On 15 and 16 November 3,000 delegates, representing 200,000 students from all over Italy, who the day before had taken part in the massive university teachers’ / researchers’ demonstration in Rome, gathered for a “national assembly” at la Sapienza University. They met to debate and agree a manifesto/constitution incorporating a series of demands and proposals opposing the draconian education reform which will mean comprehensive and ruthless cut back in all sectors of the Italian educational system, the encroachment of capitalist business into the higher education system, and a massive programme of redundancies.
The manifesto spelt out a comprehensive plan for a systematic and radical overhaul of the Italian university system and its hierarchy of overaged and overprivileged all-powerful professorial “barons”.
In an opening speech to the assembly a young philosophy student, Tania, described the significance of this movement that has, almost from nowhere, begun to change the face of Italian popular struggle and politics.
“We are a movement that no longer accepts to be represented by anyone but ourselves. We are seeking to bring about radical change, and we know that to do so it cannot be delegated to others. It has to be brought about by the self-conscious, self-organised action of ourselves in struggle.
“The provocative attempts by the fascist block of students to infiltrate and manipulate our marches has been rejected — this movement is explicitly and unequivocally anti-fascist! But not only that. We recognise that while our struggle and claims are specific to our dispute, we need to open to all the forces of society in struggle, to widen the substance of that struggle and the mobilisations which together can give rise to newer and higher forms of self-organised action. We are in the front line against the Berlusconi government. But without the workers we cannot win.”
On Friday 14th the strike and mass mobilisation in Rome of the university sector from the main confederation union CGIL brought the city to a complete halt for hours. As well as teachers and researchers and students from across the whole education sector, there were workers from other struggles.
In particular, among the participants were workers from one of the militant “Base” confederation unions whose members — ground staff, air hostesses, pilots — have been scandalously sold out and left isolated by the “tops” of the main unions, CGIL, UIL and CSIL, in the sell-off of the bankrupt Alitalia airlines.
The airline was bought for a pittance by a selected gang of Berlusconi’s cronies, debts to be charged to the public purse, and wholesale sacking, semi-feudal work conditions and salary cuts were imposed on all. The bureaucrats signed the deal on which the base unions were not even invited to negotiate.
The latter will bear a larger brunt of the sacrifices as they have courageously resisted against the pressure of lying media , and despite the conniving silence of the “left” Veltroni Democratic Party. The base unions demanded nationalisation under workers’ control of Alitalia, a demand fully in keeping with the mood of the students’ “we will not pay for your crisis”.
The secretary of the airline workers’ Base union was invited to address that section of the Friday mobilisation involving school and university students. He said that their slogan “we are not paying for your crisis” applied equally to his fellow workers — you have no future within the system against which your rebellion is just; so too with us, where the new conditions being imposed upon us mean poverty and insecurity. A warm applause and then a spontaneous mass chorus to the tune of Guantanamera, “we are all fliers now”.
However the teachers and researchers of the university sector of CGIL assembled in Piazza Navona, and were addressed by the general secretary of the CGIL union Guglielmo Epifani. A cautious clever bureaucrat in the time-honoured tradition of all union leaders whose roots go back to the Stalinist Communist Party of Italy, Epifani has suddenly found himself, through no merit of his own, pitched into an open confrontation with the Berlusconi government.
Like his fellow bureaucrats of the smaller, more conservative and bureaucratic CISL and UIL Epifani bears complete responsibility for what has happened in Alitalia. He fits naturally into the role of “lightning conductor” of social protest among the workers.
In the depths of a profound economic crisis in Italy Epifani, along with his fellow bureaucrats, would have instinctively searched for compromise and retreat, under the banner, no doubt, of “we all must make sacrifices in the national interests”. But the emergence of the students’ and teachers’ protest in the university has raised the temperature of the struggle and emboldened more and more sections of workers to believe that they can indeed force the Berlusconi government to retreat.
Following a split in the union confederation two weeks ago, when UIL and CISL signed a secret deal with the Berlusconi government for their public sector members, Epifani now stands alone. He has been forced to take the initiative and call a one-day general strike on the 12 December for all the unions. Immediately the metalworkers’ union FIOM announced they would strike, and simultaneously the Base confederation unions, for the first time, announced that they would strike on the same day. The students will also be there. The scene is set for a growing challenge to the Berlusconi regime, notwithstanding Epifani’s efforts to find compromise.
Regrettably, within the workers’ movement and the left in general there has not emerged any force capable of offering an independent concrete political strategy. Such a force, taking its cue from the slogan “we will not pay for your crisis”, would offer a root and branch challenge to all and every aspect of the economic, social and political crisis at hand.
A strategy that must start from defence against all attacks of the government and employers, but at the same time pose the need to challenge the fundamentals and source of all inequality, social injustice and oppression within capitalist society. At the apex of such a programme must be the demand and the struggle for a workers’ government in Italy.
Such a situation may be some way off, but there is no doubt what the students have set off promises, for the first time since 1968, a movement open to rediscover the great revolutionary traditions of the heroic period of Bolshevism, a tradition long buried in a country most in need of it. Speed the day!