Seventy per cent of all workers in Italy stopped work during the national general strike on 12 December called by the CGIL and UIL union federations. Thousands marched in more than 50 cities all across the country.
This was a significant strike, the first the CGIL had ever called against a PD (Democratic Party) government. The central issue was prime minister Renzi’s ‘Jobs Act’ - legislation which will give workers less job protection and make it easier for bosses to sack them. Initially the government tried to ban strikes in the transport sector but then had to back down. 60% of flights were cancelled, 50% of trains and 2 out of every 3 bus journeys.
These, and other figures in manufacturing, are impressive given that the strike was called after the Jobs Act had already been passed by parliament. But the workers on the streets were angry at everything. They were furious about never-ending job losses as a result of Italy’s third recession since the world economic crisis broke in 2008. According to recent figures, in the decade 2000-2010, only Haiti and Zimbabwe had lower GDP growth! They were protesting about Renzi challenging the European dictates in words, but continuing with cuts and austerity in practice. And their discontent was fuelled by the eruption of yet another corruption scandal, this time involving local politicians and the mafia in Rome.
Mass abstention shows deep discontent
The same discontent that lies behind the general strike also led to 63% of people staying at home during regional elections in Emilia Romagna on 23 November - an historic post-war low. In this ‘red’ region, a stronghold of the PD and its predecessor the Italian Communist Party, the PD lost 700,000 votes compared with the European elections. A long way to fall in just 6 months for Renzi, the seemingly invincible man who, having won the most votes of any party since the second world war in May, was supposed to save Italy.
In these elections, disillusioned PD voters did not move in big numbers to vote for Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star movement; it lost 60% of its electorate compared to 2010. Instead, they mainly stayed at home. But the mayoral candidate of the right-wing populist Lega Nord got 30% of the vote, and its leader, Salvini, is now the second most popular politician in Italy. He is trying to move away from the party’s emphasis on ‘independence for the North’ to do a ‘Le Pen’, and turn the Lega into the main party on the right by campaigning on immigration and opposition to Europe and the Euro.
The unions’ leaders, with their backs to the wall, felt under pressure to call the general strike to allow workers to express their anger, but without any serious strategy for fighting Renzi’s attacks. It is Renzi himself who has broken with years of ‘concertazione’ (collaboration between unions and government). Basically he has said to the unions, “This is what I am going to do, take it or leave it!”. The Jobs Act is in reality mainly symbolic, representing a trial of strength between the bosses via Renzi and the workers via Susanna Camusso (CGIL leader). For the moment Renzi has won, as the Jobs Act has been passed. But this will not cancel out the seething anger of workers and young people. With no real improvement in the economic situation in sight and no end to austerity, the combustible material is building up and anything could spark an explosion.
But, as the leaflet distributed by ControCorrente (CWI Italy) last week said, “Everyone on the streets against Renzi today …..and tomorrow?...The CGIL is at a crossroads, either it sends ‘friendly’ parties and governments packing, or it will be massacred more extensively by them than they were by Berlusconi…A strategy is needed…Struggles must be unified from below and at a national level”. And at the same time, the leaflet pointed out, it is these struggles that must form the basis for the emergence of a workers’ party to give political voice to the millions battling daily with the consequences of a rotten economic and social system.