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United General Strike: April 16, 2002:
Towards a Renewal of Conflictual Syndicalism

by Donato Romito

TWENTY years have passed since the last general strike in Italy. It was not a victory. The union front of the CGIL-CISL-UIL then fell apart. In 1984 the "scala mobile" [escalator - translator.] (an automatic mechanism whereby wages were linked to the three-monthly inflation index) was abolished by law.

There then followed years of social and union peace, interrupted only by the struggles of the first COBAS ["base committees"] (in the areas of schools, railways and postal services).

Then the long years of the 90s, a period of conciliation between the government, the bosses and the unions. These are the years of pacts and trilateral agreements, which introduced wage moderation (agreed increases within programmed inflation rates), company contracts based on productivity, flexible hours and pay, rent-a-job, pension cuts. These same years saw the development of the base (grassroots) unions which capitalized on dissatisfaction with the unions and began, slowly and with difficulty, to spread throughout the workplace.

Now, following 1 year of the Berlusconi government, we have already reached the stage of a general strike. This was unforeseen. What went wrong for the government? What went wrong for the CGIL–CISL–UIL?


It coincides entirely with that of the Confindustria [industrial employers' federation – tr.]. The Government announces that it no longer wants partnership with the unions but will limit itself to listening to the various parties and then decide. It is evidently attempting to exclude the CGIL–CISL–UIL unions from macroeconomic decisions which regard the world of labor. These decisions are contained in special powers which the parliament will give to the government. These powers are listed in the famous White Book of the Northern League minister Maroni. To these are added the abrogation of Article 18 of the Workers' Statute (1970). The objective is to reduce the scope of workers' rights and to encourage job instability. Excluding every union in the process. To sum up:

  1. the abolition of Article 18 of the Workers Statute which prevents unfair dismissal in companies of over 15 employees (in cases where the company has fewer than 15 employees the principle of compensation applies, without the obligation to reinstate the worker following an order by the tribunal) for three type of "category":

    – for workers who go from a fixed–period contract (80% of new contracts are already of this type) to an open–ended contract

    – for workers in companies of fewer than 15 employees which exceed that figure

    – for workers "emerging" from illegal/undeclared labor

    All these workers will now risk dismissal and will have to make do with compensation

  2. the use of an arbitration tribunal to deal with labor controversies, thereby eliminating the role of the independent magistrate
  3. on–call jobs: the workers involved would always be at the disposal of companies and would be called in episodically for work, only when necessary
  4. job leasing: workers (even with open–ended contracts) are paid by agencies who rent them out
  5. project work: limited–term contracts which terminate at the conclusion of the work for which the worker is hired
  6. reform of state employment exchange: opening the way for privately–run job centers
  7. social insurance: the obligation for workers to pay insurance contributions for their entire working career into private pension funds
  8. tax: review of tax levels which greatly lowers tax on higher incomes
  9. education: privatization of the education system

There is a lot more to it than just Article 18. However, this remains the crucial knot. And it is anything but symbolic! If the government were to win and abrogate Article 18, it would not only concede more freedom to the bosses to fire workers, but would consequently attempt to dismantle the entire Workers' Statute. And not only this – if just cause were no longer required for dismissals, workers who carry out union activity could be happily fired. And who would then dare carry on union activity in the workplace?! It would be the end of the unions as a feature of company life, be they traditional unions or base unions!

CGIL–CISL–UIL have asked the government to remove the powers on Article 18 before they sit down to discuss the other points. The government has been trying to divide the CGIL from the CISL–UIL (who are more moderate), but its intransigence has forced the CISL and UIL to take sides with the CGIL and call the general strike. The government is counting on returning to confrontation on the point of the powers as if nothing had happened, but it will not be that easy – it has questioned and is endangering the institutional legitimacy which the CGIL–CISL–UIL had obtained during the 90s, thereby forcing them into conflict. The confrontation will certainly take place sooner or later, riding roughshod over the workers who striked, but the government has much to ask and extremely little to offer. There just aren't the resources to finance any measures of social protection for dismissed workers. Forecast growth for 2002 is for 1.2% according to the IMF, while the debt is due to break the 40 billion Euro mark!

So, the general strike is an event which hits a government which is as arrogant as it is timid, and capable of using the threat of terrorism in order to criminalize social opposition. The general strike is an event which hits a demanding Confindustria [employers' federation – tr.] which is somewhat disappointed with its wining horse and which is going all out at any cost. The more moderate element appears to be extremely weak and unable to take advantage of the general strike to change the policy of the present head of Confindustria, D'Amato.

This is how the situation seems at the moment – a worrying strategy of wearing down the opposition and an increase in social tension which foresees and prepares for repressive interventions. A film we have unfortunately already seen.


Throughout the 90s, the so–called "partnership" unions guaranteed union peace, a ceasefire on wages, the differentiation of pay on the basis of merit, control of the process of transformation of labor from guaranteed to precarious. They took it upon themselves to proclaim themselves as being the most representative unions, the only ones entitled to negotiate national and company labor contracts. They treated union representation as a question of power to the point that they were able to obtain a guarantee of 33% of delegates in the "union representation groups" (rsu) within companies. During the time of the previous center–left government they did not stir things up much, safe in the knowledge that the partnership pact with the government would be agreed. Having left the troubled days of conflict behind, having regimented the process of negotiating contracts down to the level of an accounting ritual, they wallowed in the self–satisfaction that comes from feeling untouchable.

Berlusconi and the Confindustria brusquely brought them back to the hard reality of Thatcherite neo–liberalist policies. The sort that can do without unions. The CGIL Metalworkers' union (the FIOM) had begun to react by organizing a strike alone against the national contract for that sector, subsequently accepted by the CISL and UIL. The CGIL–CISL–UIL then looked on helplessly as the government unleashed its brutal, homicidal repression in Genoa during July 2001 on the occasion of the G8 meeting.

And more. The CGIL's schools sector striked alone in order to obstruct the reformation of the education system. There then began the conflict which would lead to the general strike. The CISL and UIL were humiliated by the government which derided them for their moderation, without conceding anything to them; the CGIL finally had to open its eyes. At its conference in Rimini in February 2002, the internal majority and minority joined ranks with a single document which "exhumed" the hatchet.

The strategy is to regain the powers of partnership, in the full knowledge that the opponents have changed while at the same time to re–affirm the full entitlement to negotiate contracts. This led, in February, to the signing of the contract for the public sector and schools – miserable both in its quantity (average 100 Euro increase) and in its quality, the financial gains being guaranteed only for the year 2003!

Despite the demonstrations of willingness on the level of single sectors, the government reaps the benefits but will not cede on Article 18. In fact, it even applauds the unions when they carry out their role as negotiators for the single sectors (next up is the turn of chemicals workers – 72 Euro!), but it excludes the unions from determining the rules of the labor market.

The CGIL answers, once more alone, with a huge demonstration in Rome on the March 23 – over two million people. On top of the CGIL's own organizational abilities was added the growing desire to demonstrate, publicly and visibly, against the Berlusconi government on the part of hundreds and thousands of people, even those unconnected to the CGIL. It was Sergio Cofferati's day. Cofferati, the outgoing general secretary of the CGIL, gave a speech worthy of a political leader which was in stark opposition to the Berlusconi government, but also a splintering of the Italian political left. After March 23, Cofferati was mentioned as a possible future leader of the left–left opposition alongside Prodi, shortly to return after his European stint.

Even for the CGIL–CISL–UIL, and for the CGIL in particular, the general strike has not been altogether without change. It seems to be more a departure point than the point of arrival of a clash which is sure to last until the summer. The next moves can only be of a similar quality and intensity. But the risk of digging a wider trench between the unions on the one side and the government and Confindustria on the other, and the fear of a forced radicalization of the conflict are clear to the union bosses. Having "forgotten" how to conduct radical syndicalism and how to obtain real contracts, or never having had the experience, there is the risk that their knees will go weak at the crucial moment. And at that precise moment, the destiny of hundreds of thousands of workers could be in danger once more, reduced to being pawns of the partnership, sacrificed on the altar of a new institutional legitimacy. A future won from a right–wing government, too! Some victory!


The large–scale mobilization of this general strike is certainly not due only to union causes – there have been many political reasons accumulating over the period since autumn 2001 which have contributed to making it a strike which is essentially in protest at all the government's policies. And it is precisely on this point where one can see the total uselessness of the parliamentary political opposition, which has taken to the streets almost unwillingly, pulled there by repeated mobilizations of the workers. The parties of the center–left Olive Tree coalition are reluctant, both the Margherita (moderate centrists) and the Left Democrats (obliged to follow Cofferati who is one of theirs). And one can easily see why – many of the items of the Berlusconi government's agenda regarding employment are simply the continuation of decisions taken by the previous center–left government. Even on Article 18, the D'Alema (LD) government had tried to make headway. Their embarrassment is evident.

But even Rifondazione Comunista is forced to change its route. It has had to recognize, and with difficulty, that employment is still at the heart of the conflict. However, at its recent party conference in March 2002, it decided to concentrate on the No–Global and Anti–Liberalist movements, following the experience of Porto Alegre. There exists, and still resists, a deep conflict between workers and capital, between workers and the power of the State, which is of course the same historical, central conflict as ever, in which Rifondazione Comunista seems to have lost interest and the ability to analyze, despite the syndicalist origins of its leadership.

Even the No–Global movement and the various Social Forums which have sprung up since Genoa have been forced to face up to the workers' ability to mobilize, and are re–discovering an area of social conflict which they thought had long passed, or at least been absorbed, as one of the many arguments of the No–Global milieu. The notion of "Empire" (from the book by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt – review forthcoming) which is permeating through large parts of the movement, has produced a strategy based on the concept of "disobedience" and on actions carried out by "disobedient" elements. Although this conduct may allow the contradiction with the powers that exist within the supposed "empire" to act, it seems asphyctic when the parties to the fight are the carriers of collective interests which are counterpoised and incompatible, such as those between capital and the workers. We are, in reality, paradoxically facing a revolution of terms and positions – it is the union movement and workers who are asking the government and capital to be obedient and to respect the rights they won over 40 years of tough social struggle!


The base unions saw an undoubted period of growth in the 90s, when the period of government–union–bosses' partnerships were riding the crest of the wave. This growth was both in terms of members and of consensus. They benefited from dissatisfaction with the CGIL–CISL–UIL, they extended their base of members who already belonged to the left to even unionize more moderate areas. Today they are strong, in some sectors more than in others, in some regions more than others, depending in part on the history of their founding nuclei. In 1999 and 2001, the RSU (Rappresentanze Sindacali Unitarie) workplace elections demonstrated that their electorate is on the increase and they have a definite presence in the workplace, even though they have to put up with a rather undemocratic running of the RSUs on the part of the traditional unions. Even the opening of base union branches in so many towns shows a well–developed ability for organization and consultancy services for workers. Fundamental for any serious union activity.

The arrival of the Berlusconi government and Confindustria's new strategy did not catch them unawares, both as regards analysis and as regards the ability to mobilize. Those were above all the months when the CGIL–CISL–UIL seemed to be lost, after the government had packed away the negotiation table. But, in the face of the partnership unions' stammering and the demand for struggle coming from the shop floors, the base unions' initiative in the autumn of 2001 unfurled in a fragmented fashion. A series of strikes, each time called by a different union, with no overall strategy or co–ordination. At a time when it was necessary to make an effort to reach a minimum of unity, everyone went his own way. Once again the same old problems emerged – such as over–attachment to one's particular little union – problems which have afflicted the base unions since their birth and have slowed their growth.

For once these problems were put aside for the occasion of the general strike on February 15, called by all the various base unions through a united document and on the basis of a united platform:

– the extension of Article 18 of the Workers' Statute to companies with fewer than 15 employees;

– the reduction of working hours to 35 with parity of pay;

– new contract restrictions to reduce the necessity of recourse to precarious and flexible labor;

– the defense and extension of the welfare state;

– the reversal of all privatizations;

– wage adjustments to meet real inflation (3.5% in 2002) with a new index–linked mechanism;

– a minimum European wage;

– withdrawal of the anti–immigration Bossi–Fini bill.

The success of the Rome demonstration with over 150,000 strikers marching was not by any means a foregone conclusion, if you keep in mind also the revocation of the strike on the part of the CGIL–CISL–UIL. In a demonstration of unity, the base unions were able to capitalize on the discontent and disagreement of thousands of workers with the traditional unions who in those same days had accepted the contract for civil servants and school workers and who ran to the Education Minister in an attempt to block the calling of union meetings during working hours by the delegates of the base unions, elected by the workers.

In any event, it must be said that the national participation figures for the February 15 strike were not particularly exciting, a fact which due to the geographic distribution of the base unions, with areas where it is strong and rooted in certain sectors and other areas where it has little significance in the workplace.

Cofferati But, while on February 15 the workers came to the base unions by participating in their strike and demonstrations, on April 16 the base unions chose not to go to all the workers. They preferred, instead, to call for separate demonstrations to those of the CGIL–CISL–UIL in several cities such as Rome, Florence, Bologna, Milan, Naples, Cagliari, Palermo, Turin and Genoa. However, in other towns the base unions, or rather their members, decided to join a single demonstration, albeit in well–defined blocks. The choice rested on two different viewpoints:

  1. The CGIL–CISL–UIL are seen as adversaries, hopeless supporters of partnership, all too ready to negotiate on the government's White Book once the storm has died down, killers of union democracy in the workplace. Therefore, it is necessary to stand apart, not only on the platform but also in the methods of struggle (separate strikes, separate demonstrations). This way of thinking of the base unions does not, however, seem to bear in mind a far from negligible aspect – how can they bring the ideas of base syndicalism to the largest possible audience and how can they encourage the dissatisfaction with the institutional unions' strategy of partnership, above all in moments like the mass event of the general strike?
  2. The CGIL's return to firmer, more combative positions (after the success of the base union strike on February 15 there was evident worry in the CGIL leadership) and the demonstration in Rome on March 23 with around two million participants, brought back to the CGIL hundreds of workers who until very recently had been responding to the call of the base unions. The perception of this phenomenon drove the base unions to push for a separate presence, for from the demonstrations of the traditional unions. This understandable choice on the part of the base unions seems, however, to ignore another far from negligible aspect – is it useful, at a time of a general strike, to follow a tactic where the interests of one's own organization are privileged, and above all, are we sure that those interests are protected by organizing parallel demonstrations, far from the spirit of February 15?

It is now evident that there was a convergence of two contradictory motivations which led to April 16 even though they were linked by opposition to the changes to Article 18. It is true that the CGIL–CISL–UIL were driven there as a result of an attack by the government and the bosses and because they had been deprived of their partnership status and therefore that institutional legitimacy which they had acquired throughout the 90s. It is true that the base unions arrived there on a fiercely radical and, at long last, convergent platform. But while the millions of workers brought onto the streets by the CGIL and the others may represent a strong body of attack and resistance for its ability to mobilize, this does not mean that within the CGIL there is increasing room for an eventual radicalization of what is a definitively institutionalized leadership. In this situation, base syndicalism need not fear the numbers which the CGIL–CISL–UIL brought onto the streets. In fact, if it maintains its unity, it can become a catalyst for the radicalization of struggles and the renewal of union conflict, sector by sector, region by region, as soon as the negotiations between the unions and the government resume.

In this situation, the base union movement needs to show its greatest unity, to rediscover its autonomy, to re–launch the practice of negotiating contracts from below, from the base. It is here that the role of base syndicalism becomes significant if it can speak to the whole movement and bring its ideas to the greatest possible number of workers.


Many anarchist workers are active in different unions – from the left of the CGIL to the various COBAS, from the UNICOBAS to the USI, from the RdB to the CUB, in different sectors and categories, in different political and geographical organizations and areas. Many other belong to no particular union. More often than not, the choice depends on the levels of strength in the workplace rather than on how revolutionary they feel, on a shared strategy or period of struggle with one's workmates rather than the maximalism of one outfit or another. Very often anarchist and libertarian union activists realize they are elements of worker unity and not division, they are able to concentrate on the common interests and intentions rather than sectarianism.

Frequently, they have to defend their union from the "devilish plots" of reformists, and this can be easier if the union enjoys the trust and support of its members. Anarchist and libertarian union activists are able to bring an element of conflict to a platform, they are able to introduce libertarian practice into the organizations of struggle, they are able to publicize and develop direct democracy, control of delegates from below, control of contract negotiation from below. They get elected as delegates to the RSUs. It is a situation with a wide range of different, meaningful experiences. They are the carriers of an alternative project – to rebuild direct–democracy class syndicalism. But what they do not have are real forms of co–ordination.

In 2001, the FdCA launched an Appeal to anarchist and libertarian union activists to work towards some form of co–ordination which would begin at the workplace and, spreading through the country, would reach national level. This Appeal is more relevant than ever today.

Why from the workplace? Because it is from there that we need to rebuild that unity of interests between workers with different types of contract, to get back the powers of contract negotiation into our hands, to protect the right to health, to organize working hours ourselves so we can better organize our lives, to separate pay from productivity, to refuse the emotional blackmail of overtime.

On the ground is the perfect place for anarchists and libertarians to build those places and situations where a fabric of association can be created, spaces for debate, for political and cultural development, for solidarity, like the old Mutual Aid Societies and cultural centers which served to strengthen the workers' movement in the past and provide an effective defense of class interests. We need to build Inter–Union Chambers of Labor where we can re–establish a network of union relationships and development irrespective of which union one belongs to, a place where there can be a wealth of experience as a result of the different histories of union work, of self–managed organizations, of unions, of union and political militants who seek out and follow objectives in the struggle (both partial and general), where the workers of different union organizations can be federated.

On the national level, it is up to anarchist union activists to ensure that radical syndicalism with libertarian practices becomes the defining question on which to federate class groups, union activists and various base unions.

The uniting of the various base unions into one single organization is not a credible proposition, but it is necessary and urgent that base syndicalism establishes itself and offers itself as an attractive, real alternative for all workers. For this reason it is our job to work towards (as a minimum) the creation of a stable class syndicalist platform.

A platform which contains indispensable objectives on pay, working hours, rights, services and union democracy for all Italian and migrant workers, both fixed and temporary, north and south.

A platform of struggle with which we can rebuild worker unity, re–establish class solidarity, bring back union democracy and autonomy to the world of labor for a more egalitarian and libertarian society!

- SOURCE: Donato Romito
   National Secretary, FdCA.

   Translated by Nestor McNab – April 2002

click to FdCA website

The (FdCA) Federation of Anarchist Communists developed out of a progressive coming together of groups and federations of a regional nature which began back in the days of struggle in 1968 in Italy. This organizational project brings together class–struggle militants from the Italian anarchist communist tradition, and aims at developing a libertarian reference point for all those who acknowledge the necessity for organizational theory, tactics and objectives.



[Base Confederation of Italy - UNICOBAS] Born in 1991 as the syndicalist wing of the schools-sector Cobas, the CIB is a libertarian union which has close links with the schools sectors of the CGT-Spain, the CNT-F, the French and Swiss SUD, with whom they are about to form the European Federation of Alternative Syndicalism (FESAL). It is part of the ILS/SIL. It is strongest in the schools sector where it has a fair number of members and supporters. It is also present in the university, health and civil service sectors. Its members number over 5,000, dotted all over the country but with their stronghold in Rome. The national secretary is an anarchist comrade.


[COBAS (Base Committee) Confederation] Came into existence as an organized union at the end of the 90s. Its strongest sector is schools, where is has several thousand members. Other sectors were acquired from already-existing Cobas in different categories of the civil service and local semi-state agencies. It has strong ties to Rifondazione Comunista and to the Social Forums, and is a very politicized union with a strong hegemonic tendency. It too is spread over the whole country with its stronghold in Rome. In 2001 it began a process to unite with the, which has slowed somewhat of late.


[Base Unitary Confederation] The CUB was born at the end of the 80s when a group of metalworkers left the CISL. It consists of a series of single-category unions, which are concentrated in the north in factories, the transport sector and schools. Its stronghold is Milan and it has about 10,000 members. In the mid-nineties it federated with the RdB. The national secretary of the CUB-Scuola (schools sector) is an anarchist comrade.


Cartel of professional base unions in the transport sector.


[Base Representation] Historic autonomous union which has been active since the 80s in various sectors of the civil service, health and semi-state agencies where it has won itself a strong pool of members and a strong electorate. It is recognized as the most representative union, having negotiated national contracts in certain sectors. Strong in Rome. Widespread presence with around 15,000 members.


[Inter-category Cobas Union] Originates in the mid-90s in a split from the SLAI-Cobas, led by Rifondazione Comunista. It is present in various sectors - factories, co-operatives, commerce, local government bodies, schools. It has close ties with Rifondazione and is strongest in the center and north of the country. It is in the process of uniting with the Cobas Confederation.


[Self-managed, Inter-category Workers Union] Originally born in the early 90s as an attempt to introduce base committees (cobas) to factories and metalworkers and was successful in terms of numbers and election results. It has conducted some important legal battles for the defense of union democracy and against unfair dismissals. It is present in a few big industrial areas, like Turin and Naples.


Born in 1978 and inspired by the historic revolutionary syndicalist USI from the 1910's, this union's members are above all anarchist workers. In the mid-90s, during a period of major growth, it suffered a split which weakened it greatly. The USI accredited to the IWA has its nucleus in Ancona, where it publishes "Lotta di Classe" [Class Struggle]. It is strongest in the health sector and in the Post Office. The USI which left the IWA has its nucleus in Rome in the research sector and local semi-state bodies.


[National RSU Co-ordination] Originating in the late 90s, it tries to coordinate the various RSUs, with their strong presence of CGIL and some base union workers. It is often critical of the traditional unions and has played an important role in the drive for a general strike since autumn 2001.

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