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Italy Season of Strikes and Discontent

5 minute read
Marguerite Johnson

Not since the 1970s had Italy been so gripped by labor strife and protest. From the Alps to the Mezzogiorno, Milan to Palermo, buses and trains came to a halt, airports shut down, and courts, banks and government offices closed as some 12 million workers last week staged a four-hour walkout. In the country’s first general strike in three years, factory workers and police officers, teachers and students, white-collar workers and pensioners marched through city streets under banners demanding more money for health and education and less for defense.

The strike had been called by Italy’s three big labor federations to protest tighter economic measures being proposed by Prime Minister Giovanni Goria’s fragile five-party coalition government. But the walkout was also an attempt by the federations to reassert their muscle in the face of a series of wildcat strikes staged this fall by independent labor organizations. The COBAS (for Comitati di Base, or rank-and-file committees) have sprung up to counter the ineffectiveness of organized labor.

Although the strike was started by public-sector workers, many employees in private industry joined the protest to express their own dissatisfaction. Even Italians who were not union members expressed sympathy with the walkout. Said Enzo Montarulli, a Rome fashion designer: “The workers have turned the country into chaos with the strikes, but they’re right. Too many things don’t work.”

The spectacle of empty train stations and streets piled high with uncollected garbage belied the country’s proud status as the world’s fifth largest economy — which Italy claims to have achieved after overtaking Britain. Indeed, the heady optimism of just a year ago has been dampened by plummeting exports, rising inflation (currently an annual 5.3%) and the threat of a return to the political instability of the past.

While in 1986 Italy was enjoying the fourth year of stable government under the leadership of Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, the specter of a return to the “bad old days” now looms large, particularly after the temporary fall of Goria’s coalition in November. Laments Treasury Secretary Giuliano Amato: “Item by item, you go through the list of changes, and every plus is now a minus.” After Goria offered his resignation, President Francesco Cossiga asked him to try again, and Goria quickly returned to office with a new vote of confidence. But the next political crisis was already waiting in the wings.

What has happened to the Italian renaissance, the new economic miracle? Observes Olivetti Chairman Carlo de Benedetti: “The party’s over” — although he hastens to add that “the party’s over in the world economy.” Italy may export truffles to France, but these days it also imports its eggs, milk and even its breadsticks. Worse, the cheap dollar means that Italian shoe and clothing exports are not selling very well in the U.S. Moreover, Italy’s trade deficit this year, at more than $6.6 billion, is already twice the 1986 level.

To be sure, the country can boast some undeniable successes. The productivity increases of Italian workers, for instance, now rival those of the Japanese, with a rise of 3.6% this year alone. But many observers see signs of disenchantment, even weariness, among the public at large. “We have been running fast, but now there is this feeling of having to catch one’s breath,” says Sociologist Franco Ferrarotti. “All this achievement means we are abandoning a way of life that was cherished.”

Even more distressing, Italians have awakened from the euphoria of their economic miracle to discover that many things are as bad as ever — particularly government corruption and world-class inefficiency. In a best- selling new book called Lo Sfascio (literally, the crumbling, or collapse), Giampaolo Pansa, deputy editor of the daily La Repubblica, writes that Italy is coming apart at the seams, not because of the Red Brigades, Middle East terrorists or civil war, as was once feared, but because of its own political . follies and foibles. Describing the everyday struggle of Italians to get driver’s licenses, business permits, papers to prove car or home ownership, tax reimbursements and the like, he says, “We’re on the terrain of bureaucratic sadism.”

Horror stories abound, especially in the health and postal services. Urgent operations can be postponed for three to four months while a patient waits for a hospital bed. “You can queue up and wait to die,” says Ferrarotti, “or you can drop 400,000 lire (($325)) up front to ensure yourself a place.” A payoff helps to get things done. In a new study, Professor Franco Cazzola of the University of Catania estimates that the kickback industry, the entrenched system of institutionalized bribery, amounts to 3.3 trillion lire ($2.7 billion) a year. One Turin industrialist admits that he does not want his son to follow in his footsteps as head of a corporation. “He’s not the kind of kid who could deal with going to jail,” he says, “and in this country you can’t work without risking that.”

Italians have always joked darkly about government officials as ladri, or robbers, but the return to crisis government this year after a season of stability has touched off questions of confidence about the nation’s leadership. Some, like De Benedetti, are still hopeful that Italy will find a way out of its current malaise. “Don’t forget,” he says, “that Italians bring out their best at times of uncertainty and difficulty.” But Pansa is not so sure. “People have grown weary of the political parties, of their talk,” he says. “We’re simply tired. Italy has changed.”

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