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Unions divided over challenge to Berlusconi’s cuts

June 13, 2010

by Guy Dinmore, published June 13 2010

Red flags and banners carried by thousands of workers cut an impressive sight in central Rome at the weekend but Italy’s first major protest against Silvio Berlusconi’s budget cuts spoke more about disunity in the labour movement than any serious threat to his centre-right government.

The demonstration called on Saturday by CGIL, Italy’s main left-wing union federation, was boycotted by other major trade unions and only a scattering of politicians from the opposition Democratic party showed up in support. Police estimated the crowd at about 25,000.

A shadow of its former self, the CGIL is nonetheless still able to mobilise its members. Groups travelled from all corners of Italy to protest against the 25bn euro deficit-cutting package which will freeze public sector wages for three years and hit schools and hospitals. Most of the marchers were middle-aged or pensioners, reflecting the demography of both the country and union and the high levels of youth unemployment.

Guglielmo Epifani, CGIL leader, has called a one-day strike for June 25 but again he has been left isolated by the other unions. The split in the labour movement was also highlighted last week when Fiat reached a deal on new work practices with all unions except for the metal-workers section of the CGIL.

“We have to organise and motivate the workers. The unions are divided,” said Vincenza Micoli, a teacher of English selling copies of the monthly Lotta Comunista as bands played the Internationale and Bella Ciao, the song of the partisans. Ms Micoli was not alone in criticising the left in general, including Mr Epifani, for its failure to take on Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right government.

Many of the marchers recognized the need for Italy to tackle its debt mountain, but asked why the emergency budget would only hit the poorer sectors. Other than promises of tougher action against tax dodgers, the budget contains little that will touch the rich.

“Berlusconi always says he won’t put his hands in the pockets of Italians but there is nothing in my pocket,” said Umberto, a hospital switchboard operator from Viterbo. “Things are much worse in this country than you see, but he controls the media so you don’t see.”

Divisions among the unions reflect a fragmentation of Italian politics in general, conveying the sense of a country drifting in circles, its economy barely making headway after two years of steep recession.

Mr Berlusconi is focused on internal problems as his own coalition starts to buckle under various strains and opinion polls track his sliding popularity. The confident grip on power once held by the 73-year-old media tycoon appears to be slipping as even allies criticise his use of parliament to protect himself from the judiciary and his goal of changing the constitution in favour of a more powerful executive.

Last month the prime minister was taken aback by sharp criticism of his policies from Confindustria, the main business lobby. In private some in the business community are asking if Italy’s economic crisis would be better tackled by the formation of an emergency government of technocrats or by Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, taking the helm.

More immediately the government has been set back by an investigation into corruption in state tenders which cost the resignation of Claudio Scajola, minister of industry, last month. Mr Berlusconi has failed so far to find a replacement while other senior figures have been incriminated through police wiretaps according to transcripts leaked to the press. That practice could soon be curtailed by heavy fines and jail terms if Mr Berlusconi succeeds in pushing through parliament a controversial bill on use and publication of intercepts.

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