Works council elections held at Fiat's Mirafiori and Rivalta plants

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In summer 1997, elections took place at Fiat's Mirafiori and Rivalta plants to renew "works councils" (Rsu s) for the first time since their establishment in 1994. Some 20,000 workers went to the polls, giving significant insights into the evolution of employee representation in Italy's most important manufacturing group, and raising some more general considerations over trade union representativeness in the manufacturing sector.

Workers' representation bodies and the Rsu

Fiat is Italy's most important manufacturing group, with about 240,000 employees and a turnover of around ITL 78,000 billion turnover in 1996. The elections of workers' representation bodies in the "historic" Fiat plants have always been a crucial occasion for assessing trade union representativeness and trends in the Italian trade unionism. This was true especially in 1950s and 1960s, when workers' representation was entrusted to works committee s (commissioni interne), which were elected by universal suffrage among workers. In the 1950s, works committee elections were seen as nearly as important as political elections. In the 1960s and 1970s, the shift of representation to the newly-created workers' council s (consigli di fabbrica) reduced the possibility of assessing representativeness within the workplace. In fact, the electoral mechanisms for these councils were, from the start, scarcely formalised, and later the number of members nominated by confederal trade unions from among their shop stewards progressively increased. However, an interconfederal agreement signed on 1 December 1993 laid down the regulations for the Rappresentanze sindacali unitarie(Rsu), a "single-channel" structure introduced by the July 1993 central tripartite agreement (IT9709212F), and eventually re-introduced universal suffrage for workers' representation bodies, granting once again relevance and interest to the elections of such bodies.

The December 1993 agreement had important consequences, as it introduced a form of competition between confederal unions (those affiliated to the three main confederations, Cgil, Cisl and Uil) and independent unions. In fact, the right to present electoral lists in Rsu elections is not limited to the unions that signed the relevant industry-wide collective agreement, but is also extended to all other unions active at plant level, provided that they accepted the interconfederal agreement on Rsus and that their lists are accompanied by the signatures of at least 5% of the workforce. With the agreement of all trade unions present at company level, the Rsu may be entrusted with all the prerogatives that law 300/70 (the Workers' Statute, Statuto dei Lavoratori) granted to the "plant-level union structure" (Rappresentanze sindacali aziendali, Rsa) - for instance, bargaining rights and time off for union duties.

The December 1993 agreement also states that while two-thirds of Rsu members have to be elected by universal suffrage from among competitive lists, the remaining one-third of seats is allocated to the lists presented by the unions that signed the industry-wide agreement in force at the plant, in proportion to the votes they received. These union organisation afterwards either appoint or elect their representatives. This rule provides incentives for signing the industry-wide agreement, whereas it limits very marginally the access to Rsu membership. For instance, at Fiat's Mirafioriand Rivaltaplants, the Cobas rank-and-file committees are the only union organisation which did not sign the industry-wide agreement and consequently could not participate in the distribution of all seats. It is worth noting that Cgil, Cisl and Uil agreed to redistribute equally among themselves all their representatives arising from the "remaining one-third" rule, in order to support a unitary presence of the three confederal unions.

The elections at Fiat's Mirafiori and Rivalta plants

The Rsu elections that took place in summer 1997 at Fiat plants were particularly important, as they involved for the first time all trade unions present at plant level. In the first elections held in 1994, Fismic- an independent union which was established in Fiat in 1950s under the name of Sida, and which is traditionally considered to be close to company positions - Ugl-Cisnal and Cisal- two national independent unions - had opted not to participate in the Rsu elections and to continue with their Rsa, in accordance with law 300/70. The consequences of such a choice were not trivial, as Fismic is the leading trade union in terms of membership in the Turin plants (with some 4,000 members, see Table 2 below) and it confirmed its importance in the latest elections when it came out as the second largest trade union, after Fiom-Cgil (the metalworking union affiliated to Cgil).

Furthermore, the Cobas also participated in the latest elections. These Cobas were established by the most radical elements of Fiom-Cgil, which left the confederal union right after the government-trade union agreement on pension reform in 1995, since they did not share a bargaining attitude that they considered too compliant.

Table 1 gives the results of the 1997 Rsu election results.

Table 1. 1997 Rsu elections at Fiat Mirafiori and Rivalta plants, % of vote for lists of each union
Trade union Total Blue-collar White-collar
Fiom-Cgil 35.7 36.0 33.4
Fim-Cisl 16.4 15.0 30.9
Uilm-Uil 16.9 16.8 17.3
Fismic 20.8 21.0 18.5
Cobas 4.6 5.1 -
Ugl-Cisnal 4.8 5.3 -
Cisal 0.8 0.9 -

Source: Fiom-Cgil Piemonte

Table 2 gives the percentage of the Mirafiori and Rivalta workforces who are union members, and the ratio of the votes received in the 1997 Rsu elections to their memberships at the plants.

Table 2. Unionisation and votes/membership ratio at Fiat Mirafiori and Rivalta plants
Unionisation (%) Votes/Membership ratio
Total Fiat Mirafiori and Rivalta 47.1 1.7
Fiom-Cgil 15.5 1.85
Fim-Cisl 5.9 2.24
Uilm-Uil 7.4 1.83
Fismic 16.6 1.01
Cobas - na*
Ugl-Cisnal 1.7 2.32
Cisal - na*

* na = not applicable

Source: Fiom-Cgil Piemonte

Commentary

The election data (from Fiom-Cgil's Piemonte regional organisation) allow some interesting considerations. First of all, the high participation rate of 80% (that is 18,845 voters out of 23,650 workers) confirms, if it were at all in question, the great interest of workers in trade union representation.

Secondly, the results confirm a majority for confederal metalworking unions, which together received 69% of votes (35.7% for Fiom-Cgil, 16.9% for Uilm-Uil and 16.4% for Fim-Cisl). At the same time, the performance of Fismic remains particularly remarkable. as it obtained 20.8% of votes and came out as the second most-supported trade union.

In a context characterised by a level unionisation which appears to be high (47.1%) only if we take into account the overall membership - that is, if we include independent unions - it is interesting to note that the "force of attraction" of votes beyond the union's actual membership remains a peculiarity of the confederal unions. Despite its importance, in fact, Fismic received a number of votes practically equal to its membership, while other unions reach a votes/membership ratio of around 2.0.

It is important to emphasise, however, that support for Fismic, which - as mentioned above - is traditionally considered close to company opinions, but which during recent years has been operating in a unitary way with Fiom-Cgil, Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil, is equally present among blue- and white-collar workers. Indeed, the percentage of votes among blue-collar workers (21%) is greater than that among white-collar workers (18.5%). This is not at all true for the Cobas: all 880 votes they obtained came from blue-collar workers (that is 5.1% of votes among blue-collar workers and 4.6% of the total). The same is true for the two independent unions, Ugl-Cisnal and Cisal.

In this sense, we can say that apart from preferences for Fiom-Cgil, Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil, two opposing tendencies may be discerned among Fiat workers: one is closer to company positions and more open to compromise; while the other, on the contrary, is more antagonistic not only towards the company, but mainly towards confederal unions. While the former tendency is more evident and is spread over all workers, the latter is more limited and is concentrated in some portions of the workforce. Though, on one hand, this might lead us to regard such an antagonistic tendency as a marginal one, on the other we have to keep in mind that it is actually concentrated in the traditional constituency of the confederal metalworking unions.

This is a significant result, in particular if we consider that the growth of such an antagonistic unionism accelerated with the start of the welfare state reform. This reform, which began with the pensions system in 1995, is approaching a very important point with the effort now under way to reach an agreement between government and social partners on a comprehensive reform of the social security system (IT9707122N). Rsu elections at Fiat remind us, among other considerations, that one of the main problems of confederal unions is making compatible, in crisis periods, tripartite concertation with responsiveness and representativeness. (Roberto Pedersini, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso)

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