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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]
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
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