Trade unions under threat from terrorism

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During 2003, Italian trade unions - and especially the Cisl confederation - have been repeatedly threatened and attacked by terrorist groups (with 43 such attacks, including 12 fire-bombings, recorded between July 2002 and May 2003). The minister of the interior has highlighted the threat to unions in parliament and in June the three main confederations agreed a united response to the attacks.

Italy has been affected by terrorism for more than 30 years, with terrorist activity being of two main types - essentially of the extreme right and extreme left.

Right-wing terrorism has been characterised by actions aimed at creating tension within Italian society in order to encourage totalitarian change. This kind of terrorism, carried out by a group of extremists supported by some members of the secret security services, was responsible for a series of attacks and dozens of deaths between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. The last episode of this period was the massacre at the Bologna railway station on 2 August 1980, in which 80 people died.

A form of 'public safety government' (governo di salute pubblica), which received the support of the former Communist Party, was established to deal with the situation. This political collaboration was fully supported by the three main trade union confederations - the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacato Lavoratori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil). Thanks to a wage moderation policy, this cooperation allowed for the difficult economic situation caused by the energy crisis and high inflation to be overcome.

In this context, some groups on the extreme left - which at that time was a reference point for many young people - identified the established left-wing parties and trade unions as collaborators with the 'class enemies' who were to be fought, including with the use of weapons. During the 1970s, a period of social upheavals triggered by the economic situation, extreme-left terrorism widened its ranks and developed into a paramilitary organisation, the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) terrorist group. This kind of terrorism resulted in many murders, including of magistrates, politicians and trade unionists, during this period. The escalation of violence reached its peak in 1978 when Aldo Moro, the president of the former Christian Democrat party and author of the 'historic compromise' with the Communist Party, was kidnapped and killed. At the end of the 1980s, terrorism was largely eradicated owing to popular mobilisation and the action of the police forces.

New terrorist wave

After the Red Brigades launched their last attack in 1989, terrorism of this type was considered to have been overcome (with the exception of some leaflets and graffiti). The 1990s were marked by a close collaboration between the social partners and the government. This paved the way for a more flexible labour market and the reduction of inflation and the public deficit, notably through the national intersectoral tripartite agreement of 23 July 1993 on incomes policy and bargaining structure (IT9709212F). During these years, centre-left governments, such as that led by Prime Minister Romano Prodi, launched a policy whose primary objective was modernisation of the country in view of coming membership of the euro single currency.

During the 1990s, terrorism returned, this time targeting people who were involved in the collaboration between the government and social partners. In May 1999, the Red Brigades murdered Massimo D'Antona (IT9905112N), a trade union-linked labour law expert and government consultant, who was seen as representative of this form of cooperation.

In 2001, when a new centre-right government came to office, the social situation in Italy radically changed. The new administration sought to reduce trade union influence nationally and at the workplaces. The government's labour market reform strategy was set out in an October 2001 White Paper (IT0110104F), drafted among others by Marco Biagi, a labour law and industrial relations expert and professor. This White Paper created profound divisions within the trade union movement, notably with Cgil expressing complete opposition to the government's approach and refusing to take part in negotiations alongside the other confederations (IT0201277F). It was during this major social conflict that the Red Brigades struck again, killing Mr Biagi in Bologna on 19 March 2002 (IT0203108N).

The situation has further worsened after the conclusion in July 2002 of the Pact for Italy (Patto per l'Italia), a national agreement on the labour market, the tax system and the South of Italy (IT0207104F), which Cgil did not sign. Since then, the Cisl confederation especially has been the subject of intimidation, offensive graffiti and even bomb attacks on its Milan office. Terrorist attacks on trade unions and particularly on Cisl's structures have grown in a worrying way.

The present Red Brigades is not the same, and is not as well organised, as its predecessor during the so-called 'years of lead' ('anni di piombo'- ie the years of terrorism between 1972 and 1989), which had a detailed, military and coordinated structure. At present, according to many experts, it seems that the organisation is based on a few isolated groups (IT0304103N). However, concern at its activities is at a very high level.

Minister's report highlights threat

On 5 June 2003, the minister of the interior, Giuseppe Pisanu, gave a speech in parliament about terrorism in Italy and about the threats made to trade unions and to Cisl in particular.

The minister underlined 'the long-running violent actions which have progressively increased since July 2002'. From July 2002 to 2 May 2003, 43 more or less severe terrorist attacks had been directed at trade unions: 21 targeted at Cisl, 13 at Cgil, six at Uil and three at other unions. The incidents included 12 incendiary attacks, and the general secretary of Cisl, Savino Pezzotta, was threatened in an alarming way on several occasions. According to Minister Pisanu 'the attacks against Cisl are not just general political violence but something more alarming and concerning.'

The situation has required the adoption of appropriate safety measures: five Cisl trade union officials are under police escort and protection; surveillance has been organised for all Cisl's provincial secretaries, regional and provincial offices and several other offices; and similar safety measures have been taken for national and local Cgil and Uil officials, as well as for the Obiettivo Lavoro temporary work agency, which has also been targeted by the terrorists.

All the claims of responsibility for the terrorist attacks, said the minister, 'show a common ideological, political and trade union approach which is against all kinds of reforms and aims to divide the world of labour and its organisations. In the leaflets claiming responsibility for the murders of Mr D'Antona and Mr Biagi, flexibility is one of the most criticised issues.' According to Mr Pisanu, this is an 'alarming situation' and reveals a 'subversive project aimed at isolating and attacking Cisl and its leader in order finally to break trade union unity and create a division between Italy's two main trade union organisations'.

United trade union response

The alarm sounded by the minister of the interior was welcomed and shared by all political parties and social partner organisations.

According to Mr Pezzotta of Cisl, it is necessary to give people three messages: to 'cool down' some polemics; to resolve in a positive way some current disputes (such as those around public employment and the Alitalia airline); and to give 'the only possible answer to terrorism'- ie 'the united response of the whole trade union movement'. Such a united response was prepared by the three trade union confederations, despite their profound divisions of recent months. On 16 June 2003, the three confederations drew up a joint document, which they gave to the Ministry of Interior, stating that 'ritual condemnations' are not enough to stop the current terrorist attacks, and what is needed is 'powerful and organised action supported by the all institutional, political and social forces'.

Cgil, Cisl and Uil will launch a campaign 'to support civil solidarity, participation and tolerance'. Before 5 July 2003, a number of joint regional meetings will be held, involving the confederations' general secretaries and other officials. These meetings will be held in the regions which have been most affected by terrorist attacks (Sardinia, Tuscany and Friuli-Venezia Giulia). After the summer break, such meetings will be organised in all the other regions. 'The three confederations intend to fight terrorism whose aim is to foster social disorder and to divide citizens and their trade union and political representatives', according to the unions. For these reasons, the unions will also promote meetings between trade union officials and company managers, with the aim of 'organising structured and regular discussions on the consolidation and defence of democratic social cohesion'.

Minister Pisanu expressed his satisfaction with the joint document drawn up by the three union confederations and underlined the need 'not to underestimate anything and to keep under control the plants where terrorists try to reorganise and infiltrate themselves.'


Terrorism from the extreme left regularly occurs during times of social conflict, with the objective of radicalising such conflicts and creating consensus around an 'armed class struggle'. The trade union movement has been one of the main opponents of terrorism for 30 years. Their united action has prevented the terrorists from widening their support in workplaces and in society. The fight against terrorism is a cornerstone of the unions' united action. After many years of divisions, the unity of action of the Italian trade union movement could be resumed from the starting point of the joint fight against terrorism. (Domenico Paparella and Vilma Rinolfi, Cesos)

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