Union Struggle and the Crisis of Industrial Relations in Italy

Article excerpt

BEHIND

THE

NEWS

This paper argues that the Berlusconi government is seeking to replace the `social concertation' arrangement between government and trade unions with `social dialogue' in an

effort to undermine trade union 'power'. This endeavour by the government to impose a policy of `social dialogue' would severely limit trade unions' influence in economic and social policy decision-making and leave Berlusconi free to introduce reforms favouring his friends in employer organisations. One likely outcome would be the deregulation of the Italian labour market strongly damaging workers' rights.

On 23 March 2002 Italian trade unions organised one of the country's biggest ever protests. Around 3,000,000 people demonstrated in Rome against the government's policy of deregulation and the terrorist murder of Marco Biagi-- the government labour law consultant-- by the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse). This was followed by a general strike on 16 April. The actions together mobilised 16 million people and involved 80-90 per cent of the workforce in the major industrial sectors including metalworking, public services, banking and finance. The dispute became very sharply focused following the dramatic killing of Marco Biagi and the question of whether terrorism would re-emerge in the wake of the more general social conflict deriving from the actions of the labour movement. However, the focus of the trade union and working class action had been the struggle to dismantle the government's attempt to marginalize trade unions through the shift from 'concertation' to a much weaker form of `social dialogue'. At the centre of the dispute was the union's capacity to intervene and protect workers' rights by refusing to allow the development of neo-liberal 'voluntaristic' deregulation of labour markets and the abandonment of key features of social protection. This mobilisation was the first major demonstration to be called by the unions for 20 years and marks a crisis point in Italian industrial relations.

This article argues that the Italian government is seeking to marginalize trade unions and exclude them from involvement in promoting economic growth and the development of consensual economic and social policy through `social concertation'. Concertation had given the unions a strong institutional role in Italian industrial relations and the proposed `social dialogue' would leave decisions in the Government's hands and subject to the intervention of the Italian employers' federation. This would allow the reform of the labour market and the implementation of proposals strongly damaging to workers' rights that would have been inconceivable within the concertation process. The strength of the united union opposition to the proposed `social dialogue' cannot conceal the historical differences between the three major Italian confederations, which in 2001 re-emerged in relation to agreements in the metalworking sector. However, the process of decentralising collective bargaining, common to other neo-liberal capitalist economies, is being firmly resisted.

The provocation: the government's reform on labour market

Closer to a neo-liberal approach in economic and social policies than could be expected, at the end of 2001 the Italian centre-right government led by Silvio Berlusconi attempted to put into practice what Thatcher and Reagan had indicated more than ten years ago as the 'one best way' for reforms in work and employment. The breaking point was the Italian centre-right government's recent programme launching three important reform initiatives in the fields of labour market institutions, the pension system and taxation. In particular, the content of the White Paper on the labour market published in October 2001 on behalf of the Welfare Minister, Roberto Maroni, defined the general directions of the Italian government action on the themes of work and employment by setting out the transition from a phase of concertation to social dialogue. …