Pensioners' trade unions negotiate social policies with municipalities

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During the 1990s, trade unions representing Italian pensioners have been trying to extend protection for older people by conducting local-level negotiations with the municipalities. The main issues discussed are income-support measures and welfare services.

In Italy, pensioners' trade unions have always been of considerable importance, at least in terms of membership, within the union confederations, and especially the two largest of them (IT9803224F). In Cgil, in fact, more than half of the membership belongs to the Union of Italian Retired Workers (Sindacato dei Pensionati, Spi), while around 47% of Cisl's members belong to the National Federation of Retired Workers (Federazione Nazionale dei Pensionati, Fnp). In Uil, by contrast, the proportion of membership made up by UIL-Pensioners (UIL-Pensionati, Uilp) is smaller, standing at around 25%.

Traditionally, the pensioners' unions have mainly engaged in service activities for their members, and especially in the area of social security. Indeed, this is one of the areas in which the mutual aid societies created internally by the union confederations have been most active. Another field in which the pensioners' unions operate is the organisation of leisure activities.

Negotiations with the municipalities

In the 1990s, there have been increasingly frequent negotiations between the municipal authorities and the pensioners' unions (Spi, Fnp and Uilp) on social policies for older people. Overall, more than 2,000 agreements were signed between 1993 and 1997 (according to Spi figures), with a marked increase in 1997, when about 700 of them were signed.

The spread of these forms of negotiation is a novel aspect of both industrial relations and the administrative affairs of the municipalities. In fact, a distinctive feature of decision-making processes in Italian municipalities is the primacy of political actors like the mayor and the councillors, and of relationships with the state, the regional administrations and other local authorities. By contrast, the trade unions tend to play only a minor role. Now, however, these negotiations have enabled the unions, and especially the pensioners' unions, to take part in certain decision-making processes.

The initiative has been undertaken jointly by Spi, Fnp and Uilp. These unions, in order to obtain greater protection for the older population, have sought to confront the municipalities at a time when, first, the reform of the welfare state is getting under way more vigorously and, second, the power of the municipalities has been increased. Indeed, a number of items of legislation, like the so-called Bassanini Law (law 59/97), and the budget laws of recent years, have not only shifted some items of expenditure to the municipalities but have also increased their tax-raising powers.

The Italian regions in which these experiences are most widespread are Emilia Romagna and Lombardy, where around 40% of the agreements have been signed.

Negotiations normally take place when the annual budget is being drawn up - that is, when decisions regarding expenditure and income are taken. The issues of concern can be grouped into five broad categories:

  • income-support measures (eg reduced rates for electricity, gas, water, heating);
  • tax deductions (property taxes and rates, refunds on healthcare charges, grants);
  • services (eg home help, healthcare, housing policy);
  • information and union rights; and
  • free time and physical ennvironment measures (architectural barriers, traffic and transport).

Negotiations have centred above all on tax deductions and rate reductions. Thus, by means of negotiation the pensioners' unions seek mainly to obtain income-support measures for older people, followed by service delivery.

It is significant, however, that many of the agreements deal with issues like the right to information and contain pledges by local authorities to consult the pensioners' unions before they undertake substantive action in the field of policies for older people. The importance attributed to information rights demonstrates that the unions aim to obtain recognition by the administrations and the institutionalisation of their relationships with them. It should be borne in mind that these negotiations are extraneous to normal dealings between municipalities and unions. Consequently, a first difficulty for the unions is the willingness of the municipalities to negotiate with them.

Commentary

By entering negotiations with the local administrations, the pensioners' unions have moved into a new field of action, that of general representation. One of the most significant developments is that they are now becoming directly involved in policy-making by the municipalities. In fact, their dealings with the latter have not been restricted merely to consultation or information-gathering but involve participation in decision-making, especially as regards public policies for older people. This has also led to a redefinition of the role of the pensioners' unions themselves since, besides performing their traditional service activities, they now engage in negotiations as well.

Besides the abovementioned problem of obtaining recognition by the municipal administrations of the pensioners' unions as legitimate counterparts in negotiation, a crucial question is the effective impact of these negotiations on the definition of social policy, especially in view of the fact that the state still plays a central role in such matters. Moreover, budget constraints are the factor that - in the municipalities in which these negotiations have got underway - most closely condition the outcome.

Finally, the spread of these experiences is still rather heterogeneous, and varies according to the region considered. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)

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