Cobas in inglese (corretto)


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From a refusal of passivity to the building of a movement against capitalist globalisation

Edited by the International Commission of the Cobas Confederation, Milan, August 2002


In recent years a new offensive of capitalist forces has been under way on a world scale, aimed at a re-definition of capitalist control over both peoples and territories in a rapidly changing world. In the rich Western countries, such an offensive takes the shape above all of capitalist dominion over production (wage reductions, job casualisation, mass unemployment) and a new push towards the commodification of every sphere of social life (elimination of the welfare state, privatisation, commodification of everything - including our free time). In the developing countries such processes are visible through the greedy exploitation of oil and gas reserves, raw materials, cheap and non-unionised labour - who are robbed of their most elementary rights. Here capital shows its most barbaric face of violent imposition, dictatorship and war. A new movement has arisen against this state of affairs, and has spread all over the world. Rich, diversified, extremely lively, over the last few years it has become the vehicle of expression for many different demands. The ‘Confederazione Cobas’ (henceforth Cobas Confederation) has been fully part of this movement since its birth. The aim of these notes is to introduce the views and activities of the Cobas Confederation to the rest of the movement.

The new world order and capitalist globalisation

The end of a world which had been dominated by two superpowers opened the road to the creation of a new world order, based on the USA’s monopoly of military power, and on rigid neo-liberalist policies pursued by the governments of the most powerful capitalist nations, at the service of big multinational corporations. Through trans-national bodies such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, G8 and NATO, the governments of the most powerful nations, under American hegemony, impose their diktats on the workers and peoples of the Earth in the shape of privatisation, sackings, the restructuring of production, which produce poverty for entire populations and increase the level of inequality between rich and poor countries. We call this process - which is only partly controlled by trans-national bodies - capitalist globalisation, through which the commodification of every aspect of peoples’ lives are imposed over the planet’s entire surface, subsuming not only human labour but every aspect of social life: from food to free time, from the water we drink to the air we breathe.

War has become central to such a scenario, whether it be caused by control over strategic resources (energy sources and water reserves), or areas which are geopolitically fundamental to the USA’s strategy of imperialist domination. Furthermore, war is also used as an extreme attempt to fight back against the ghost of recession, through a sharp rise in military expenditure.

The European context

Things are no better in Europe. After the introduction of the Euro, paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of workers, the growth forecast for 2002 is negative, while the stability pact is jeopardised by the need to deal with the catastrophic floods which occurred in August. The same mechanism which creates pollution and climate change is itself creating the conditions for its own unsustainability. In the meantime unemployment keeps rising, public expenditure continues to be cut, the welfare state is slashed to pieces and privatisation is pushed to the limit so as to open up new opportunities for profit. In the last few European summits neo-liberist policies were imposed with even more emphasis, and were unanimously agreed on by all European governments. This is also the end of every illusion of a possible ‘third way’, sponsored by the ‘neo-liberal’ left of Jospin, Schroeder, Prodi, D’Alema and Tony Blair, whose governments all supported and enthusiastically fought in the 1999 NATO war in Kosovo. While European trade unions, deadened by bureaucracies who have transmitted to workers the need for sacrifices to meet the Maastricht treaty condtions, are only be able to negotiate over the residual effects which emerge from a centralised restructuring of the labour market - and consequently have virtually no room for manoeuvre.

The Berlusconi government in Italy

The Italian government is now in the hands of a centre-right coalition made up of the neo-fascists of National Alliance, the xenophobic and racist Northern League and Forza Italia, the ‘business/party’ owned by Silvio Berlusconi, who also owns one of the biggest economic empires in Italy. This government is accelerating productive restructuring, capital ‘financialization’ and labour market deregulation. On the latter front, in particular, the Berlusconi government has unleashed an unprecedented attack on the very heart of one of the working class’s most important victories of the last 40 years. The battle being fought is over the employers’ right to sack workers without even a ‘just cause’ (by abolishing article 18 of the ‘Workers’ Statute’ law), the introduction of new forms of flexibility into the labour market, the reduction of the state pension scheme together with its creeping privatisation, the elimination of public education and health and the reform of the tax system which will rob the poor to pay the rich.

The attacks by centre-left governments

In a way, Berlusconi is simply continuing the job his centre-left predecessors had already started: policies aimed at reducing real wages; reform of the state pension system that extended the retirement age and which reduced the value of pensions by 30-40% in only ten years; introduction of new forms of flexibility and casualisation at work; equality of status between state and private schools causing the move of precious resources from state schools to private ones; the transformation of the national health service into a business-oriented system; policies of outsourcing of every profitable public service; the implementation of one of the biggest plans of privatisation in Europe (energy, railways, telecommunications and the post office). This picture is completed by the worsening of the already restrictive law governing the right to strike, together with the new law on immigration which created those hypocritically named ‘temporary residence centres’ as well as a system of entry quotas.

How Berlusconi is worse

The Berlusconi government is characterised by its attempts to rehabilitate the fascist regime and a ‘revisionist’ approach to the 1943-45 Resistance movement; by its revoltingly racist attitude towards immigration (the new immigration law allows warships to intercept migrants’ boats as they approach national boundaries); by its furthers attack on the National Health System; by its unprecedented clash with the judiciary and the passing of new laws tailor-made to extricate Berlusconi and his entourage from the numerous trials they are facing; and its almost total control over television.

As regards trade unions, Berlusconi is leading a full-frontal assault against them, and especially against the CGIL, the biggest official trade union confederation. In July 2002 we even reacahed the point in several workplaces of the police asking for lists of union members, an unacceptable and illegal act of intimidation. At the same time the government has managed to reach a separate agreement with the other two big official union confederations, CISL and UIL (both members of CES). In spite of the united strikes of the last few months, CISL and UIL are responsible for breaking trade union unity and dividing the working class through the acceptance of some of the government’s worst demands, including abolition of article 18.

In Berlusconi’s political project the trade unions of the future should be limited to a partial and marginal role in local and regional bargaining on conditions of work (due to the elimination of national contracts); participating in the management of employment-related social security benefits, pension funds and training schemes. Trade unions’ sole function would therefore be as a provider of services for a fragmented working class, deprived of its rights.

The big official unions: CGIL, CISL and UIL

However we shouldn’t view Berlusconi as ‘the big bad wolf’ of fairy tales, who wants to eat nice innocent trade unionists. Most of the political and institutional conditions which have opened the road for Berlusconi’s attacks are the result of CGIL, CISL and UIL’s strategy over the last few years, such as: the signing of national agreements which encourage flexibility and productivity increases, while penalising wages; the acceptance of a reduction in the role of the state pensions system in favour of pension funds, (which they are particularly interested in as potential future managers, together with the employers, of private sector funds - but also public ones in the future); their favourable attitude towards the introduction of new forms of labour market flexibility; their agreement with the transformation of education, health and public administration into profit-making organisations.

The role of Cobas

What is going on in Italy has already happened, or is about to happen, elsewhere in Europe. Given such a scenario, workers cannot limit themselves to a defensive battle inside their workplaces, whether they have permanent or temporary jobs, or whether their own industry or sector appears to be ‘safe’. Any battle, under these new conditions, would be lost from the start. Capital’s offensive can only be resisted effectively by a struggle involving the entire world of labour, in all its ramifications. Its construction must start from basic union activism, which must then broaden out to a wider political level in order to fight back against the aggressiveness of capital, which is attacking all spheres of human activity. However a coherent anti-capitalist attitude by the working class cannot be taken for granted. Therefore, we believe in the need for a process of workers’ self-organisation from below, which grows and spreads to a mass level in all sectors of employment: public and private, permanent and temporary, manual and white collar - which in any event is under the control of capital: this is the goal of the Cobas Confederation.

Who are Cobas?

‘Cobas’ is the abbreviation of ‘comitati di base’- rank-and-file committees. Part of the Cobas DNA includes the spontaneous uprising of factory workers in the 1960s, those of service sector workers, temporary workers and the unemployed during the 1970s and 1980s - and the mass rank-and-file protest against the neo-corporative official unions in the early 1990s, when the first Cobas were founded. The Cobas Confederation was created in March 1999 with the unification of ‘School Cobas’ and the ‘National Cobas Co-ordination’, which already brought together workers from the health service, the civil service, telecommunications and energy utilities.

The decision to create a self-organised independent union - in sharp opposition to the big official unions - originated in a refusal of their policies of collaboration with neo-liberalism, which reached a peak under the centre-left governments. As a matter of fact, the role of these ‘state unions’ in co-determining policies of job flexibility and wages moderation were absolutely decisive during that period.

Abroad, our model is often considered as an Italian anomaly, although perhaps it finds some echoes in France. The decision to create an alternative organisation - by definition separate to traditional unions - is related to the incompatibility of our conception of trade union and political struggle with that of the official unions. The latter have substituted social conflict with social partnership, being repaid by the state with economic resources for various purposes (services for workers such as help with tax returns; pension funds; professional training), which are vital in sustaining an ever-growing army of officials and bureaucrats. No wonder, therefore, that these organisations base their strategy on closed and watertight majorities which make all the important decisions, heavily penalising any form of internal dissent or organised minority. Hence the unavoidable necessity to organise outside of such bureaucracies, starting from the clear refusal on principle of trade union activism as a full-time paid job.

The Cobas Confederation is a political, trade-unionist and cultural force. The recomposition of political and trade-union struggle is one of our basic principles, based on the awareness that social subjects can never reach class consciousness unless they develop - starting from material contradictions - an understanding of how they are connected to society in general. Separating trade union conflicts from political struggles means subsuming the conflict between capital and labour to specific political projects or acceptance of the current state of affairs. This is the real meaning of us wanting to be both a political and a trade-union organisation, i.e. a social force, which acts in a generalised fashion, trying to bring economic and political struggles together. This explains our emphasis on workplaces, the area where we are the most active, which is constantly aimed at exposing the nature of class conflict inherent in trade union demands.

The Cobas Confederation is based on both the principle of workers’ self-organisation and on the struggle to overcome a culture of ‘passivity’ (delega). This has characterised trade union culture over a long period, as well as the mentality and behaviour of workers themselves in Fordist societies. It consists in fully delegating the defence of one’s own rights to professional trade unionists, forcing workers to become passive and ignorant of their own condition and how they can change it. Such an attitude is still deeply rooted among workers. This is why, once again, we refuse activism as a career, together with facility time paid by the employers which create permanent ‘professionals’. On the contrary, we are in favour of the rotation of responsibilities.

The Cobas Confederation is made up of a grouping of industrial or employment categories, each with its own statute and with financial and operational autonomy. The vertical nature of this system is counterbalanced by the rank and file element, represented by workplace Cobas, the local industrial grouping and the Confederation itself. Such a system protects us from the risks of traditional trade unionism on the one hand, while on the other strengthening the possibility of a real growth on the ground through typical trade union economic intervention. The Confederation level, with its strong political connotation, puts forward a more complex vision of social reality, overcoming the (potentially) narrow focus of single industrial categories, thus achieving an autonomous analysis of society independent of other political groupings or parties.

The most recent struggles

In the last three years the activity of the Cobas Confederation has been frenetic because of both the intensification of the capitalist offensive and, after Seattle, the opening up of new opportunities thanks to the new international movement. In such a promising phase we (and other rank-and-file Italian organisations) have been able to organise many mobilisations, and orientate significant segments of social and political life - above all those without property or power - as well as opening up broad union struggles of quite a generalised character, and overall contributing in a significant fashion to the resumption of social conflict in Italy.

Some important moments in this period were the protests against the OECD forum in Naples in March 2001, our involvement in the July demonstrations in Genoa, the 150,000 strong demonstration against the war on 10th November in Rome, the mobilisation of immigrants between October and December against the revolting new bill of the Berlusconi government, culminating in the huge demonstration of immigrants in Rome on 19th January 2002 with 150,000 participants, and the 70,000 strong national demonstration for Palestine in Rome on 9 March.

The Cobas Confederation has been active in workplace disputes, creating a campaign against various government proposals concerning the renewal of national work agreements. The main area though has been state schools, where traditionally we are strong, and where through our slogans we became a reference point for many workers, to the extent of forcing the official unions to rediscover ‘conflictuality’ under pressure from their rank-and-file. The school strike and national demonstration in Rome on 31 October 2001 opened the way for the conflict which engulfed most Italian schools in the following months.

We have also worked together with other rank-and-file organisations in the building of a general strike in response to the plans of both the government and the bosses. On 14 December 2001 we declared a general strike with demonstrations in all main cities; followed, by a bigger general strike of all rank-and-file unions on 15 February 2002, with a 150,000 strong demonstration in Rome. In April we called a general stike on the same day as the CGIL, CISL and UIL in order to avoid counter-productive divisions among workers, but separate demonstrations and rallies were organised in eight Italian cities, in which over 300,000 workers took part.

Finally, we have been active in the referendum campaigns which are aimed at extending workers rights, abolishing the law which equalised state and private schools, as well cutting down on electro-magnetic smog, the use of pesticides and incinerators.

To contact the International Commission:


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