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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Italy's politicised strike
Demonstrators converge in Rome
Some feel the street is now the only forum for dissent
test hello test
Paola Buonadonna
By Paola Buonadonna
line

Anybody who has ever visited Italy for any length of time will have encountered a strike.

Maddeningly for visitors, air traffic controllers and railway personnel seem particularly prone to use this form of protest.

And strikes are, indeed, very frequent.

Because the practice of collective bargaining for every sector of the economy is still very much in use, every time a general contract needs to be renewed, a pay rise discussed, a pension system streamlined, the Italian unions can still mobilise a fair percentage of their members.

But Tuesday's general strike - the first for 20 years - is unusual for several reasons, and it may cause more lasting damage than just the eight-hour disruption that Italians are braced for.

Anger and confrontation

Officially the strike has been called in reaction to the Berlusconi government's proposed labour reforms.

Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi wants to help employers hire and fire
These would end what has become a near anomaly for a Western country in the advanced stage of post-capitalism: the near impossibility of employers to fire their workers.

Unfortunately for Italy, the merits of the argument for and against this change - and for economic reform more widely - have become obscured.

For the unions, the strike is part of a battle for political survival, while for ordinary people who simply hate the Berlusconi government, it is an opportunity to express their anger.

Many feel they have no other forum for dissent than the street - after all, the prime minister owns most of the private media and now controls the public media too.

Untouchability

The 40% of workers who are planning to observe the strike - and the one million people who will support them - will no doubt feel a momentary sense of pride and strength.

They will create bad headlines for a government that seems to manufacture only good news - they will grab the world's attention.

But the arcane problems raised by Article 18 of the Statute of Workers - which the government wants to ditch, and the unions want to preserve - cannot be brushed under the carpet.

Every Italian, especially younger workers, stands to lose if the debate becomes hijacked by political hysteria.

The untouchability of employees is a concept close to religious dogma in the public sector: one school I know of was unable to get rid of a teacher who had been an alcoholic for 10 years and died in class.

Berlusconi's challenge

Another teacher, a suspected peadophile, reached pensionable age even though the school authorities were so worried about him that a female "support" teacher was always supervising his lessons.

Marco Biagi
Marco Biagi: Killed as he worked on labour laws
But private enterprises are also saddled for years with ineffective, or simply redundant, workers.

This cuts the blood flow of the more dynamic small and medium enterprises who have to carry on thinking "small" in case recession hits and they are saddled with extra workers for the next 40 years.

As a result, meritocracy is almost unheard of. There are entire sectors, such as media publishing, where staff recruited on the basis of a recommendation or a favour may have a job for life, even though they cannot spell.

Marco Biagi, the economist who helped shape the labour reform was shot dead, apparently by left-wing fanatics.

It was unfair, if not downright outrageous, for Silvio Berlusconi to say that any opposition to the reforms signified complicity with the killers.

He practically challenged opponents to take to the streets.

But when the banners and the whistles are put away again, Italians from left and right alike will need to start giving the concept of hiring and firing some serious thought.

It is not just about firing, it is also about making hiring possible again.

Paola Buonadonna is an Italian journalist living in London, and a reporter for BBC television's On the Record programme.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Brian Barron
"The workers response is a general strike, the first for nearly a generation"
Giacomo Barbieri of the trade union CGIL
"People have rights, and must defend their dignity"
See also:

16 Apr 02 | Europe
Millions begin strike in Italy
23 Mar 02 | Europe
Italian unions hail rally success
24 Mar 02 | Europe
Analysis: Italy's labour dilemma
03 Mar 02 | Europe
Italy's left confronts Berlusconi
21 Mar 02 | Europe
Tragedy of a death foretold
20 Mar 02 | Europe
Ghosts return to haunt Italy
13 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Italy
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