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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.

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