AROUND 10 million salaried workers in Italy took part in a strike called by the CGIL, CISL and UIL trade union federations unions last week, with demonstrations in 100 cities. At issue is prime minister Berlusconi’s attacks on pension rights. HENRY SILKE in Catania, Sicily, explains the background to the protests.
ONCE AGAIN Berlusconi is attempting to ‘reform’ (ie destroy) Italy’s public pension system. The last time Berlusconi attempted to do this in 1994 it brought down his first government. Now ten years on, facing an economic crisis, he is trying again.
As it stands, an Italian worker with a public pension can retire after 35 years of work. Many people choose to do so and the average age of retirement is 57. Berlusconi wants to change the system to one where workers must work to 65 or can retire after 40 years of work.
This means Italian workers are to work an extra five years and get absolutely nothing in return! In a recent poll by the Repubblica daily, 59% said they support strike action against the reform.
The morning after Berlusconi made a paternalistic and condescending televised speech on pensions Italy was struck from top to bottom by spontaneous strikes.
But to a battle hardened Berlusconi, who has already faced two one-day general strikes over his attacks on workers’ rights as well as countless smaller strikes and countless demonstrations, some involving literally millions, this will not be enough.
14% of Italy’s GDP is being spent on pensions and the economy is in crisis. Confindustria (the bosses’ organisation) is pushing for cuts in workers’ rights and welfare to make Italy more competitive on the world market, which they hope will solve the crisis. Pensions, as far as the bosses are concerned, are far too generous. They of course would like to see the state pull out of the pensions business altogether – cutting payments and making higher profits at the same time.
Berlusconi and his coalition government represent the interests of a large layer of Italy’s bosses. Only his removal from power will safeguard pensions. And in the long run only a government that truly represents workers will protect pensions – one that is not a slave to the neo-liberal capitalist agenda.
Unfortunately, even if Berlusconi goes it is doubtful if a Prodi-led government will, apart from presentation and style, be very different. (Romano Prodi, currently President of the EU commission, led the 1996-98 ‘Olive Tree’ coalition involving the ex-communist PDS. Its pro-capitalist policies disappointed the working class and paved the way for Berlusconi’s return to power.)
The trade unions will need bolder action to defeat Berlusconi and to give a warning to Prodi. The workers have shown themselves willing to fight; all that’s lacking is a leadership willing to do the job.
Workplace committees and assemblies need to discuss the way forward and prepare for more prolonged and determined action. The unions and left parties must follow up the 24 October strike with the policies and a struggle to finish with Berlusconi and his system of class rule once and for all.