Milestone agreement signed on union representativeness and representation

Italy’s main trade union confederations have signed an agreement which brings together and complements the protocols on representativeness agreed in 2011 and in 2013. It defines rules for measuring and certifying unions’ representativeness at national and local level, and regulates the enforceability of collective labour agreements. It also covers workplace representation structures and details procedures for the election of unitary workplace union structures.


In recent years, issues of representativeness and workplace representation have come to the forefront of public debate on industrial relations. Particularly contentious has been the conclusion of ‘separate agreements’ signed by only some of the major trade union confederations or their affiliated sectoral federations, notably in the metalworking sector (IT0902059I, IT0107193F, IT0305204F, IT0911029I). They have caused disputes over the effectiveness of such non-unitary deals, and raised questions about how the representativeness of signatories is assessed.

Far-reaching effects of Fiat restructuring

Such problems are linked to the ‘voluntarist’ nature of the Italian industrial relations system and to its traditionally low institutionalisation. They were amplified by effects of the biggest change in Italian industrial relations in the last decade, the reorganisation of the Fiat motor company’s collective bargaining system around a new first-level group agreement. This deal is independent of the metalworking industry-level deal and sprang from the conclusion of ‘separate’ agreements at plant level and then at group-level.

The General Confederation of Italian Workers (Fiom-Cgil) has strongly opposed such developments (IT1007029I, IT1102019I). The confederation argues that the establishment of a first-level agreement at the company not only implied its exit from Confindustria’s employer representation system, but also effectively excluded Fiom-Cgil from the right to set up a workplace union structure. Recent legislation grants such rights only to unions that have signed workplace agreements. Because of the way the Fiat agreements had been reached, Fiom-Cgil was not party to any of the collective agreement (IT1111029I).

This led to further conflicts and lawsuits. In its Ruling 231 of July 2013, the Constitutional Court considered the legislation limiting the right to establish a trade union workplace structure only to unions that had signed the agreements that applied to it. It ruled that this was unconstitutional if it excluded organisations which had taken part in negotiations as workers’ representatives, but had eventually decided not to sign the agreements as an expression of ‘trade union freedom’.

In the same ruling, the court said that the legislature should address this problem. It proposed possible solutions, including:

  • assessment of trade union representativeness through membership;
  • introducing an obligation to negotiate with any union that could demonstrate that it met a certain representativeness threshold;
  • granting workers the right to elect workplace trade union structures.

Following this ruling, Fiom-Cgil was given the right to establish trade union structures within the Fiat Group in September 2013.

More generally, an important debate about the regulation of representativeness and workplace representation also revived discussion about how collective agreements might be made generally binding. This is the so-called ‘erga omnes’ envisaged by Article 39 of the 1947 Italian Constitutional Charter which has not as yet been implemented.

Earlier intersectoral agreements

Confindustria, Cgil, the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Uil) responded to the issues and challenges of these developments by signing two important agreements. One introduced rules for access to collective bargaining and the other dealt with the effectiveness of collective agreements at both industry and decentralised levels. Special attention was given to rules to make sure that company agreements derogating sectoral deals and introducing special clauses were effective. Provisions were also set out for the assessment and certification of representativeness, workplace representation and the organisation of worker consultations to ratify specific collective agreements.

On 28 June 2011 Giorgio Squinzi, President of Confindustria, and the leaders of the three major trade union confederations, Cgil, Cisl and Uil, signed the first intersectoral agreement (in Italian, 1 MB PDF) on representativeness and effectiveness of second-level company collective agreements (IT1108029I).

More recently, on 31 May 2013, Confindustria, Cgil, Cisl and Uil signed a second intersectoral agreement (in Italian, 266 KB PDF) on representation and representativeness with the major trade union confederations, which both implements and complements the deal of 28 June 2011, and makes special reference to industry-wide agreements (IT1306019I). The deal included details of how representativeness would be measured and confirmed the preference for a unitary union workplace structure over a plant-level union structure. It also included details of how a joint and unitary platform of demands could be presented by all signatory trade unions.

The conclusion of these agreements was followed by equivalent deals between Confindustria and the General Labour Union (Ugl).

The debate then developed over how to establish a general legislative framework for assessing union representativeness and the effectiveness of collective bargaining. Such contractual rules only bind the signatory confederations. Other intersectoral agreements on the same issues and with similar content followed between Cgil, Cisl and Uil and other employer confederations:

A single text on representativeness

On 10 January 2014, Confindustria, Cgil, Cisl and Uil signed a Single text on representation (in Italian, 321 KB PDF), which brings together and supplements the agreements of 28 June 2011 and 31 May 2013.

Key provisions


The text establishes how union representativeness for national industry-wide bargaining will be measured.

A union’s representativeness will be based on a combination of membership figures, expressed as a percentage of total union membership, and votes received as a percentage of total votes cast in the unitary workplace structure elections, at the national sectoral bargaining unit level. A union’s representativeness will be the simple average of the two percentages.

Membership figures will be collected through the National Institute of Social Security (INPS), and election data will be collected by the National Council for Economic Affairs and Labour (CNEL). Representativeness will be calculated and certified by Cnel, and representativeness data will be made public by May each year. Workers will have to be consulted and a simple majority is required.

To be admitted to national sectoral collective bargaining, unions must have at least 5% representativeness. Agreements signed by unions that have representativeness of at least 50% plus one will be valid. Sectoral agreements will be ratified through workers’ consultations by a simple majority and in line with the procedures established in each industry-wide deal. The accords will then be valid and bind all signatories and their affiliated organisations to the single text.

Workplace representation

The single text establishes that each workplace will have one representational structure, either a unitary union workplace structure (RSU) or plant-level union structure (RSA). It sets out the composition, election and prerogatives of the RSUs. RSUs and RSAs must be re-elected every three years.

Trade union rights and prerogatives at workplace level are also set out in the text as defined by the Workers’ Statute, including the right to establish a workplace representation structure for all organisations that have at least 5% representativeness, which have contributed to the definition of the platform of demands, and which have taken part in negotiations for the latest relevant national industry-wide agreement.

Company-level bargaining

Second-level company bargaining can cover the topics defined by national sectoral agreements or by law, in accordance with the rules the agreement sets. Company bargaining may modify sectoral agreements, within the same limits, and in accordance with the procedures defined by the sectoral deals themselves. This provision makes it possible for agreements to be adapted to the needs and circumstances of specific companies and workplaces.

Company agreements are valid and effective for the whole workforce and bind all parties and their affiliates to the single text, if approved by the majority of members of the RSU. In workplaces where RSAs are present, the agreement is valid if approved by the unions that represent the majority of union members in the company. In this case, a workers’ consultation may be requested to ratify the agreement.

Conflict resolution and sanctions

To ensure the effectiveness of agreements and prevent conflict, national sectoral agreements shall define conflict resolution clauses and procedures. They will also establish possible economic sanctions or the temporary suspension of contractual union prerogatives. Until industry-wide provisions are defined, a transitory clause establishes an intersectoral arbitration procedure to make sure the agreement is applied.

Employers, all workplace representatives and unions affiliated to the confederations will be bound to the single text by any strike-free clauses and sanctions introduced by company agreements, but individual workers will not be bound by it. Finally, the single text establishes a dedicated permanent commission of experts appointed by the parties. Its role is to promote and monitor the implementation of the agreement and make sure that it is effective.


The single text on representation signed by Confindustria, Cgil, Cisl and Uil is a significant step towards the definition of clearer rules and the institutionalisation of industrial relations in Italy. It may serve as a pace-setting agreement for other collective bargaining actors and, in particular, other employer confederations. Some signs of this were already visible in 2013 in the deals signed by Confeservizi and the coop sector employer confederations.

It may also provide a reference framework for possible legislative initiatives, an option which is gaining support in the public and political debate.

However, it is of course too early to say how effectively the deal will be implemented, especially in the measurement of representativeness procedure. The single text’s mechanism for this is complex and involves many actors and it remains to be seen how the whole system will work.

The single text is already facing some problems. While it has been the most comprehensive response to the issue of ‘separate agreements’, it has created a dispute between Cgil and its affiliate Fiom which is harshly critical of the single text. The metalworkers’ union argues that it imposes too many constraints on dissenting positions and conflict initiatives.

Fiom organised a worker consultation and the single text was rejected by 86.6% of those who voted. This consultation involved all workers in the sector and was independent of the consultation of union members organised by Cgil.

The 17th Cgil Congress is scheduled for 6–8 May 2014, and the issues of representativeness and representation are likely to remain topical.

Roberto Pedersini and Lisa Rustico, Università degli Studi di Milano

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