Facing Headwinds: Renzi and the Trade Unions
Italy, 19 Nov - 18 Dec 2014
Commentary: How Italian Unions Rally Against Renzi's Job Reform
by Silvia Favasuli
Soon after his election, Carmelo Barbagallo, the new Secretary of the Italian Labour Union
(UIL), one of the main Italian trade unions, declared: «Matteo Renzi needs an enemy», with «enemy» referring to labor unions. True or not, Italy is now facing a fierce conflict between Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leader of the leftist Democratic Party, and the tree main trade unions: CGIL, CISL and UIL. Since October 25th, the country has experienced a series of strikes, and a general protest is expected to take place on December 12th.
The main reason of the clash is job reform (the so called Jobs Act), now an issue of parliamentary debate, and financial law. However, the young Prime Minister started attacking Italian trade unions even before his premiership and the electoral campaign for primary elections. He started calling them «dinosaurs», as to say anachronistic organizations struggling to defend “untenable” guarantees in the current job market. Italy is a country with a tradition of strong unions.
At the center of the dispute is Article 18, part of the 1970 Statute of the Workers’ Rights, a law that forbids companies with over 15 employees from dismissing people without just cause.
Matteo Renzi wants to reform this article by doing away with the employer obligation to reinstate a worker fired without just cause. In exchange, companies will be obliged to compensate the employer according to the worker’s seniority. The reinstatement obligation remains in force, however, with discriminatory layoffs.
«Article 18 is just a symbol, and debating it is a pointless exercise», the premier said in an interview on State broadcaster RAI 3 last August. «I deeply respect workers protected by trade unions», wrote Matteo Renzi in a letter to the leading Italian newspaper Repubblica on November 22th. «But we need to change the rules in order to allow millions in precarious working conditions to enter the job market».
According to the Prime Minister, the Jobs Act will remove some protections of legal employees in order to extend some guarantees to those who work with illegal or precarious contracts.
«You are not broadening rights and guarantees when you send everybody in the bush league», replied CGIL, which does not trust the government. In fact, it is not clear which kind of measures the Jobs Act will actually introduce, as the new labor reform is a legislative decree, to be followed by a series of decree laws starting next January. The main points the reform are the introduction of a unique open-ended contract increasing the level of employer protection according to seniority new welfare benefits for employed (but not for free-lancers or unemployed), and new outplacement services.
At the end of November, challenged by the fierce opposition of the CGIL and the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party, Renzi revised his political standpoint, and opened the door to retention of the reinstatement even for disciplinary layoffs. But not in the other cases now accepted.
Nevertheless, CGIL remained adamant in opposing the Jobs Act, while the other two big unions, UIL and CISL, agreed to cancel the Article 18 but are asking for a reduction and simplifications of employment contracts available and the end of illegal contracts.
Caught in the middle of the battle between Renzi and the trade unions are millions of employees in precarious working conditions, mostly young people and women, with no access to any dole, maternity leave or paid holidays.
At the same time, companies are urging to reduce labour costs and effective outplacement services. According to a survey released by the Gi Group, only 42,5% of Italian companies are in favour of totally withdrawing Article 18.