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Movements and left parties should keep a respectful distance

Alessandra Mecozzi, International Secretary of FIOM, the Italian metalworkers union, reflects on the weakened state of the movements, including the trade union movement, and draws some harsh lessons

April 13, 2008
8 min read

Are the movements weaker or stronger after the experience of the left in government? Could you comment especially on the trade union movement?

We wouldn’t be telling the truth if we blamed simply the Prodi government for the current weakness of social movements. These movements are facing a crisis all over the world, with the exception, perhaps, of Latin America. Moreover, the weakness of Prodi’s government was in part an outcome of a more general social and cultural regression. It is evident, for example, in the emergence of racism, in indifference in the face of war, in widespread everyday violence, especially towards women, in the defeat of the referendum on abortion and in the weakening of social rights including workers rights. The decline in workers rights has meant a high rate of accidents in the workplace which culminated recently in the deaths of seven employees in a fire at Thyssen Krupp.

Prior to the Prodi government, leftist social and trade union movements were growing, with positive programmes for change. But we needed some tangible results from the government for these to have a real social impact. This did not materialise. The internal political dynamics of this fractious and heterogeneous government rendered it incapable of making the most of the potential of the movements to achieve change. In particular, the divisions which constantly freeze up the left (a characteristic of the left even prior to the Prodi government) meant that no political support was offered to social struggles, including those around improving employment conditions or opposing the war.

Even the most influential confederation of trade unions, the Cgil – which had fought and won a significant battle to preserve ‘L’articolo 18’ (which protects workers against unfair dismissal) and which participated massively to the anti-war movements – was quick to back down on its commitment to social movements. Recently, it has even stopped mentioning movements in its internal debates. At its Congress earlier this year, to which Prodi was invited, the Cgil clearly gave up on maintaining its autonomy. Other movement actors followed the Cgil’s attitude: both those supporting (and at least not opposing) the government and those openly against them. The autonomy of the movements has been undermined by a mistaken instinct to judge everything according to the actions of the government. This reactive approach – whether pro or anti government – and the failure to develop an autonomous perspective on the actual issues facing society has been a very damaging, stopping everyone from analysing the real situation.

Were the movements prepared for the experience of the radical left in government? Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, how should you/the movements have prepared better?

The first lesson to be learnt is that the autonomy of the movements is an essential principle necessary for their continued existence (the same is true for trade unions who wish to keep their connections with the movements). In no circumstances should this be compromised. A lesson here is that the movements should have put more thought into distinguishing themselves from the political left (even if radical) during the Berlusconi government. This would have put them in a stronger position vis a vis the Prodi government. The latter government would even have benefited from more powerful movements. Had the movements been stronger, the parties which dominated this coalition in parliament would not prevail.

For example, the main priority of the Prodi government was to eradicate Italy’s financial deficit, which was surely an important goal, but it became an excuse to forget other important social objectives that needed to be addressed. Stronger, more autonomous, movements would have been a counter pressure to this. The left had not prepared itself – through a careful and shared analysis – for the consequences of its participation in government. Perhaps some form of preparation drawing on those principles that made the European Social Forum in Florence – autonomy, unity and radicalism – might have been led to some successes.

What now? What lessons from the last two years need to be borne in mind in from a movement point of view, for the future of the Archebolena? At present it is dominated by political parties. What needs to be done/what conditions need to exist for it be more rooted in movements and social conflicts?

Some of the movements (which had already been weakened by years of conflict and bickering without reaching any tangible solutions) invested all of their hopes and expectations in the Prodi government. This in turn disappointed them. The government’s initial survival was more a consequence of “social peace” than (as it should have been) the result of social conflict combined with the government’s potential capacity to deliver solutions. In fact, the Government only delivered its promise to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq. It failed to deliver its other manifesto were not delivered, including withdrawal of our military presence in Afghanistan and also legislation to protect the rights of civil union. What is more, the military budget was increased and Prodi persisted in the expansion of the American military base in Vicenza. Other laws from the previous legislation, including the ‘legge 30′ on precarious employment, the Bossi-Fini law on immigration and the building of TAV all remained unchallenged, in spite of many protests and alternative proposals. (See Vittorio Longhi on the record of the Prodi government).

The Cgil, the other two trade union federations, Cisl and Uil, supported government policies on welfare without any prior consultation, that penalized the most active and socially rooted section of workers and unions. My union FIOM, the metalworkers union voted against these policies. Meanwhile the attack on the national contract on employment continues. This contract has been a fundamental means of defending workers’ interests. The employers want to bring all negotiations back to the company level, exchanging a rise in salaries with more flexibility, hence worsening employment conditions by increasing productivity at the expense of the workers’ freedom and health. The trade union federations do not seem to be resisting this call of the employers.

For these reasons, the centre-left Government that has just fallen has not been a good experience for the movements. Today, we find ourselves weakened and without a strategy. We should, however, be capable of facing up to our responsibilities. We should be able to work – and already we are starting to – reconstruct alliances and develop shared perspectives. The work of the unions – and increasing the social movements – has become, more than ever, a labour of Sisyphus – as Rosa Luxembourg once pointed out . But perhaps we can learn from this and recognise that we must restart by treasuring past experiences and take action to construct and re-construct.

The Italian paradox is that vibrant movements do exist but they are incapable of developing their own solutions, or where they do, they have unable to gain the political support to build on such solutions. It need not always be like this. It only the movements and the left parties could learn to recognise each other’s significance yet keep a mutual distance and act upon their respective ideas, we would already be taking a step forward in the right direction. However in the dynamics of politics and parties, a mimickery seems to prevail, whereby ‘differences’ never truly emerge and parties seem reluctant to distinguish themselves from one another (evidence of the political caste!).

Unless movements learn culturally to let go of government and institutional reference points, they will fail. They risk loosing their connections with society. Without these social roots they will be unable to act as necessary connecting points between society and institutions. Those trade unions who wish to maintain a relationship with the movements, because of a shared outlook, need to safeguard a strong and democratic relationship with the workers that they represent – ensuring that it is the workers who have the final say in the decision-making process. At the same time, we as trade unions must try to build widespread relationships and initiatives with all those who are trying to oppose war, racism and liberalism, in order to come up with alternatives and taking the best from each movement.

Even at the best of times this is very demanding cultural and practical endeavour. This is why it would have been very useful to have created a solid forum at the national level both before and after the Prodi government. It would have meant a real positive change in the Italian political, social, and cultural landscape. Novelties in this scene are emerging from ‘La Sinistra Arcobaleno’/ ‘Cosa Rossa’, from whom everyone expects, at least, clear objectives. An alternative determined against war, militarism, Vatican fundamentalism, environmental degradation, and instability in the workplace. The party is also expected to protect civil rights, support the interests of the working class, the unemployed, and propose more environmentally conscious policies. We shall see.

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