Dispute over local public transport agreement leads to 'wildcat' strike in Milan

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On 1 December 2003, Italian local public transport workers held strike action in protest against the prolonged delay in renewing their national pay agreement, which expired in late 2001. In the city of Milan, the stoppage - initially announced as being of eight hours’ duration, in compliance with the law on strikes in essential public services - turned into a total blockade of transport services which caused major difficulties for residents. Reactions to this 'wildcat' action from the municipal institutions, the government and the social partners differed in tone and content.

The most recent national sectoral collective agreement for local public transport services, which covers around 120,000 workers, came into effect in November 2000 and was valid until 31 December 2003. Under the rules established by the national tripartite agreement of 23 July 1993 on incomes policy and collective bargaining structure (IT9709212F), the pay or 'economic' part of the agreement was of two years' duration and expired at the end of 2001, when it should have been renewed. However, this did not occur. In order to protest against the prolonged delay in renewal of the pay agreement, the main local public transport trade unions - the Italian Federation of Transport Workers (Federazione italiana lavoratori trasporti, Filt), affiliated to the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione generale italiana del lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Federation of Transport (Federazione italiana trasporti, Fit), affiliated to the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione italiana sindacati lavoratori, Cisl), and the Union of Italian Transport Workers (Unione italiana lavoratori trasporti, Uiltrasporti), affiliated to the Union of Italian Workers (Unione italiana del lavoro, Uil) - have called a number of national-level strikes (a total of eight since the end of 2001) and local-level demonstrations, but to date with no success.

The platform of demands presented by Filt-Cgil, Fit-Cisl and Uil-Trasporti calls for a monthly pay increase of EUR 106.39, equivalent to the difference between expected and real inflation over the period 2000-1 plus the expected inflation rate for 2002-3. The unions also demand a further increase of 1% for those workers who have subscribed to the sector’s supplementary pension fund, known as Priamo.

According to estimates by the employers’ association representing the public transport companies - the Association of Local Public Transport Firms (Associazione delle Società ed Enti del Trasporto Pubblico Locale, Asstra) - and the employers’ association representing the sector's private firms - the National Associations of Passenger Road-Transport (Associazione Nazionale Autotrasporto Viaggiatori, Anav) - the wage increase demanded by the unions would cost the companies around EUR 508.2 million. The initial offer made by the companies - and immediately rejected by the unions - was a monthly pay increase of EUR 12.00 and a one-off payment of EUR 400. During negotiations following the most recent protests (see below), the employers’ associations have proposed a monthly increase of EUR 41.34.

The employers’ organisations emphasise in particular the lack of financial resources with which to finance the renewal of the sectoral agreement. Public transport services - with very few exceptions - are chronically in deficit, and until 1997 the municipalities relied on loans to cover their financial shortfalls. A 1997 law reforming local transport (legislative decree 422/1997) provided that the costs of the sector should be allocated as follows: 55% to the regional administrations to cover essential services; 35% to the companies, to be financed out of tariff revenues; while the local authorities would finance supplementary services though a 10% contribution. According to Asstra, the costs of renewing the national agreement should not accrue to the local authorities but should instead be borne by the regional administrations. In recent years, in fact, the bulk of contractual costs has been carried by the municipalities, exacerbating their financial difficulties as a consequence. Today, the municipal administrations cover 16%-17% of costs of local transport services, even though the reform law allocates only 10% to them.

Strike in Milan

The stalemate that has arisen in negotiations on renewal of the pay part of the national agreement has led to the calling of a series of work stoppages by the unions in the local public transport sector. The most recent of them was held on 1 December 2003 and proved to be particularly severe in Milan. Although it was announced that the strike in Milan would last from 08.45 to 15.00 and from 18.00 to the end of service, in order to observe the so-called 'guaranteed services' during peak hours, it instead turned into a total blockade of the city’s public transport system by the workers of the Milan public transport company - Azienda Trasporti Milanesi (Atm). In breach of the law which guarantees the provision of minimum levels of essential services during strikes (law 83/2000 amending law 146/1990 - IT0004266F), the drivers of the city’s buses, metro and trams moved the starting time of their industrial action forward to the beginning of their shift, and then prolonged it for the entire day, thereby throwing the city’s road traffic into complete disarray. According to the Milan Chamber of Commerce, at least 150,000 people were unable to get to work and the economic damage to businesses amounted to around EUR 140 million.

The episode provoked a variety of reactions, all of them more or less polemical, from the actors directly or indirectly involved. The mayor of Milan, Gabriele Albertini, harshly condemned the action taken by the Atm workers, declaring that 'their decision to begin the strike earlier than announced was an affront to civil co-living .... We shall use all the means at our disposal, from legal to disciplinary, to punish those responsible.' The mayor’s tough stance was followed by a decision of the Milan prefect to issue an injunction to prohibit the bus and tram drivers from continuing the strike, in consideration of 'the severe disruption caused by their action' and by their threat to continue it indefinitely. The prefect also asked the public prosecutors’ office to determine whether charges of criminal liability should be brought. The Guarantee Authority for the Implementation of the Law on Strike in Essential Public Services (Commissione di garanzia dell’attuazione della legge sullo sciopero nei servizi pubblici essenziali) has begun a procedure of assessing the collective and individual liability for the serious breach of users’ rights which may lie with the local trade unions of Filt-Cgil, Fit-Cisl, Uil-Trasporti and the unitary workplace union structure (Rappresentanza sindacale unitaria, Rsu) at the Atm company.

An assembly of the Atm workers on strike expressed its regret for the problems caused to the city’s residents, but stated that such a drastic protest was the only way to give visibility to the non-renewal of the national agreement, a problem that has dragged on for two years. Some delegates of various trade unions working for Atm also claim that 'the decision to hold an assembly the night before 1 December had been taken spontaneously, and the following morning there was unanimous agreement among the Rsu, the autonomous unions and even numerous workers not enrolled in any union - not to report for work.'

The transport workers’ action was also condemned, albeit to differing extents, by the employers’ associations and the trade unions. The local, sectoral and national unions and the confederations to which they belong - Cgil, Cisl and Uil - censured the workers’ action. The secretaries of the three confederations stated that the Milan protest may be counter-productive in that it had extremely harmful effects on relations between the unions and the public.

On the employers’ side, the director general of the General Confederation of Italian Industry (Confederazione Generale dell'Industria Italiana, Confindustria) linked the 'Milan case' with a now unavoidable need to liberalise local public services: 'If these services were subject to the rules of the market, they would be managed more efficiently, they would hit the public less heavily in the pocket, and they would involve normal trade union relations like those in private companies.'

The director general of Atm, Roberto Massetti - despite his firm intention to take every civil action envisaged by the sector’s regulations against the drivers who did not respect the strike timetable announced by the unions - has declared himself ready to hold local talks if a new national-level agreement is not concluded.

The president of Asstra, Enrico Mingardi, emphasised the magnitude of the crisis in the local public transport sector, declaring that 'it is now necessary for all the parties concerned to assume responsibility for resolving the situation as soon as possible.' According to the organisation representing the public companies operating in the sector, one solution might be forthcoming from the government through the approval of amendments to the finance law - currently being discussed by the Chamber of Deputies - which propose that EUR 650 million could be raised for the sector by increasing the duty on petrol by EUR 0.03 and allocating one-third of the revenue to an overhaul of service management, one-third to investments in new vehicles, and one-third directly to the municipalities so that they can improve public transport.

Following the strike on 1 December, the social partners returned to the bargaining table. After a meeting on 6 December, the transport unions announced a further strike, to be held during the entire day on 15 December. However, they pledged to continue negotiations to settle the dispute before that date. For the moment, however, the main task is to find the financial resources necessary to unblock the situation. The Budget Committee of the Chamber of Deputies has rejected the amendments mentioned above, doing no more than approve a further amendment which allocates EUR 33 million to the local public transport sector. Of this, EUR 20 million will be used to boost public transport by purchasing new equipment and offsetting the main outlays by the companies, while EUR 13 million will be used to achieve greater service efficiency and productivity. This is certainly a step forward, although - as the president of Asstra has pointed out - 'around EUR 500 million are needed to settle the dispute'.

Commentary

The dispute over renewal of the economic part of the national collective agreement for local public transport workers, and in particular the 'wildcat' strike in Milan, are an important test for the strength of the rules on exercising the right to strike in essential public services, and more generally for assessing the possible consequences of a worsening in the industrial relations climate.

As regards the former of these two aspects, the question arises as to whether industrial action carried out within the limits defined by the current regulations for essential public services, in sectors running chronic deficits, effectively applies pressure which induces the other party to try to reach agreement. In fact, abstention from work by employees is paradoxically to the economic advantage of the transport companies, because it reduces their deficit. Consequently, pressure can be most effectively applied by reducing the level of services and increasing the dissatisfaction of the users. The radical protest by the Atm workers in Milan, mounted without any prior announcement, sought to exploit this form of pressure to the maximum, doing so in blatant breach of the rules. However, as the organisations that called the strike did not violate the rules, the application of collective sanctions by the Guarantee Authority appears difficult, if not impossible, leaving the more problematic option of proceeding with individual sanctions.

Two considerations can be made with regard to the second issue. On the one hand, the containment of industrial conflict, even in sectors regulated by law, is based substantially on collaboration between the parties and on respect for the overall framework of the industrial relations system. The failed renewal of the local public transport agreement, now overdue by two years, along with repeated strike action with no concrete results and the declared impossibility of guaranteeing the pay rises envisaged by current incomes policy, have created the climate that led to the radical protest by the Atm workers, even if this situation cannot justify the form of the protest and the effects on users. In more general terms, since enactment of law 146/1990, the regulation of the right to strike in essential public services - albeit with the problems connected with its progressive assertion - has benefited substantially from the positive climate generated by social concertation and incomes policy. If these two central components of Italian industrial relations in the past 10 years are compromised, there may also, and perhaps especially, be repercussions on conflict in the essential public services, where workers have greater power to disrupt services and to cause difficulties for users. On the other hand, the marked heterogeneity of the situation - including their financial position - of Italy’s local public transport services resulting from the liberalisation policies pursued in recent years calls the national level of collective bargaining into question. Indicative of this is the position taken up by the director general of Atm, who has announced his willingness to settle the dispute at local level. If pressures for the territorial fragmentation of bargaining increase, the outcomes may be not only greater disparities in terms of pay and protection, but also a further geographical differentiation of service levels and quality. (Diego Coletto and Roberto Pedersini, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso)

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