May 2023 – Italian Trade Unions Mobilise For a New Era of Labour Rights

The first mobilisation of CGIL, CSIL and UIL, Milan 6 May. Source: Collettiva, Facebook

In Italy this month is marked by successful inter-regional demonstrations organised by the three confederal trade unions. Leopoldo Tartaglia, Secretary of the CGIL-International Department, outlines the crucial role of organised and unified trade union forces in embarking on a new path of general struggles and mobilisations.

The well-attended and lively celebrations of the Day of Liberation from Nazi-Fascism on April 25th and Labour Day on May 1st were an important foundation for the success of the inter-regional demonstrations organised by the confederal trade unions CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labour), CISL (Italian Confederation of Trade Unions) and UIL (Italian Labour Union) on May 6th in Bologna (central Italy), on May 13th in Milan (northern Italy) and still to come on May 20th in Naples (southern Italy and islands).

Although these are traditional dates for the Italian democratic and trade union movement, this year, April 25th and May 1st were of particular importance, taking place just a few months after the installation of the most right-wing government in Republican history, led by the (post-)fascist Giorgia Meloni. The Prime Minister and the President of the Senate, Ignazio la Russa – who on April 25th went to Prague to commemorate Jan Palach – just could not bring themselves to recognise the democratic Republic and its antifascist Constitution which is based on the rights of the working people.

In the same way, the right-wing government tried to appropriate the First of May holiday and the workers’ struggle by convening a Council of Ministers to launch what it called “pro-worker measures”. At the same time, the government definitely abolished the citizen’s income (despite the fact that it had been launched by a government in which Salvini’s League was one of the two contracting parties) and replaced it by punitive measures against the poorest and most vulnerable and a further precarisation of the labour market, with the expansion of fixed-term contracts and the possibility of using vouchers.

The farce of summoning the confederal trade unions the night before – Sunday, April 30th – to inform them about the finished measures ready for ratification by the Council of Ministers was continued this year as well. In fact, this happened in full continuity of the method introduced by the then Prime Minister Renzi – theorist and practitioner of “disintermediation” – and perpetuated by successive governments, including Draghi.

Continuous mobilisation and struggle go hand in hand with general strikes

The trade union mobilisation – which is being carried out at the general level with a capillary campaign of assemblies in the workplaces and regions – follows a clear path, at least as far as the CGIL is concerned, in terms of objectives and methods of the struggle. Starting from the three inter-regional demonstrations in May, the aim is to intensify the conflict to the point of a general strike in order to influence the government’s decisions on the announced measures and the next budget law.

General strikes have already been proclaimed by the unions in 2021 and 2022 and were accompanied by difficulties in the relationship between the unions – while CGIL and UIL initiated the strikes, CISL from time to time “appreciated” the “offers” made by the governments and distanced itself from the mobilisation.

Another difficulty in this struggle is the knowledge that we cannot simply “shrug our shoulders” against a government which, apart from a few parliamentary mishaps, has a solid majority that will probably allow it to last through the whole legislative period for the first time in years. And since there is no radical or labour left in parliament, this government will be able to govern without a strong and determined parliamentary opposition to counter it.

The first inter-regional demonstration, held in Bologna on May 6th, was well-attended by trade union delegates and representatives, workers, and pensioners. It was a large and combative demonstration with its numbers exceeding the organisers’ own expectations and was animated to a large extent by the presence of the CGIL. But it was also characterised by a crowd that clamoured for a general strike and welcomed with coldness and a few whistles the timid speech of the CISL general secretary, Luigi Sbarra, who tried to identify non-existent “offers” of the Meloni government and was only interested in being called to the “negotiating table”, although he was aware that the government’s plans, for ideological reasons and the need to accommodate the bosses, go in the opposite direction to that which, at least on paper, CGIL, CISL and UIL unitedly claimed. After the inter-regional demonstrations – which will end in Naples on May 20th – the knots of the continuing mobilisation will come to the surface.

The French example is certainly important in this context, both for its merit of breathing new life into one of the central demands of the Italian trade union platform, the “Cancellation of the Fornero law” for a rewriting of the pension legislation, starting from the possibility of retirement at 62 (which was invoked by the interventions of the delegates on the stage in Bologna, including those of CISL) and for its demonstration of trade union unity, however difficult, against the arrogance of Macron and the Borne government.

In the light of the statements that have been made, there is still some concern in Italy about a unified stand, as well as the possibility that CGIL and UIL will continue and intensify the struggle, with the necessary strikes, without the participation of CISL.

Objectives proposed by the confederal trade unions, by CGIL in particular

The mobilisation intends to support unitary calls on the government and companies for a change in industrial, economic, social and employment policies so as to bring about concrete results in the areas of protecting incomes from inflation and increasing the real value of pensions and wages; renewal of national contracts in the public and private sectors; tax reform; increased funding for the public social health system, to guarantee the universal right to health, and for the education and training system; greater support for non-self-sufficiency; an inclusive labour market to overcome precariousness. Work must be given a new value, cascading and uncontrolled subcontracting must be eliminated, and a relentless fight against mafias and ‘caporalato’ must be pursued.

Change also means fighting against a return to pre-pandemic European budget constraints; fighting inequalities with a tax reform which is based on progressivity as set out in the Constitution; focusing on stable and quality work; relaunching a new and extended welfare state. Change means that the government must provide the resources to renew public contracts and identify the tools to overcome precarious employment once and for all, starting with the workforce of the public administration. So far the government’s measures have not gone in this direction either in terms of substance or method.

The holiday of May 1st, 2023 was dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the Italian Constitution born out of the Resistance and the struggle for Liberation from Fascism and Nazism, because we want to obtain reforms capable of applying and implementing the values and principles of the Constitutional Charter starting from the centrality of labour, social justice and the unity of the country, against any hypothesis of differentiated autonomy and indeed bringing back equal rights and services throughout the territory to a national health system that is today diversified for each region.

We want to open a general debate about the increase of wages both at the level of reducing the tax burden on workers and renewing national public and private contracts with increases that recover purchasing power in relation to inflation and aim at a growth in the real value of wages. New rules need to be established for the punctuality of contract renewals, including penalties for those responsible for delays.

The recently passed tax reform proxy law is dangerous because of the risk that financial imbalances will be filled through a reduction in social spending, and unfair because it reduces progressivity. Taxation is the basis of the citizenship pact and of social cohesion, which is why the resources needed to support welfare, health, education and public investment must not be jeopardised. We oppose both flat tax of any kind and a reduction in the number of tax rates: choices that mainly benefit high and very high incomes. We call for redefining and broadening the tax base of the personal income tax (IRPEF) by eliminating privileges in favour of incomes other than those from employment and pensions. Moreover, the tax drain (fiscal drag) that further penalises the already insufficient wage adjustments to inflation must be returned to workers. A breakthrough is needed in the fight against tax evasion and avoidance using all available instruments in a coordinated manner.

The Monti-Fornero law must be repealed. It is necessary to reform the social security system to make it socially sustainable and make clear the difference between welfare and assistance so that we can achieve a correct representation of Italian pension spending in international comparisons. Exit flexibility must be extended, allowing workers to be able to choose when to retire, without penalties for those who have contributions from before 1996, starting at 62 years of age or with 41 years of contribution regardless of age. It is necessary to value higher women’s work, care work, and the conditions of the most vulnerable groups (unemployed, disabled, caregivers) in terms of social security. It is indispensable to affirm the principle that ‘all jobs are not equal’, recognising heavy labour and expanding the list of demanding jobs. For young workers, for the poor and for persons with discontinuous working biographies we call for the introduction of the contributory guaranteed pension. The full protection of pensioners’ purchasing power must be guaranteed.

The importance of organised force in political and social opposition

If these are the objectives that the confederal union – and the CGIL in particular – are proposing, it is clear that the interregional demonstrations are only the beginning of a new path of general struggles and mobilisations, and must be linked up with the mobilisations that have already taken place, among others, of the construction workers, the strikes of the railway and public transport workers, the workers in the wood-furniture sector, and the proclamation of the strike in the field of telecommunications.

The CGIL is aware that, as with the Berlusconi governments, it is once again the only organised force playing the role of political and social opposition both inside and outside the working world, to the most far-right government in the history of the Republic. But, as in the past, it is torn between its (self-)assigned role and its autonomy: it does not want to and cannot play the role of political substitute.

In the meantime it intends with coherence, strength, determination and continuity to mobilise – as much as possible in unitary terms – workers and employees, young people, precarious workers, and pensioners on the platform of claims largely shared with CISL and UIL and, above all, to put to the scrutiny of the territorial and workplace assemblies, what we have called ‘A New Era of Labour and Rights’.

Trade unions should not forget their role as the most important structure of social mobilisation

As predictable, the neo-liberal continuity of the policies of Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government will be further strengthened – and will seek alibis – in the re-proposition of EU austerity policies. Having passed the turn of the pandemic and the NextGenerationEU – which, moreover, is now being converted into further military spending – the Commission and the ‘frugal’ countries are imposing a return, only partly sweetened, to the old Maastricht parameters, to budget cuts, to the imposition of debt repayment and deficit ceilings. All these are measures that will hit Italy particularly hard and that will be unloaded – once again – on workers, the working classes and the poorest sectors of society, starting with the south. Instead of taxing super-profits and pushing companies – not with more bonuses and incentives, of course – to substantially increase wages, decimated by a huge and growing profit inflation, the Commission, the ECB, the Bank of Italy, and the Meloni government are crowing about a non-existent ‘price-wage spiral’.

All this only aggravates the already demanding social situation and reminds the trade unions of their responsibility to accentuate the social conflict. Without forgetting for a moment that all this is happening while the war rages on the borders of the European Union and that, a year after the Russian aggression, the Italian government and those of the Union, completely subservient to the dictates of the US and NATO, instead of pushing for negotiations and a diplomatic route, continue with the policy of sending arms and internal rearmament, with a significant increase in military spending, to the detriment of social spending. The CGIL was and is an important part of the Italian peace movement – perhaps the most active one at the European level.

Equally, it is unceasingly mobilising people, together with a wide range of secular and religious associations, to reject the illegitimate and inhuman policies against migrants and asylum seekers, against the logic of ‘fortress Italy’ and ‘fortress Europe’, once again for the defence and application of the principles and values of our constitutional law and the universal charter of human rights.