Negotiations resume over renewal of sectoral agreements

After the tensions of early 1998, caused by the bill on reducing the working week to 35 hours, talks resumed in April between the Confindustria employers' organisation and the Government, and among the social partners. Confindustria and the Cgil, Cisl and Uil trade union confederations have agreed to: restart negotiations on the renewal of sectoral collective agreements; begin discussion on redefining the rules regulating social dialogue and concertation; and urge the Government to start, with the social partners, the assessment of the July 1993 tripartite agreement. Moreover, measures to foster the development of the South of Italy will be introduced.

The issue of reducing the statutory working week to 35 hours has strongly influenced events in Italian industrial relations since October 1997, when the Government, following agreement with the Communist Reconstruction Party (Partito di Rifondazione Comunista, PRC), undertook to issue a bill on the matter (IT9710133N).

As a consequence, in autumn 1997 the Confindustria employers' confederation withdrew from negotiations on reforming the welfare system, not only in protest against what it regarded as an insufficiently radical reform of the pensions system (IT9711315F), but also because it maintained that unilateral action by the government on a matter of such importance as working hours called the role of social dialogue and concertation into question (IT9711216F).

Negotiations over the renewal of sectoral collective agreements - such as those for the chemicals industry which got underway in September 1997 (IT9710313F) - have also been hampered as a consequence. According to employers' associations, in fact, the need for firms to recoup the costs created by reducing the working week has restricted the scope for bargaining.

The situation deteriorated further after 24 March 1998, when the Government approved its bill on reducing the working week to 35 hours in 2001 (IT9803159N). The hostile reaction by Confindustria (IT9803158N) took the form not only of scathing criticism of the Government and of the bill, but also of a threat, later withdrawn, to cancel the tripartite central agreement of 23 July 1993 on incomes policy and the "Pact for Employment" of September 1996 (IT9702201F).

Healing the breach

Attempts to heal the breach between the Government and Confindustria led to a meeting between the two sides on 1 April 1998, at which a redefinition of the rules regulating social dialogue and concertation was one of the issues on the agenda. Confindustria asked that talks on this matter should be held between the Government and the social partners in order to define rules that would help to stabilise and reinforce incomes policy and concertation. Both Confindustria and the unions regarded it as essential that the Government should not intervene by legislative means in matters crucial for the social partners, as happened in the case of the 35-hour working week.

The trade union confederations' first reaction to Confindustria's proposal was a declaration that talks on concertation could only begin when negotiations for the renewal of collective agreements - both at the industry and company level - had been resumed. It should be borne in mind that suggestions had been made (see, for example, Il Sole 24 ore of 3 April 1998) that, at the meeting with the Government on 1 April 1998, Confindustria had proposed that company-level bargaining should be halted and sectoral collective agreements should be renewed temporarily until 2001 - that is to say, until the eve of the introduction of the statutory 35-hour week.

The meeting between Confindustria and the Government was followed by another one held on 7 April 1998 with the Cgil, Cisl and Uil union confederations. This second meeting concluded with a joint declaration - an unusual occurrence in Italian industrial relations - which emphasised that relations between the parties had improved. The declaration centred on the following four points:

  • that discussions should begin between the confederal unions and Confindustria on new rules to regulate concertation. These talks should produce a set of proposals to be submitted to the Government and to the other parties concerned;
  • that collective bargaining should continue as usual on the basis of the rules fixed by the agreement of 23 July 1993, which established a two-level bargaining structure - national sectoral and company level;
  • that the Government should be requested to begin assessment with the social partners of the July 1993 agreement, given that the study committee set up by the Government had now finished its work (IT9803223F); and
  • that the two sides should endeavour to promote employment creation in the South of Italy through the implementation in its entirety of the September 1996 Pact for Employment and through the use of "area pacts" (IT9704203F).

At the end of the meeting, general satisfaction was expressed concerning the agreement reached. For Carlo Calleri, vice-president of Confindustria, the fact that a joint declaration had been issued was indicative of a united front. As regards the unions, the secretaries of Cgil, Cisl and Uil expressed their positive evaluation of the outcomes of the meeting, and specifically as regards: the intention to give stability to concertation; the resumption of negotiations for renewal of contracts; and the commitment to promoting employment creation in the South of Italy.

Commentary

During the 1990s, Italy has seen a revival of concertation between the government and the social partners. Confindustria's threat to annul the incomes policy agreement of 1993 and the Pact for Employment of 1996, and the suspension of talks on the renewal of sectoral collective agreements, threatened to have serious consequences, both economic and political. This came at a crucial time when assessment of the agreement of 23 July 1993 was due to begin, negotiations over renewal of the national metalworkers' contract were about to start, and those over the equally important chemicals industry were already in progress.

The meeting between the Government and Confindustria, and then that between Confindustria and the confederal unions, seem to indicate that progress is being made towards the resumption of dialogue and improved relations between the Government and the social partners. However, a number of issues are still unresolved.

Firstly, there is a risk that assessment of the agreement of 23 July 1993 will reopen discussion between Confindustria and the unions on the two-tier articulation of the bargaining structure, an issue that already influenced the renewal of the metalworking industry collective agreement during 1996-7 (IT9702202F).

Secondly, definition of the rules regulating concertation is bound to be difficult. Indeed, the best method for achieving this regulation - either the law or an agreement between the parties - has still not been decided, while on this point it seems that there are contrasting views within the unions as well. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)

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