Reform of worker representation under debate

The Labour Commission of Italy's Chamber of Deputies has been examining a draft bill on worker representation, presented in March 1998. This initiative has started an important phase in the continuing debate on representation, representativeness and the so-called erga omneseffect of collective bargaining - that is the applicability of collective agreements to all workers in a particular bargaining unit.

A preliminary draft bill on worker representation, prepared by Pietro Gasperoni of the Democratic Left, part of Italy's ruling "Ulivo" coalition (Democratici di Sinistra-l'Ulivo), brings together several different proposals submitted by various parliamentary groups between 1996 and early 1998. Following submission on 19 March 1998, the proposed reform is being examined by the select committee of the Labour Commission of the Chamber of Deputies. The Ministry of Labour is also very interested in this reform proposal and has appointed a committee of experts in order to present to the Commission its general orientation on this issue. The draft reform would regulate workers representation both in private companies and in the public administration, and would therefore replace the reform recently approved for the latter (IT9711138N).

The main points of the preliminary draft bill

The main points of the preliminary draft under examination by the Labour Commission are as follows.

Company-level worker representation

  1. In plants with more than 15 employees, workers would have the right to set up a a new structure, the "unitary workers' representative body" (Rappresentanza unitaria dei lavoratori, Rul). This representative body would replace the present "unitary union representative body" (Rappresentanza sindacale unitaria, Rsu- see IT9709211F). Workers in plants with up to 15 employees could instead set up inter-company representative structures (ie a representation body for more than one company), in accordance with provisions to be laid down in future sectoral collective bargaining would define. Furthermore, for companies with multiple plants, even in different countries, workers would have the possibility of creating specific bodies for the coordination of the various plant-level structures.
  2. The right to call for the creation or the renewal of the Rul and to present electoral lists would be granted to: a) the trade union organisations which signed the industry-wide agreement which applies to the company; b) trade union organisations with a membership rate of at least 5% among workers in the relevant production or administrative unit; c) electoral lists supported by at least 5% of the workforce of the production or administrative unit (or at least 100 people for units with more than 2,000 employees); and d) with the support of at least 10% of the respective groups, separate lists could be presented for middle managers, managers and workers with a status "midway between" dependent employment and self-employment (where their activity is regulated by long-term contracts, the so-called rapporti di collaborazione coordinata e continuativa- IT9709310F). Interestingly, the preliminary draft bill includes a provision for supporting equal representation of female and male workers within the Rul.
  3. Rul election results would be made public through the Ministry of Labour or National Council for Economic Affairs and Labour (Consiglio Nazionale dell'Economia e del Lavoro, Cnel) - a constitutional body with a consultative role, made up of representatives of the social partners.
  4. The Rul would have both the competence to conduct bargaining (together with the signatory organisations of the collective agreements applied in the company) and a "participatory" competence, assured in particular via the attribution of information rights. Trade union rights granted to plant-level union structures by the Workers' Statute (Statuto dei Lavoratori) would be extended to the Rul.
  5. The right to set up a plant-level union structure (Rappresentanze sindacali aziendali, Rsa) would be confirmed for representative unions (see below). Company union representatives would be directly appointed by union organisations.

Trade union representativeness

  1. After full implementation of the reform and the completion of Rul elections in workplaces, the unions considered representative in each bargaining unit would be those with at least 5% "representativeness", measured as the average of two figures: the union's membership rate (its members as a proportion of all union members at the workplace); and its electoral support (votes received as a proportion of the total votes cast). For middle managers and managers this threshold would stand at 10%.
  2. In order to make the measurement of representativeness possible, the collection of electoral and membership data would be assured by the Ministry of Labour or Cnel, in accordance with legislation on privacy protection.
  3. A joint committee would be set up by the Ministry of Labour to supervise collection and certification of electoral and membership data and to resolve any disputes that might arise.

Erga omnes effect of collective bargaining

Erga omnes is the term used in Italian industrial relations for the applicability of a collective agreement to all the workers in a bargaining unit, irrespective of whether or not they are members of the signatory organisations.

  1. Industry-wide and territorial agreements would apply to all private or public workers in their area of coverage if signed by unions with a total representativeness, in the relevant bargaining unit, of either at least 51%, as the average of the membership and electoral data (see above), or at least 60% of electoral support. Company- or plant-level agreements signed by the Rul would be effective for all workers.
  2. It would be possible to hold a referendum to revoke any collective agreement if this were requested either by representative unions representing at least 20% of workers covered by the agreement, or by at least one-third of elected workers' representatives, or by a minimum of one-fifth of workers covered (only the last two cases would be apply for company- or plant-level agreements). If the majority of workers took part in the poll and the votes for revocation outweighed those in favour, the agreement would be rejected.

Social partners' positions

The preliminary draft bill has been criticised on several grounds. In particular, the Cisl and Uil trade union confederations do not support the creation of a general workers' representative body that would replace the Rsu, which is a structure with a clearer trade union character. The two unions are also opposed to the idea of holding referendums on the possible repeal of collective agreements; in particular, Cisl holds that measuring representativeness should be sufficient to ensure the validity of agreements and their general applicability. Confindustria has also criticised the preliminary draft bill, especially: a) the fact that the one-third quota of Rsu seats reserved for representatives of unions which signed the industry-wide agreement applying to the company, would not apply to the Rul; b) the possibility to call for a repeal referendum; and c) the allocation of bargaining powers to the Rul, with the possibility that its bargaining activity might not develop in full coherence with the rules defined by sectoral bargaining.

Commentary

The discussion over the preliminary draft bill represents an important occasion to consider the issue of worker representation and for trying to resolve the questions of union representativeness and of the erga omneseffect of collective agreements. Incidentally, these two latter topics have also recently been emphasised by the December 1997 final report of the committee for the assessment of the July 1993 tripartite central agreement (IT9803223F).

The preliminary draft bill includes some innovative features, as it tries to introduce forms of representation for workers in very small companies (below 15 employees) and with "atypical" employment arrangements. At the same time, the draft bill presents some less clear and more controversial elements.

The proposals on company-level workers' representation appear most problematic. First, the Rul would be a workers' representative body that, following the "single-channel" model, would both have bargaining powers and play a role in participatory practices within companies. However, this might clash with the presence of plant-level trade union structures (the Rsa) which would have no specific competence. It could therefore be possible to arrive at a situation where the formal presence of a "double channel" (Rul and Rsa) would be coupled with the Rul having the typical entitlements of a "single channel", with possible conflict between these two forms of representation.

Second, the lack of any explicit integration between the union organisations signing industry-wide agreements and company-level representative bodies - this is guaranteed in the Rsu by the reserved one-third quota of seats for these union organisations - might lead to coordination problems between the different bargaining levels, at the same time as an effort is underway to create a more institutionalised and integrated bargaining structure. It is not by mere chance that this is the point on which social partners' criticism has concentrated; a structural coordination mechanism between bargaining levels is one of the most important prerequisites for a "concertation policy". It was this thinking that led to the inclusion in the July 1993 tripartite agreement of a chapter on workers' representation and later to the interconfederal agreement of December 1993 that introduced the Rsu.

Finally, it can be said that, owing to the sensitivity of issues such as representativeness and the erga omneseffect of bargaining in the ongoing debate on the form that workers' representation should take, the reform of representation might be a long and complex process. The Government's attitude will probably also be important, given the high relevance that this reform has for the overall system of concertation and dialogue in Italy (Roberto Pedersini, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso).

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