Uil congress held as government-union dispute intensifies

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Uil, one of Italy's three main trade union confederations, held its 13th national congress in March 2002 in Turin. The congress was dominated by the conflict between the unions and the government on the latter's proposals for reform of the labour market, the pension system and the tax system. Debate at the congress also highlighted the political divisions between the three union confederations.

The Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil) is Italy's third-largest trade union confederation, with 1,796,746 members. It held its 13th national congress on 3-6 March 2002 in Turin.


The centre-right government led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has in recent months issued proposals for the reform of the labour market, the tax system and the pension system (IT0201277F). In all three cases, the reforms are to be introduced by means of 'proxy laws', whereby parliament delegates to the government the power to legislate on a particular issue. The specific contents of the reforms will thus be left to the government, which will issue specific legislative decrees, though it will have nevertheless to follow the guidelines approved by parliament in the proxy laws.

The trade unions, after an initial joint reaction (IT0112127N), have taken diverging positions. The General Confederation of Italian workers (Confederazione Generale Italian del Lavoro, Cgil) expressed its total opposition to the government reform initiatives (IT0202302F), refusing to negotiate and calling a protest demonstration on 23 March 2001 and a general strike on 5 April 2002. The other two main union confederations, the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl) and Uil, said that they were willing to negotiate with the government, provided that the proposed changes to Article 18 of law 300/70 (the Workers' Statute) were withdrawn. This Article provides for reinstatement of workers dismissed without 'just cause ' or 'justifiable reason ' and the government wishes, for an experimental period, to replace reinstatement with financial compensation for certain groups of workers.

The new government has also signalled a shift in its approach from 'concertation' to 'social dialogue', ie to a new relationship with the social partners whereby the government intends to maintain broad autonomy to act in the economic and social sphere, should agreement with the trade unions and the employers' associations not be reached on particular issues (IT0110104F). The unions believe that the government's approach is now one of merely communicating to the social partners decisions already taken. According to the unions, relations in recent months have not represented a 'genuine' social dialogue. The Confindustria employers' confederation has expressed approval of the steps taken by the government.

These developments have created a climate of social tension, which overshadowed the Uil congress.

General secretary's speech

The main issues addressed by Luigi Angeletti, Uil's general secretary, in his introductory speech to the congress were the international situation, the Italian political and economic situation and the relations between the three main union confederations. Mr Angeletti analysed the new issues which Uil is confronted with, such as Europe, the euro, the decentralisation of power in Italy ('federalism'), the new Italian political situation and globalisation.

According to Mr Angeletti, the trade unions now face regional and local governments which have stronger powers as a result of decentralisation, and a new central government which can count on a large parliamentary majority which will guarantee its power during the entire legislature. The trade unions will have to play a key role in guiding citizens and workers, increasing their awareness and identifying the subjects to be negotiated. At international level, Mr Angeletti proposed a 'global forum' of trade union organisations in order to develop a common programme on the problems raised by globalisation.

As regards the competitiveness of Italian companies, Mr Angeletti believes that Italy, like most industrialised countries, cannot base its competitive policies on reducing labour costs, as it would be impossible to compete with countries with extremely low labour costs. A policy based on the quality of the services provided by companies thus becomes fundamental. On this basis, Mr Angeletti believes that 'an industrial and economic system and a strong society' must be based on four pillars: training, research, technological innovation and productive investment. The individual must be at the heart of the development of such a society, and labour must be a resource and not a 'cost'. On the basis of this principle, Mr Angeletti called on trade unions, employers and the government to sign a pact for the development of Italy. Trade unions will have to organise workers in new forms of 'atypical' employment which, at present, are the only way for young people to enter the labour market. Taking the view that flexibility cannot be eliminated, Mr Angeletti stated that unions must 'manage' it through collective bargaining.

The Uil general secretary believes that 'wage differentials or flexibility will not be able to make up for the historical structural delays which plague the southern part of Italy'. According to Mr Angeletti the only way to solve the problems of the South of Italy is to sign an agreement with the other social partners and with the government in order to make more efficient the road and rail transport system, energy production and distribution, water supply, the mechanisms which regulate loans, the public administration and, in some areas, citizens' security.

Mr Angeletti's speech also addressed the collective bargaining system - under the terms of tripartite national intersectoral agreement of 23 July 1993, Italy has a two-tier (national/sectoral and company/local) bargaining system (IT9803223F). He expressed a need to upgrade the role of second-level (company/local) bargaining in order to allow 'an effective distribution of productivity which must be adapted to different realities and to different situations'. He also sharply criticised the government for abandoning the former system of concertation, calling for this to be relaunched with new objectives and wider fields of application. He proposed a 'polycentric' form of concertation, taking place at regional as well as national level .

On the government's three 'proxy laws', the Uil general secretary issued a warning. If the proposed changes to Article 18 of the Workers' Statute are not withdrawn and the proposals on pension and tax reform are not modified, Uil will consider a general strike unavoidable after the expiry of the two-month period granted by the government to the social partners to find a 'common opinion' on these issues.

Mr Angeletti sharply criticised Cgil's unilateral decision to call a demonstration on 23 March and a general strike on 5 April. He believes that in order to be successful a general strike must be called not just by a single union confederation but by all of them. He thus committed himself to writing to Sergio Cofferati and to Savino Pezzotta, the general secretaries of Cgil and Cisl respectively, asking for a meeting aimed at scheduling a united general strike. Mr Angeletti said that he would also address a letter to the government asking it to withdraw from the proxy laws the Article 18 reform proposals, plus points of the pensions and tax reforms contested by the unions, in order to make possible the resumption of negotiations.

Relations with other unions

Savino Pezzotta of Cgil and Sergio Cofferati of Cisl made speeches to the congress, underlining the deep divisions between the two confederations. The speeches focused on a number of issues which are at the basis of the historical divisions between Cgil and Cisl (IT9912137F). On the issue of trade union representation, Cgil believes that this issue must be regulated by law while Cisl believes that it must be entrusted to negotiation. While the position of Cisl on collective bargaining is very close to that expressed by Mr Angeletti of Uil (ie wanting a greater role for company/local bargaining), Cgil would like to maintain the supremacy of national sectoral agreements over local or company bargaining.

Divisions also arose also over the unilateral initiatives taken by Cgil on the government's proxy laws. Mr Pezzotta of Cisl sharply criticised the Cgil actions and reiterated the willingness of his confederation to continue negotiations with the government, if the issue of amending Article 18 were dropped. However, if the government persisted in modifying Article 18, Cisl would also call a general strike.

Sergio Cofferati of Cgil said that negotiations over the reforms are being distorted by the government's decisions and that it is essential to return to normal conditions by withdrawing the changes to Article 18 proposed by the government.

Subsequent events

Given the positions taken by Uil and its threat of a general strike, the government seemed more willing to reconsider the Article 18 issue. The Minister of Labour, Roberto Maroni, spoke about some possible changes to the proxy laws, and hinted that it would be possible to discuss Article 18 during future negotiations.

However, on 13 March 2002, despite widespread expectations of some relaxation of its position, the government confirmed its positions and re-proposed the proxy laws with some slight changes, but without accepting the joint request of the trade unions to erase the reform of Article 18.

Following the firm position taken by the government, Cisl joined the other two confederations and concluded that it was not possible to continue the negotiations over an agreement on the other subjects linked to the reform of the labour market. The three union confederations decided to meet soon to discuss the possibility of calling a united national strike. This implies that Cgil will have to renounce the unilateral initiatives which had contributed to widening the divisions among the confederations.


Uil's 13th congress was held in a crucial week for the debate on the future of Italian industrial relations and became the venue for these discussions. Despite being overshadowed by this situation, Uil still adopted a series of policies seeking to modernise the Italian industrial relations system. Uil believes that the industrial relations system should be based on mutual trust between the partners and on their growing sense of responsibility. This is why Uil wants to increase employee participation and modify the bargaining structure to deal with wages more at decentralised level. Uil believes that the industrial relations system can be a useful lever to foster development in the South, and considers concertation and incomes policy to be the fundamental pillars for the modernisation of the whole country.

The positions of Uil are very close to those of Cisl but clash with the strategy of Confindustria and of the government. The latter is now taking unilateral initiatives and seems willing to reduce the 'clout' and role of the unions in the definition of policies on regulating employment issues. The Italian government, despite its formal adherence to European Union approaches which promote social partnership and the subsidiarity principle, is actively working to reduce the social responsibilities of the economic actors. The government and Confindustria are, paradoxically, expressing the logic of conflict, refusing the concertation procedures in the same way as the Cgil union confederation.

Industrial relations in Italy are bound to change profoundly in the future. The actions of the main employers' confederation and of the government will radicalise the social and political conflict for a long period, dissipating the experiences of trust and concertation which has permitted to the country to overcome serious economic, social and political crises. The government and some employers' organisations seem willing to regulate industrial relations merely through power relations. This new perspective will oblige Uil and Cisl to adopt a new strategy which will favour, at least for a short period, trade union unity of action. The need to defend themselves from increasingly aggressive employers and government will prevail, but the political and strategic divisions which characterise the Italian trade union movement will persist. (Domenico Paparella and Vilma Rinolfi, Cesos)

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