Trade union strategies to recruit new groups of workers – Italy

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Social partners,
  • Industrial relations,
  • Published on: 16 May 2010

Manuela Galetto

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

Italian trade unions are concerned about increasing the number of their members. The primary focus of the organisations’ initiatives to recruit new groups of workers is at local and workplace level rather than devising a national, common strategy. Each trade union acts individually. However, there is a shared concern about the target group, which mainly comprises atypical workers, although this category often also includes immigrants, women and disabled persons.

1. Trade union membership and density rates: data and research

1.1 Provide trade union membership and union density rates since 1990

According to figures issued by the three main trade union confederations – the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil) – union density rates decreased in the period 1990–2007, as the following table shows. The data exclude pensioners and students.

Levels of trade union membership and density rates
  Active Cgil members Active Cisl members Active Uil members Dependent employees Density rate

2,585,573 (16.99%)

2,007,015 (13.18%)

1,125,376 (7.39%)










2,448,074 (16.18%)

1,993,271 (13.17%)

1,146,879 (7.58%)




2,467,164 (14.92%)

2,081,370 (12.59%)

1,166,879 (7.06%)




2,595,816 (15.12%)

2,191,245 (12.76%)

1,211,898 (7.06%)



Source: Websites of the three trade union confederations and, for the percentages, Valenza (2008)

Analysing the data relative to 2004, the union density rate in Italy reported by Visser (2006) was 53.1%; however, almost half of this total was represented by pensioners (48%) and 1.3% comprised students and self-employed persons, whereas members of grassroots unions were excluded. According to Visser, the latter represent an additional 10%–20% of trade union members. Data are not available on the membership of autonomous unions; studies that deal with them always refer to estimates. For example, a study on representation by Di Nicola (1991) stated that about 20% of trade union members were enrolled with non-confederal unions: 33% of union members in the public sector and 25% in the private sector.

1.2 Indicate the presence and content of recent studies (since 2000) on trade union membership of particular groups of workers, such as women, young people, migrants, white collar workers, service workers, workers with atypical contractual arrangements, and/or other groups of workers which are relatively less represented in trade union membership in your country.

Numerous studies have been conducted on trade union membership in Italy. At the beginning of 2000, there was talk of a general decline of trade unions; however, some researchers reported that the decrease in membership had been less substantial in Italy than in other countries (Baccaro et al, 2002). This was partly because of the sizeable growth in the number of pensioners enrolled with trade unions – a finding confirmed by all of the studies analysed.

In general, the figures on trade union membership show that the public sector performs better than the private sector; within the latter, the least unionised branch is the services sector. In the public sector – bearing in mind the (self-reported) data on the many non-confederal unions in the sector – the union density rate at the end of the 1990 was more than 60% (Baccaro et al, 2002).

The most significant studies on trends in union membership of particular groups of workers have been mainly conducted by the research centres of the trade unions.

A survey conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (Istituto di Ricerche Economiche e Sociali, Ires) – founded by Cgil in 1979 – on employer-coordinated freelance workers (Altieri and Carrieri, 2000) found a demand for unionisation among atypical workers. In answering the question ‘Would you want to be protected by the large unions, or the craft unions, or would you want to protect yourself on your own?’, the sample divided into three groups: one third opted for individual protection because they thought that they could provide it on their own; another third preferred the traditional unions; and one third preferred the craft unions.

A study by Checchi et al (2007) has drawn on the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) to concentrate on the Italian case, recording a particularly low tendency for young people and women to join trade unions (40.8% in 1998). The analysis also showed that the level of education and pay were negatively correlated to the propensity to join a trade union. The same study found a substantial difference between the highly unionised public sector and the lower rates of unionisation in the private sector. An earlier study on the textiles sector showed that unionisation among young people on open-ended employment contracts had not decreased (Carrieri and Pirro, 1998). However, more up-to-date figures are not available.

As regards immigrant workers, of particular importance is the 2002 Ires report devoted to integration in workplaces and associative and negotiating practices of Italian trade unions. The majority of immigrant union members work in large companies, and foreign trade union delegates are more common in regions where immigrant people are concentrated.

At local level, detailed surveys have been conducted on the presence and dynamics of unionisation, not only of traditional workers but also of ‘new’ actors in the labour market. For example, Vaona (2006) is an interesting study entitled Le dimensioni territoriali e sociali della sindacalizzazione in Veneto [Territorial and social dimensions of unionisation in Veneto], based on available data for Cgil members in the Veneto region. It has been noted that foreign trade union members are mainly men and, among foreign men, the most numerous are of African or eastern European origin. The sectoral union with the largest numbers of foreign members in the provinces analysed was the Federation of White-collar and Blue-collar Metalworkers (Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici, Fiom).

2. Trade union membership: national debates

2.1. Please indicate whether in your country there are ongoing national debates on trade union representation and membership and their recent developments. In particular, you should indicate whether existing discussions address the following topics and illustrate the main actors and positions in such debates, reserving special attention for the views of the trade unions which have engaged in specific organising efforts.

The three issues most frequently addressed by debates on trade union representation and membership are:

  • declining trade union membership and/or density;
  • the inclusion of workers with particular contractual arrangements, such as part-time workers, temporary agency workers, self-employed persons or freelancers;
  • the inclusion of immigrants.

Since the beginning of 2000, numerous studies have examined trends in trade union membership rates in Italy and Europe, and the relationship of the unions with a ‘new’ labour market comprising new categories of workers and new forms of employment. Initially, at academic level, industrial relations experts mainly debated over the fact that trade union action was excessively concentrated on traditional workers and excluded the new categories (Accornero, 1992; Ichino, 1996; Regini, 2003; Carrieri, 2001; Regalia, 2002; Boeri et al, 2002). Rather than observing the trend in union membership, the literature focused on the representativeness and representation of these organisations in light of changes in the world of work and the diversification of the labour force (see, for example, Fasoli et al, 2005).

At the turn of the new century, however, some trade unions began to concern themselves with workers employed on atypical contracts, often starting at local level. For example, the organisation New employment identities (Nuove Identità di Lavoro, NIdiL), affiliated to Cgil, seems to have been founded in Lombardy (Ballarino, 2002). Trade unions then launched national-level representation practices and policies, which led to collective bargaining dedicated to so-called atypical jobs (Ballarino and Pedersini, 2005; Cella, 2005; Regalia, 2005; Pedersini, 2005; Lazzari, 2006).

Research thus concentrated on the organisational and regulatory forms of trade union action regarding the representation of atypical workers. The largest confederations established dedicated structures: in addition to the Cgil-affiliated NIdiL, Cisl set up the Association of atypical and temporary workers (Associazione lavoratori atipici e interinali, Alai) and Uil founded the Coordination for employment (Coordinamento per l’occupazione, Cpo). First contacts generally took place at company level where there were particularly large numbers of workers on atypical employment contracts, often hired on the basis of improper contractual arrangements – freelancers instead of dependent employees, as in the case of call centres, for instance. These trade union structures started negotiations in various ways and with various objectives (Leonardi, 2001), aiming to improve working conditions or to compel employers to specify the duration and remuneration of the employment relationship – which was not always clearly stated in the contract. In other cases, collective bargaining led to the definition of procedures for the stabilisation of temporary workers.

Other important studies on trends in trade union membership have been conducted at an international comparative level (Visser, 2006; Blanchflower, 2006). They have identified that ‘a rather universal finding is the decline of union density among the young’ (Visser, 2006).

With regard to immigrant workers, of particular importance is the 2002 Ires report on integration in workplaces and the associative and negotiating practices of Italian unions. The report records a unionisation rate of 45% or a little less among immigrant workers. More specifically, the construction and metalworking sectors account for 41% of trade union membership, followed by the agro-food industry (14%) and commerce and services (12%); the remaining 33% of members are distributed among the other federations, including a small proportion of NIdiL members and a slightly larger proportion of unemployed workers enrolled at the local employment centres. As noted, areas of the country with the highest concentrations of immigrants also record the largest numbers of foreign trade union delegates. The authors of the study report, in general, that atypical or irregular employment relationships, companies of small size, territorial dispersion and the seasonal nature of many jobs are factors that hamper the individual choice of joining a trade union. More precise data on the foreign members of the other trade unions are not available.

As regards the views of the trade unions which have engaged in specific organising efforts, the impression is that all three of the largest confederations are particularly concerned to recruit new workers as a revitalisation strategy. However, some slight differences are apparent: Cgil seems more oriented to extending its membership to ‘new’ workers, seeking to recruit them through the company-level representation structures (Cgil, 2008), whereas a secretary of Cisl (Braga, 2002) declared in an interview that the aim of his organisation was to increase membership by offering a wider range of more specialised services, such as advice on tax and pensions.

3. Trade union initiatives to recruit new groups of workers

3.1 Please provide information on any major organising actions and campaigns (at least three) started by trade unions in your countries, since 2000, either aimed at the general workforce or at specific groups of workers (please include at least two examples of this latter type) such as: women, young workers, migrants; workers in particular sectors, in specific professional groups, with certain contractual arrangements, such as part-time workers, temporary agency workers, self-employed people or freelancers.

The three initiatives selected to describe the promotional campaigns undertaken by the trade unions concern atypical workers, both at national (1 and 3) and local (2) level, and they have been launched by each of the three largest trade union confederations.

1. ‘Bread and Roses’ is an association that was created in 2001 in Milan to represent mainly freelancers working in the information and communication technology (ICT) and telecommunications sectors. The association subsequently merged with Cisl and defines itself on its website as ‘the bridge towards a trade union for new workers’. It aims to inform freelancers working in these sectors about their rights, relevant new legislation, pensions, vocational training, pay levels, access to credit, and – as the first trade unions did in the past (Cella, 2001) – job vacancies. It is difficult to say at what level this association and its information and support campaign for ‘networkers’ operate. Bread and Roses started at local level but, thanks to the internet, it can contact anyone interested at national level; the job offers on its website, for example, cover the whole of Italy.

2. The ‘Campagna di stabilizzazione 2008’ comprised a series of initiatives promoted by the local NIdiL offices to furnish information on the job stabilisation procedures expiring on 30 September 2008. In fact, Decree Law No. 48/2007, converted into Law No. 31/08, had postponed the deadline of the procedure to convert freelance jobs into subordinate employment relationships of at least 24 months in accordance with the 2007 Budget Law (Law No. 296/06). As part of this campaign, local-level actions were undertaken which, besides giving information about the expiry, sought to recruit new members for the trade union. Various local initiatives in the North, Centre and South of Italy included the following.

  • In Milan, an information leaflet on the stabilisation campaign was translated into four languages so that ‘in a multiethnic city it can be accessed by the greatest possible number of citizens’ and a special freephone number was set up. In this case, therefore, the target groups were not only freelancers but also atypical foreigner workers, implying that immigrant workers were among those eligible for stabilisation.
  • The NIdiL office in the Lazio region organised 11 vans, more than 450 meetings, kiosks and fly poster campaigns in hundreds of squares in many towns and villages of Lazio. NIdiL officers would drive the vans from one company to another, park in front of them at entry and exit times, and park at other meeting places in order to contact workers and inform them of their rights.
  • During the summer of 2008, a meeting on the stabilisation campaign was organised in Catania, Sicily, and a survey was conducted on the working conditions of freelancers at the local Almaviva Contact call centre, the results of which were then presented to the press.

3. Some UIL documents – in particular from its public sector branch organisation UIL Pubblica Amministrazione (UIL-PA) – give priority to increasing membership and state that the main strategy is to ‘train union executives and increase the recruitment of women, new workers and migrants as union officials’, and to support this network at workplace level. The national structure has invested a great deal in this initiative, opening training centres for its delegates and setting up joint projects with universities, among them those of the west-central city of Siena and the southern city of Naples.

Data are not available on the results of these initiatives in terms of recruitment.

3.2. Please indicate whether organising initiatives in general (i.e., beyond the specific instances illustrated above) are ‘concentrated’ or ‘diffused’, in terms of trade unions involved (only certain trade unions are involved or there are no significant variations) and of target groups (they focus only on certain groups of workers or they are part of more general approaches to organising).

It is evident from the above that the main target group is almost always non-standard workers. Atypical workers – which include freelancers, temporary agency workers, fixed-term or part-time workers of various kinds, and seasonal workers – are often young people, women and workers of foreign origin. It should be noted that the websites of all of the trade unions, including the non-confederal unions – for which, as said, little information is available on memberships – have pages specifically dedicated to young people, immigrant workers, equal opportunities, women and disabled persons. These sections provide information on specific rights relative to each group and give contact addresses and telephone numbers.

No joint campaigns have been mounted by the various trade unions. However, there have been joint documents, for example, against illegal work. In addition, committees have been set up to examine and monitor this problem (IT0612029I), and to implement health and safety measures in workplaces (IT0702069I).

It is primarily the organisations dedicated to new forms of work (NIdiL and Alai, in particular) which have launched specific initiatives, a case in point being the hiring on open-ended employment contracts of 6,500 freelancers working in the call centres of the Almaviva Group (IT0701039I). Nevertheless, it seems that the trade unions intervene in situations of emergency when irregular working conditions have been reported by the workers themselves, for instance by contacting an in-company union official or the local branch of the trade union.

3.3 Please indicate the role of ‘new trade unions’ and of ‘grassroots movements’ in organising initiatives in general (i.e. beyond the specific instances illustrated above) compared with the role played by long-established trade unions and, if relevant, whether cooperation or competition emerged between these types of actors.

The recurrent finding of the low tendency of young people to join a trade union is often correlated with the temporary nature of the employment contract. Nevertheless, sociologists who have focused on the youth movements of the past decade emphasise that these new young workers do not feel that the long-established trade unions are able to represent them (Bruni and Murgia, 2006). An example of a youth movement is the May Day Parade, a demonstration held on 1 May in Milan and other European cities on the afternoon of Labour Day, after the rally held in the morning by the traditional trade unions. There are few studies on this issue, but the websites of groups like Intelligence Precaria, Chain Workers and Serpica Naro show a high awareness of labour and trade union rights. Because these groups (or networks) are made up of young people, often activists, they are in direct contact with the new world of work. They make their skills available to create contacts, spread information, organise initiatives or protest action (symbolic or disruptive) and report working conditions perceived as unfair. The activity of these groups extends beyond simple denunciation, however. At local level, they operate bureaux furnishing advice on legal and trade union matters, and they have often successfully represented atypical workers in legal disputes – for example, obtaining more favourable working conditions for 50 workers outsourced by Wind of Monza.

Some independent journalists have set up a web ‘counter-information newspaper’, entitled City of Gods, that is also periodically published in print format and delivered free of charge.

Relations with the traditional trade unions are not ruled out, however, as joint initiatives have sometimes been undertaken. In Milan, in 2005, some May Day activists and a Cgil local branch opened an information bureau for ‘new workers’, organised a series of meetings and made the union’s legal office available to atypical workers in need of legal assistance or simply advice. The number of clients was not particularly high, however, and the pilot scheme has not been repeated.

Grassroots movements generally take a more direct approach than the trade unions, which rely on bargaining and concertation as their main instruments of action.


Overall, the survey data give a positive diagnosis of the state of health of the trade unions in Italy. However, it seems that the confederations still find it difficult to deal with the new forms of work and the actors which they involve.

The relationship that the trade unions have established in recent years with atypical workers – an expression that, as noted, at times also implicitly comprises women, young people and immigrants – seems to have arisen mainly at company level through contacts established by union delegates. However, as pointed out, these delegates are mostly present in large enterprises. One of the surveys cited above, in fact, reports that small-sized companies – which are common in Italy –and temporary employment contracts are factors negatively correlated with the tendency of employees to join trade unions.

This study has referred to new information and action groups set up to represent mainly young, atypical workers. There are also associations whose main mission is the defence of the social and civil rights of particular groups like gays and lesbians or transsexuals, disabled people or women with social problems. These associations often provide consultancy services and assistance in job searching or, more frequently, in legal disputes that may arise from discrimination at the workplace.

The various actors are not in competition with each other, and at times they may undertake joint initiatives. It seems clear that the world of work has not diminished – indeed, it is still broad and varied – but it has grown more diverse, with a consequent increase in the number of representative actors belonging to it.


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Manuela Galetto, Fondazione Seveso

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