Fiom-Cgil continues campaign for reopening of negotiations on metalworking agreement

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In autumn 2003, the Fiom-Cgil trade union is continuing its campaign for the reopening of negotiations on the metalworking sector collective agreement, which was signed in May 2003 by employers and the other two main metalworkers' unions, Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil. As well a series of strikes, Fiom-Cgil has initiated company-level bargaining to conclude 'pre-agreements'- company agreements intended to anticipate the contents of a future new sectoral accord - and thereby compel the employers’ associations to reopen national negotiations. The employers' associations have reacted sharply to Fiom’s initiative, while some firms have concluded such pre-agreements.

On 7 May 2003, a new sectoral collective agreement for metalworking was signed by Federmeccanica- the metalworking employers’ association affiliated to Confindustria- the Italian Metal-Mechanical Federation (Federazione Italiana Metalmeccanici, Fim), affiliated to the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl), and the Union of Italian Metal-Mechanical Workers (Unione Italiana Lavoratori Metalmeccanici, Uilm), affiliated to the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil) (IT0305204F). Subsequently, Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil also reached agreements with Unionmeccanica-Confapi, the association of small and medium-sized metalworking companies, and with Legacooperative, Confcooperative and Agci, which represent cooperatives in the same sector. As had happened on the occasion of the renewal of the pay part of the agreement in summer 2001 (IT0107193F), the Italian Federation of Metalworkers (Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici, Fiom), affiliated to the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil) did not sign these deals, thereby initiating a period of conflict and company-level industrial action, which seems to be culminating in the autumn of 2003.

The Fiom-Cgil campaign

As it considered that both the 'normative' and pay ('economic') parts of the agreement of 7 May 2003 introduced worse conditions than those contained in the previous industry-wide agreement signed in 1999 (IT9907249F), Fiom-Cgil started a campaign of industrial action which has led to a series of strikes and company-level bargaining rounds. The aim of the latter is to conclude pre-agreements (pre-contratti) - ie company agreements intended to anticipate the contents of a future new sectoral accord along the lines sought by Fiom-Cgil - and to force the reopening of negotiations on renewal of the national sectoral agreement, since Fiom-Cgil does not recognise the validity of the accord signed in May 2003. The procedure for bargaining on these pre-agreements has been clearly defined: once workplace assemblies have been held and majority assent has been obtained from the workers through a referendum on a platform of demands, protests begin in the form of four- to eight-hour or shift-end strikes designed to compel management to sign the company-level agreement.

Moreover, Fiom-Cgil has identified at national-level a set of fundamental demands to be included in the bargaining platforms for the pre-agreements:

  • agreements must explicitly refer to the link with the renewal of industry-wide agreement, in order to press the company concerned to advocate the reopening of national-level negotiations within its representative association;
  • a pay increase should be awarded which will protect purchasing power and distribute part of productivity gains. In particular, Fiom-Cgil demands pay rises which ensure a full recouping of inflation over 2001-2 and coverage of expected inflation over 2003-4, and reflect sectoral productivity performance. The increases demanded are between EUR 115 and EUR 125 per month;
  • agreements must include a clause stating the continuing validity and application of the 1999 industry-wide agreement (the so-called 'ultra-activity' clause) regarding all those normative parts not explicitly treated in the pre-agreement and which specifically concern workers’ rights. In this case, direct reference is made to the new 'Biagi law' reforming the labour market (IT0307204F), to the recent provisions on fixed-term employment (IT0105282F) and working time (IT0305305F), whose direct application should be avoided, and to the protection of precarious workers. As regards the latter, the maximum duration of fixed-term and temporary agency contracts should be 12 months; and
  • once these objectives have been achieved, further ones may be set as regards working hours, job classifications, right to education, temporary transfers, stand-by arrangements and individual rights, taking account of the company’s circumstances and the needs of workers.

According to the most recent survey conducted by Fiom-Cgil, some 221 pre-agreements have been signed to date, covering around 38,000 workers. Pre-agreement bargaining is under way in 1,525 metalworking companies and groups, involving around 330,000 workers (the national agreement covers 1.3 million workers, 60% of them blue-collar workers). The agreements have mainly concerned the regions of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Lombardy and Piedmont, whilst in the South no pre-agreements have yet been signed. The companies involved are mainly of medium size with between 150 and 500 employees. The national secretary of Fiom-Cgil’s collective bargaining department, Giorgio Cremaschi, has said that the results are better than expected, and that 'the great success of the referendums held on the bargaining platforms - referendums in which the majority of workers in the companies concerned turned out to vote - and of Fiom’s industrial action are a clear signal that metalworkers do not regard the separate agreements of last May and June as settling the dispute.'

Reactions of employers’ associations

All the employers’ associations in the metalworking sector have reacted strongly to Fiom-Cgil’s action. The president of Federmeccanica, Alberto Bombassei, has stressed that the sector is at present affected by a severe economic crisis, and he has criticised Fiom-Cgil’s strategy of concentrating its campaign on those few companies still operating at a profit. He maintains that Fiom-Cgil’s action is in breach of the rules set out in the national tripartite agreement of 23 July 1993 (IT9709212F), which states that only pay rises tied to company performance can be decided at company level. According to Mr Bombassei, moreover, 'Fiom’s action signifies a return to a form of trade union behaviour which is in stark contrast to the participatory industrial relations that the sector has been slowly developing with such difficulty over the past 10 years.' Federmeccanica has also forcefully asserted the validity of the agreement signed on 7 May 2003, arguing that a series of company-level agreements does not amount to a national-level one.

The industrial relations climate is especially tense in Emilia Romagna, and in particular in the provinces of Bologna, Modena and Emilio Romagna. Assindustria, the employers’ association for the province of Reggio Emilia, has reacted to what it regards as excessively aggressive behaviour by Fiom-Cgil and openly blamed it for a loss of competitiveness encountered by the companies in the province, due to constant industrial action which impedes production. Moreover, in the framework of the Conference of Business Associations (Tavolo delle associazione d’impresa) - an initiative of the local representatives of Assindustria, Api, Apima, Confartigianato, Confcommercio, Cia, Coldiretti, Unione Agricoltori and Unione Cooperative- a statement was issued which expressed extreme concern over the fact that what they consider as a political dispute among trade unions, which has nothing to do with company issues, should cause such severe damage to the economic efficiency of firms, as well as throwing into crisis established industrial relations built up over time.

Moreover, the metalworking industrial associations in the abovementioned provinces are considering whether to take legal steps to protect the rights of firms and of workers who want to work despite the protest action organised by Fiom-Cgil - such as picketing and the blockading of factory entrances- which they maintain go beyond the right to strike. At the end of October 2003, six territorial employers’ association in Emilia Romagna (from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Ferrara and Forlì-Cesena) sent a letter to the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, as well as to the presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the ministers of labour and social affairs, of production activities and of internal affairs, the general secretaries of Cgil, Cisl and Uil and the presidents of Confindustria and Federmeccanica, in which they ask the government and parliament to evaluate the possibility of intervening to 'prevent union conflict to make the equality of access to employment relationships for citizens and firms practically void'.

The most recent events confirm that the rift between the employers’ associations and Fiom-Cgil is continuing at the national level as well. Federmeccanica has attempted to set up committees - as envisaged by the May 2003 industry-wide agreement - comprising representatives from all the metalworking unions to discuss important issues such as job classification, working time, and the labour market changes introduced by the 'Biagi law'. The attempt has failed, however, owing to Fiom-Cgil’s refusal to take part on the grounds, once again, that it does not recognise the validity of the agreement reached on 7 May 2003.

Commentary

Fiom-Cgil’s campaign on the renewal of the metalworking agreement has highlighted a number of critical aspects of the Italian industrial system. First, it is necessary to recognise a reduction of its ability to diminish, or keep under control, industrial conflict in such an important area as the metalworking sector. The tensions inherent in a situation of trade union pluralism have been largely overcome by the decades-long unity of action by the union confederations, but they may resurface if that unity breaks down. Obviously not under discussion is the legitimacy and validity of an agreement signed by only some of the unions involved, but rather its ability to reduce conflict, without which the role of joint regulation through industrial relations appears significantly weakened.

Second, Fiom-Cgil’s action prompts a number of considerations concerning the bargaining structure. Paradoxically, the union most committed to the overriding importance of the national agreement has been forced to resort to company-level bargaining rounds (although it presents them as a way to reopen the national-level negotiations). This is not so strange, however, if one considers that the firm is the place in which, in the absence of more general mechanisms, a union’s representativeness can be directly assessed in terms of the pressure that it is able to exert. Not surprisingly, therefore, Fiom-Cgil’s campaign has been most aggressive where it is organisationally strongest (and in medium-to-large firms, given that decentralised bargaining is almost non-existent in small ones). Nor is it surprising that the large majority of workers should approve company agreements which provide for substantial wage increases; nor that firms should sign company agreements which contradict sectoral ones when multi-employer national-level bargaining does not shift conflict outside firms, but instead brings conflict into them.

Rather, current events in the metalworking sector are signs of possible unforeseen effects of bargaining decentralisation policies, those advocated by Cisl in particular. In the absence of a united trade union front, differing local economic and labour market conditions, combined with a trade union pluralism unevenly distributed across the country, may cause a significant fragmentation of collective bargaining which renders the bargaining system difficult to manage, to the detriment of the firms above all, but also of the role of industrial relations. Similarly, there might be unexpected effects from the Fiom-Cgil’s point of view. On one side, pre-agreements introduce de facto a higher fragmentation of collective bargaining and weaken the role of the industry-wide agreement, while postponing the achievement of the objective of a unified system of protection to a future sectoral agreement. On the other side, the present pre-agreements are likely to reduce, if not eliminate, the economic viability of proper 'second-level' bargaining on performance-related pay, as envisaged by the July 1993 tripartite agreement. Finally, a long tradition of collaborative industrial relations in the areas where Cgil is strongest, such as Emilia Romagna, might be eroded.

Fiom-Cgil’s claims may not take account of the various 'dualisms' in the Italian economy (large and small firms, north and south of the country): they concentrate on the category of firms most able to grant better economic and normative conditions, but plan to extend them to the whole economy, perhaps without fully considering their general sustainability. However, the strategy of putting forward those claims seems to be almost the only available option for Fiom-Cgil, after the conclusion of the May 2003 sectoral renewal, if it intends to continue to put forward its demands. This decision has a highly disruptive potential for the industrial relations system which could probably have been anticipated by the other sectoral actors. The point is that a number of negative unexpected outcomes are emerging from the strategic interaction of the parties and no solutions seem to be readily available. Moreover, if the divisions that have given rise to this situation were to spread through the Italian industrial relations system, there would be a real risk of a breakdown of collective bargaining, with a growth in conflict (and a corresponding erosion of the efficiency of industrial relations, as well as of participatory practices) and increasing antagonism among the unions and in bilateral relations too. (Diego Coletto and Roberto Pedersini, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso)

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