About 250,000 striking engineers took part in a national demonstration in Rome, Italy, last week. Strike action shut dozens of major workplaces up and down the country. Officially, the strike was over a £10 a month pay increase, but in the highly politicised atmosphere of Italy it was about much more than getting a pay rise in line with inflation.
It represented a coming together of workers' grievances with the anti-capitalist spirit that led to the 300,000-strong protest in Genoa in July. Leading figures from the anti-capitalist movement and the 'social forums' at the heart of it took part in the protests. The union on strike, FIOM, used to be called the metal workers' union but now many of its members work in a variety of trades.
Over the last ten years a union traditionally associated with heavy industry, which had a similar reputation for militancy as the miners once had in Britain, has gone out and recruited in new service industries. One of the main growth areas for the union has been in call centres. Young activists have recruited outside the buildings.
Consequently the demonstration was full of young people. Some 40 percent of those marching for a new work contract were under 25. Francesco, a 28 year old call centre worker with a degree, said: 'We work on a real production line, which is moving 24 hours a day. And just as with factories there are foremen who keep you under pressure all the time. 'The 'line speed' is stressful and the work is repetitive.'
The demonstration was also multi-ethnic. FIOM has worked closely with illegal and temporary migrant workers in northern factories, organising demonstrations and strikes, which over the years have earned them permanent contracts. So the march was full of North Africans, Indians, Ethiopian, Turkish and Senegalese workers. A North African and a Chilean worker were among the speakers at the final rally.
Many rank and file groups were carrying banners which read 'Contract and peace', referring to the war in Afghanistan. The day before the strike the government had provocatively passed a new law to make it easier to sack people.
In his closing speech FIOM leader Claudio Sabattini said, 'There's no hope of mediation-the only solution is struggle.' The leaders of Italy's three TUCs are coming under pressure to call a general strike. FIOM's success is not just on the basis of demanding higher wages. It has also taken up broader political issues.
FIOM gave open support to the Genoa Social Forum, which organised the huge anti-capitalist protests. During its last national strike in July FIOM invited speakers from the Genoa Social Forum to give speeches at all of its rallies.
Forum speakers urged FIOM members to demonstrate in Genoa. Many did-FIOM has estimated that 10,000 of its members joined the demonstrations. Livio Villa, FIOM general secretary in Lombardy, explains why his union has supported anti-globalisation struggles:
'What the trade union movement is about is increasing people's rights, and we don't think capitalism wants to allow us to do this. Therefore any anti-capitalist movement is bound to have similar objectives to ours.'
Consequently, the final contingent on one of the three feeder marches was made up of various Social Forums (which now exist in other cities besides Genoa). Luca Casarini, leader of the 'social disobedience' wing of the anti-capitalist movement, said he was marching 'to support an important part of the movement and to defeat the arrogance of neo-liberalism'.
Vittorio Agnoletto, also marching beside Social Forum banners reading 'General strike against the war', said, 'Our participation today is even more important now, given the failure of the WTO meeting in Qatar concerning trade union rights.'