Little sign of negotiations resuming after general strike

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On 16 April 2002, the three main Italian trade union confederations - Cgil, Cisl and Uil - held a general strike to protest against the centre-right government's labour market reforms. The unions claim that 90% of workers took part in the strike, while employers put the figure at less than 60%. Following the strike, the trade unions met to discuss the chances of resuming negotiations with the government, but the climate does not currently seem favourable.

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) - called a general strike on 16 April 2002, the first such action to be held for 20 years (IT0204102N). The strike call was joined by the independent Italian Confederation of Autonomous Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Autonomi Lavoratori, Cisal), the right-wing General Union of Labour (Unione generale del lavoro, Ugl) and the Cobas autonomous unions.

According to the organisers, the strike was extremely successful: out of 14.5 million employees, 13 million went on strike and 3 million marched in the streets of 21 Italian cities. However, according to Confindustria, Italy's main employers' confederation, participation in the strike was less than 60% (against the 90% claimed by the unions) and almost zero in small enterprises.

The strike was accompanied by numerous well-attended demonstrations. Sergio Cofferati, Cgil's general secretary, made a speech in Florence, Savino Pezzotta, Cisl's general secretary, spoke in Milan and Luigi Angeletti, Uil's general secretary, made his contribution in Bologna.

The background to the strike was the centre-right government's proposals for the reform of the labour market, the tax system and the pension system (IT0201277F). In all three cases, these 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 most controversial point in the labour market reform is the proposed amendment 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.

In their speeches on 16 April, all three union leaders reiterated that negotiations with the government would be resumed only if the proposed changes to Article 18 and to the rules governing arbitration were removed from the proxy law on the reform of the labour market, and if measures which provide for reductions in social security contributions in favour of companies were struck from the proxy law on tax reform.

On 22 April 2002, the three general secretaries met to discuss what initiatives to take regarding a resumption of negotiations with the government. The unions decided to present to the government a joint platform of demands on modifying the system of 'social shock absorbers'- the schemes, such as the wages guarantee fund (Cassa integrazione guadagni, Cig), which cushion the effects of redundancies and restructuring in some sectors (IT9802319F) - and unemployment benefits.

The climate does not seem the most favourable one for a resumption of negotiations. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, speaking on behalf of the government, stated his intention to continue with the reform programme, without changing his mind on Article 18. Statements by the Minister of Labour, Roberto Maroni, contributed to worsening the climate. In an interview, Mr Maroni spoke about 'a trade union movement which has too many powers and privileges', which 'gathers public money' and which must be 'downsized' through a law which must be adopted very soon.

The Minister referred to three bills presented by some centre-right MPs which have not yet been discussed in parliament. Under these proposals, trade unions and benefit advice centres (patronati) - organisations set up and run by national trade unions to assist workers and retired and unemployed people with tax and social security matters - would be obliged to draw up a balance sheet as if they were private companies. Furthermore, trade unions would no longer be allowed to deduct membership contributions at source from workers' pay or pensions through the check-off system. Membership contributions should instead be 'paid directly and voluntarily'. If these proposals are approved, negative consequences for the stability of trade union revenues are very likely.

The unions have intentionally avoided replying to Mr Maroni's statements, so as to not to further exacerbate the current tensions. Mr Pezzotta of Cisl warned the government that its attitude indicates a willingness to seek confrontation. If this confrontation occurs, said Mr Pezzotta, 'trade unions will be ready and afterwards it will be no use crying over the consequences'.

On 1 May 2002, labour day was celebrated all over Italy with major demonstrations and the traditional rock concert in Piazza San Giovanni in Rome. This was a further occasion for the trade unions to reiterate the positions. The general secretaries of Cgil, Cisl and Uil spoke at the end of a demonstration organised in Bologna in memory of Marco Biagi, the government labour law consultant murdered by the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) terrorist group in that city (IT0203108N). The union leaders once again presented their demands, but the government does not seem to have had any second thoughts.

The President of the Republic, Carlo Azelio Ciampi, encouraged negotiations in his speech on labour day. He underlined the importance of a prompt resumption of talks during which all the positions of the social partners must be heard and respected.

Elections will take place to many municipal, provincial and regional councils on 24 May 2002, and these will influence considerably any resumption of negotiations and the chances of success. In the run-up to these elections, the government will be constrained by its wish to present itself to the electorate as being willing to confront the unions if this allows a reform of the labour market.

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