Labour-related referenda fail due to low turn-out

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Two referenda on individual dismissals and on the collection of trade union fees, held on 21 May 2000, failed because only slightly more than 30% of the Italian electorate went to the polls, while a turn-out of more than 50% was needed to make them valid. The same result emerged for the other five referenda, which concerned electoral law, the public funding of political parties and the judicial system.

On Sunday 21 May 2000, the long campaign on a series of referenda, which had begun in summer 1999, was brought to an end as the Italian public went to the polls (IT9909253F). Among the seven questions which were put to the electorate were those intended to: eliminate the possibility of reinstatement of workers in the event of unlawful individual dismissals; and abolish the direct check-off of trade union membership dues by Inps and Inail (two institutes forming part of the Italian welfare system, which cover social security and compulsory insurance against workplace accidents and occupational illnesses respectively) (IT0002260N). The other five questions concerned electoral law, the public funding of political parties and the judicial system. The main feature which emerged from the polls was the very high abstention rate on all referenda: only slightly more than 30% of the electorate voted. Since a turn-out of more than 50% of the electorate is needed to make referenda valid, the referendum results are ineffective and the practical effect is as if there had been a "no" vote.

However, it is interesting to note that the turn-out for the referendum on individual dismissal was the highest (32.5%) out of the seven, though by only a small margin. Besides, the outcome, even if invalid, showed a clear majority of votes against the abolition of reinstatement: in fact, two-thirds of voters rejected the question. As far as the referendum on trade union fees is concerned, the number of voters was slightly less (32.2%) and the result was the opposite: 61.8% endorsed the request for elimination of direct check-off of union dues by Inps and Inail.

The low turn-out was probably encouraged by the attitude of political parties on the referendum aimed at bringing the Italian electoral system closer to majority rule, on which much of the debate on the referenda focused during the final weeks before the vote. Many parties, including the major opposition party (Forza Italia), invited their supporters to abstain, in order to ensure the failure of the referendum for lack of a quorum.

The Cgil, Cisl and Uil trade union confederations expressed their satisfaction with the referendum results, which led to the rejection of an initiative which they had always considered as "anti-union". During the referendum campaign, the three confederations did not take up a common position on the two referenda and a joint committee to support the rejection of the proposals was not set up. In May, the national secretariat of Cisl, and notably its general secretary, Sergio D'Antoni, expressed its support for abstention and invited workers not to turn up to the polls, in order to take advantage of a general disaffection with voting. Cgil, on the other hand, always affirmed the need to participate in the polls in order to vote against, even if it clearly committed itself only to the rejection of the question on individual dismissals. Uil invited workers to vote "no" on both referenda. In general, it may be said that trade unions interpreted the result of the referendum on individual dismissals, which was considered the most important one by all concerned, as a "double win" (the lack of a quorum and the large majority of "nos"). In their opinion, it puts an insuperable obstacle in the path of any further attempt at modifying the rules on individual dismissals; indeed, for some trade union officials, it might even support an extension of existing regulation to firms with fewer than 16 employees, which are at the moment outside the coverage of the reinstatement rules.

On the employers' side, Confindustria confirmed in the week just before the polls its support for a "yes" vote in the referendum on individual dismissals (IT0001139N). In a joint declaration, the outgoing president Giorgio Fossa and the president elect Antonio D'Amato emphasised that the passing of the referendum would have allowed "the introduction of greater labour market flexibility, which would open up new employment opportunities, above all for young people".

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