File spoon-archives/aut-op-sy.archive/aut-op-sy_1999/aut-op-sy.9912, message 270

Date: Thu, 30 Dec 1999 20:40:24 +1100
Subject: AUT: Radical Unions in Italy

Just to add to the thread on unions/syndicalism/anti-unionism:

below is a short article I wrote recently on the 'alternative' union scene
in Italy.

It appeared in _Direct Action_, the IWW paper in Australia (#171, Summer


Radical Unions in Italy

Steve Wright

The last decade has seen the steady growth in Italy of militant workplace
bodies outside the control of the country's three major union
confederations. These new organisations, most of which style themselves as
'rank-and-file' or 'alternative' unions, now group tens of thousands of
members. Well entrenched in a number of key workplaces and industrial
sectors, able to organise actions on a  national scale - the most recent, a
series of strikes against the Balkans war - the 'rank-and-file' unions have
had an impact upon Italian working class politics out of all proportion to
their size. At the same time, as some of their members freely admit, the
new organisations have so far failed to attract most of the growing numbers
of workers who have turned their backs upon Italy's major unions. For all
these reasons - the setbacks as well as the successes - there is a lot to
learn from the experiences of Italy's 'alternative' union scene.

        To many Italians, and not only radical ones, the three major
confederations have become 'state unions', too compromised by their close
associations with the country's leading political parties to be able to
defend workers' unilateral interests. Their failure to prevent massive job
losses in manufacturing during the eighties has also meant a substantial
shift in membership base since that time. For example, today little more
than half of the members in the 'left' union confederation, the CGIL, are
in workplaces; the rest are retirees. That the major unions continue to
find members amongst wage workers is due in part to the sort of social
services they provide, whether that be dental cover or job openings in
certain government departments.For their part, the leaders of the CGIL aim
to deliver a well-priced and willing workforce to employers. In the public
sector above all, they have long colluded in a range of measures designed
to discipline workers whose industrial action threatens the 'national

        It's not surprising, then, that many of Italy's newer,
'rank-and-file' unions have formed around groups of workers, activists -
and in some cases paid officials - who have been marginalised or expelled
from the major unions over the past decade. Along the way, they have come
into contact with remants of the COBAS, unofficial workplace groups which
briefly challenged the traditional unions' leadership in a number of public
service sectors (education above all) during the late eighties. Together,
in the broad alternative union movement, they have been attempting to
oppose the many forms of restructuring which occur at workers' expense, and
to claw back some space for workers to organise themselves.

        The biggest alternative union in Italy today is the CUB. As a
confederation, the CUB brings together a number of unions, the largest of
which are the RDB (well-established amongst public sector workers,
particularly firefighters and social security employees) and the FLMU (a
metalworkers' organisation, strongest in and around Milan). With their
origins in splits from the major unions, the RDB and FLMU are viewed with
some hostility by many activists in other rank-and-file organisations.
Reasons offered for this range from their more conventional structure (both
unions employ full-time officials and staff), to the preparedness of
sections of the RDB to sign agreements which restrict their members'
industrial activity. Conversely, other components of the CUB - for example,
its small education sector affiliate - are well-known for their
non-sectarian advocacy of workers' self-organisation.

        Another large alternative union is the SLAI. Begun by auto workers
in Milan and Naples, and strongest  within private manufacturing firms, the
SLAI has since spread to the public sector. The SLAI prides itself on being
'a union without union officials'; as a federation of workplace
collectives, it aims to develop a flat organisational structure without any
internal bureaucracy. Early in the decade it was widely seen as close both
to Rifondazione Comunista, the leftwing remant of the old Italian communist
party, and the left opposition within the major unions. When Rifondazione
entered into an agreement with the ruling centre-left coalition back in the
mid nineties, the SLAI distanced itself from that party. SINCobas, a
pro-Rifondazione minority which has a presence at the FIAT auto plant in
Turin, left the SLAI soon after.

        In Italy's north-east the ADL, a network of workplace collectives
with one thousand members, has also affiliated to the SLAI. Close to the
region's autonomist movement, the ADL refuses to consider itself a union at
all. Unions, it insists, are based upon the delegation rather than
self-activity of workers' interests. Inherently bureaucratic, they restrict
themselves to so-called 'economic' matters while leaving so-called
'political' questions to political parties. So why join the SLAI? According
to the ADL, workers' self-organisation can benefit from the safeguards
which come from legal recognition as a union; and in any case, the SLAI is
'not really' a union, whatever its other members think . . .

        A similar refusal of the union form can be found amongst the
Confederazione Nazionale COBAS, a body which brings together a number of
rank-and-file groups in Rome and elsewhere. Many of these - for example,
the COBAS at Rome's Policlinico hospital - also have historical links to
the autonomist movement.

        The USI is a syndicalist organisation affiliated to the IWA-AIT. A
major industrial force until smashed by fascism in the early twenties, the
USI has grown alongside the other alternative unions. Recent months have
seen the return of many sections - in particular, its sizable hospital
branch in Milan - which had left the organisation in the mid nineties,
following a dispute over tactics and alliances.

        There are a number of other smaller alternative unions in Italy,
some of which originate from larger bodies such as the CUB. Back in the mid
nineties, four of the smaller organisations formed a pact called ARCA;
critics have suggested that this arrangement exists more for legal reasons
than anything else, given that unions covering 5% or more of workers in a
sector are granted privileges denied others. Finally, mention should also
be made of the COMU, which is a militant craft union of train drivers which
broke away from the CGIL in the late eighties.

        As can be seen, the Italian scene is something of a dog's dinner.
Many of the divisions are a product of personal rivalries between prominent
activists, rivalries which mirror the more stupid argy-bargies between
competing left groups. Other divisions stem from real differences in
experience and outlook. Should activists stand in state-sanctioned
workplace delegate elections, or should they encourage workers to elect
new, unofficial committees? Should radical unions sign workplace agreements
which provide certain resources (time off for union work, office
facilities)? What if those agreements include 'no-strike' clauses? Is the
drastic reduction of the working week - say to 30 hours - the best way to
stop the bosses' attacks? Or a guaranteed income for all instead? A
combination of both? Or neither?

        These questions are real issues today within Italy's radical
unions. Less often addressed, but still overhanging everything, is the
fundamental purpose of a 'rank and file' unionism. Many activists in the
CUB, SLAI, and elsewhere, want to create unions 'like they used to be':
militant, dedicated to defending workers' wages and conditions. Some - for
example, members of the Bologna collective Precari Nati, a group which has
done some important work amongst casual workers - suspect that such 'real'
unions will quickly come to mirror those they were formed to supplant.
Others still suggest that, for all its flaws, Italy's alternative union
movement is a valuable breeding ground for present and future struggles,
one created by militant workers themselves; and that the unambiguous
assertion of workers' self-organised needs already contains the seeds of a
new society.

        One of the best guides to the Italian radical union scene can be
found at the web site of the journal _di Base_
( Some English-language materials can be
found at

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