Getting the better of the cops

Sardinian workers force concessions

The big union battalions are once more talking of general strike action, writes Toby Abse

As summer turns to autumn, the working class is once again taking centre-stage in the Italian crisis. With the latest figures from Istat, the Italian national statistics agency, showing a 2.6% fall in Italy’s GDP for the second quarter of 2012 compared to a year ago, there is every reason to think that this trend will continue, regardless of allegedly miraculous stunts pulled by the two ‘Super Marios’ - Italian premier Monti and European Central Bank chief Draghi - regarding the spread between German and Italian bonds.

The storm centre of the working class upsurge has not been the ‘industrial triangle’ (Turin-Milan-Genoa), but the island of Sardinia. First the coalminers of the Carbosulcis mine in Nuraxi Figus and then the aluminium smelters of the Alcoa plant in Portovesme have shown a courage and determination so far lacking amongst the factory workers of the northern regions of the mainland, who seem to be still reeling from the defeats over both pensions and article 18 of the workers’ statute earlier this year. Both of these Sardinian struggles are about jobs rather than wages or conditions.

Both workplaces, a mere five kilometres apart, face closure in the next few months: in the case of the mine as a result of a European ruling that production must cease, because the heavily contaminated, sulphur-laden coal it has been producing since 1850 is in breach of environmental standards; and in the case of the aluminium plant because the American-based transnational that owns it claims that it is uneconomic.1 Unemployment on the island is much higher than on the mainland - around 20% - and so older workers would face long-term unemployment and younger ones might well be forced to emigrate.

Both sets of workers have resorted to rather unconventional forms of struggle, which have gained them considerable media attention, despite the relatively small numbers involved - about 1,000 in the aluminium plant and 630 in the mine.2 On August 26, 120 miners, armed with 350 kilograms of explosives, barricaded themselves 400 metres underground in one of the mine shafts of Carbosulcis. The occupation lasted for some days and has appeared to force concessions from the government; since 1995 the mine has been the property of the Sardinian regional government, so that former Banca Intesa chief Corrado Passera, Monti’s minister of economic development, has a much more direct influence on the outcome than might have been the case with a privately owned mine. At any rate, ministers have said that they will reconsider proposals for new technology to save the workplace “as long as it is cost-effective”, but, since the miners first put forward a similar plan in 1995, only to have it ignored by the bosses and government with the connivance of union leaders, some scepticism is clearly in order here.

The aluminium workers had already come to national attention when three of their number barricaded themselves on top of a silo for three days on September 4 and then appeared on national television wearing balaclavas - a gesture which, although it prompted analogies with terrorists and football hooligans, nonetheless generated massive publicity for their cause. Then on September 10 a demonstration by 550 Alcoa workers - who had arrived in Rome on the overnight ferry from Sardinia - turned into a series of violent clashes with the police in the very centre of Italy’s capital, clashes in which 14 policemen and six demonstrators were injured. Despite the presence of about a thousand policemen, carabinieri and finance guards, wearing helmets and other riot gear (and wielding batons with considerable enthusiasm), the aluminium workers seemed to have got the better of the security forces and clearly terrified some of them by throwing aluminium disks, smoke bombs, fire crackers and other missiles for hours on end. Hundreds of loud explosions were heard in central Rome from early in the morning until late into the evening.

Rarely can so small a march have had so much impact.3 Negotiations between national trade union officials and government representatives went on for many hours. Passera was eventually forced to postpone the aluminium plant’s scheduled closure date by a further month - putting back the deadline to November 15 - and promised “my personal direct commitment to find a solution”. Whether either of the transnationals that have expressed some degree of interest in buying the plant - Klesch and Glencore - will come up with a more definite bid remains to be seen.4

The militancy of the Alcoa workers has also had a direct impact on Susanna Camusso, the general secretary of the CGIL trade union confederation, who - whilst the clashes were still going on in the streets of Rome called in a combative speech to the CGIL executive for “immediate public intervention” on the part of the Italian government to protect “wages and employment” and to save the many companies on the edge of a precipice from closure, “starting with Alcoa”.5 If no such steps are taken, she has called for a “general strike in October”.6 Since the CGIL and the UIL confederation have already called a strike across the public sector for September 28, momentum is clearly building up for a general strike on the part of the unions affiliated to the CGIL, especially the metalworkers’ union, Fiom.

The statements made over the last few days by Sergio Marchionne, Fiat’s Canadian-Italian managing director, suggesting he was abandoning rather than just postponing the company’s plan to invest a further €20 billion in its remaining Italian plants, has provoked Camusso, under pressure from Fiom, into making further attacks on the government and the employers, particularly the Fiat manager. Over the last few weeks Camusso has expressed the hope that the CISL confederation as well as the UIL would join the CGIL in a general strike against the government’s austerity policies.

This degree of unity seems much less likely - in part because the CISL has benefited from sweetheart deals with Marchionne at Fiom’s expense, and in all probability the CGIL will have to choose between going it alone and backing down in the face of pressure from the Monti government and the parties that support it. Prominent amongst those parties is the ex-‘official communist’-dominated Partito Democratico - as PD vice-secretary Enrico Letta put it, “The trade unions go on strike. We are supporting a government and we are not organising a strike against it.”7

What was particularly notable about the Alcoa workers’ demonstration was their intransigent hostility to the PD, including Stefano Fassina, the party’s economic spokesperson, who attempted to join their march, only to be pushed and shoved and fairly rapidly driven out of the procession to chants of “Bastards, you have deceived us”. It should be noted that Fassina is very much closer to traditional social democracy than the bulk of the increasingly neoliberal PD leadership - he said in an interview with La Repubblica soon after the incident: “The PD is the party of labour. Those are its roots. Therefore we have been on the streets, are on the streets and will be on the streets again.” However, as La Repubblica pointed out, despite Fassina being regarded as a friend by many workers - and being a particular favourite of the taxi drivers in their dispute with the Monti government a few months ago - this week he was attacked by the Alcoa workers as if he was an ultra liberista (extreme neoliberal).

Although the Alcoa workers expressed hostility towards all the political parties and to some degree even towards the trade unions (some had a sign saying, “Right, left, trade unions, you are traitors. At every election campaign you ask for our vote, only to then ally with the bosses”), there is some attempt being made to channel that anger by forces to the left of the PD. On September 11 an “enlarged committee” was formed by Antonio Di Pietro of the Italia dei Valori anti-corruption party (IdV).8 The committee included Nichi Vendola of the green left Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL), Rifondazione Comunista national secretary Paolo Ferrero, Partito dei Comunisti Italiani leader Oliviero Diliberto, Green president Angelo Bonelli and Gianni Rinaldini of Fiom. They deposited with the supreme court the text of two proposed referenda questions - the first cancelling the so-called ‘reform’ of article 18 and the second reinstating the minimal universal rights of the National Labour Contract cancelled by the Berlusconi government. The collection of the signatures necessary to turn the referenda into reality will start in October.

Former CGIL general secretary Sergio Cofferati - who in March 2002 organised a very successful, three million-strong demonstration in defence of article 18 - has given his backing to the proposed referendum and has been denounced by the PD for doing so. Letta said: “I understand his position linked to a battle in the past. But the logic of the PD is different: seriousness.”9 Both PD labour spokesperson Stefano Fassina and former PD labour minister Cesare Damiano claim to support what the rabidly pro-Monti La Repubblica calls a “counter-reform” of the new labour law, but oppose the referendum, claiming that a centre-left government would make the necessary changes by parliamentary means.10

Such divisions in the PD are unlikely to precipitate any serious split in its ranks at a time when it is still the strongest party in the opinion polls and a general election is due in the spring at the latest, although in the unlikely event of the extraordinarily and deliberately divisive extreme neoliberal, Matteo Renzi, winning the primary contest, Cofferati and some of the other more social democratic elements linked to the CGIL might decide to call it a day.

What is perhaps more open to question is whether the projected electoral alliance between the PD and SEL will hold, given their diametrically opposed positions on the referendum and the increasing attacks on SEL from both the Christian Democratic Unione di Centro, the PD’s preferred partner in the almost inevitable event of a hung parliament next year, and the PD’s own right wing.11


1. Many aluminium smelting plants in Germany and the USA may also face closure because of the imminent opening of a massive aluminium smelting plant in Saudi Arabia, which in 2013 will reduce the price from $2,500 to $1,700 per ton - see Corriere della Sera September 11. I want to acknowledge that much of my account of events at the coal mine is drawn from Hugh Edwards’ article, ‘Italian miners’ occupation forces concessions’ Solidarity September 5.

2. Figures for the workforce in the mine are taken from La Repubblica September 11; Edwards (op cit) gives a much more approximate 500.

3. It was the front page lead in both La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera the following day.

4. According to the Corriere della Sera (September 11), Gary Klesch is a longstanding friend of Bernie Madoff, whom the paper describes as “the greatest fraudster in history”. Making any agreement with such a figure might imply a certain amount of recklessness on the part of the Italian government, although nobody who remembers the way the national airline, Alitalia, was handed over to a strange group of Berlusconi’s friends rather than the more reliable Air France would be particularly surprised.

5. Passera and his ministry are aware of about 150 companies in difficulty, employing about 180,000 workers. These include some of the stars of Italy’s ‘economic miracle’ of 1958-63, including domestic appliance companies like Electrolux and Indesit, as well as the former Fiat plant at Termini Imerese - see Repubblica September 11.

6. See La Repubblica September 11.

7. Ibid.

8. As opposed to the original purely IdV committee that is still in charge of collecting signatures for two other referenda directed against la casta (literally ‘the caste’ - probably the nearest English approximation is ‘the political class’).

9. The PD intends to organise primaries open to all self-proclaimed supporters of the centre-left to elect the candidate for premier. The leading PD candidate is, of course, national secretary Pier Luigi Bersani. He is being challenged in the contest from the right by Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, a neoliberal advocate of ‘the Monti Agenda’; and from the left by Nichi Vendola of SEL. Whilst it now seems likely that the much heralded primaries will go ahead, their importance will depend on the precise nature of the electoral reform currently being discussed - particularly whether it awards a premium to the leading coalition or the leading party.

10. Fassina in his Repubblica interview said: “No, I am not signing it. I don’t like the institution. I agree with the modification of article 18, but with a draft law, because labour laws ought to be written with the social partners, not fought by blows in a referendum” (La Repubblica September 11).

11. The photograph of Vendola standing with Di Pietro of the IdV, Green leader Bonelli and the leaders of the two communist parties outside the court building, where they delivered the referenda questions, has been at the centre of this media firestorm. Vendola himself is currently drawing a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, the possibility of an alliance between SEL and a PD led by Bersani and, on the other, the complete impossibility of an alliance with a PD led by Renzi - see La Repubblica September 18.