Splits open up between trade unions

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During the summer of 1999, a distinct split has opened up between Cgil and Cisl, the two largest Italian trade unions, on flexibility, reform of the pensions system and economic democracy.

Despite the political and ideological differences responsible for the fragmentation of Italian trade unionism, the relationships among the union confederations have always been characterised by a search for collaboration. This is because they have always been strongly aware that a lack of unity weakens their capacity to represent workers and their collective bargaining activity. However, there have been moments of tension, for example in the 1950s and the early 1980s. During the 1990s, though, the issue of trade union unity has returned to the fore (IT9707307F), although the process has been hampered for reasons ranging from organisational difficulties to ones of a more political nature. More specifically, one of the issues deemed most important is the approval of a law which defines the criteria for measuring the representativeness of the various trade union organisations (IT9804226F). Despite the obstacles in the way of unification, the 1990s have seen a certain unity of action by the unions. Without such unity, the development of concertation between government and the social partners would have been much more difficult.

The reasons for the conflict

In recent months, and especially in the summer of 1999, a split has opened up between the two main Italian union confederations, Cgil and Cisl. The controversy between them has centred on issues central to trade union action like flexibility, reform of the pensions system, economic democracy and the structure of the bargaining system. The first two issues in particular have sown discord.

The clash over flexibility has led to two events of great importance in recent months: Cgil's refusal to sign both the "area agreement" for Gioia Tauro (IT9904339F) and the preliminary agreement for the Milan employment pact (IT9908251F). The lack of unity in signing these agreements highlights the different views of "flexibility" taken by the two largest Italian union confederations. According to Cisl, employment growth and creation is one of Italy's main priorities at present, especially in the South of Italy. It envisages two main instruments to foster development in the South:

  • tax relief for firms investing in areas of high unemployment; and
  • the introduction of greater flexibility. Cisl's aim is to introduce new types of employment contracts. In particular, it argues, wage flexibility should be increased in certain areas, so that pay is more closely linked to company performance. Greater flexibility is important not only in developing areas but also in cities like Milan. In highly developed areas of the country, flexibility is an instrument which should facilitate the labour market entry of those at present excluded from it, like young people, immigrants, and long-term unemployed people who in many cases work without contracts or protection, fuelling the clandestine labour market. According to Cisl, the introduction of greater flexibility would enhance the role of the unions and of collective bargaining. Indeed, greater flexibility, the union maintains, should not be viewed as a process of indiscriminate deregulation. Collective bargaining will still be crucial, although it should be differentiated territorially according to local economic and social circumstances.

For Cgil, by contrast, it is not the lack of flexibility that explains the high levels of unemployment in certain areas of the country. Indeed, recent years have seen the introduction of instruments like "area agreements" and "territorial pacts" (IT9704203F) which allow forms of flexibility. What is required instead is investment by firms. Moreover, the focus should be on the quality of development, not on measures which create employment but reduce worker protection. The introduction of excessive flexibility, according to Cgil, would in fact reduce workers' rights.

The debate on flexibility has repercussions for the broader discussion of the structure of bargaining (IT9907250F). Although Cgil and Cisl have both agreed to the current two-tier bargaining system (national level and company or territorial level) introduced by the national tripartite agreement of 23 July 1993 and confirmed by the "social pact" of 1998 (IT9901335F), Cisl favours the strengthening of territorial-level bargaining. For Cgil, by contrast, the bargaining structure should not be altered.

Another cause of discord between Cgil and Cisl is reform of the pension system, which has figured prominently on the political agenda in the summer and autumn of 1999 (IT9909346F). Since the reforms introduced by the Dini government in 1995, changes have been made to the way pensions are calculated for workers with less than 18 years of contributions. In fact, a final-salary model (based on the average of the employee's last 10 years' wages) has been replaced by a contributory one (based on contributions made). The dispute between the unions sharpened following the recent announcement by Cgil general secretary Sergio Cofferati that he was willing to see the contributory system extended to all workers - but after 2001, when the effects of the 1995 pensions reform have been verified. Cgil views the extension of the contributory system to all workers as a means to curb spending on pensions while guaranteeing social equity. Cisl's reaction to Mr Cofferati's proposal has been highly critical. According to its general secretary, Sergio D'Antoni, extending the contributory system would penalise workers approaching retirement, who, moreover, could not rely on a supplementary pension to avoid hardship. In confirmation of the sharp divisions between Cgil and Cisl, Mr D'Antoni has threatened to call for a referendum among workers to evaluate their agreement or otherwise with an across-the-board extension of the contributory system.

Finally, a split has also opened up between the unions on the issue of economic democracy. Cisl argues that the emphasis should be on a participatory model based on worker shareholders and their representatives on the board. The case of Alitalia is seen as emblematic (IT9706306F): the airline company was able to overcome its severe crisis by introducing a system of employee shareholding. According to Cisl, the imminent privatisation of large Italian public enterprises like Enel, Società delle Autostrade and Società degli Aeroporti di Roma will provide an opportunity to promote the spread of employee shareholding. Cgil, by contrast, argues that it is important to preserve a distinction of roles: the trade union cannot represent the interests of both workers and their employer.


There seem to be both strategic and political reasons for the current discord between Cgil and Cisl.

The strategic reasons reflect a historical difference between the Italian unions: whereas Cgil takes the form of a "class-based" trade union which prioritises the representation of general interests, Cisl is based on the model of a "associative" union more closely geared to the interests of its members (IT9905113N). This difference is highlighted by their conflicting views on flexibility: whereas Cisl is more oriented towards extending the range of its representation to include new constituencies, Cgil is more concerned with action to protect the general interests of employees.

As for the political reasons, at issue is the relationship between the unions and the government. The pensions issue has created a certain amount of convergence between the centre-left government and Cgil. According to some commentators, the reform of the welfare system may provide an opportunity to define a new relationship between the political left and the trade union left.

These reasons aside, significant questions are being raised as to the consequences for Italian industrial relations if the split between the unions is not healed. Both members of the government and employers' associations have expressed concern about the negative effects that the division between the unions may have on concertation between the government and the social partners, and on collective bargaining. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)

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