General Strike in Italy – interview L. Scacchi

Luca Scacchi, a member of ControVento (“Against The Wind”, an Italian Revolutionary Marxist Association), is a university researcher in Social Psychology (Università Della Valle d’Aosta), Representative for Academics in the National Centre of FLC-CGIL (the Union of School, University and Research in the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, the main Italian trade union confederation) and one of the six members of the General Assembly of the CGIL who were elected for “The Roots of the Union”, the alternative left-wing current.

ISp: Comrade Luca, a general strike was called in Italy, and started last Friday. It’s a strike that calls out different sectors at different times so there is more to come. Can you explain this situation and which unions are calling the strike?

LS: In Italy for more than a decade the unions have struggled to build a continuous, determined and mass response to the anti-popular policies of its ruling class. There are various causes: the division of labor, in a production system fragmented on accumulation strategies; production relations and therefore very different conflicts; the defeat in the last major frontal battle that the unions fought, at FIAT, against Marchionne in 2010/2012 (that led to the exit from the national metalworkers’ contract of all the Group’s factories) etc. The CISL, the second biggest trade union of Catholic origin, went through the decade of consolidating its conservative and complicit profile (always following employers and government). The grassroots leftist trade unions (USB, CUB, SICobas and others) are small and rooted only in some sectors or workplaces, and have followed different and opposing trajectories in these years, with divided and opposing strikes.

The responsibility, however, lay above all on the bureaucratic and moderate leadership of the CGIL (the main Italian trade union confederation), heir of the historic reformist approach of PCI (Communist Party of Italy) and PSI (Socialist Party).

In the general crisis of capitalism, this leadership tends to take on the task of “saving the country” by giving up defending working-class rights. So, in the last decade this leadership has always tried to avoid any prolonged conflict with the government. This happened in 2012 with Monti who passed the worst reform of the pension system (and faced only 4 hours of strike!), with Renzi’s ”Jobs Act” (there was a single general strike, after the approval of the law), with the right-wing government of Conte and Salvini (in 2018, without ever a general strike), in the pandemic (when the CGIL signed an agreement on safety, after widespread spontaneous strikes in March 2020, to “prevent turning fear into anger”, exactly the opposite of what a transformation union should do) and also with Draghi (reaching a day of strike against the budget law only in mid-December, without any ability to continue the initiative in the following months).

The early elections and the Meloni government took the unions by surprise, and they attempted to test the waters in the first months. So, CGIL gave up on building a mass opposition right from the start: the union did not transform the anniversary of the fascist assault of the previous year, just a few weeks after the elections of 25 September, into a large demonstration against the government. In March, Landini (the CGIL Leader) chose to invite Giorgia Meloni at the 19th CGIL congress (the first time of a far-right exponent in the CGIL congress, a highly contested decision by our minority current).

Today this strike practically becomes the first real moment in which the Italian trade unions, in a truly confederal and mass dimension, try to build a broad social opposition to the Meloni government. Obviously, the CISL (Catholic-origin Unions) does not go on strike, but CGIL and UIL do [UIL is the third Italian union confederation by size, with an ultra-reformist tradition, defending opportunistic and even right-wing policies]. In some way, more by chance than anything else, even some grassroots unions strike on their own platforms and with different demonstrations. However, it is a difficult strike, precisely because of the fears and hesitations of its reformist leadership, as well as those of the UIL. So, the general strike comes late, after a national demonstration by the CGIL alone, last October 7th (more than one hundred thousand people in Rome) and it is a scattered strike (different regions and sections of the working class go on strike on different days, in a complicated puzzle: all public and transportation sectors the November 17th, with the private sector in Central Italy; the private sectors in Sicily the 20th, in Norther Italy the 24th, in Sardinia the 27th and in Southern Italy the First of December).

In any case, I repeat, this is an important step, because for the first time there has been a significant contrast between the union and the government.

ISp: What are the central demands of the strike?

LS: The strike has a very extensive and complex platform, practically in its formal call it is more of a programmatic strike than one with specific demands. This is another mistake by a union leadership unaccustomed to interacting with mass movements and very self-centered on the dynamics of the organization. In the perception of the masses, however, the theme of the strike is quite clear: the government’s economic policy.

Meloni and the reactionary parties that compose her majority (Fratelli di Italia and La Lega) have greatly criticized in recent years the pro-European and liberalist policies by the “liberal left” (Democratic Party, Draghi and so on), promising a return to a social policy, against banks and large companies. Eventually, the budget law presented to the Chambers confirms choices that favor the intermediate and professional classes (bonuses, amnesties, cuts in their taxes and so on), while further worsening pensions (raising the retirement age), renewing public workers’ contracts with increases equal to only 1/3 of inflation, cuts and privatizes healthcare and universal services, refuses to introduce a minimum wage and cancels the Citizens’ Income (a subsidy for the poor and unemployed). It is clear, that is, that the point of the strike and of the confrontation with the government is the overall wage of the working class: in its direct (salary), indirect (pensions) and social (subsidies and public services) components.

ISp: The government tried to ban the strike. What does this mean in practice?

LS: In this decade the Right has seen a significant growth of support, not only electoral, among the lower classes. The 5 Star Movement, its themes and populist practices, have broken and confused social and territorial alignments that were deeply rooted in Italian political culture. Between 2018 and 2020 (when there was the Conte-Salvini, Lega-5Star government), a significant reactionary bloc formed in the country (around 40% of the votes), by stirring up the issues of immigration and security. This consensus penetrates working-class and popular cities and neighborhoods, which have always been historically on the left: from Piombino to Terni (small steel-cities in the once red regions), to the outskirts of large Italian cities. Even in the organized working class, even in shop-stewards and union activists from important factories and territories.

This consensus has developed also because the unions have never launched a decisive policy of contrast and a mass movement against the liberal policies of the past. Today, Salvini and Meloni have some fear that a trade union opposition could call this consensus into question, in a difficult economic moment and when they confirm European-style budget policies. They immediately attempted to delegitimize the strike. In a competition also among themselves (in view of the next European elections), Salvini therefore opened a propaganda campaign, focusing on the transport strike and imposing a reduction in strike time with injunction. He also succeeded because the strike was organised in this absurd form, which allowed the Ministry to use some formal contradictions in its call. Eventually, the blockade only affects some specific sectors (essentially city buses, metros and trains), which involve a limited number of workers. However, over this ban (which never occurred in a general protest), such a level of verbal clash was built between the union and the government, that the conflict between the two parties became evident on a mass level. In some ways, much more evident now, than in the confused and scattered proclamation by CGIL and UIL.

​ISp: What will be the implications? Will it have an impact on the mood of the striking sectors? What are the perspectives for the strike?

LS: It’s a complicated answer to give. Certainly, as mentioned, the reasons for the strike and above all the conflict with the government are much clearer and more evident today. This clash has certainly triggered a reaction of greater conviction and determination in the trade union ranks, in political activists, in the left in a broader sense. This will certainly make it easier to fill the squares for demonstrations. However, it is more complex to understand if there will be any effects, and what they will be, among the mass of workers. That is, concretely, it is more difficult to understand whether this will increase participation in the strike.

As I said, the strike is difficult. Italian wages have been greatly affected by the inflation of recent years and the substantial halt in bargaining in the previous decade. Going on strike is “expensive”. Furthermore, the widespread fabric of shop-stewards and union activists in offices and factories has been greatly weakened in recent years. It is this rooting that has made the Italian trade union strong in the past, these widespread union representations. We saw them in the spontaneous safety strikes of March 2020, which were actually organized by this widespread network of shop-stewards. This clash reactivates them, but I believe it is unlikely that with a single strike it will be possible to mend a strong mass relationship.

ISp: Is that usual in Italy, to ban strikes, or a result of the victory of Meloni in the recent general elections?

LS: As I said, it is the first time that precepts have been taken in a confederal general strike. The CGIL and the UIL were caught off guard, also because they never really assumed that this was a reactionary government. They’re not used to it. They know it, but they are still not fully aware of it. At the same time, as I said, the clash was actually propagandistic. The sectors affected are limited and also due to the stupid ways in which the strike was called.

It must also be said that in Italy there is very restrictive anti-strike legislation in the public sectors (health, schools, transport, but also museums, etc.). This legislation is about thirty years old and in reality CGIL, CISL and UIL have contributed to build it: their reformist and bureaucratic leaders in fact thought in this way of limiting grassroots movements and unions, which in the 1980s had mass consensus and built large strikes in these sectors (in particular in the railways, schools and city buses/metros). Now that there is a reactionary government, that corporate approach backfires against the Union itself. It could be the right opportunity for a radical rethink. As a left-wing current we think that the right response should be to denounce and cancel all these anti-strike agreements. A battle, however, that must be started first and foremost within the Union.

ISp: How would you describe the character of the present Italian government?

LS: I think it emerged clearly from the answers to the previous questions: it is a reactionary, far-right government, with evident fascist traditions (the symbol of Fratelli di Italia still contains that of the MSI, a tricolor flame that burns eternally above Mussolini’s coffin). It is not, eventually, a fascist government in the strict sense of the term: there is no systematic use of violence against the workers’ movement, that subversive aspiration towards liberal institutions to build a dictatorial state, which are typical of fascism. However, it is an authoritarian government (see the constitutional reform they are proposing, both liberal with the regionalization of social services and centralist with the direct election of the prime minister), which like Orban, Trump, Milei, Le Pen embodies an extremely contemporary dangerous Right, which alludes to a different capitalist management of the crisis, divides the subordinate classes, organizes and militarises society in a phase of growing imperialist competition.

ISp: The Italian movement which was at the forefront of struggles in Europe and internationally for decades has been through a “long winter” after the capitulation of Rifondazione Communista (and its demise) in the second part of the 2000s. Do you see any signs of revival?

LS: There are signs. Two years ago, a Florentine factory, GKN, was suddenly closed by the multinational that owned it: the occupation and the struggle led by workers managed to build an important movement, with national demonstrations of tens of thousands of people and the development of a network of relationships, aimed at rebuilding a fabric and a general practice of unity of struggle (convergence). The logistics warehouses in the center of the Po Valley (between Bologna and Milan), where a young and migrant working class is concentrated, have built a cycle of very significant struggles, driven by a very combative grassroots union (SiCobas). In some factories in northern Italy (SAME in Bergamo, “Electrolux” in Treviso, “Ilva” in Genoa, etc.) there is a working-class union capable of resisting, with struggles and in some moments a sort of counter-power in the factory. Last May, three-day strikes against the pace of work began in Pomigliano (a large FIAT/FCA/Stellantis plant near Naples, with 5,000 workers). It hadn’t happened for ten years.

Some youth events, also, are very popular and significant (Fridays for Future, the Prides, the feminist event of Nonunadimeno).

However, we must be aware that they are still very dispersed, limited signals, incapable of weaving together and supporting a mass movement. In these ten years, the organized social fabric of the left has weakened: there is still a large vanguard sector, a few tens of thousands of political and trade union activists (very divided among themselves). The real problem is that they are often isolated: they are no longer represented and representative of the social reality behind them. Repairing this relationship will not be immediate, it requires mass processes and above all the development of new mass movements.

This is why the trade union strike and the clash of these days could be important: to push the only surviving mass structure, the central Trade Unions, to try to truly put mass social opposition into action in the coming months.

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