according to the government’s own figures and there were likely to be at least 30,000-40,000 redundancies in a variety of sectors in the next few months.[1]

The spread between German and Italian 10-year bonds was back up to 527.3 at the close of trading on January 6. Although this worrying figure was less than the all-time peak of the euro zone era on November 9, when it reached 552 (prompting the Evening Standard’s apocalyptic front-page headline: “The descent into chaos begins”) and sealed Berlusconi’s fate, Friday’s figure was far higher than the relatively encouraging 368, to which it fell on December 4, when Monti’s austerity package was approved by his cabinet. When trading resumed on Monday January 9, the spread had climbed further - to 531.[2] Meanwhile, the Milan stock exchange was down 1.67% on January 9 and the yield on 10-year bonds was at a totally unsustainable 7.16% - enough to trigger an Italian default by the end of this year, given the vast number of Italian state bonds due for renewal at auctions over the next three months.[3]

At least some of this lack of confidence in Italian shares and state bonds has been caused by grave doubts about the ability of the Italian government to impose the labour market ‘reforms’ that the European Central Bank, the EU commission and Angela Merkel herself have all been demanding since August 2011. Whilst Monti is taken seriously by his EU counterparts in a way that Berlusconi was not and it looks as if he has succeeded in forging an alliance with Nicolas Sarkozy to put pressure on Merkel to allow the ECB to act more like a lender of last resort, the speculators - many of whom do not live in the euro zone - will not be satisfied unless and until the Italian trade unions are reduced to the kind of abject conception of ‘damage limitation’ we associate with Dave Prentis and Brendan Barber cowering before Francis Maude and Danny Alexander.

Monti’s savage neoliberal austerity budget was passed by the Chamber of Deputies on December 16, with all discussion on amendments being cut drastically short by the now customary device of a vote of confidence - the same tactic used to pass Berlusconi’s austerity packages in the second half of 2011. Although the parliamentary majority in favour of the package was very large indeed, the 495 votes in favour of austerity - including from the Partito Democratico, dominated by former ‘official communists’ - represented a visible diminution from the 556 who had given a vote of confidence to Monti’s cabinet at its installation on November 18. It is worth remarking that the PD was far more solid in voting for austerity than Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL).

Next phase

No sooner had the first round of austerity gone through the Chamber of Deputies - the debate in the Senate continued into the following week - than the assault on article 18 of the Workers’ Statute became absolutely crucial to the next phase. Whilst very broad hints had already been made that an attack on article 18 was being prepared - for example, when welfare minister Elsa Fornero refused to answer a question about it on a television programme on December 11, it was Fornero’s interview with Corriere della Sera[4] that made completely explicit what had been hinted at in the off-the-record briefings she had given to Repubblica and the Corriere the previous week.

Fornero, who doubtless looks forward to what others might call a gold-plated pension, took a very hard line throughout the interview. She defended the current pensions ‘reform’, describing previous moves in that direction as “excessively gradual” and added: “This time the reform had to be a strong one. The priority was to send a decisive signal to Europe about our capacity to rebalance the system on the basis of intergenerational justice.” She emphasised: “If we look at our graph of wage levels, the salary rises with seniority, whilst in other countries it increases with productivity and therefore until the age of professional maturity, but then goes down in the final phase because the old worker is as a rule less productive.”[5]

She fiercely denounced both employers and employees for resolving what she regards as the problem of higher paid elderly workers with early retirement deals, adding: “And the state covers the implicit pact between enterprises and old workers at the expense of young people.” She posed as the champion of women and young people, proclaiming: “Young people and women are the most penalised groups because the Italian road to flexibility only affects them.” She claimed to want a “life cycle” that “permitted young people to enter the labour market with a real contract, not a precarious one. But a contract that recognises you are at the beginning of your working life and need training and where you start with a low wage that rises with productivity. In short, I would take a favourable view of a single contract that includes the people who are now excluded and perhaps does not give 100% protection to the usual overprotected segment.”

The allegedly “overprotected segment” consists, of course, of the workers on permanent contracts in workplaces employing more than 15 people covered by article 18. Since the interviewer was well aware of this, inevitably the next question was about article 18 itself. Fornero responded: “I am old enough to remember what the leader of the CGIL, Luciano Lama, once said - ‘I don’t want to win against my daughter’.[6] Now I don’t want to say there is a single preconceived recipe, but equally there are no totems and therefore I invite the trade unions to have open and intellectually honest discussions.”[7]

Fornero, aware of the difficulties in ripping up existing contracts of employment, claimed: “I certainly think we need a more gradual approach to the introduction of the new rules than we have done for pensions.” When it was suggested to her that women were losing out, Fornero, who is also minister for equal opportunities, answered: “As far as women are concerned, we need to overturn the logic of compensations. We don’t want these, but equality instead. When I hear it said, ‘I work a lot and then I have to take care of my husband and my home’, I say families still don’t share caring duties enough.” In other words, she places the entire blame on the shoulders of the men of the family rather than the inflexible and unsocial hours demanded by the employer or the inadequacy of Italy’s welfare state. Whilst Italian men are probably less helpful in the home than the European average - a situation exacerbated by the example of Silvio Berlusconi and the grotesque stereotypes at the heart of his TV programmes over nearly three decades - this is an inadequate analysis, given the widely shared view that the extreme rapidity of the fall in the Italian birth rate has not just been due to liberation from the shackles of traditionalist Catholicism, but owes a great deal to the inadequate provision of childcare that forces women to choose between work and children.


The following day Susanna Camusso of the CGIL replied to Fornero in an equally forthright interview with Corriere della Sera.[8] It should be remembered that Camusso’s adult experience of politics and trade unionism has not been on the extreme left, whatever stance she may have taken in the student movement of the 1970s. She was for a period a member of the Partito Socialista Italiano and was groomed by the previous CGIL general secretary, Guglielmo Epifani, in 2008 as the candidate of the right. Moreover, until recently she has been the object of continuing left criticism for her failure to back Fiat workers, among other matters. In short her current courage in defending the working class against the neoliberal austerity is doubly admirable because it was by no means predictable.

In her interview Camusso pulled no punches in her criticism of Monti and Fornero. Asked whether the budget had saved Italy, she responded: “I see that they attribute to themselves the role of saviours of the patria. The reality is that the situation is grave, but the correct recipe is not Monti’s.” Asked why, she continued: “Because it weighs down on the usual suspects, those who declare their income to the tax man - in general middle and low earners. Because it aims to get money rapidly from those who cannot and never have avoided taxes.” It will lead to recession and “the impoverishment of a great part of the country”. Instead there should be “serious forms of levies on large fortunes”, a “healthy ceiling on higher earnings” and “incisive” moves against tax evasion.

She described the pensions ‘reform’ as a “brutal intervention” against “so many people who cannot draw their pensions and are not entitled to a state subsidy”. There was “a level of aggression towards male and female workers, which, when carried out by a woman, is really shocking”. Her intransigent class analysis of the budget continued with a condemnation of the privatisation of pensions provision - “a reform to demolish the central pillar of public pensions”. Refuting the interviewer’s reiteration of the bourgeois commonplaces about deficits in the public pension system, she pointed to the “insecurity and fear” for dependent and casual workers in particular that would result from “handing the system as a gift to private insurance companies”. The interviewer, aware of the potential gravity of her accusation and anxious to nail her down, asked her outright: “Are you saying Fornero is working for the private insurance companies?” Camusso, undaunted, bluntly replied in the affirmative.

Stressing that the government was supposed to be a temporary emergency administration, she added: “I find it is displaying an authoritarian trait in wanting to say it is the great reformer of the country because such matters belong to politics.” In what proved to be one of her most widely reported comments she emphasised: “Fornero should get down from her professorial chair if she is contemplating an operating theatre with 70-year-old nurses.” She continued: “Aren’t there people who do heavy work that they can’t manage even at 66? They are certainly not all bankers. Instead we treat people who retire after 42 years of work as if they were profiteers, whilst there are those who retire after one legislature as parliamentarians.”

Asked about Fornero’s proposal for a single contract for all young workers, she showed no hesitation in exposing this fraud: “That would be a new apartheid, at the expense of the young. If we analyse reality, we see that casualisation is to be found above all where article 18 does not apply: in small enterprises.” She boldly defended article 18 as “a norm of civilisation”.

Having attacked the government on pensions, on its treatment of the young and on article 18, Camusso showed the same justified contempt for Fornero’s bourgeois liberal, feminist posturing: “Fornero ought to strengthen the law against blank resignation letters[9] and bring in one on obligatory paternity leave. These would be concrete steps towards equality.”

Lest anybody imagine that Camusso’s intransigence is purely verbal, it should be stressed that the planned one-day public sector general strike by the three major union confederations did go ahead on December 19 as planned and was presented, by the CGIL at any rate, as at least as much an action in defence of article 18 as it was a defence of workers’ pensions. The government alleged it was a flop, claiming only 9% of the relevant workforces participated, whilst the unions claimed it had “gone very well”.[10] Camusso had been unrelenting on the strike day, demanding that Fornero “descend from the heavens, come into the world, talk to the unions”, as well as correctly pointing out that the government “speaks of labour reform, but in reality announces easy sackings”.[11]

Bourgeois reaction to Camusso’s spirited defence of her members and the working class as a whole was predictably vitriolic - the Corriere della Sera published an article on its front page denouncing her for using “20th century language” and implicitly comparing her to the Red Brigades by referring to a phrase - servo dei padroni - that was a regular feature of their old communiqués, but one that she had not actually used.[12] Elsa Fornero whined: “I am displeased by a language that I thought belonged to the past. I don’t understand the personalised attack on me.” Pier Ferdinando Casini of the Unione del Centro claimed Fornero “does not deserve the truculent language that Susanna Camusso used today”, whilst Emma Marcegaglia, the president of the Italian employers’ organisation, Confindustria, predictably claimed that “on article 18 and labour market reform we need seriousness and pragmatism, and not ideology” (presumably she is so enchanted by neoliberalism that she genuinely fails to recognise it is an ideology too). Instead the unions ought to show “a great spirit of collaboration and a constructive attitude”.[13]


Camusso’s position is essentially that of a classic, old-fashioned social democrat, but it contrasts dramatically with that of the PD leaders, who are engaged in something resembling the very worst of the ‘historic compromise’. PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani is now having regular meetings with PdL secretary Angelino Alfano to discuss how best to work together to prop up the Monti government, as popular discontent with austerity increases.[14] Camusso has become the most prominent representative of the working class on a political as well as economic plane. Whilst she may eventually yield to pressure, so far she shows no sign of the dreadful and enthusiastic collaborationism of Luciano Lama in 1977-78, or even the more shamefaced capitulation of the CGIL leaders in 1992-94. Perhaps the fact that she never went through the Eurocommunist experience of the latter years of the Partito Comunista Italiano will prove to be her saving grace.

Despite the solidarity offered to Fornero by Confindustria, the UdC and journalists in Corriere della Sera, she was soon forced into an apparent retreat on article 18. She claimed on December 21: “I did not have anything in mind on article 18. I fell into a trap.” The editor of the Corriere della Sera, Ferruccio De Bortoli, regardless of the undoubted sympathy he had for her anti-trade union stance, was not prepared to accept this blatant attack on his paper’s journalistic integrity and sarcastically tweeted: “She fell into a trap of her own making.” Fornero, increasingly desperate, unconvincingly responded: “I was not referring to the Corriere”, although it had been her interview with that daily which had set off the entire controversy.[15]

In spite of demands from Camusso that the government meet the leaders of all the trade union confederations jointly as part of the kind of tripartite negotiations between government, unions and Confindustria that had often taken place in the past, and that such talks involve a general discussion of the country’s economic situation, including pensions and taxation as well as the labour market, Monti has insisted that Fornero will meet the leader of each confederation separately and that these bilateral discussions would be confined to questions linked to the ‘ reform’ of the labour market.

The welfare minister started the process by meeting her most vehement antagonist on January 5 and then followed up with separate meetings with Luigi Angeletti (UIL) and Raffaele Bonanni (CISL) on January 9, before concluding with a meeting with her ally, Emma Marcegaglia, president of Confindustria, on January 11. Officially this strategy of ‘divide and rule’ is solely concerned with proposals about moving towards a single contract for young people entering the labour market and new ideas about changes in the subsidies or benefits for the unemployed or those made redundant by the recession, but it is abundantly clear that in reality the attack on article 18 is still very much on the agenda.

Monti gave the game away in his wide-ranging TV interview on January 8: “We have a mental attitude in which there are no taboos and it was in this sense that minister Fornero also mentioned article 18. In the past these matters were dominated by important symbols, but in this phase we don’t need symbols, but work - work that is not precarious - for young people.”

One does not need to be an avid reader of Sigmund Freud,[16] as perhaps these two elderly professors were in their youth, to realise that in the context of labour market ‘reform’, Monti’s ‘no taboos’ and Fornero’s ‘no totems’ are in practice interchangeable.


1.1 La Repubblica January 2.

2. Some of this surge in the spread was due to the troubles of Unicredit, Italy’s biggest bank, which lost 37% of its share value in a mere three days (January 4-6) as a result of its decision to make a rights issue. This led the markets to assume it might go the way of RBS. Corriere della Sera reported that Unicredit has lost 74.39% of its value over the last year (January 7). Since then the slide has continued, with a further loss of 12.8% on January 9.

3. Corriere della Sera January 10.

4. Ibid December 18.

5. This presumably does not apply to elderly, highly paid economics professors like herself.

6. Luciano Lama was the communist leader of the CGIL at the time of the ‘historic compromise’. He was an enthusiastic advocate of austerity in 1977, eagerly signing agreements with the government and employers that severely damaged workers’ living standards. He became the principal target of the ‘Movement of 77’ in general and the autonomists in particular, and to say that he was unpopular with young people at that point would be a gross understatement.

7. The key phrase, ‘no totems’, will probably have a greater resonance in Italy in the coming months than Lindsey German’s infamous ‘no shibboleths’ had on the British far left nearly a decade ago.

8. Corriere della Sera December 19.

9. A reference to the disgraceful practice by unscrupulous employers, who demand female employees sign a commitment to give up their job if they become pregnant.

10. La Repubblica December 20.

11. Ibid.

12. Corriere della Sera December 20.

13. Ibid.

14. Their intrigues have attracted the attention of journalists: see La Repubblica December 21.

15. See La Repubblica December 22.

16. One of Freud’s most well known works is entitled Totem and taboo.