Radicals promote series of referenda on trade union and labour issues

Download article in original language : IT9909253FIT.DOC

At the beginning of September 1999, Italy's Radicals political party announced that it had collected enough signatures to hold 20 referenda in spring 2000, with the aim of repealing various legislative provisions. Many of the issues covered by the referenda concern trade union or labour issues, like the collection of trade union membership dues, or individual dismissal procedures. The trade union confederations are firmly opposed to the Radicals' initiative, which they regard as "anti-union".

At the beginning of July 1999, the Radicals political party, headed by their founder and leader Marco Pannella and the former European Commissioner Emma Bonino, began collecting the signatures necessary for a set of 20 referenda to repeal various legislative provisions, to be held in spring 2000. The questions to be put to the electorate concern a wide variety of issues, ranging from electoral law to the administration of justice and the public funding of trade union benefit advice centres. More than half of the questions refer to matters which directly or indirectly concern the trade unions or collective bargaining. The trade union confederations have harshly criticised the Radicals' initiative, since they regard it as "anti-union". Cgil, Cisl and Uil have organised, in parallel with the collection of signatures by the Radicals, an awareness-raising campaign against the referenda, and a number of union leaders have set up committees asking citizens not to endorse the referendum proposals.

At the beginning of September, the Radicals announced that they had collected around 650,000 signatures on all the questions proposed. Since the quorum required for a referendum to be held in Italy is 500,000, the promoters maintain that they have exceeded the required threshold, taking account of possible errors committed during the collection and recording procedure. The collection of signatures was due to conclude on or around 25 September, so that the rolls could be delivered to the Court of Cassation (Corte di Cassazione) for verification that everything is in order, and for the subsequent ruling by the Constitutional Court (Corte Costituzionale) on admissibility.

The proposals

The referenda proposed by the Radicals are made up of several sets of issues. A first block of five questions should, according to the promoters, increase the "freedom of work and of enterprise". The first three of these questions call for the repeal of a series of laws which regulate and restrict the use of certain types of employment relationship, requiring in certain cases the conclusion of collective agreements for their use. These referenda deal in particular with liberalising the use of fixed-term and part-time contracts, and of homeworking. In the Radicals' view, "yes" votes in these referenda would "restore to employers and workers the freedom to fix the duration of work contracts according to their needs", and would eliminate a series of "excessive and disincentivising constraints" on part-time work and homeworking.

This group of proposals includes a further two questions. One seeks the complete liberalisation of private job placement agencies, by repealing sections of the recent legislative decree which, partly in consideration of a ruling by the European Court of Justice, allows private employment services to operate in Italy (IT9805165N). Among the other issues covered by this referendum is removal of the obligation to provide placement services free of charge to workers.

The fifth of this group of referenda would seek the abolition of the possibility of ordering the reinstatement of workers in the event of unlawful individual dismissal (ie in the absence of "just cause" or "justifiable reason"), as provided for in firms with more than 15 employees by the Workers' Statute. Reinstatement would be replaced by payment of compensation or rehiring.

Another group of four referenda concerns reform of the welfare and tax systems. The first proposes the abolition of "seniority pensions" (ie pensions granted on the basis of the number of years of work, not the worker's age). This would cancel part of the reform of the pensions system introduced in 1995 after long discussions with the unions (the so-called "Dini reform" - IT9711315F). The second referendum envisages people taking out private health insurance as an alternative to the national health service. A third proposal is to abolish the monopoly currently enjoyed by Inail, a state-run public body which provides compulsory insurance against workplace accidents and occupational illnesses. If this referendum is successful, employers may decide to insure their employees with a private insurance company. Finally, as regards the tax system, the abolition of the compulsory payment of income tax by employers is proposed - workers would receive their gross wage and then pay the tax later.

A final pair of referenda seek to abolish: the public funding of trade-union benefit advice centres (patronati- the organisations run by the union confederations to help workers in their dealings with the social security institutes, in order to obtain their social security and welfare rights); and the possibility of the direct payment through Inps (the social security institute) and Inail of membership dues and other contributions to trade unions.

Trade union positions

The union confederations have vigorously opposed the Radicals' referendum proposals, declaring that their success would remove essential protections for workers. Indeed, according to Cgil, Cisl and Uil, approval of these proposals would eliminate a set of individual and collective guarantees currently enjoyed by workers, which have been gained as a result of trade union struggle in the past. Again according to the union confederations, if adopted, the proposals would expose the employer/employee relationship to the dictates of power relations and market forces, so that the workforce would be subordinate to, and dependent upon, the requirements of firms. Moreover, the referenda would affect collective bargaining and concertation as methods of regulation, since they would eliminate a set of measures agreed by the parties (on reforming the pensions system, for example) and would restrict the scope for collective bargaining (on "atypical" employment contracts, for example). According to the unions, the harmful consequences of the referenda, if they result in yes votes, include: the possibility that workers will be forced to pay to find employment; heightened instability of employment in terms of duration and working hours; the erosion of social citizenship rights and the creation of a sharp distinction between those able to pay for private health insurance and those unable to do so; reduced protection against workplace accidents and occupational illnesses; and increased tax evasion.

Confindustria, the major Italian employers' association, has not taken up a position on the referenda proposed by the Radicals, maintaining a stance of substantial neutrality. Only Confindustria's association of young employers has announced its support for the five referenda on "labour market freedom".

Commentary

The referenda proposed by the Radicals on labour and industrial relations issues reflect a neo-liberal and individualistic view of both the regulation of the employment relationship and of the role of the social partners, which would be substantially curtailed.

On the one hand, the questions concerning the liberalisation of fixed-term and part-time contracts and homeworking, seemingly envisage (more or less explicitly) substantial parity between employer and employee; therefore, from the Radicals' point of view, the full autonomy of individual parties should be guaranteed. On the other hand, the referendum proposals on welfare and taxation concern issues which in recent years have been addressed using the concertation method, and which are still a matter of discussion and debate between the government and the social partners (notably the reform of the pensions system).

For these reasons, the referenda reflect attitudes substantially at odds with the recent developments in, and institutionalisation of, the Italian industrial relations system towards a widespread use of the method of social concertation on macro issues (such as curbing inflation) and, more recently, micro issues (such as employment creation). The positions of vigorous opposition by the unions and substantial neutrality by Confindustria signal a significant commitment by the social partners to the continued use of social concertation, which has demonstrated its usefulness by, for example, enabling Italy to meet the criteria for membership of EU Economic and Monetary Union. Should these attitudes persist, if and when the referenda are put before the electorate, it is not likely that the outcome will be what their Radical promoters hope (Roberto Pedersini, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso).

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