Cisl initiative leads to change in relations between unions

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In November 1999, Italy's Cisl trade union confederation organised a demonstration against the government's economic and social policy, without the support of the two other main confederations, Cgil and Uil. The initiative marked the start of a new phase of "competitive unity" among the unions, following the previous "unity of action" and attempts to create a single union movement. The demonstration also led to divisions within the Siulp police workers' union.

Efforts to bring about unity among Italy's three major trade union confederations - the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati dei Lavoratori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil) - have been going on for many years. After some years of difficulties in this area, the situation changed profoundly in 1997 with the agreement of the three confederations to seek to create a new unified union movement (IT9707307F). During Cisl's May 1997 congress (IT9706113N), the three union confederations drew up a timetable for union unity, involving: the drawing up of a statute for the new union in 1998; the distribution of new union membership cards in 1999; and a first unitary congress in 2000.

This project has now failed. The relationships among the union confederations, especially between Cgil and Cisl, have become increasingly difficult during 1999, due to increasingly divergent positions on the main issues of trade union action (IT9909345F). The turning point came at the "organisational and programmatic assembly" held by Cisl in Naples on 5-8 May 1999 (IT9905113N), when Sergio Cofferati, the Cgil secretary general, declared that it was not possible to carry on with the union unity project.

Mr Cofferati's initiative surprised observers, not least because the three confederations had drawn up a unitary proposal - concerning workers' representation, the representativeness of trade unions and the relationships between unions and workers - to be included in the proposed law on representation which is currently under discussion in parliament (IT9804226F). The aim of the proposal was to overcome some of the historical disagreements concerning the different conceptions of trade unionism of Cgil, Cisl and Uil.

The relationships among the organisations have since worsened and on several occasions the three confederations have taken different positions - for example over an employment pact in Milan (IT9908251F), Bologna's municipal budget (IT9912136N) and the reorganisation of Rome's environmental services (IT9907124N) .

Cisl opposes 2000 budget law

In October 1999 the government presented to the social partners its "economic and financial planning document" for 2000. Initially, the trade union confederations adopted a unitary approach in negotiations with the government, but differences between them became increasingly substantial. Cisl considered the government's proposals inadequate in the following areas:

  • the perceived absence of specific interventions aimed at reducing Italian inflation, which is twice the European average;
  • the perceived absence of specific interventions aimed at modifying policies on tariffs for public services and insurance;
  • the perceived failure of the employment policies for the South of Italy. During the past year, employment in the North has grown by 256,000 while it has fallen by 60,000 in the South, widening the gap between the two areas;
  • the perceived failure by the government fully to meet commitments on using the money collected through the fight against tax evasion to reduce the tax burden on families;
  • the decision to go ahead with the reform of the pension system before the 2001 deadline decided with the trade unions; and
  • the decision to deal with the issue of using the end-of-service allowance (trattamento di fine rapporto, Tfr) to fund supplementary pensions through a legislative act and not through negotiations with the social partners (IT9909346F).

Cisl also heavily criticised the government because of its alleged weak political initiatives in areas such as development and employment, and because of the perceived reassessment by Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema of the existing policy of concertation with the social partners.

These were the main reasons for the discontent which led Cisl to organise a demonstration in Rome on 20 November 1999 (IT9910129N), which saw the participation of 20,000 people. It is highly unusual for a major demonstration to be held by a single union confederation without the support of the others. The demonstration had a deep impact on the relationships between the confederations.

The new policy of competitive unity

The consequences of the November demonstration were felt particularly sharply within the police workers' union (Sindacato Unitario di Polizia, Siulp). Siulp has always been very close to all three confederations and, by tradition, has supported all trade union and political activities aimed at protecting police workers and public security. Its national secretariat decided to take part in the demonstration organised by Cisl. This decision was strongly opposed by members close to Cgil and Uil who decided, with the support of the two confederations, to seek a split in Siulp and to establish separate police workers' organisations affiliated to the respective confederations.

The independent union confederation, Cisal, which has a significant level of representation in the schools sector and public administration, also took part in the November demonstration. At the same time, during its congress held on 18 November 1999, Cisal decided to end its practice of signing "pirate agreements" (accordi pirata) - collective agreements which provide for conditions inferior to those in the national collective agreements signed by the confederal unions (IT9706207F) - and to start a reconciliation with the confederations and with Cisl in particular. Cisal's participation in the demonstration was strongly criticised by Cgil and Uil.

The most important new point to arise from the demonstration was a declaration by Sergio D'Antoni, Cisl's secretary general, which indicated a move from a policy of seeking trade union unity to a policy of "competitive unity". He declared that, although Cisl has not abandoned the idea of achieving union unity, he believes that the possibility of achieving unity of action will have to be tested case by case, with each confederation putting its proposals to workers. Mr D'Antoni closed the demonstration by saying: "there are concrete differences among the confederations that, in my opinion, will be overcome only after a debate with the workers."

Commentary

The demonstration on 20 November 1999 underlined the deep divisions among the Italian trade union confederations. These divisions can be interpreted in three different ways: tactical relationships among the organisations; different conceptions of trade unionism; and the relationship between trade unions and the political sphere.

In tactical terms, it can be said that the divisions are due to the fact that each organisation seeks to operate without unitary constraints within its political and organisational tradition. A prioriunion of action has limited the freedom of each organisation. An example of these tactical divisions is the decision of Cgil to disregard an agreement on pensions signed with the other confederations and to put forward proposals aimed at modifying the pensions system in agreement with the political party, the Democrats of the Left (Partito dei Democratici di Sinistra, PDS).

The divisions which result from differing conceptions of trade unionism concern the relationship among union organisations, workers and members. Some examples of these divisions can be found in the confederation's choices concerning workers' participation, representation rules and so on. Concrete examples include the disagreements referred to above relating to various pacts and agreements in Rome, Bologna and Milan.

As regards the relationship between trade unions and politics, the convergence between Cgil and PDS, expressed for example in the reform of the pension system, seems very clear. The situation of Cisl is much more complex. Cisl has supported the centre-left alignment which has formed recent Italian governments, because it included the Italian People's Party (Partito Popolare, PPI) and because of the leadership role of former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, politically close to the catholic tradition. The exit of Mr Prodi from the government and the poor electoral results of PPI have confronted Cisl with the problem of how the catholic-democratic tradition is to be represented politically. Cisl does not intend to play an active political role, but wants to promote the role of the catholic values in the political arena (IT9806174N). This position creates many difficulties in relationships with Cgil and Uil, whose leaders are personally involved in PDS.

The strategic nature of the divisions among the unions makes it likely that the competition between then will be extended to the organisational level and will last for some time. The consequences will be considerable as regards the relationship with the government, while on the industrial relations plane unity of action will remain stronger - as shown by the national collective agreements recently signed together by all the unions. (Domenico Paparella, Cesos)

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