Government intervention reopens banking talks

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In March 1999, the Italian government intervened in a major dispute which had broken out over the negotiation of a new collective agreement for the banking sector. Talks had broken down, a strike had been held and others called, and companies had refused to make various payments and promotions provided for in the existing agreement Following the intervention, negotiations restarted, the strikes were called off and employers resumed the disputed payments.

On 23 March 1999, the Italian government intervened in a conflict that had been going on for several weeks between the Italian Banking Association (Associazione Bancaria Italiana, Abi), the Italian Saving Bank Association (Associazione delle casse di risparmio italiane, Acri) and the banking sector trade unions affiliated to the Cgil, Cisl and Uil confederations. The organisations' negotiations over a new collective agreement for the banking sector had broken down amid threats of industrial action (IT9902243F).

The bitter conflict in banking had been on the point of compromising the framework agreement signed by the partners on 28 February 1998 on managing the reorganisation of the sector (IT9803321F). The government was afraid that the seriousness of the dispute might jeopardise the contents of the 1998 agreement which - according to the signatories - should allow the reorganisation of Italian banking, while minimising the impact of the major process of structural adjustment on employment and on public expenditure. The possibility of mergers between some of the most important Italian banking groups, probably resulting in thousands of redundancies, has since become more concrete. This is why the government decided to intervene to create a favorable climate for the conclusion of the negotiations over the new national sectoral agreement.

The trade unions - which had expected the 1998 deal to encourage negotiations over the new sectoral agreement - presented their platform of demands on 23 December 1998. They sought: a review of the sector's industrial relations system along more participatory lines; a single agreement for all the sector's workers; modified job-classification criteria, especially for more highly qualified workers; vocational training improvements; working time reductions; pay increases which recovered the purchasing power eroded by inflation; and the development of remuneration systems linked to productivity, which should be negotiated at decentralised level.

Employers expressed many criticisms of the unions' platform, which they considered to be inappropriate to the needs of flexibility and to the control of labour costs. When negotiations between unions and bank representatives started on 29 January 1999, the president of Abi declared that the unions' platform contradicted the February 1998 framework agreement and that in all Abi's member banks, the existing sectoral agreement's provisions on seniority promotions, automatic increments and pay increases would no longer be applied.

The unions stated that positive economic trends in the banking system - confirmed by Abi data for 1998 on issues like reduction of labour costs and improvements in efficiency - should encourage a positive outcome to the negotiations. However, the employers' decision to refuse to negotiate around the platform presented and to suspend the application of some measures provided for by the previous agreement (the allocation of a proportion of pay according to automatic mechanisms, and seniority promotions) started a conflict on a scale that has been rare in Italian industrial relations in recent years.

On 5 March, the trade union organisations called a general strike in the banking sector in which - according to the organisers - 85% of workers participated, as did a remarkable proportion of executive personnel. A three-day strike was also planned in all Abi and Acri member companies by 9 April 1999, which would have been organised at territorial level.

The government intervention led to the unions calling off the strikes, the companies resuming the blocked payments and the government issuing the decree on the management of redundancies provided for in the February 1998 agreement. The Minister of Labour, Antonio Bassolino, was satisfied with the results of the intervention and invited the partners to conclude their negotiations over the new sectoral collective agreement as soon as possible. The talks were due to resume on 25 March.

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