Academic journal article Management Revue

Italian Trade Unions: Still Shifting between Consolidated Organizations and Social Movements?**

Academic journal article Management Revue

Italian Trade Unions: Still Shifting between Consolidated Organizations and Social Movements?**

Article excerpt

This article discusses the current characteristics of trade unionism in Italy. First, however, attention is paid to the initial imprinting of the model, which stemmed from the circumstances in which the trade unions were reconstituted at the end of WWII, and whose far-reaching consequences are still apparent today. In fact, because of original divisions along ideological lines, and within a context of enduring voluntarism and low institutionalisation, the Italian trade unions, which acquired large followings and strong organizational capacity and influence over time, still tend to oscillate between behaving as either organizations or social movements according to convenience and to pressures applied by the rank and file.

Key words: trade unions, social movements, political processes, Italy QEL:D72,J50,J51)


Comparative analyses of unionization and industrial relations systems sometimes liken the Italian case to a more or less well-defined southern European (Ebbinghaus, 2003) or Mediterranean model, which combines an ideologically-based division among the peak organizations, organizational fragmentation and weakness, low levels of membership, limited recognition by the counterparties, an adversarial logic of action, and a low (or at any rate unstable and unpredictable) ability to influence regulation of the economy. Because of one or more of these features, Italy is often grouped together with Spain, Portugal, Greece, and also France.

But to what extent is this characterization appropriate?

It is indubitable, in fact, that since their reconstruction in 1 944, the Italian trade unions have been divided along ideological lines; that unlike trade unions in the Nordic countries, they have not reached particularly high levels of membership; that differently from trade unions in many corporatist systems (Ebbinghaus & Visser, 1 999; Schmitt & Mitukiewicz, 2012), they have not received formal recognition from governments and employers; that they have generally resorted to conflict much more frequently than unions in the other developed countries (Franzosi, 1995; Bordogna, 2010); and that they have been often viewed as organizationally weak, in that they for long relied on political backing and lacked the organizational infrastructure necessary for decentralized collective bargaining (Lange et al., 1982; Baccaro & Pulignano, 2010). Yet empirical analyses show that the outcomes of effective action by the Italian trade unions, as regards their capacity both to acquire followings and to influence the decisions of their public and private counterparts, have proved very different from those that one would have expected simply on the basis of their general characteristics.

A certain difficulty in categorizing these trade unions has characterized much of the comparative literature on the topic Already twenty years ago, such well-informed authors as Anthony Ferner and Richard Hyman, in the first edition of their book on industrial relations in Europe (1992), argued that Italian industrial relations constituted an enigma, and that they were particularly difficult to interpret mainly because of the unpredictable behaviour and influence capacity of the trade unions.

The aim of this article is to put forward an interpretation of Italian trade unionism which sees its distinctive feature in the persistence, more than elsewhere, of a continuing tension between the logic of the organization and the logic of the movement (Pizzorno, 1978; Regalia, 1988; Cella, 1999). At theoretical level, this requires rejection of interpretations substantially based on mere analysis of the forms and structure of institutions (on this see Baccaro & Howell, 2011), but also the simple use of quantitative indicators (membership, figures on strikes, bargaining coverage), whose meanings vary greatly according to the circumstances (Franzosi, 1995), in favour of an actorcentred approach (Scharpf, 1997).

This will be done by discussing the strategy and organization of trade-union action, and its outcomes, as they have evolved through the following main phases: that of largely unexpected development (1950s to the end of the 1970s); that of adjustment made to the logic of action (1980s to the end of the 1990s); and that of the search for new solutions amid the difficulties of the political context and the economic crisis (2000s). …

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