What is the cause of the recent revival in the Italian labor unions? In the past five decades, Italian labor unions have been like a Ping Pong ball, bouncing from weak and divided to strong and united. Membership has also been increasing and decreasing as the unity and strength have been fluctuating. Over the past ten years, Italian unions have experienced a remarkable resurgence. After more than a decade of declining political power, membership loss, and significant inter- and intra-union conflicts, Italy s three major union confederations (CGIL-CISL-UIL) have reemerged as key actors in Italy s political economy. I am arguing that changes in Italy s political environment, specifically the demise of the old party system, and various changes by the Italian unions themselves (changes in the organizational structure) brought about the reversal of fortune; it promises to be much more stable than previous efforts at recasting Italian labor relations.
Before I start discussing what is the reason for the resurgence of the labor unions in Italy, I want to discuss the efforts that have been made in the past. Throughout the 1970 s and 1980 s, many attempts aimed at remaking Italian labor relations in the image of other, supposedly more Mature national systems were promoted. In 1970, an attempt was made to reform Italian labor laws through the Statuto dei Diritti dei Lavoratori (a comprehensive labor law modeled on the American Wagner Act. In 1975, Confidustria (Italy s major business association) and the three major labor confederations, (CGIL, CISL, &UIL) attempted to forge a Swedish-like basic agreement through wage indexation. In the late 1970 s, and again in 1983-1984, experiments with neo-corporatist concertation were performed. All of these were designed to recast Italian Industrial Relations in the image of other, more mature national systems, yet all of these initiatives failed. Instead of promoting greater centralization, standardization and tranquility, these reform efforts unleashed a series of intra-organizational struggles that resulted in further decentralization and fragmentation of Italian labor unions. The reason for these various reform efforts were based on the assumption that Italy s political-economic problems derived mainly from the absence of a uniform and coherent national model of industrial relations.
Italian unions faced the same challenges as labor movements of other countries, but the challenges of Italy s labor unions were provoked by it s over politicized, and poorly institutionalized system of industrial relations. Until the Hot Autumn , (the period of intense social and labor mobilization that began with student demonstrations and mass rallies over pension reform in 1968 and lasted until 1970) Italian unions were politically divided and weak. For example, until the late 1950s and early 1960s, Italian labor had no formal legal protection and until the establishment of the Constitutional Court at the end of the 1950s, it was impossible to revise these fascist codes since nobody was empowered to judge them unconstitutional. Unionization in industry decreased from 47 percent in 1950 to 19 percent in 1960, and remained concentrated primarily in large industrial enterprises in the North. Furthermore, organized business used its power to pursue a low-wage, export-oriented growth strategy. This strategy not only generated enormous profits for individual firms but also created the conditions for Italy s postwar economic miracle. For example, during these years, Confindustria insisted on highly centralized collective bargaining since this worked to the advantage of employers. Confindustria would set wages and working conditions to the most backward and unproductive sectors of the economy (such as farming) and then generalize these terms to all of industry. Due to the fact that unions themselves were highly centralized and also weak in both the labor market and the political arena, they were unable to resist the low cost, labor sweating strategy.