Friday 27 April 2012

Italian Farm Workers Strike - April 2012

Italian farm workers strike against attack on pensions

by Tom Gill
Morning Star
April 2012

Thousands of agricultural workers went on strike for eight hours across Italy on Friday against a government attempt to rob them of welfare and pension rights.

The action, called by the three main confederations CGIL, CISL and UIL in the first co-ordinated agricultural strike of modern times, included demonstrations in Naples, Campania and Bari, Puglia, in the south and Perugia, Umbria in the north.

Already 9 per cent of agricultural workers are on fixed-term contracts with low wages and the unelected Monti administration's measures will lead to further casualisation of the workforce, unions warned.

Up to a million workers would be hit by the planned changes to employment laws and modifications to the pension system passed late last year.

Unions said agricultural workers will lose pension contributions, unemployment benefits, maternity rights and sick pay, reducing them "to the most complete precarity and denying them, at the end of their working lives, even the meanest pension."

Migrant workers, who make up the majority of farm labourers, will be hit the hardest.

The strikes come as fresh data shows widespread pensioner poverty among small farmers. About 1.2 million receive just €600(£489) a month on average, when they retire, with some getting pensions as low as €300 (244) a month, according to analysis of official statistics by Federpensionati Coldiretti, a small farmers' association.

Mario Monti's unelected "technocrat" government replaced Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing administration in November with a mandate from the EU, IMF and European Central Bank to implement pushing austerity measures and neo-liberal reforms to "reassure" speculators in the financial markets.

Austerity is not affecting the wealthiest 1 per cent of households however who have €5.3 million (£4.32m) euros in assets on average, official figures show.

The government again this week rejected calls to introduce a wealth tax.

Mr Monti's austerity madness and deregulatory zeal has provoked massive protests.

Strikes in sectors ranging from finance to manufacturing and retail have been occurring almost daily in recent weeks.

A recent poll showed that his government's approval rating dropped 5 per centage points from March to 45 per cent.

Morning Star
Friday 27th April 2012

Maria Margotti - Italian Peasants Strike Martyr 1949


Maria Margotti (1915-1949)

By Laura E. Ruberto (May 16, 2009) i-italy website
"Per te mondina" (Cgil-funded pamphlet)
Eulogy for Maria Margotti, fallen mondina, May 17, 1949
A rice worker, a partisan, a woman, a mother, Maria Margotti was killed sixty years ago by carabinieri during a strike on May 17, 1949.

May 17, 1949: all of Italy’s farm laborers have already been striking for a few days, striking against poverty and exploitation by the landowners. The mondine of the Po Valley are in the front ranks, the landowners attempt to stem the forces by organizing scabs. The mondine confront the scabs, speak with them, and convince them to return to their homes in the mountains.
In Molinella there are five women on an embankment near the road: a motorcycle passes by, a voice orders the women to leave. Then a shot is heard, one of the women falls. Maria Margotti dies, a 34 year old woman, six years a widow, who, with her exhausting work as a mondina has raised her daughters. A woman heroically dies, a woman who, along with her female comrades, was only trying to defend her right to work, her right to give bread to her two daughters.
Today, in her name, all of the mondine of Italy continue their battles to defend those rights for which Maria Margotti sacrificed her young life.
(Found in “Per te mondina” a Cgil-funded insert for rice workers, published shortly after Margotti’s death. The translation is mine.)
per te mondina
Margotti, a mondina (female rice-weeder), participated in a 37-day strike that included workers from all parts of Italy; the action ended when the first national contract for agricultural workers was signed. Because of her heroic stand for workers’ rights, Margotti was publically eulogized by various leftist organizations in Italy.
In 1982, the road on which she was killed, between Molinella and Argenta (near Ravenna), was named after her. There have been a handful of events and websites that honor her, but for the most part today she has been all but forgotten.
The same year she died, 1949, Giuseppe De Santis’s blockbuster film Riso amaro (Bitter Rice) was released. A little neorealism, a little Hollywood, the film narrates the moral decline of one mondina, Silvana Melega (played by the starlet Silvana Mangano), as it details some of the starker realities of the lives of rice workers The history of these two women—one real, Maria Margotti, one fictional, Silvana Melega—encourage us to see the way gender, sexuality, and the representation of women’s labor is understood within postwar Italy.
A great part of what we know about Margotti today is due to the work of the writer Renata Viganò, best known for her World War II resistance novel, L’Agnese va a morire. In fact, Viganò and her husband, Antonio Meluschi, both penned newspaper pieces about Margotti at the time of her death, and for the dozen or so years that Viganò wrote for the feminist journal Noi donne, the paper yearly commemorated Margotti’s death. Further, Viganò dedicated her collection of journalistic essays on the women rice workers, Le mondine (1952), to Margotti and thereby forged a series of important links between Margotti’s labor activism and other kinds of activism.
Le Mondine, dedication
Viganò's dedication of Le Mondine to Maria Margotti
For Viganò, Margotti became an instant martyr for agricultural workers and labor activists, not only because she was a young, hardworking widowed mother, but also because she had been a partisan during the second world war. Although Margotti died as a rice worker, wearing her “fazzoletto bianco da mondina” (“white mondina scarf”), Viganò makes clear that she lived her life as a partisan (Viganò 20). In fact, Viganò explains that she had met Margotti during the war, while they were both involved in the partisan movement, where Margotti went under her battle name, Maria de fiol ed Battesta.
In writing about Margotti’s life and death, Viganò strengthened Margotti’s link to other workers and at the same time discursively created a historical figure, albeit one that got buried by sexier versions of mondina history, like Bitter Rice.
At the same time, the mondine themselves found ways to keep Margotti’s story a part of the narrative of their lives. Rice-worker work songs, themselves a significant form of self- and community-expression, have immortalized Margotti in the song “La morte di una mondina” (“The Death of a Mondina”):
Se non ci conoscete If you don't know us
guardateci negli occhi look us in the eyes
noi siamo le compagne della Maria Margotti we're the comrades of Maria Margotti
Maria Margotti era una grande mammina Maria Margotti was a great mother
Ella è caduta per la pace e il lavor She died in the name of peace and work
Lei sarà sempre la più grande eroina She'll always be the biggest heroine
dei nostri cuor, Maria Margotti of our hearts, Maria Margotti

By Luciano Romagnoli

Here are the demands of the strike which began on 16th May 1949

1. Conclusion of a national agreement providing for a basic minimum wage (approximately equal to that of the unskilled labourer in industry); a scale of wages similar to that prevalent in industry (with relative categories for women and young workers); limitation of the working day to a maximum of eight hours; full application of the law establishing payment for Bank Holidays, etc

2. Development of social services with extension of unemployment benefits to agricultural workers; extension of medical aid to the families of farm labourers and increase of family allowances.

3. Regularly employed workers not to be dismissed without just cause.

4. All agricultural enterprises, medium or large, to be compelled to invest part of their revenue in agricultural improvements.
Nobody can honestly say that these demands are unreasonable. They represent a very modest realisation of some of the articles of the Constitution of the Italian Republic. However, in the present social and economic situation in Italy, these demands have a definite revolutionary content for they involve basic structural changes.

This is most apparent in the demands for the regulation of dismissals and annual investments in agricultural developments.

The first implies the abolition of the feudal institution of annual dismissals which enables the foreman arbitrarily to get rid of all those he does not like, and mainly of those who fight for the observance of their trade union, moral and political rights.
As for the obligation to invest in agricultural development, this would mean more work for millions of unemployed labourers, the development of our agriculture, and an end to the present economic stagnation.

It has been said that it was a mistake for the Labourers' Union to demand a national agreement for workers living in regions with such different economic conditions as the north and the south. These arguments have been repeated not only by landlords, but also by some workers and are therefore worth refuting.

First, the union never asked for equal wages for the north and the south; the demand was and still remains for a uniform minimum wage for the whole country, and for a scale of wages similar to that obtained in industry which, as is well known, is notably inferior in
the south to that of the north (up to 35 to 40 per cent less).

Secondly, the other demands were such as to be valid for, and had to be made for, the whole of the country. Is it a mistake to ask for the limitation of the working day to eight hours, for compensation for holidays, etc., for the whole of the country, when they
already exist in many northern areas?

Thirdly, improvements in social services had also to be demanded for the whole country, for as we know all social legislation—however limited—always covers the whole of the country.

Finally, according to some, we should first fight for the realization of a certain balance between the economy of the south and that of the north. But it is clear that this' will not be achieved by the Labourers' Union alone but by the whole working-class movement;
moreover, this aim cannot be achieved on a trade union level, but only on a national level and in a completely different political situation.

Altogether over a million farm labourers and agricultural workers joined the strike and about 3 million workers in agriculture and in industry participated in movements .of solidarity with the strikers.

Never before, after the war as well as before, had any strike had such an importance in its developments and in its demands, such a national and united character.

This strike marks a big step forward in the development of class consciousness among agricultural workers, it is a landmark in the expression of solidarity on a national scale, an historic stage in the trade union movement of the agricultural proletariat.

The strike did not extend to small landowners cultivating their own land, to tenants, to farmers or co-operators. Not only were they able to cultivate their lands and get in the harvest, but any manual help they needed (whether seasonal or annual) was guaranteed to them.

This allowed the consolidation of the alliance between the workers and the intermediate groups of the peasantry.

To have declared the strike against them, or worse to have compelled them to strike, would have meant making enemies of them, throwing them in the camp of the landowners, making them a center of manoeuvres against the strikers. Such an attitude would have compromised for a long time the relationship between agricultural workers
and middle peasantry, with grave consequences for the political situation of the country. This position raised many political discussions among the workers. A serious fight was necessary against the primitivist attitude: " Either all or nobody."

This move gave a definite character to the strike; it made of it a fight of the vast masses of the small and middle peasantry against the landlords and the State.

The question of allies also involved the relationship between the country and the town. It was important that the attempts to discredit the strikers in the eyes of the workers and of public opinion should fail. In the main this objective was achieved.

This was made possible by the correct accounts given of the strike, by the assistance given by the The Italian General Confederation of Labour - C.G.I.L. (Italian T.U.C.), and the democratic parties and organisations, and by the high political consciousness of the working class in general.

The efforts of the landlords to try and break the strike were colossal; they promised 5,000 lire per day to workers from the mountains. The organisation of strike breaking was mainly done by the " General Organisation of Labour " which is in the pay of the landlords; it was helped by so-called " free" trade unions and by priests.

But their attempts were not successful. The mass character of the strike itself made it impossible to import enough labour to replace the strikers; moreover, the majority of the " recruits " as soon as they knew the reasons for their employment, refused to carry on the work and returned to their homes.

Another weapon which was utilised against the strikers with increasing intensity was provocation. The Minister's plan was definitely to respond to popular pressure by violence and persecutions, to develop a regime of terror so as to exhaust the strike.
Thus it was every day necessary to fight: against provocations and violence in order to defend the right to strike, the constitutional freedoms and the law. This is the fundamental aspect of the development of the struggle.

In these conditions the movement could easily have developed into armed guerilla struggles between the peasants on one side and the landlords and the police on the other. That it did not do so was due only to the high political consciousness of the masses, and to the competence of the leadership of the trade union and of the Party.

For these reasons the strikers had to extend the strike to fields which it had not covered. At first the workers had decided not to allow the milk and the grain to be lost during the strike; but experience showed that such an attitude was still too generous, it became clear that, when the class struggle becomes acute, the strike also must be complete whatever the consequences; thus only can the enemy be seriously injured and compelled to give way.

If on the one side the strike has mobilised the workers, their trade unions, and their political parties, showing to the whole country their ability to solve their problems on a basis of legality, democracy and popular unity, on the other it has unmasked the reactionary forces with an extreme and unprecedented clarity.

The attitude of the Government has already been exposed; never at any moment has any of its members been able to play the role of arbitrator which was expected from them; all the proposals they made either solved- nothing or were very obviously in favour of
the landlords. From the outset it was clear that for the Government there was only one way out: the violent repression of the strike

But the Government was compelled to retreat, thus revealing its complete incapacity to lead the country, and to solve the problems facing it.

On June 23 agreement was reached. The strike ended with a clear victory for the strikers in the economic, trade union and political fields.

The economic gains were:

(a) An increase of the hardship allowance from 100 lire to 220 per day for men; from seventy to 165 for women, from fifty to eighty-five for young workers, involving a total annual expenditure of 2,300 million. '

(b) The promise to extend to all farm labourers and agricultural workers entitled to it the " expensive bread allowance " (total expenditure 17 billion lire).

(c) The promulgation of a law extending unemployment benefits to all labourers and agricultural workers; this is without doubt one of the most important achievements in social legislation made by agricultural workers in fifty years.

(d) The promise to extend health services to the families of all labourers.
Moreover, the Minister for Agriculture undertook in the House of Deputies to make compulsory the investment of a certain proportion of the land revenue, in works of agricultural development.

On the trade union front the results have been:

(a) A promise to establish in all areas an agreement on wages and conditions of work. (No such agreement has ever existed in the Centre and South of Italy since the liberation.)

(b) Promise to establish a national agreement before November including the main terms of the various provincial agreements and in all cases preserving the best of these terms. This represents a great achievement of the Italian agricultural proletariat, which has no precedent either in our country or abroad.

(c) Finally, extension to two years of the period after which agricultural workers are automatically dismissed (as opposed to yearly dismissals).

On the political front this strike has clearly shown the superiority of the workers over the big landlords and the Government.

By Luciano Romagnoli
(Précis of an article published in “Rinascita” monthly theoretical organ of the Italian Communist Party, July 1949..)


Despite the promises of greater redistribution of land, especially from that acquired by Mussolini's fascist supporters, the process was slow and the Italian Peasants revolt continued, indeed the Italian Peasants movement was often in advance of the "industrial workers" in organisation and militancy.

The Peasants of Southern Italy were particularly militant, driven by dire poverty they faced. Most earning as little as $150 a year and working for just 100 days a year, living in hovels with undernourished children while large tracts of land lay fallow. Land seizures in Sicily and Calabria was extensive and well supported (even by the Scilian exile, singer Frank Sinatra)

In the North of Italy land seizures increased in Lucania, Apulia, Campania and in the vicinity of Rome

The slaughter of Torremaggiore 29th November 1949

The land seizures were often opposed by Government and former fascists leaders and their paid thugs.

At Torremaggiore in Apulia two workers (Antonio La Vacca, 42 years, and Lamedica Joseph, 37 both Communist party members) protesting at the failure of local land lords to abide by the law with regard to the "The Labour quota" which obliged big landowners to employ workers numerically proportionate to the size of their estate, were shot dead by police who opened fire on a rally of landworkers outside the CGIL union headquarters in Torremaggiore on Tuesday 29th November 1949. The murders set off a massive strike wave beginning on 2nd December 1949.

Four weeks previously in the province of Crotona in Calabria, other bloody incidents had occurred in Melissa which had cost the lives of three land workers killed by the "forces of law and order". Some 14,000 members of the Peasantry had mobilised on the 24th October 1949 to take over a number of key estates. On the morning of the 29th October 1949 a Police squad brought in from Rome by local Christian Democrats and landords opended fire on Peasants occupying the Fragala Estate. Fifteen peasants were wounded and three killed, shot in the back as they ran for cover. Those killed included 15 year old Giovanni Zito, Francesco Nigro, twenty nine and a young woman, Angelina Mauro. The attempt to suppress and crush the peasants revolt only served to spread the revolt.

*Ferdinando Nicola Sacco of "Sacco and Vanzetti" fame was also born in Torremaggiore

Luciano Romagnoli

Born in Argenta, Ferrara, Italy on March 9th 1924.

Aged eighteen joined the Italian Partisans fighting the fascists in Bolognese

Leader of the Young Communitst "Youth Front" in the Bolognese region. In 1947 he began work organising the Italian Peasants Movement during a massive strike and land seizures.

In 1948 Romagnoli was elected Secretary of the Italian Land workers or Braccianti (Land day workers) National Federbraccianti Union, a role he held until 1957.

Luciano Romagnoli became Secretary of CGIL (Italian TUC) in 1957 and retired in 1961.

He was twice elected to the Italian Parliament as a Deputy.

Luciano Romagnoli died in Rome on 19th February 1966.