Strike boosts resistance

As an Italian engineers strike widens to include political issues, Toby Abse looks at how this will affect the battle to save Article 18

The engineering workers’ eight-hour strike on Friday March 9 and the national demonstration linked to it were both resounding successes for Fiom, the engineering workers’ union. Neither the centre-left daily La Repubblica nor the centre-right Corriere della Sera made any attempt to dispute Fiom’s estimate of 50,000 participants at the march and rally which filled the large Piazza San Giovanni in the centre of Rome.

Inevitably, there was rather more dispute about the proportion of the total Italian engineering workforce participating in the strike. Fiom claimed 70% support, while the engineering employers’ federation, Federmeccanica, pretended only 17% of their workers were involved. Fiat, which has been waging an all-out war against Fiom over the last year or so, said that only 5.7% had participated. It should be stressed that Fiom, whilst traditionally the strongest and most militant (and part of the traditionally left-led CGIL confederation), is not the only union in the sector. Those linked to the other two major confederations were not only not involved in this strike, but had been systemically favoured by Fiat, gaining a monopoly on official recognition in return for a no-strike deal.

Fiat is so determined to exclude Fiom from its factories that, when the southern plant of Pomigliano recently reopened, of the over 2,000 workers who were taken on again none at all were Fiom members. In the more traditionally militant Turin Mirafiori plant, recognition has been withdrawn and Fiat is now refusing to deduct union dues.

The strike was called not only in support of Fiom’s demand to represent its members at Fiat, and against the national contract the engineering employers wish to impose on the sector’s workforce, but in defence of article 18 of the workers’ statute of 1970, which has been at the very centre of the national debate about labour relations since the installation of the government of Mario Monti in November.

The demonstration also included students, casual workers, unemployed and temporarily laid off workers, as well as environmentalists, anti-nuclear protestors, opponents of water privatisation. There were also autonomists and members of radical left parties and no doubt many other groups anxious to seize the chance to register discontent with the austerity policies of the Monti government - the bourgeois press had to recognise the clear class character of the demonstration.

Whilst it is undoubtedly a positive that Piazza San Giovanni has been reclaimed for its traditional role as a site for mass mobilisations of the working class, it is also all too evident that Fiom is, as Repubblica describes it, “a bit of a trade union, a bit of a party, a bit of a movement”.[1] In other words, a militant trade union is in effect substituting itself for the mass workers’ party that Italy no longer possesses. Fiom general secretary Maurizio Landini spoke of an “absent left” at one point in his speech. But he seemed to take pride in this almost syndicalist variant of political trade unionism, saying that “metalworkers have the ambition of advocating their own project for social transformation” and there are “no areas reserved for the parties”.

Partito della Rifondazione Comunista banners were prominent on the demonstration, second only to those of FIOM itself - the party had spent weeks doing its best to mobilise as much of its reduced membership as possible. Rifondazione’s secretary, Paolo Ferrero, was not the only party leader participating: Nichi Vendola of Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà and Marco Ferrando of the Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori were there to represent both the right and ultra-left splits from the PRC. Interestingly Antonio Di Pietro of the populist Italia dei Valori (IdV) was also present, showing that his opposition to Monti’s austerity policies is not confined to the parliamentary arena.

The Partito Democratico, dominated by former ‘official communists’, was almost entirely absent because of its rabid opposition to Fiom’s invitation to ‘No Tav’ campaigners against a proposed high-speed rail link, who were very noticeably present in Piazza San Giovanni. One of the few PD members present was the former minister of labour and one-time mayor of Naples, Antonio Bassolino. In an interview with La Repubblica, Bassolino said, rather aptly: “The PD should not forget the workers’ question. To win and change the country, political alliances are not enough.” He added: “I am marching because I am on the side of workers’ rights.”[2]

Landini has never been on particularly good terms with CGIL general secretary Susanna Camusso and is understandably anxious that she does not make some last-minute compromise with the government and the employers over article 18. Landini not only spoke of “the protection of the constitution and of article 18”, but demanded the “extension of lay-off pay, making the enterprises who don’t pay today pay in the future” and a defence of pensions. On article 18 he concluded: “I hope an agreement is reached, but if a serious negotiation does not start, we are ready to launch a general strike.” Whilst Camusso would be very reluctant to go that far, the PD would be totally appalled by the idea of taking such militant action against the Monti government, which it has so far consistently supported (despite the claims of those like comrade Bassolino to be “on the side of workers’ rights”).

Camusso gave an interview to Corriere della Sera which was published after the demonstration.[3] Her response to Fiom’s call for a general strike was to say, rather cryptically: “I have the impression that somebody has already taken into account a general strike on our part.” However, she predicted a struggle that would be “far from short”, including strikes that are “targeted” and “lasting”.

An editorial in La Repubblica gave an indirect but very revealing indication of the intense irritation felt by those close to the PD’s right wing in the wake of Fiom’s mass action. The demonstration had shown not only the combativity of the most advanced section of the working class, but its ability to hegemonise the more fragmented social movements and turn the amalgam into a wider, but more coherent and united opposition to austerity. La Repubblica’s leader writer stated: “I read in certain newspapers that the No Tav movement and Fiom will increase their pressure and their force until they produce a shift. One does not understand what this shift, described as decisive, consists of … To push this government into crisis and replace it with another one? … Or to abolish both government and parliament and create a republic based on referenda? Is there a Winter Palace to storm? A tsar to overthrow? A soviet to install …?”[4]

In its weekend press briefings[5] the Monti government has made it clear that it is aiming to close the negotiations on labour market issues, whether or not all the ‘social partners’ reach agreement, by March 25, when the premier leaves Italy for a series of engagements in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. Controversy has surrounded the latest proposal for “social shock absorbers” (ammortizzatori sociali), as the various types of unemployment benefits and temporary lay-off pay schemes are known, with welfare minister Elsa Fornero proposing to replace the existing system by 2015 - which had led to objections not just from the CGIL, but from the ‘moderate’ CISL and UIL union federations so favoured by Fiat.[6]

Such proposals have received implied support from the European Central Bank, which has once again been asserting that article 18 is an “anomaly” in the European context. It seems increasingly likely that Monti and Fornero will propose that workers sacked “without just cause” can be given financial compensation, but will lose their right to reinstatement. There is every indication that the CISL and the UIL will accept this total emasculation of article 18 and that the government will either ask them to sign the agreement regardless of the CGIL’s opposition or impose the change in the law through its majority in parliament without bothering with the formal assent from any of the trade union confederations. The assumption is that the PD would collude in this further betrayal of the working class.

Fiom’s demonstration will make it more difficult for Camusso to follow PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani down such a road, but we cannot tell if it will be enough to ensure that the CGIL fights to the bitter end on the question of article 18.



1. La Repubblica March 10.

2. Ibid.

3. Corriere della Sera March 11.

4. La Repubblica March 11. A few lines earlier the article had stressed the need for totally uncritical support for Monti’s government: “This is still the moment of ‘no ifs, no buts’.”

5. See Repubblica March 12 for an account that clearly has come from the government’s press office.

6. See La Repubblica March 13.