Cgil, Cisl and Uil call general strike

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The three main Italian trade union confederations, Cgil, Cisl and Uil, called an eight-hour general strike for 16 April 2002 in protest at the government's proposed labour reforms. This is the first such action to be called for 20 years and marks a crisis point in Italian industrial relations.

In late March 2002, after a week of harsh discussions with the government, Italy's three main trade union confederations - the General Confederation of Italian workers (Confederazione Generale Italian del Lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil) - decided to call a general strike on 16 April 2002.

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 proposals have been most strongly opposed by Cgil, which organised a major protest demonstration in Rome against the government's policy on 23 March 2002 (IT0204101N). Following the murder of Marco Biagi, the government labour law consultant, by the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) terrorist group (IT0203108N), this demonstration also opposed terrorism.

After the murder of Professor Biagi, Prime Minister Berlusconi announced to the country, in a message broadcast simultaneously by all public television channels, his intention to resume negotiations with the social partners over the reforms, and he called a meeting with the trade unions on 26 March.

After the demonstration organised by Cgil on 23 March, the minister of defence, Antonio Martino, the minister of institutional reform, Umberto Bossi and the undersecretary of labour, Maurizio Sacconi, voiced many criticisms about the unions in general and Cgil in particular, suggesting a possible link between trade union struggles and terrorism. Mr Martino described the demonstration as a danger to democracy because its primary objective was to stop the action of a democratically elected government.

The trade unions reacted immediately to these comments. On 25 March 2002, Cgil, the union confederation most targeted by the allegations, asked the government to refute the declarations of its members - against whom Cgil intends to take legal action. The government responded with a formal note inviting the unions to acknowledge that the meeting called on 26 March was a 'clear and explicit' demonstration that the 'government is convinced that there are no secret pacts or ambiguities between trade unions and terrorism'. The government's note was followed by some corrections to their earlier comments by Mr Martino and Mr Sacconi, but also by some further serious accusations against the trade unions on the part of Mr Bossi.

Cgil considered the government's note as not satisfying its demands and stated that it would not take part in the meeting scheduled for 26 March. The government's note and Mr Bossi's accusations also convinced Cisl, which had previously hoped that the government would rectify the situation, that the political conditions for participation in the meeting organised by the government no longer existed. The decisions of Cgil and Cisl were followed a few hours later by a declaration by Uil that it too had decided not to take part in the meeting.

Considering that the last possibility of dialogue had failed, the leaderships of Cgil, Cisl and Uil then called an eight-hour general strike for Tuesday 16 April 2002 to protest against the measures contained in the 'proxy laws' on pensions and labour market market reform. In particular they wish to protest at the proposed amendments to Article 18 of law 300/70 (the Workers' Statute). 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.

Industrial relations in Italy are facing a moment of crisis. Trade unions had not previously called a general strike for 20 years. The last such action was on 25 June 1982, after the Confindustria employers' confederation had cancelled the agreement on the sliding-scale mechanism (scala mobile), a system used to index pay automatically to real inflation.

The general strike was called just a few hours before the start of demonstrations organised by Cgil, Cisl and Uil to protest against the murder of Professor Biagi and against the resumption of terrorism. About 100,000 people marched in Rome and many thousands did so elsewhere in Italy. The independent Italian Confederation of Autonomous Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Autonomi Lavoratori, Cisal) and the right-wing General Union of Labour (Unione generale del lavoro, Ugl) took part in the demonstrations and also announced their participation in the general strike of 16 April 2002.

All the social partners are concerned about the poor climate brought about by the current social conflict. Savino Pezzotta, the general secretary of Cisl, said that various parties were 'making insinuations about the trade unions, to accentuate the tensions. The government must not go beyond some limits and must show a sense of responsibility.' Mr Pezzotta called on the government to 'overcome every hindrance to dialogue'. Luigi Angeletti, the general secretary of Uil, said that 'the link drawn between demonstration and terrorism is unacceptable.' The five main employers' confederations - Confindustria, Abi (banking), Confagricoltura (agriculture) Confartigianato (crafts) and Ania (insurances) - called on the government to move from words to acts and to 'take all the necessary steps to implement the structural reforms needed by the country'. The government postponed any initiatives aimed at the resumption of social dialogue until after the general strike.

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