Decentralised bargaining in the public sector examined

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The findings of a survey of industrial relations and personnel policies at the decentralised level in the Italian public sector, conducted by the Aran public sector bargaining agency, were published in 2002. The survey examines decentralised bargaining during the 1998-2001 collective agreement period, the first after a major reform of public sector industrial relations in 1997 . On the basis of a sample which is probably Italy's largest and most systematically analysed as regards this issue, the results yield interesting insights and highlight positive and negative aspects.

The Agency for the representation of public administrations in collective bargaining (Agenzia per la rappresentanza negoziale delle pubbliche amministrazioni, Aran) was set up by law in 1993 and reformed in 1997 (IT9711217F) as part of more general reorganisation of industrial relations in the public sector. It is headed by a steering committee appointed by the Prime Minister which comprises five members, two of whom are nominated by the Conference of the Regions (Conferenza delle regioni) and one by the Association of Municipalities and Provinces (Associazione dei comuni e delle province). Aran acts as the statutory representative of the public administrations in national collective bargaining. Among Aran's institutional responsibilities are the study and monitoring necessary for the conduct of collective bargaining, including decentralised (or supplementary) bargaining. Within this framework, in spring 2001 Aran carried out a survey of industrial relations and personnel policies at the decentralised level in the public sector, at the end of the four-year collective agreement period 1998-2001.

Survey

The survey was conducted on the same sample that Aran uses for its periodic monitoring of pay trends (another of its institutional duties). The sample consists of around 350 administrations distributed around the country (excluding the five regions with special statutes) and in six of the eight sectors of the public sector. The sectors excluded were schools (with around 1.1 million employees) and research institutes (around 25,000 employees), which were not involved in supplementary, decentralised bargaining during the four-year period. The following administrative sectors were surveyed: ministries and central government (with around 280,000 employees); local government (700,000); the national health system (600,000, excluding medical doctors); state universities (60,000, excluding teachers); autonomous state firms, including firefighters (40,000); and 'non-economic' public firms (60,000, mostly in public social security).

Replies were forthcoming from 320 administrations, representing a total of around 725,000 employees, or around 25% of the public sector workers whose employment relationships are regulated by collective bargaining. Under-represented in the sample were smaller-sized administrations, ie those with fewer than 50 employees, which amounted to around 14% of the total number of cases surveyed, and 18.6% in local government (almost 6,000 of the approximately 8,100 Italian municipalities have fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, and therefore presumably have fewer than 50 employees). The survey was completed in September 2001 and the results were published in the spring of 2002 - see Contrattazione integrativa e gestione del personale nelle pubbliche amministrazioni, 1998-2001, Lorenzo Bordogna (editor), Franco Angeli, 2002.

Public sector industrial relations

The same laws that set up and then reformed Aran also redefined industrial relations as well as the structure and actors of collective bargaining in the public sector (IT9709311F). The overall aim of reform was to reduce differences with respect to the private sector to the greatest extent possible by: separating administrative and political responsibilities; strengthening the powers of managers with regard to personnel management; introducing financial incentives and a variable component in pay for both management (for whom the incentives and variable element are rather large) and non-managerial personnel (for whom they are quite small); achieving greater separation of responsibilities between management and trade unions in the management of the public authorities; and increasing the level of voluntarism in collective bargaining, especially lower-level supplementary bargaining.

As regards the bargaining structure, the model adopted for the public sector was similar to that of the private sector - ie a 'bipolar' two-tier structure (IT9709212F). This involves: a national sectoral agreement (in the four-year period 1998-2001, one for each of the eight sectors listed above) with a four-year validity for its 'normative' non-pay part and a two-year validity for its 'economic' pay part; and a supplementary agreement at the decentralised level with a four-year validity. Managerial personnel have separate agreements. The actors involved in collective bargaining at national level are Aran on behalf of the employers and the representative trade unions for the workers. At the decentralised level, the bargaining actors are the heads of individual administrations (or their representatives) on the employer’s side, the workers’ representation bodies (set up by law in 1997 and elected every three years in all workplaces - IT9812333F) and the representatives of the unions signatory to the sectoral agreement.

The law establishes a hierarchical relationship between the two levels, stipulating that decentralised bargaining should deal with the matters and operate within the limits specified by the sectoral collective agreements. In the four-year period 1998-2001, the main issues subject to decentralised collective bargaining were application of the new job classification system introduced throughout the public sector by the sectoral agreements and the use of funds to provide incentives to improve individual and collective labour productivity.

Survey findings

The Aran survey questionnaire, which was administered to the heads of the individual administrations, was divided into five parts:

  1. the characteristics of public employers in terms of industrial relations and personnel management;
  2. the characteristics of the trade union actors;
  3. the extent and content of decentralised bargaining regarding non-managerial personnel;
  4. supplementary bargaining and the management of senior personnel; and
  5. the use of forms of 'atypical' work.

As regards the first of these aspects, the survey found that a high percentage of administrations (35%) do not have specialised offices for industrial relations and personnel management, apart from strictly administrative matters (pay and social security contributions). This concerns not only small administrations but also 58% of those with 51-200 employees and 29% of those with 201-1,000 employees. Another finding is the high percentage of cases (again 35%) in which the employer’s negotiating delegation is presided over by the political head of the administration (eg mayor, councillor or university rector) and not by a professional manager or a competent official. Once again, this is the case not only in small administrations but also in 39% of those with 51-200 employees, 54% of those with 201-1,000 employees, and 18% of even larger ones.

As regards the trade union bargaining actors at the decentralised level, the survey shows that the workers’ negotiating delegations are more fragmented than in the private sector. In 53% of cases, they consist of four to six organisations, and in 14% of more than seven. In the private sector there are normally three organisations in each delegation, affiliated to the three main union confederations - the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italian a del Lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil). Moreover, the greater this fragmentation, the greater the complexity and difficulty of the negotiating process, as the likelihood increases that: a) more than one bargaining platform will be put forward; b) the negotiations will be conducted at several separate tables; c) the negotiations will be interrupted; and d) strikes will be called and held. In general, however, conflict is very rare - even more so when the employer’s negotiating body is led by the political head of the administration, not by a professional manager.

Another difference from the private sector is the much greater frequency of decentralised bargaining, although even in this case this involves small administrations to a lesser extent. As for contents of bargaining (predominant among which, as expected, is application of the new job classification system and all the problems connected with it), the most significant finding is the very large number of issues subject to bargaining - a sort of 'hyper-regulation' of the employment relationship at the decentralised level, which combines with the continuous and seemingly endless nature of supplementary bargaining. The number of issues bargained increases significantly the more the trade union bargaining body is fragmented. As regards incentive schemes, these are generally not particularly selective and with narrow differentials, despite some significant geographical differences.

Some of the above features emerge with regard to managerial-level personnel as well (especially the fragmentation of the trade union delegations), but bargaining is markedly less generalised and widespread, fewer issues are bargained, and incentives are more selective and substantial.

Finally, noticeably less use is made of the various forms of atypical work than in the private sector (half or even less), and they are mainly part-time and fixed-term contracts (although the possibility of using temporary agency workers was introduced only in the summer of 2000 - IT0008161N). Moreover, given the way in which part-time work is regulated in the civil service, it is more a source of rigidity than of flexibility.

Commentary

Besides information on supplementary bargaining in the four-year period 1998-2001, the Aran survey provides a broader cross-section picture of the state of industrial relations and personnel management in public administrations now that 10 years have passed since the reforms began. A number of important changes have taken place in recent years. However, if the overall intention was to reduce substantially the differences with respect to the private sector, in various areas - the formation of specific skills and competencies for personnel management, separation between the responsibilities of politicians and professional managers in industrial relations, the degree of voluntarism and selectivity of collective bargaining, greater use of incentive schemes and more frequent use of forms of atypical work - the differences vis-à-vis the private sector still persist. Perhaps to a certain extent they are unavoidable. (Lorenzo Bordogna, University of Brescia)

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