European Press Coverage of the Italian Labor Dispute

Italy Strikes Again

Strike Italy Demonstrations
Protesters in Genoa carry a "crucified workman" during the general strike, April 16, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

The spectacle of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, or “People’s Square,” as a sea of banners and red flags on April 16 has led many European commentators to speculate about the resurgence of Italy’s political opposition. “Berlusconi + Fini = Mussolini,” read one poster wrapped over a cardboard coffin at the most recent demonstrations. Two massive paper-maché puppets depicted Berlusconi as Napoleon and the Pope. Other protesters shouted slogans lambasting Berlusconi for “killing democracy.”

This was Italy’s first general strike in 20 years, and as such it was a “very political strike,” according to Giacomo Folli of Milan’s centrist Corriere della Sera (April 17). It was organized by Italy’s three major trade unions to protest the government’s plan to overhaul and weaken Article 18 of Italy’s rigid labor law so that employers would have greater freedom to hire and fire. Article 18, which was passed in 1970, states that a company with more than 15 employees must reinstate a worker if a court finds that he or she was fired without just cause. The unionists charge that any change to this established labor law---one of Europe’s most protective---would give the government a green light to further erode workers’ rights and job securities.

Thirteen million Italian workers walked off their jobs, and 2 million took to the streets for a day, bringing the country to a standstill. Participants included, among others, transport, media, and health-care workers. The action was more than an expression of anger: It was the beginning of an organized opposition against Berlusconi. The left, at first paralyzed after the media tycoon’s stunning victory last June and formation of a rightist government, seems to have reclaimed its confidence to challenge the prime minister openly. Surely the strike also brought back painful memories for Berlusconi himself: Mass demonstrations helped bring down his first, shorter-lived government in 1994.

The participation in the strike confirmed what many Italian commentators have long argued: That Sergio Cofferati, the leader of Italy’s largest trade union, the Confederatione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), has the requisite support to run for office against Berlusconi. He has become the center of Italy’s labor movement, coordinating activities with Italy’s two other---more moderate---major trade unions, the Catholic Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori (CISL), and the centrist Unione Italiana del Lavoro (UIL).

Cofferati is a quiet man; Berlusconi refers to him dismissively as “Signor No.” But Berlusconi’s opponents welcomed Cofferati’s call for the unions to unite against Berlusconi’s government as the opposition’s first significant act of defiance since Berlusconi took office. Corriere della Sera, for example, in an April 15 front-page article, saw the general strike as “an instrument of political struggle,” which had nothing to do with the normal business of trade unions.

Likewise, Milan’s conservative Il Giornale, which is owned by Berlusconi, was quick to declare, in its April 15 edition, that the strike was aimed at bringing down the government. The next day Il Giornale’s top headline gloated: “The Strike Was Not General: Participation in Marches Less than Expected.”

Be that as it may, the editors of Munich’s conservative Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on March 25, many left-leaning Italians have begun to realize that their lackluster and fragmented opposition must awake from its “deep sleep, which allows the government to do what it pleases.” Coincidentally, the last general labor strike 20 years ago was against former Premier Bettino Craxi, after he eliminated the scala mobile, which legislated automatic salary raises to account for inflation. Ironically, the Socialist Craxi played no small role in making Berlusconi Italy’s biggest media baron: Craxi was a close friend of Berlusconi, and when, in 1984, a judge ruled that Berlusconi’s three national television networks were broadcasting illegally, Craxi rushed through a governmental decree to get them back on the air. Regardless, as the editors of Geneva’s independent Le Temps wrote on March 25, “2-3 million [striking] Italians is a lot…[but] even if they were to vote today, they would re-elect Berlusconi.”

Perhaps they would. But opposition to Berlusconi has been rapidly gaining steam in recent months. Smaller strikes have been an almost daily occurrence, but until recently did not have much impact. And even now, the political opposition is too divided to pose a serious threat. But if Italy’s press is any indication, that may soon change. Milan’s weekly Diario della Settimana regularly refers to Berlusconi as “the one who buys everything;” Rome’s left-wing Il Manifesto has called him “the elegant evil,” and “the black knight.” And when the unions called for a general strike, Italians across the political spectrum were happy to comply.

Perhaps it was to keep terrorists from hijacking their agenda. On March 19, Marco Biagi, a consultant to the government on labor law who had worked to change Article 18, was gunned down as he bicycled home from work. An offshoot of the Red Brigade, a far-left terrorist group active in the 1970s and 1980s, claimed responsibility, but Berlusconi’s coalition partners blamed the murder on the intransigence of the labor unions. On March 27, after Cofferati---whom Italian newspapers call the “anti-premier” or the “anti-Berlusconi”---organized a rally in Rome that drew 2 million people, expressing disgust at the murder but protesting proposed changes to Italy’s labor law. The turnout at this first rally may well have inspired Cofferati to build on his success.

The turmoil seemed to take the rest of Europe’s press by surprise as they struggled to make sense of Italy’s tumultuous internal politics. “Italy Sees Red,” was the headline of Dorothee Sippell’s special report in the March 25 edition of Vienna’s weekly newsmagazine Profil. Sippell depicted a country burdened by an influx of immigrants and a sky-high crime rate: “Has this country gone mad?” Sippell asked. “How will the opposition distance itself from extreme-left terrorism?”

Barbara Spinelli, a columnist for Turin’s centrist La Stampa attempted to answer this question in an angry guest-column for the March 27 edition of Hamburg’s liberal weekly Die Zeit, in which she concluded that the whole country was rotten to the core. Philip Willian, writing for the April 17 edition of London’s liberal Guardian likewise saw systemic problems behind the recent protests. “The massive response to the strike call,” Willian wrote, “Underlined just how polarized Italy has become.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung took a more penetrating look. “The opposition is fighting the wrong issues,” an unsigned March 25 editorial argued. “When Berlusconi took over the country, when his deputies subserviently passed his laws, and his ministers slammed the judiciary, protest was lukewarm. Now, when the government is finally beginning to do its job and is starting to tackle overdue reforms, the clamor begins.” In an opinion piece from the same edition, Stefan Ulrich added: “The new opposition is a street festival at best. It can cause Berlusconi to fall but it lacks enough substance to take his place. The leaders of the leftist parties go with the flow—but they don’t lead. They offer no attractive alternative to Berlusconi’s political bloc.”

La Stampa’s editors seemed to agree in their March 25 editorial. The protests, they argued, are holding up other initiatives that are “necessary to modernize the economy and create jobs and prospects for development.”

“Italy must move ahead,” Giacomo Folli agreed in an April 17 column for Corriere della Sera. “We must remember that in a democracy, the majority wins. And the government must remember that the labor world deserves respect. The workers are not an enemy to fight.”

Unions and the government are now set for long and painful negotiations in search of a compromise. Even a complete remake of the political arena is now possible, but the unions are going to have to take risks---cautiously. “Cofferati is aware of the fact that a general strike can be employed only once,” Gianfranco Fini, Italy’s Vice Premier and leader of the far-right National Alliance Party said, as quoted in Berlin’s left-wing taz (April 18). “He knows that he can’t threaten to strike again in another month.” Nevertheless, the opposition is slowly attempting to unify Italy’s three major trade unions into one potent political front that will vote together.

Left-wing Italian journalists have responded with optimism. “April 16 is not a repeat of the old general strike,” wrote Valentino Parlato in Il Manifesto (April 14). “It is not a matter of resistance but an opening to something new, absolutely modern…. This strike is a great challenge that will not end at 5 p.m. on April 16. It is a challenge to all of us…. The medium-term aim is to remove the current group from power---and then to take a new course.”