Pensioners' trade union organisations examined

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Pensioners' trade union organisations are an important component of Italian trade union confederations, today representing about half of their total membership. These bodies have progressively taken an important role in all level of social dialogue and collective bargaining on welfare issues, as well as on the more specific aspects of the pensions system. In practice, pensioners' unions represent the general interests of older people and are thus important social actors, given the progressive ageing of the population over recent decades.

The establishment of specific organisations for retired workers is a traditional feature of Italian unions: the pensioners' union affiliated to the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), now named the Union of Italian Retired Workers (Sindacato pensionati italiani, Spi), was created in 1949; the National Federation of Retired Workers (Federazione nazionale dei pensionati, Fnp) was set up within the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl) in 1952; and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil) has had a specific organisation for retired workers, the Italian Retired Workers' Union (Unione italiana lavoratori pensionati, Uilp) since its foundation in 1950. However, the importance of pensioners' unions, both in terms of membership and within the confederations, started to grow only at the end of 1960s. For instance, in the late 1960s, after 20 years of existence, Spi-Cgil had grown to about 500,000 members, but during the following two decades its membership increased fourfold to over 2 million and it experienced a veritable boom in the mid-1980s.

This remarkable rise in the membership of pensioners' unions seemed to approach a "saturation" point during the 1990s, when both the absolute number of "unionised" pensioners and their share of the total membership of Cgil, Cisl and Uil stabilised. At present, retired workers make up around half of the total combined membership of Cgil, Cisl and Uil - as indicated by the table below.

Share of pensioners in total membership of Cgil, Cisl and Uil, 1986-99, %
Year Cgil Cisl Uil Total Total retired members (No.) Total members (No.)
Retired members, 1999 2,896,869 2,012,614 440,734 - 5,350,217 .
1986 38.37 28.32 12.31 31.21 2,786,393 8,928,202
1987 40.60 30.93 13.41 33.37 3,058,784 9,166,771
1988 42.34 32.34 14.58 34.83 3,327,930 9,553,668
1989 44.32 35.16 16.68 37.14 3,656,111 9,845,095
1990 45.70 36.33 18.04 38.41 3,896,456 10,144,525
1991 46.85 37.43 19.19 39.49 4,107,948 10,402,943
1992 48.67 38.61 20.40 40.87 4,332,537 10,600,155
1993 50.92 40.91 22.49 43.10 4,565,862 10,594,268
1994 52.58 43.51 23.67 45.02 4,769,129 10,593,748
1995 53.75 45.94 24.80 46.65 4,938,681 10,587,421
1996 54.56 47.36 25.44 47.60 5,064,853 10,640,015
1997 55.14 49.52 26.35 48.82 5,203,728 10,659,892
1998 55.27 - 24.43 - - -
1999 55.07 50.31 24.80 48.47 5,350,217 11,037,868

Source: Cisl for 1986-97, individual confederations for 1998 and 1999.

These developments have been coupled with significant organisational changes, both in the pensioners' unions and in the confederations. The scope of the activity of pensioners' organisations has progressively widened:

  • pensioners' unions have developed a strong link with service activities provided by the unions, not only on pensions-related issues (ie help in the various procedures and operations which must be carried out to receive a pension), but also related to tax assistance, recreational activities, continuing training and general matters (legal advice, insurance, etc). This is due to the fact that older people are generally in a "weaker" position and need stronger protection, particularly in their relationships with state administrations and with local authorities;
  • pensioners' unions have acquired a more specific representative role in the field of welfare services, thanks to the importance of older users in this area, for instance in health and home care services. In this field, agreements signed at local level by pensioners' unions and municipalities on local welfare services are of particular relevance (IT9808328F); and
  • the shift in the internal equilibrium of the union confederations between active and retired workers (IT9803224F) has required a redefinition of the internal decision-making process, in order to guarantee a balanced participation of all components. This has been implemented by limiting the numbers of representatives of pensioners' unions in the confederal bodies, so as to prevent their numerical "superiority" from resulting in a predominant influence over policies and strategic choices.

Organisation, statutes and role in confederations

An interesting feature of Italian pensioners' unions, which is clearly reflected in their activities, is their organisation. Their structure has a substantially territorial and local basis, and is relatively widespread. For example, Fnp-Cisl is present in Italy's 8,000-plus municipalities, and has 2,850 local leagues and some 5,100 grass-roots activists. This is an obvious consequence of the fact that members no longer have (or never had) a trade union "reference point" in the workplace. At the same time, this situation, which essentially reflects an organisational need, has helped to shape and strengthen the ability of pensioners' unions to represent local interests on welfare issues in general, especially vis-à-vis local government.

The role of the retired workers' union organisations is recognised and laid down in the statutes of the three confederations. For instance, article 12 of Cgil's statute provides for the creation, at all levels, of a trade union for pensioners and older people which "organises and protects within Cgil retired workers who were employed in all sectors and hold any pension entitlements". In representing pensioners through Spi, Cgil "recognises that the problems of retired workers complement the more traditionally protected workers' and citizens' rights". Cgil gives Spi the right to make proposals when drafting confederal policies on the welfare state. Furthermore, Spi may promote or supplement Cgil actions on "living conditions and social reproduction" at local level and participates in the Cgil delegations which negotiate on the pensions system, welfare services and the health system. With regard to internal coordination, Cgil promotes collaboration between Spi and the sectoral federations.

The confederations' internal regulations lay down rules for representation on confederal bodies, which may have the effect of limiting the proportion of representatives from pensioners' unions. For instance, Cgil limits the representation of any one of its affiliated trade union organisations at the national congress - the key meeting for defining the confederation's strategies and internal organisation - to 25% of all voting delegates. In 1999, Spi was the only affiliated union which organised more than 10% of all Cgil members (it represented 55% of the total). Cisl has set the same threshold of 25% for the representation of a single union at national congresses. There are also similar representation rules for national bodies -such as Cisl's confederal general committee - and for territorial structures - Fnp-Cisl, for instance, is entitled to 10% of voting members in the regional general committee and between 10% and 14% in local committees, depending on the share of pensioners among total local members. Similar rules have also been introduced by Uil.


As mentioned above, an important part of the activity of pensioners' unions occurs at local level. On one hand, they supply a number of services to members, and on the other they make demands to, and bargain with, local authorities. At the same time, the retired workers' union organisations have progressively taken on an important role at national level with regard to pension and welfare issues. A particularly noteworthy initiative in this area is the common platform of demands drawn up every year by the three confederal pensioners' unions, which forms the basis for their negotiations with the government and local authorities. The platform for 2000, issued in March, illustrates the scope of such demands. It covers healthcare (including proposals that do not simply refer to older people, but encompass the general organisation and features of the national health system), quality of life issues (housing, consumer protection, citizen safety, continuing training, etc), the tax system and pension reform.

In particular, in 2000 the pensioners' unions are conducting a major campaign for the approval of a law on the reform of the Italian welfare system. In the mid-1990s, the pensioners' unions had launched a campaign to support a "popular initiative" draft bill, for which they collected more than 1 million signatures. The pensioners' unions claim the credit for prompting a reform process which is now reaching the final approval stage. They are particularly satisfied as they consider that the welfare reform law which was passed by the Chamber of Deputies on 31 May 2000 accepts many of their original proposals. They have organised a wide-scale mobilisation, which included a "sit-in" outside the Senate in July 2000 and continued in September 2000, in order to support the final approval of the new law. In particular, the unions want the Senate to approve the law without introducing amendments to the text passed in May 2000, in order to avoid the need for further scrutiny by the Chamber of Deputies. The most important points of the reform supported by the pensioners' unions include: the affirmation of the universality of welfare provision (ie welfare services must be guaranteed to all citizens); the introduction of a minimum "entry wage"; the promotion of initiatives to reconcile work and family responsibilities; and the recognition of an important role for concertation with social partners in the definition of welfare provision at all levels.

Italian pensioners' unions also participate in the initiatives of the European Federation of Retired and Elderly Persons (FERPA) which is part of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). All three Italian confederal pensioners' unions are affiliated to FERPA. One of the most prominent initiatives included in the Italian unions' joint action programme for 2000 was support for FERPA's petition to introduce into the European Union Treaty a number of rights related to: a minimum level of pension allowances; minimum income provisions; and the guarantee of general access to health services, proper housing, public services and training opportunities.

Among the many initiatives by pensioners' unions which go beyond the traditional scope of trade union representation, the promotion of non-profit mutual aid organisations (one for each pensioners' union) is particularly important, since it allows for the direct provision of care to people in need. Another example is a campaign aimed at improving knowledge of the euro single currency among older people (though not only this group), carried out by Uilp in cooperation with the Italian Ministry of the Treasury and the EU. The programme aims to help prevent the difficulties potentially connected with the transition phase to the single currency, and to make older people "change actors", who can help their families understand the mechanism of the changeover to the euro.


Trade union organisations of pensioners (and older people) are a very distinctive element of Italian confederal trade unionism. The great increase in their importance, which started in the 1980s, may be connected with both their substantial rise in membership and the importance that the reform of the pension system has acquired at national level. Their increasing membership has helped counter the reduction in the confederations' membership levels which has been prompted by: the decrease in employment in the manufacturing sectors with a solid union tradition, which were strongly affected by reorganisation processes in the 1980s; and the general gradual erosion of union density among employed workers. In this way, pensioners have proved to be an important resource for maintaining the general representativeness of the union confederations. The attention paid to the reduction of the state budget deficit, which became a priority on the political agenda in the early 1990s, has pushed the issue of pensions reform, together with incomes policy, to the centre of the relationship between the government and the unions. This has made the representation of (present and future) pensioners of crucial importance both within the confederations and in the relations between them and the government. Furthermore, as pensioners' unions provide a general representation of the interests of older people, they constitute an important social actor, given the progressive ageing of the population which has taken place in Italy, as in much of Europe, during recent decades.

Some specific features of the organisation and representation of pensioners' unions strengthen their bargaining power. First, their widespread territorial diffusion gives these organisations a high potential for mobilisation and has enabled them effectively to present themselves to local authorities as important actors on welfare and quality of life issues. Second, the interlocutors of pensioners' unions are essentially public and political bodies, be they the national government or local authorities. This situation may emphasise the political character of the union's demands and of the bargaining process. While pensioners' political parties are a possible alternative to pensioners' unions, there has been little experience of such initiatives in Italy, where a trade union representation of pensioners' interests has emerged, rather than a fully political one (possibly because of the existing tradition and strength of retired workers' unions). This fact apparently favours the search for compromise (the "collective agreement" approach), rather than emphasising the contrasts between different solutions (the "majority choice" approach).

The peculiarities of pensioners' representation mean that important modifications have had to be made within industrial trade union confederations. The absence of a private employer, for instance, removes the regulatory role that the market plays in a pluralistic industrial relations system. The question of internal relations within the confederations is raised by the relative uniformity of pensioners' demands (covering essentially economic and quality of life issues), compared with the variety of potential demands put forward by active workers (working conditions, working time, wage levels, training, etc), not least due to differing lob positions and organisational roles (blue- or white-collar workers, technicians, etc). This means that the representation of pensioners' interests may be less problematic than that of the members of a typical industrial union and, if no "corrective" mechanisms are put in place, these interests could easily prevail in drawing up the union confederations' strategies, all the more so given the importance of pensioners' unions in total membership.

The solution to these potential problems adopted by Italian union confederations has two elements. On one hand, the confederations' statutes allow for a balanced involvement of all sectoral unions of employed workers, as well as of the pensioners' unions. On the other, the pensioners' unions have "specialised" in welfare issues, expanding their "natural" entitlement to be involved on pensions issues to a general representative role in this area - a fact which may make it easier to control potential overlap and conflict with sectoral unions' demands. Furthermore, the separation between retired workers' organisations and industrial unions gives great visibility to pensioners' unions and grants them a strong "social" representation. At the same time, it reduces the influence of pensioners' interests within industrial unions - unlike the situation which occurs where retired workers remain members of their original sectoral union.

In conclusion, it can be said that the growth of pensioners' unions may represent an important aspect of the transformation of union representation in Italy, and one which may help keep the representativeness of the union confederations at a high level. It is part of the same tendency which has led more recently to the creation of specific union organisations for "atypical" workers (IT9807327F) and which explains efforts to represent unemployed people in social concertation at national level on employment policies, as well as at local level on the implementation of such policies. For these changes to be effective, however, it is probably essential that the confederations' national secretariats succeed in mediating among the increasing variety of interests that they represent. In the Italian case, this task may have been facilitated by the "legitimising" effect of the system of social dialogue and concertation which progressively emerged during the 1990s (Roberto Pedersini, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso).

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