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Joanne Barkan | The Nation

Joanne Barkan

Author Bios

Joanne Barkan

Joanne Barkan, author of Visions of Emancipation: The Italian
Workers' Movement Since 1945
(Praeger), is a freelance writer living
in New York City and Truro, Massachusetts. She has just returned from a
stay in Italy.

Articles

News and Features

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."