Letter From ltaly
by Joanne Barkan
The Nation magazine, June 3, 2002
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 Lesolo,
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 Dona 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
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 the 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
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
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
~ 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
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 o 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 ("Article l8 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
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
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
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
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."
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.