Hugh Edwards reports from Bologna
1 March 2010 will go down in history as the date when tens of thousands of the four and a half million immigrant population of Italy threw down the gauntlet to the racist government of Silvio Berlusconi and the ever-widening persecution emanating from the pores of a society deep in crisis, by going on strike. It was a challenge to a society that in the time-honoured capitalist manner is increasingly forced to survive by sowing and maintaining divisions among the majority it exploits, scapegoating its weakest and most vulnerable.
Throughout the Italian peninsula tens of thosands of immigrant workers, small family-based businesses and markets responded to the strike initiative, born spontaneously through Facebook, Primo Marzo, 24 ore senza di noi (First of March, 24 hours without us) to counter lying racist propaganda. Lies from the government and other politicians, from the media, that immigrants are at best a parasitic drain on the country's wealth, at worst thieves, rapists and drug pushers.
In the major cities of the north, where immigration has historically seen sa ettled worker populations for decades, the reponse to the call for strike action was more successful. Most of all in the city of Brescia, where fifty factories struck, involving thousands of immigrants and native Italian workers. Irony of ironies, Brescia is in the heartland of the Northern League, arch-orchestrator of the most vile racist sentiments and practices (the latest in the small town Goito, where the local council has ruled that the nursery is open only to those with a "Christian family background"). But also in Modena, Bologna, Parma, Genoa, Milan, where, though much fewer in number, factories came out in solidarity, to join the mass meetings and teach-in-like assemblies in the towns and city squares, where whole communities and their families of the migrant population had gathered. Similarly in the south, in Napoli, Bari, Catanzare and Palermo. And everywhere they were joined by thousands of students and young people from schools and universities.
For the first time on a mass scale, hundreds of first, second and third generation immigrants, ordinary men and women workers, from Africa, Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, recounted to thousands of their brothers and sisters the often harrowing stories of their lives: of what it is like to be denied citizenship while you work and live; to pay your legal and fiscal obligations, but not be able to participate in full in ordinary political and social life; to know, too, that your children, native to the country, are denied the same rights until 18 years of age. And, not least, to endure the unending humiliation and fear in confronting a police state era mentality of those sections of public administration regulating the issuing of resident permits. This vicious instrument of control and surveyance is available to all the state repressive institutions and, of course, a gift to every unscrupulous employer, landlord or entrepreneur with an eye to the main chance. Recently its Damoclean sword edge has been sharpened to fiendish perfection by the Berlusconi government's decision to render "criminal" all those without it! The racist pogroms in Rosarno brought to the eyes of the world the subhuman conditions that tens of thousand of migrant workers are reduced to by the operation of such a system.
Many of the speakers, as well as those listening, found the migrant workers’ accounts emotionally overwhelming, but the effect was to raise the spirit of solidarity, the sense of anger and hatred, creating a mood, a fierce determination, that this was only the beginning of a fightback. Native Italian workers, migrant and their sons and daughters, reiterated again and again the need to combat the ugly face of racism in the working class movement, as the absolute condition necessary to defend jobs for all, decent wages and better conditions of work, proper housing, schooling and welfare.
Many angrily demanded to know why the official trade union movement — there are one million or so workers in the trade union movement here — refused to recognise the strike. Good question!
The fact is that, apart from FIOM (the metalworkers union), particularly sections of its rank and file, and sections of the "Base" unions, the three major confederation unions, while piously proclaiming to support the anti-racist principle of the action, refused to support it or actively condemned it. The action, they said, risked being — no kidding! — divisive.
Of course these time serving functionaries, who have hardly lifted a serious finger against racism and its pernicious consequences, know only too well that the working class movement in Italy is divided — by racism! How could they not know.? For it is above all the consequence of their total failure to address the major contributing factors that are at its root — the effects of an economic crisis that has seen closures, layoffs, wage cuts, attacks on the conditions of life everywhere, in shools, hospitals and welfare generally. And at the same time their complicity in sustained uncritical support for the previous Romano Prodi center-left government, within which the radical left, like these unions in going along with its anti-working-class measures, committed political harakiri. This is the background that gave the green light to the Northern League to open the foul sewers of its racist poison against the immigrant population.
Now the gutless and complicit bureaucrats, along with some shameless left apologists, mouthed platitudes about how a "real" general strike against racism of even one hour of all the workers would have been better than the call for an "ethnic" one. Formally true. But this is the formalism of the politically dead.
It is true that only a minority of migrant workers actually struck, a fact which underlines the precariousness and insecurity of their situation, movingly described by many of the speakers in the rallies across the country. For few of them had any faith that in the event of their taking action ,the unions would have defended them against employers only too keenly aware of the advantages of working class division. Even an elementary gesture of solidarity of this kind was beyond the trade union bosses, cynically hoping to render the whole initiative a failure. They, too, feel happier when rank-and-file initiatives of any kind are kept to the minimum.
But the day was not a failure! In fact, against all expectations, among migrant workers, their families and communities, there appeared a will and the stomach to fight against racism and all that breeds it. They showed, too, that they want to fight it as workers, inside and outside the factories, inside and outside the trade union movement, and that it has to be fought side by side with fellow Italian workers and all those in Italy like them who are victims. That these ideas, these ideals, these setiments were in the heads and in the hearts and on the lips of tens of thousands on 1 March 2010 can only augur well for the struggle to rid Italy of all its pernicious evils. The announcement by the organisers that a national conference is scheduled for April is proof that this movement can go from strength to strength.