Italy's Inner Terrorists

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Italy is poised for a general strike, the first in twenty years, against Premier Silvio Berlusconi government’s labour reform.

On April 16, it’s predicted that at least 11-million workers represented by the Cgil, Cisl and Uil labour unions will strike for the day. The government’s reform is aimed at abolishing core labour rights, from the 1970 Worker’s Statute, which guarantees protection from termination without justified cause.

The stage for the strike has already been set by a series of huge demonstrations sponsored by the Cgil union, other workers and spontaneous groups of activists. These actions reached a climax on March 23, when — under a sea of red flags — 2-million people filled the streets of Rome and the Circus Maximus to protest plans for greater labour-market flexibility and acts of terrorism.

Premier Berlusconi, in trying to dismiss the demonstrators, said they only came to Rome for the day because, “someone had offered them a free trip, a free lunch and a chance to visit the museums.”

Terrorism Within

Tragedy had already struck the labour movement when, just a few days before the big demonstration, the Red Brigade killed Marco Biagi, a university professor working for Labour Minister Roberto Maroni.

He had been threatened on the phone many times, which he reported to Maroni. Inexplicably, he was deprived of an armed escort in Bologna, where he and his family lived.

He was shot outside of his house while parking his bike. Afterward, Maroni tried to defend himself, saying the tragedy could not be blamed on the professor’s lack of protection. However, all government consultants now have escorts.

The assassination was clearly meant to discredit unions and the opposition, linking them to terrorism and violence.

In spite of this, the march was one of Italy’s largest in fifty years. What made the demonstration all the more meaningful was the number of activists from across the country. “Your presence here is the best answer to the insanity of terrorism, it’s the strongest answer in the defence of democracy and its rules,” Sergio Cofferati, leader of the Cgil union, told the enormous crowd.

He also pointed out that, “Marco Biagi’s murder happened while workers and citizens were mobilizing in support of their legitimate and essential needs,” and therefore, “the terrorists’ choice of target was much more devious and profound.”

Power and Control

Since Silvio Berlusconi came into power, there has been a systematic demolition of the progressive gains labour has won after World War Two. In only ten months in office, the multi-billionaire Premier has already attacked the judiciary’s autonomy and overseen a kind of police-state style of repression against civil protests and dissent — not unlike what the world witnessed during the Group of Eight (G8) protests in Genoa.

He has also attempted to divide trade unions, to split the wealthy north from the south, to split the guaranteed worker from the temporary worker and Italians from immigrants. A good example of this xenophobia is the new immigration law, which is the worst expression of a widespread, racist culture slowly being sown by the separatist northern league in the fertile ground of Italy’s industrialized north.

“Their [Berlusconi and his government’s] culture is one that believes in compassionate capitalism, in philanthropy,” Sergio Cofferati said in his speech at the 2-million-people march on March 23. “We are children of the idea of solidarity,” he added. “In our history, workers fought to acquire rights to leave them to next generations. They propose exactly the opposite, they want silence from those who work, so they can deny rights to those who will enter the labour market next.”

A New Left

In terms of the fight against neoliberalism, Cofferati told activists, “Keep on defending your ideas and your petitions. Don’t let them intimidate you. From Cgil, you will always have attention and respect. Try not to look for autonomous political representation, but do prod political parties, force them to look at you and your requests.”

As the centre-left daily La Repubblica wrote, “[Sergio Cofferati] offers a different idea of reformism, faithful to the values and the historic identity of the left, but well grounded in society with a capacity to dialogue with everyone.” Cofferati represents a renewed vigour to the left and a determination to defend the social victories of trade unionism that date back to the early 1970s.

He might be the man the Left Democrats have been waiting for, even if he keeps denying that, at the end of his mandate in June, he might enter politics. However, the idea of him entering the 2006 general election as a leader of the Olive Tree, a centre-left coalition — working with European Union Commission President Romano Prodi —is not heavily criticized.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there’s a grinning and nervous Berlusconi, who tries to turn everything to political advantage. Immediately after the terrorist assassination of Marco Biagi, Premier Buerlusconi didn’t hesitate to talk about an “atmosphere of hatred” created by the union protests. According to him, “shortcuts through the actions of the judiciary, through mass demonstrations or through pistol shots are not part of democracy.”

Three of his ministers suggested that it was actually the Cgil union and those who demonstrated at the march who constituted the real threat to democracy, and that unions might have some involvement with the terrorists who carried out the murder.

Bravery in the Face of Terrorism

In the late 1970s, when bombings and murders were an everyday phenomenon in Italy, the Christian Democracy government managed to join together unions and left parties in order to isolate the Red Brigade, which split apart and disappeared for years. But the group has returned with a vengeance, though the opposition doesn’t want to begin to point fingers — even if the circumstances of Biagi’s assassination does look sinister.

In 1999, Massimo D’Antona suffered the same fate. A university labour professor, he was not an extremist, but a centrist moderate who was campaigning for welfare reforms. D’Antona knew this made him a potential target.

There is a difference between the 1970s, the terrorists of that time and those who murdered Biagi and D’Antona.

Thirty years ago, the Red Brigade was a well-organized network of people who shared a creed in armed class struggle, for which they had a strong, but distorted, ideological support. Today, these pure acts of violence have much more to do with small, isolated groups of social outcasts who might even have some connections to ex-terrorists who are already in jail or live abroad.

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