The debate on union unity is resumed

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In May 1997, the executive committee of Italy's CGIL trade union confederation approved a plan to create a single union centre by 2000, a development welcomed by the CISL confederation. This article reviews the moves towards trade union unity and their background.

The meeting of CGIL's executive committee held on 6-7 May 1997 ended with the approval of a document proposing the creation of a unitary trade union as a priority objective of the confederation, and stating that this objective can be reached by 2000. CGIL's willingness to cooperate, after taking a particularly cautious approach to union unity over the past few years, was met with enthusiasm at the national congress of CISL- one of the other two main confederations - held on 21-24 May 1997 (IT9706113N). In the debate reopened by the various union confederations, unity is now considered an objective that can realistically be achieved. It is expected that there will be a constituent phase, involving the creation of a statute, a new membership system and, in 2000, the first unitary congress.


After the split of the unitary CGIL confederation in 1948, the model of trade unionism developed in the 1950s was centralised and strongly linked to ideological and political reference points. Three separate confederations, CGIL, CISL and UIL, broadly represented different political and ideological strands. At that time, trade unions were not officially present in workplaces, where works committee s (commissioni interne) existed, but without bargaining powers.

Following some initial experience in company-level bargaining in the early 1960s, the trade unions rediscovered unity of action during the period of collective mobilisation inaugurated during the "hot autumn" of industrial unrest in 1969, when new plant-level workers' council s (consigli di fabbrica) gave impetus to the unitary process. Although full unification was not achieved, a CGIL-CISL-UIL Federation (Federazione Unitaria CGIL-CISL-UIL) was instituted in 1972 as a step towards union unity. However, this unitary phase later began to suffer during the period when fighting inflation was the top priority and ended abruptly in 1984, when CGIL refused to sign a new central agreement on the reorganisation of the sliding-scale mechanism for pay indexation.

This breakaway did not prevent attempts at unity of action during the 1980s. A new attempt to formalise unity between the trade union organisations was made in 1991, with the agreement between the confederations on the reform of plant-level union representation structures, renamed the RSU (Rappresentanze Sindacali Unitarie). This agreement was officially recognised in the tripartite agreement of July 1993 between the Government, the employers and the unions, and subsequently in the interconfederal agreement between the social partners in December 1993.

The role of the RSU in the debate on union unity

With the institution of the RSU, a unitary body for general representation was introduced in Italian workplaces. This body is elected by all workers (even non-union members), and also constitutes a union representation body, openly and officially recognised by employers. On this latter point, the RSU differs from the previous workplace representation bodies, workers' councils, recognition of which had been of an informal nature. A "single-channel" representation model was thus institutionalised, under which a single body, the RSU, represents not only the entire workforce but also the trade union, and has bargaining powers and information rights.

On account of these characteristics, the RSU could constitute the fulcrum of the new unitary union organisation in workplaces. However, in order for this to come about, certain rules pertaining to RSU elections and representativeness criteria are required - issues on which CGIL, in particular, believes legislation is necessary.


The collapse of trade union unity in 1948 brought to light two different union cultures in Italy:

  • the union as a representative of the general interests of the entire workforce, centralistic and not particularly predisposed to representing specific employment groups. This model was most characteristic of the Communist- and Socialist-oriented unions, CGIL and (partly) UIL;
  • the "associative" and industry-wide union, which stresses the role of union members and bargaining in workplaces. The Catholic-oriented union, CISL, was closely based on this model.

The legacy of these two different union ideals is still partly duplicated today in the culture of the confederal unions: on the one hand, there is the "union as a movement", which characterises CGIL; and, on the other, the "union as an association", represented by CISL.

Despite this difference of opinion, union unity has been a recurrent theme in the debate on the Italian industrial relations system from the end of the Second World War until today. Starting from the early 1990s, new conditions developed, encouraging the process of union unification:

  • the collapse of the Italian party system. The collapse of the parties that had dominated the political scene eliminated some of the traditional reasons, in particular those of a political-ideological nature, for the split among the unions;
  • the process of European unification, which prioritises incomes policy and the issue of wage moderation. These new conditions, even from an employers' point of view, have reinforced interest in a unitary union strategy; and
  • the bargaining structure reform enacted by the tripartite central agreement of July 1993, which gave official recognition to company bargaining, required the definition of unitary union structures at this level.

It is for these reasons that, after 50 years, all the previous different approaches appear to be on the verge of being reconciled in a unitary union model which recognises a specific relevance both for union members and for all workers. The proposal made by CGIL's executive committee emphasises the role of union members in the drawing-up of bargaining platforms. It is during this phase that union members will have the right to voice their own opinions. However, once an agreement has been reached, it must be validated by consensus among the entire workforce.

Important issues still have to be resolved - in particular, gauging the real importance of the various union organisations. This should be based on the number of members (which at present is self-certified and consequently not rigorously controlled) and on the votes won during RSU elections. The definition of rules aimed at measuring representativeness is therefore one of the problems that must be solved in order to develop the debate on unity, and various bills on the subject have recently been presented. (Simonetta Carpo and Ida Regalia, Ires Lombardia)

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