The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The demonstration of March 23 against the right to lay off

Apr 15, 2002

The Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL) has called for a general strike on April 16. This follows the success of the demonstration it organized in Rome on Sunday, March 23. On March 23, there were between one and two million demonstrators, and possibly three million, according to the organizers.

The CGIL put a great effort into this demonstration against Prime Minister Berlusconi’s proposed bill to repeal Article 18 of the labor statute – an article which, in every workplace of more than 15 workers, prevents bosses from laying off people arbitrarily. 9,200 rented buses, five charter flights, four ferries and thousands of cars of CGIL militants brought people from all over Italy.

The CGIL needed to show its influence and its capacity for mobilizing workers at a time when the Berlusconi government and the bosses want to force through bills attacking workers. The bosses want to increase insecurity, giving themselves flexibility and making layoffs easier. But they were also ready to dump the national three-way “consultation system” under which the union leaders, the government and the employers settled matters.

Under all the governments of the left which preceded the current Berlusconi government, the majority of attacks on workers benefits and social conquests passed, thanks to the cooperation of the unions. Because they accepted almost everything the bosses and the government wanted, the unions were discredited among the workers, to the point that the bosses began to think they could get along without the collaboration of a union like the CGIL. And they felt they could challenge a big part of the contract rules and social legislation imposed by the working class in more than a century of struggles.

For several months, the conflict between the government and the unions has crystalized around the question of Article 18. The labor minister proposed to get rid of the union-employer-government “consultation” and the system of national collective bargaining. In its place, he proposed to establish individual contracts between an employer and each worker.

This demonstration was a success for the CGIL, which showed its influence with respect to the government and the bosses, and also with respect to the two other smaller union centers, CISL and UIL, on whom the Berlusconi government tried to support itself against the CGIL. These two unions wound up saying their members could participate in the demonstration of March 23, and they also support the general strike call for April 16.

But is a success for the CGIL truly a success for the Italian workers? This is the same union with the same leadership which collaborated for years with the governments of the center-left, assisting them in pushing the working class further and further back.

The demonstration of March 23 shows the limits of CGIL. A few days earlier, a government economic expert, Marco Biagi, was assassinated in Bologna by a group calling itself the “Red Brigades.” Does this terrorist group, pretending to replace the workers’ class struggle by its own armed actions, really still exist? Or was this a provocation? There have certainly been many other acts of this type in Italy. The Berlusconi government used the assassination to accuse the unions of encouraging terrorism.

Obviously, this assassination, which is horrible in its method, has nothing to do with the workers’ struggle. Nonetheless, the CGIL leaders declared that the demonstration of March 23 would also be a demonstration against terrorism and “for democracy,” even demanding that the participants at the final meeting observe a minute of silence in honor of Marco Biagi, though he was one of the authors of the bill against which the demonstration took place. Not only did this help instill support in the workers toward the Italian state and its institutions; at the same time it detracted from the meaning of the demonstration itself.

In fact, the assassination question had little influence on the workers. The power of the demonstration, its character at once peaceful and determined, wiped out the attempts to lower the morale of the demonstrators by accusing them of collusion with terrorism. And in the following days, a climate of optimism reigned in many workplaces, giving the workers at once a new-found confidence in their force. The workers realized they had scored a point against the government and the bosses.

So there will be a general strike on April 16. But what’s desirable is that the confidence which so many workers doubtlessly found in themselves after the demonstration of March 23 not be transformed into a simple blank check for the union leadership.

The workers can make use of the occasion not only to force the government to keep Article 18, but to extend its guarantees to all casual workers, part-timers or temporary workers. They can present a bill to the bosses and the government for years of reductions in their living and working conditions and in their wages. They can make the strike of April 16 not the final stage of their current mobilization, but a big step toward a true movement of the entire working class.