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And now, here is today's commentary... --- Halting Italy to halt Berlusconi By Adele Oliveri 14 October 1994. Three million people take the streets in Rome during an eight-hour general strike called by Italy's three major unions (CGIL, CISL and UIL) to protest against the pension reform plan and the proposed 1995 Budget law of the then Berlusconi government. Shortly after, Umberto Bossi's Northern League pulls out of the ruling coalition, and Berlusconi is sent packing. 24 October 2003. Ten million people go on strike all over Italy, over a million taking the streets in cities across the country, in a four-hour general strike called by Italy's three major unions to protest against the pension reform plan and the proposed 2004 Budget law of the Berlusconi government. Is history repeating itself? Too early to tell, perhaps, but yesterday's protests are bound to give a considerable blow to an already wobbly government coalition, that is showing all the signs of increasing restlessness among its ill-assorted factions: the xenophobe Northern League, the reformed fascists Alleanza Nazionale, the former Christian Democrats and Berlusconi's Forza Italia. The proposed pension reform plan is the latest in a long series of ill-conceived policy measures that appear to have thrown the country in the longest stagnation of the past fifty years, according to the definition provided by the vice Governor of Italy's Central Bank, Pierluigi Ciocca. With productive activity at a virtual standstill since the first quarter of 2001, the closure or threatened closure of several car manufacturing plants since the second half of 2002, an increase in temporary and "atypical" jobs particularly among the young, and soaring prices of basic consumption goods, it comes to no surprise that Italians have decided to send the government a strong message of their growing displeasure at the way the country's affairs are being managed. The pension reform plan, which has been approved by the Cabinet but has yet to be discussed in Parliament, is aimed at increasing from 35 to 40 the number of years people must work and pay social security contributions before they are entitled to a full state pension. The reform, which if approved would be effective as of 2008, would force a large number of workers close to retirement to work for an additional five years, thus penalizing those who have already complied with their social security obligations according to the present system. This comes at a time when the government is trying to make ends meet by pursuing that hideous familiar pattern of cuts in social and environmental spending accompanied by tax rebates and other gifts for the wealthy and the dishonest (in the form of fiscal remission for tax evaders and amnesty for infringement of local building regulations), to make up for an increase in military spending, in transfers to private schools and universities, and other neoliberistic measures. Trade unions have opposed the pension reform ever since it was announced, claiming that the Italian pension system is perfectly sustainable and not in need of any further reform. Moreover, unions are being very critical of the process whereby the whole reform is being pursued, accusing the government of refusing to consult with them and other social actors, and preventing them from providing their own figures concerning the state of the country's beleaguered finances. Adding insult to injury, Berlusconi exploited his quasi-total control of the country's national television system to deliver, in violation of the network's rules, his own personal message to "Italian families" a few weeks ago, making an unannounced evening prime-time appearance on all national TV channels simultaneously to explain the objectives of his pension reform and the reason why the country so desperately needs it. And as if this wasn't enough to get the message across, Berlusconi has also pledged to send a personal letter to 18 million households in the country (clearly paid with taxpayers' money) to gather further support for his unpopular measures. Angered by the Prime Minister's willingness to do without any social dialogue, trade unions responded to these provocations calling yet the another general strike in less than a year, emboldened in their resolve by the massive flow of complaints that flooded the national TV network after Berlusconi's exploit. (Shortly after Berlusconi's message, a popular Sunday show launched an opinion poll to be conducted live, asking Italians to indicate the five things they wish to put a stop to. To the dismay and embarrassment of the conductor, Berlusconi and Forza Italia came first. He who lives by the TV shall die by the TV...) So what started off as a strike against an unpopular economic policy, quickly took the contours of a popular plebiscite against the current government, particularly after it was announced that the national networks would give no live coverage of the event (as it has been happening with all major demonstrations since Berlusconi took offices). Trade unions were quick to put aside the divisions that had characterized their actions over the past few months, promising to respond to Berlusconi's "unified networks" message with an even more powerful "unified piazzas" [unified squares] message. And so it was. Yesterday's four-hour general strike brought the country's schools, factories, offices, museums, post offices, trains, airplanes and public services to a complete halt. Participation rates varied somewhat from city to city and from workplace to workplace, but were in most cases anywhere between 70 and 100 percent. Although Italy is not new to large scale demonstrations, ranging in the hundred of thousands or even the millions, the attendance to yesterday's protests was well above what even the organizers had hoped for, sending a clear signal of the growing social discontent that has taken hold of the country. The real thermometer of the government's unpopularity was the city of Milan, Berlusconi's hometown and the stronghold of the country business community and fashion addicted, where about 200 thousand people converged in a single march to Piazza Duomo, making this the largest protest across the country. While Confindustria, the Italian industrialists' association, downplayed the importance of the strike, dubbing it half-hearted success and claiming that participation rates did not exceed 30 percent) unions and opposition leaders were quick to ride the wave of this unexpected result. Responding to Roberto Maroni, the Minister of Welfare, who had spoken of a "part-time strike" until the day before yesterday, a prominent representative of the moderate left-wing faction of the opposition replied: "It's not the workers' strike that's part-time; it's the government's contract that is coming to an end", while union leaders warned Berlusconi that unless he withdraws his reform plan, a full-time strike might be just around the corner. While Berlusconi has made known he intends to push ahead with the reform regardless of any social and political opposition, his coalition partners appear to have been touched by the magnitude of the protest, stressing the need to resume dialogue with the civil society and the "parti sociali", namely the unions. Whether Berlusconi will pay heed to the recommendations of his coalition partners and, most crucially, to the people he claims he represents, is yet to be seen. Yet he seems to "fail to heed the lessons of history", as a very harsh Financial Times commentary put it yesterday. "Ten years later it is déjàvu : ill thought-out pension reform, a general strike and a government on the brink of dissolution. Only Italy's European Union presidency prevents its collapse". Berlusconi's EU presidential term expires at the end of the year. Only two more months to go. If Italians keep organizing to keep the pressure up on their government, bringing the country to a halt over and over again, maybe history will indeed repeat itself. ===================================This message has been brought to you by ZNet (http://www.zmag.org). Visit our site for subscription options.