A mass anti-vaccination protest against the so-called Green Pass vaccine mandate drew tens of thousands in Rome on 9 October. At the end of the rally, a group of fascists smashed up the offices of the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL). Alongside the other two main union federations, the CGIL organised a mass demonstration at Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni the following week, on Saturday 16 October, under the slogan “No more fascism: for democracy and work”.
Red Flag’s Alexis Vassiley spoke to Italian unionist Eliana Como, a union organiser for the Federation of Metalworkers, a CGIL affiliate, and the national spokesperson for Riconquistiamotutto (Reconquer Everything), a militant tendency within the CGIL.
Let’s start with the anti-fascist demonstration. People got buses and trains from all over Italy?
Lots of trains and buses. There were heaps of people—around 150,000 to 200,000. The square was packed. Lots of buses were stopped before arriving at Rome—the police conducted checks—so by the time they arrived, the demonstration was almost finished. As well as the national demonstration, in the days after the far-right protest, there were demonstrations all over Italy. Saturday was the day of the fascist aggression. On Sunday, the next day, there was a defence gathering outside the CGIL in Rome. But also, they decided to open all the regional CGIL offices on the Sunday and guard them.
It was a huge response—united and anti-fascist. Beautiful, because the fascists wanted to make us scared, and we showed that we’re not scared. But now, the unions must do more. They need to be more determined, more oppositional to the government, because all of the social issues—pensions, sackings, wages—still exist. Instead, the main Italian unions are very cooperative, very moderate. So Saturday was an excellent demonstration, but we need to do more. The unions have to respond more to workers’ grievances; otherwise the right will occupy that space.
Some people say we should ignore the far right and they’ll go away.
I think that’s wrong. You need to respond. At the start of the twentieth century, when fascism was growing, for years they attacked union headquarters. Even then, there were those who said, it’s nothing, the fascists are just a few people. We found out that those “few” people took power, and it resulted in twenty years of dictatorship. With our history, we can’t pretend fascism is nothing to worry about.
How has the pandemic affected Italy?
In Bergamo [population: 120,000], where I live, 6,000 people died in less than two months. There is a photo that went viral of army trucks full of dead bodies. Small towns near Bergamo lost more people to COVID-19 in March-April 2020 than died in the First and Second World Wars combined. The government of Lombardy [the region Bergamo is in] decided to move still-infectious patients from hospitals into nursing homes. That was in the first wave. Since then, successive waves of COVID-19 engulfed the whole country. More than 100,000 people have died in Italy since the start of the pandemic. We have suffered a lot. It’s criminal.
At the start of the pandemic, there was a coalition government between the centre-left Democratic Party and the “populist” Five-Star Movement. In February, the government collapsed and was replaced by one led by Mario Draghi. How have the different far-right parliamentary parties—the League (Lega) and the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia)—positioned themselves?
The Lega and the Brothers of Italy have a contemptuous attitude towards safety measures. From the start, the right used what the government was doing in a completely opportunistic way. The government fell after protests against lockdowns. The right used the social distress of the middle classes—restaurateurs, shopkeepers—that didn’t want to close their businesses.
In the [northern] summer, the cases dropped somewhat, so they started saying you don’t need masks any more, that the nightclubs should reopen even though people were dying. In the autumn, there was another increase in cases. When the vaccination campaign started, and it started very late, it was initially very disorganised—the media started to spread uncertainty about the safety of the vaccines, AstraZeneca in particular. All of the newspapers, radio and TV, across the board, gave heaps of space to fears about the vaccine.
In Italy, there is very little faith in the public health system, so it was easy to spread uncertainty, particularly among the vaccine hesitant: not people who were virulently anti-vax, but those who had gotten a lot of contradictory information on the efficacy of the vaccine and especially regarding the side effects. This was reinforced by the “no vax” people, the far right who threw themselves in the lead. They created distrust among a lot of people who weren’t necessarily of the right, but for a thousand and one reasons didn’t trust the vaccine.
Then, from 15 October, the Green Pass was extended to all workers. To get into work, you have to have a vaccine or have a (costly) test every two days. Bringing in the Green Pass just for workers and not the rest of the population created class inequalities. It set off a war in workplaces between vax and no vax. The government should just make it mandatory for everyone.
Bringing in the Green Pass helped the right. They took advantage of these contradictions, and they have grown. The right opportunistically blamed the unions for the Green Pass because the unions didn’t oppose it. They really wanted to hammer the unions and create a division in the workplace that wasn’t worker versus the boss, but instead between vax and no vax. All the blame for COVID-19 is then put on those who don’t get vaccinated. I’m stridently for vaccinations—it’s fundamentally irresponsible not to get vaccinated. But the 6,000 people who died in my city—that wasn’t because of no vax people, it was the fault of the politicians and the bosses who wanted to stay open.
I think that the Green Pass is a tactic the government is using to put all of the public discussion onto the terrain of vaccinations. Then we don’t discuss other issues.
Who were the people at the protest against the Green Pass?
The anti-Green Pass demos are fairly big and made up of a lot of ordinary people and workers, including unionists. It’s not just the right. The right uses these protests, leads these protests. It’s not that everyone in the piazza is a fascist.
How many people actually attacked the CGIL offices? What did the police do?
About 100 people. Fascists. Actual fascists. At the end of the demonstration, they announced to the crowd in the piazza: “Now let’s go and attack the CGIL building”. They actually said that openly. Can you imagine if the shoe was on the other foot? If workers who had been sacked had said: “Let’s go and attack the bosses’ associations buildings?” They’d be arrested straight away. But the fascists were left alone by the police to go from the piazza to the CGIL building, kilometres away. Even outside the CGIL building, the police didn’t stop them. So they went inside, destroyed everything, threw books, computers and so on onto the floor. Entire libraries of books thrown to the floor. They destroyed a very special painting that was given to the CGIL in the 1960s. It was horrific.
Why did they attack the CGIL?
For the fascists, it’s convenient to say that the Green Pass is the fault of the union. But I think that the real reasons don’t matter. They wanted to attack the union, create a division among workers—that is useful to the companies, useful to the government. That way the workers fight among themselves between vax and no vax, and don’t do what they should do, that is fight for better pensions, wages, against sackings and so on. So this is a deadly trap. And the right is using it against the union movement. It’s not the CGIL that wanted the Green Pass. The government wanted it. Businesses wanted it so that they can keep production going without interruptions.
And the fascists hate the unions and the left ...
Above all the unions. Even in the twentieth century, when fascism took power in Italy, the first violence was against the unions, against the CGIL’s predecessor. History repeats itself. We are demanding, the CGIL is demanding, that the fascists be dissolved, be considered illegal. Because our Constitution and our law ban them. Openly fascist organisations, neo-fascist organisations, are not allowed to exist. But they do exist.
Groups like Forza Nuova (New Force), Casa Pound?
But Fratelli d’Italia is also fascist?
Yes, technically they are. But they aren’t openly fascist. At the next election they could get into government. [They are currently polling 20 percent.] Their way of doing things is more institutional. Yet they come from the same fascist, racist, sexist, union-hating culture. So the real problem is the Brothers of Italy. But they’re not outside the law, they’re an institutional party.
What is the situation like now for workers in Italy?
It varies by sector. Some are working more. Others are in absolute crisis. It varies a lot. In some sectors, there are heaps of sackings. Overall, the majority of public resources, especially after the public health crisis, instead of going to hospitals, to schools, to the welfare state, goes to business. There is social distress for workers. Safety is a huge issue. A lot of companies don’t respect safety standards. In January, the retirement age increased to 67-and-a-half. That’s so high. How can you work in a factory until that age?! And the Draghi government represents big business, finance, certainly not workers.
Why do you think Brothers of Italy has risen in the polls?
Partly because it’s the only party that isn’t in government. So it’s the only one that can criticise the government’s decisions. The left and the unions needs to oppose the government seriously and from the left. Otherwise, the only opposition to the government is from the right.