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Letter From Italy

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Padua

About the Author

Joanne Barkan
Joanne Barkan, author of Visions of Emancipation: The Italian Workers' Movement Since 1945 (Praeger), is a freelance...

From Padua's Piazza Insurrezione, where I was standing at 11 in the morning on April 16, the general strike--Italy's first in twenty years--looked and sounded like a great success. More than 70,000 people were already jammed inside the mid-sized square along with their broad union banners and thousands of flags. Three immense vertical standards--one for each of the labor confederations--loomed over the crowd. The noise was deafening: drums, horns, gongs, a PA system on the electronic equivalent of steroids and 70,000 voices cheering each announcement:

"We're ten million strong! More than half the labor force is striking against the antidemocratic policies of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right government! Three-hundred thousand are marching in Florence, two-hundred thousand in Rome..."

The demonstrators in Padua--a university town forty minutes west of Venice--weren't just striking, they were celebrating. Gathering together 70,000 adversaries of Berlusconi in the heart of the miracolo del nord-est--the economic miracle of Italy's conservative northeast where small- and mid-scale manufacturers have produced one of Europe's greatest concentrations of wealth--was a miracle in itself. The union banners identified the protesters: eyeglass assemblers from Santa Maria di Salva, carpenters from Iesolo, leather workers from Verona (most of them African immigrants), poultry processors from San Martino, hospital workers and schoolteachers from Venice. But students, university professors, insurance brokers and television producers also carried union banners. Thousands of others--teenagers, homemakers, young professionals--marched with family and friends.

The unions called the strike to protest a reform that would undermine the 1970 Workers' Statute, the key guarantee of labor rights in Italy. That's why Sabina Tonetto, a 26-year-old software consultant from the town of San Donà di Piave, said she was in the piazza. Yet the company she works for doesn't come under the statute's jurisdiction; it's too small. And with her skills, she said, "I run no risk of being laid off." She stayed away from work as a matter of principle: "Certain things"--the Workers' Statute--"must not be touched. All of us have to do our part."

Just a few blocks away, the stalls in the farmers' market in Piazza della Frutta and the shops along Via Dante and Corso Garibaldi were open for business. Well-dressed pedestrians perused the displays of handcrafted shoes, silk scarves and designer jackets--variations of what they were already wearing. The espresso bars were serving up sandwiches, pastries and pricey chocolates. The streets were peaceful. Nothing in the shoppers' demeanor, nothing in the merchants' conversation, connected to what was happening nearby. The noise from Piazza Insurrezione didn't carry. For anyone who wasn't right there, the general strike might as well not have taken place.

That's Italy today. While much of Europe has been shifting rightward, Italy tilted somewhat faster and farther and is now precariously poised, its citizenry both evenly and deeply divided. About half voted free-marketer Berlusconi into office in May 2001. His supporters include the business elite and some workers disillusioned with the left, but most are small and medium-sized manufacturers, store owners, professionals and self-employed craftspeople. They are numerous in Italy, prosperous and happy to have Berlusconi as long as he doesn't raise their taxes. The other half of the citizenry is outraged by a prime minister who aims to undermine the labor movement, dismantle the public sector and foil the prosecutors who have indicted him for corruption.

After nearly a year of collective depression and political paralysis, anti-Berlusconi citizens are starting to mount a credible opposition, coalescing around the left wing of the labor movement but reaching beyond to include intellectuals, students, media figures and ordinary people who are getting involved for the first time. Since January not a week has gone by without a rally or march or strike bringing anywhere from 3,000 to 2 million people into the piazzas. The protests are uniting generations and social classes. So far they've remained loose enough to attract independents and broad enough to incorporate both the center and left.

According to Valentino Castellani, a left Catholic and former mayor of Turin, "The healthy parts of society are finally saying, 'Enough! This can't go on.'" For Luciano Gallino, a prominent sociologist, the social protest movements that have sprung up in the last few months represent "an awakening of civic passion."

Berlusconi provoked the uprising by refusing to modify a series of "reforms" custom-designed to protect his vast business empire and shield him (and several Cabinet members) from prosecution for corruption. The naked self-interest, the almost outlandish specificity of the legislation, was too much for many Italians to take. One law (already passed by Parliament) decriminalized the falsification of financial statements in the private sector. This let Berlusconi off the hook because he was under indictment for that crime. A second law, also enacted, makes it difficult for Italian prosecutors to use "letters rogatory," the standard instrument for obtaining evidence from another country. This conveniently sabotaged a case in which Berlusconi was accused of bribing judges, a case that depended on evidence from Swiss banks.

Another law, which has passed the Chamber of Deputies, states that owning a business does not constitute a conflict of interest for a prime minister as long as he or she does not run the business. Since Berlusconi has turned over the administration of his enterprises to members of his immediate family, he would not have to sell any of his holdings, which include three of Italy's four private television networks, the nation's largest publishing conglomerate, Mondadori, and an advertising agency that dominates the national market.

Although the left unions have been fighting Berlusconi's policies from the start, the spontaneous street protests began in response to a reform that would allow the government to exert political pressure on the judiciary. When judges and prosecutors staged a walkout, two professors at the University of Florence called on citizens nationwide to support them. The response was overwhelming and persistent. By February a rally in Milan's Palavobis sports facility, which holds 12,000, drew a crowd of 40,000. That same month, leftist film director Nanni Moretti (Caro Diario, The Son's Room) set off a political revolt when he spoke to a rally in Rome's Piazza Navona organized by the center-left Ulivo (Olive Tree) coalition. Instead of making the predictable rally remarks, Moretti lambasted the coalition leaders, who were standing next to him, for focusing on petty internal power plays rather than offering an alternative to Berlusconi. He claimed that he no longer identified with their politics. The crowd's wild applause and the ensuing debate, which went on for weeks in the newspapers, embarrassed the Ulivo leadership into admitting they had lost touch with their constituency.

In March the girotondi ("ring-around-a-rosy protests") began. Resurrecting a feminist tactic of the 1970s, protesters, holding hands, circle around a building that figures in one of Berlusconi's reforms. If they are protesting his control over 90 percent of the airwaves, they circle around the state broadcasting headquarters; if they are protesting steps toward privatizing education or healthcare, they circle around a school or hospital. Girotondi are taking place all over Italy--often initiated by grassroots groups, announced just a few days ahead of time, and advertised through leaflets and by word of mouth. In addition to citizen protests against Berlusconi's reforms, there are frequent demonstrations against corporate-led globalization and racist treatment of immigrants.

According to Nicola Tranfaglia, dean of the humanities faculty at the University of Turin and one of the opposition's prominent intellectuals, "These movements don't trust the political parties. They are similar in some ways to 1968, but then it was young people. Today you see people of all ages."

What anchors this spirited civic engagement is the labor movement--more precisely, the largest and most left-leaning of the three union confederations, the Italian General Confederation of Labor, or CGIL. "In just three months, the CGIL has pushed the center-left so there's a tougher opposition and greater unity," Tranfaglia said.

If any one issue unites the opposition to Berlusconi, it is the attack on the Workers' Statute. Berlusconi wants to drop Article 18, which stipulates that if a judge finds that an employer has fired a worker unfairly, that worker can choose to go back to his or her job or accept a money settlement. Italians in the opposition see Berlusconi's move as an attack on basic individual rights. L'articolo 18 non si tocca ("Article18 cannot be touched") has become the central slogan of the protest movement.

Berlusconi and his allies in the most powerful business organization, Confindustria, argue that Article 18 creates labor market rigidity; as long as it stays on the books, they say, employers will refuse to hire additional workers, the economy will produce no new jobs and investors the world over will shun Italy. Sociologist Luciano Gallino thinks this is nonsense. "Eliminating Article 18 has nothing to do with creating jobs. It's the first step in labor market deregulation. It would open the door to creating a class of the working poor"--a phenomenon that Italians on the left see as typically American. Berlusconi's attack on Article 18 serves another purpose: "He is trying to split the labor movement," former Mayor Castellani said. Everyone in the opposition would agree.

Italy has had three politically diverse and competing union confederations since the onset of the cold war. Their ability to cooperate is endlessly fluctuating. The Italian Confederation of Workers Unions (CISL) is the second-largest confederation, the most willing to compromise with Berlusconi's government and the least interested in defending Article 18. The smallest confederation, the Italian Union of Labor (UIL), was also inclined to bend on Article 18. But Sergio Cofferati, secretary general of the CGIL, refused to budge an inch. He ended up rescuing the entire opposition.

Cofferati is the new hero--patron saint says it better--of Italy's left. When the other two confederations refused to support a protest march to defend Article 18, Cofferati insisted that the CGIL hold the demonstration by itself. Over a million people converged on Rome on March 23 in the largest rally since the Second World War. Cofferati also called for the general strike on April 16, and his March triumph embarrassed the other unions into going along. By the time of the April 25 Liberation Day rallies and the May Day rallies, 200,000 people were showing up wherever he spoke. The crowds chant "Sergio! Sergio!" no matter who else is standing on the stage, senior citizens break through the security lines and throw themselves into his arms, teenagers line up for autographs.

Cofferati's second and, by statute, final term as head of the CGIL ends in June. The opposition activists are begging him to lead the center-left coalition of parties. But he has decided to return to Pirelli, the giant rubber and tire company where he worked as a technician two decades ago--to do what, he won't say. He claims that he has no intention of withdrawing from politics. In April, he helped found "Aprile," a group that will coordinate the work of the large left faction within the party of the Left Democrats. But he'll make no bid, yet, to lead the left formally.

Berlusconi may have made a mistake by going after Article 18. Two of the several parties in his coalition--the National Alliance (the ex-neo-Fascists) and remnants of the old Christian Democrats--have criticized his hard line. Whereas Berlusconi considers himself a conservative in the mold of Britain's Margaret Thatcher, the other two parties are less ideologically pure free-marketers. It is difficult to predict Berlusconi's next move. Some Cabinet members hint that he would like to find a face-saving compromise on Article 18. His labor minister, however, claims he will fight the unions to the end. If the reform becomes law, the unions have vowed to collect signatures for a national referendum. Organizing for a referendum to revoke the law on letters rogatory has already begun.

With the right and far right in Europe gaining ground, the ongoing protests in Italy look like a hopeful sign. But Berlusconi still has the upper hand. He is the first head of government in post-Fascist Italy ready and able to disregard "the piazza" and impose his will through his solid majority in Parliament. "Berlusconi is setting up a regime for himself. He's not a fascist. He's populist and authoritarian. A Peronist. Liberal democracy in Italy is in danger," Nicola Tranfaglia said.

On May 26, about 11 million Italians will vote in local and regional elections. Although these contests do not necessarily mirror public opinion on national issues, everyone will interpret them as a showdown between Berlusconi and the opposition. The center-left has a chance to improve its standing. The far-left Communist Refounding party has agreed to cooperate with the center-left coalition--something it refused to do in last year's election, thereby assuring Berlusconi's victory.

In the meantime, citizens are rallying in the piazzas, collecting signatures and marching around buildings. As a result, most Italian small-d democrats would agree with Luciano Gallino when he says, "I'm a little less pessimistic."

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