The strike was called by the three main trade union federations in protest against the government's austerity programme. And at rallies in the larger cities leaders tried to clear up the first cause of confusion - they support cuts in state spending but say the way they are being done is 'unjust' and 'iniquitous'.
The violence which flared in Milan was not directed at the government, however, but at the union leaders themselves. Sergio d'Antoni, a leader of the Christian Democrat federation CISL, was hit in the lip and hand, probably by metal bolts hurled by young extremists who claim the unions have betrayed the working class.
In Naples, extremists marched into the square where a rally was being held shouting 'shame', 'fascists' and accusing the unions of selling out to the government. As soon as the rally was over they took over the podium and held one of their own.
Although it was billed as a general strike, it was far from general. Public sector workers, such as government officials, teachers, and hospital staff, were not affected as they had not been able to give the required 10 days' notice. In theory 10 million people were due to stop work, but it was doubtful whether half that number heeded the call.
The strike underlines the confusion that envelops the unions - indeed all of Italy today. Anxious not to let the leadership of the resentful be taken over by the extremists, they are also powerless to change much of the government's unpalatable plan, which they know is essential to save the economy. Last week the government forced harsh pension, health and civil service cuts through parliament by calling a series of confidence votes. And it seems set to do the same when the next dose, the 1993 budget, comes up in parliament this week.
But how are unions to behave when their traditional world is upside down, workers are not downtrodden but relatively affluent and the real culprits are not just the rich but the ordinary people who dodge taxes, and the phoney 'invalids' and 'pensioners' drawing benefits to which they have no real right.
'And what,' asks Massimo Riva, a former left-wing senator and commentator in L'Espresso weekly, 'is the use of a general strike at a moment when our country is going through a deep crisis of credibility on the international markets? What is the use if not to deepen that crisis of confidence and to undermine the already difficult efforts to defend the lira? Is that how they think they are defending the jobs and buying power of the workers?'Reuse content