Referendum on dismissals rules fails owing to low turn-out

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A referendum on extending the right to reinstatement for unfairly dismissed workers provided by Article 18 of the Workers' Statute to all companies (it currently applies only to those with over 15 workers) was held in Italy in June 2003. However, it failed because only 25.7% of the Italian electorate went to the polls, while a turn-out of more than 50% was needed to make the referendum valid. The referendum reopened divisions between the trade unions.

In 2002, two political parties, Rifondazione Comunista and the Greens (Verdi), along with the Italian Federation of Metalworkers (Federazione impiegati operai metallurgici, Fiom) affiliated to the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione generale italiana del lavoro, Cgil), gathered the necessary signatures to present a referendum. The promoters wanted the Italian electorate to express its views on extending the application of the dismissal protection rules provided for by Article 18 of law 300/70 (the Workers' Statute) to all companies. Article 18 provides for reinstatement of workers dismissed without 'just cause' or 'justifiable reason', but applies only to companies with more than 15 employees. The referendum proposal was to extend the right of unfairly dismissed workers to be reinstated to all companies, regardless of the number of employees.

Article 18, and government proposals to amend it, were at the centre of a major conflict in 2002 (IT0201277F), which included a general strike (IT0204102N and IT0205101N) and divisions among the three main trade union confederations on the government's proposed changes. The issue appeared to have been partly resolved in July 2002, when the government and the main employers' organisations and union confederations - with the exception of Cgil - signed the 'Pact for Italy' (Patto per l'Italia), a national agreement on the labour market, the tax system and the South of Italy (IT0207104F). This included a compromise involving temporary changes to Article 18.

In January 2003, the Constitutional Court (Corte Costituzionale) declared that the proposal for a referendum on Article 18 was valid (IT0302104N). The referendum was duly held on 15-16 June 2003 and 87% of those voting supported the proposal to extend Article 18 to small companies. However, the referendum was invalid, as only 25.7% of the electorate went to the polls - the law requires a 50% turn-out to make a referendum valid.

The referendum and the debate which preceded it reopened the previous divisions between the trade unions. The three main confederations - Cgil, the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacato Lavatori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil) - were initially united in the view that trade union matters should not be entrusted to a popular referendum but should be the subject of debate and negotiation among the parties concerned. However, once the Constitutional Court declared the referendum admissible, the confederations took diverging positions.

Cisl and Uil invited their members, and the public, not to vote in order to ensure the failure of the referendum for lack of a quorum. They believe that this kind of referendum jeopardises the collective autonomy of the social partners and that there is no need to modify Article 18. According to Savino Pezzotta, the Cisl general secretary, 'Article 18 works well the way it is.' According to Luigi Angeletti, the Uil general secretary, the improvement of working conditions and the extension of workers’ protection 'are very complex operations which are necessary but which should be achieved only through workers’ mobilisation and taking into account the situation of small companies'.

Cgil, which initially also did not agree with the referendum, stressed the need to participate in the poll on the grounds that: the referendum is a form of 'direct democracy'; and a 'yes' vote would 'strengthen the prospects of labour law reform through the extension of some workers’ rights to small companies'. The former general secretary of Cgil, Sergio Cofferati, had, when in office, committed his organisation to a strenuous defence of Article 18, which he considered as a fundamental 'social right to be extended to all workers'. However, on the occasion of the referendum, Mr Cofferati dissociated himself from Cgil’s positions, stating that the referendum was wrong and inappropriate and that he would abstain. Mr Cofferati’s change of attitude surprised many observers, and was thought by some to be a consequence of his standing as a candidate of the centre-left coalition for mayor of Bologna.

Commenting on the outcome of the referendum, Guglielmo Epifani, the current general secretary of Cgil, expressed his concern about the possible negative effects of its failure on the relations among the social partners and asserted that Cgil 'will clearly commit itself to reconstruct an even wider and stronger social and political front than that which was divided by the vote, in order to promote a process of reform'.

Antonio D’Amato, the president of Italy’s main employers’ association, Confindustria, expressed his support for abstention in the referendum and subsequently welcomed its failure.

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