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RPT-SPECIAL REPORT-Is there power in Europe's unions?

/ Source: Reuters


If Spain's young are disillusioned, then Italy's pensioners are no better. Giancarlo Montagnani is a sprightly 65 year-old with bright blue eyes and memories of a life spent working in ceramics factories around Modena, an attractive Renaissance city in Italy's northern Po Valley.

Montagnani started work at 14, retired 12 years ago, and is still enrolled in Italy's largest trade union, the left-wing General Confederation of Italian Labour (CGIL). But even he can see times are different.

"They always defended my interests, and I still pay my dues from a kind of gratitude, but everything has changed now," he says, talking animatedly with friends in a park. "We were more united. If you went on strike for a payrise then you usually got one, but now people are afraid of losing their jobs and the unions themselves tell you not to strike."

Union membership in Italy remains relatively high at about 30 percent of active workers, though that's down from a peak of 43 percent in the 1970s. Among pensioners it is probably the highest in the world, thanks partly to a controversial system in which workers have to actively "opt out" of their union when they retire.

Montagnani and his pensioner friends agree the unions could never bring down a government now, not only because they are not united but because workers have become more individualistic, focused only on bringing home a salary at the end of the month.

The 10 or so men in the group also agree that rising unemployment, immigrant labour and the shift to manufacturing plants abroad mean it's now the bosses who "have the whip hand."

When Montagnani began work in 1959, Italy was just embarking on an economic miracle that would see decades of growth at rates like those now seen in China. Over the past 15 years of stagnation and bouts of recession, the men say protest could well mean your job disappears to Eastern Europe.

"The power of Italian workers has fallen sharply due to globalisation and the availability of immigrant labour, and the workers know that," says Paolo Feltrin, a union expert and political science professor at Trieste University. Feltrin says the transformation of Italian industry in the last 30 years has curbed union influence, as large factories have been replaced by thousands of small businesses, where unions find it harder to gain a foothold. In the past decade or so, increased competition from Asia, especially in low-tech sectors such as textiles, has continued that shift.

"Companies can move production abroad and workers don't want to lose money in strikes when they know the battle is useless," says Feltrin. "It's no coincidence that strikes are still an effective tool largely in the public sector, where workers are more protected, because you can't move hospitals, schools or government ministries to China or India."


You can see what the loss of production does to an industry in small towns like Fiorano, Sassuolo, Formigine, Spezzano and Serramazzoni, which ring Modena and which together boast around 200 factories producing tens of millions of tiles every year for the world's bathrooms and kitchens.

The sector has been hard-hit by the recession of the last two years, and while local industry still directly employs more than 20,000 people, its dominance of 20 years ago is threatened by cut-price competition from China.

Locals say 5,000 lorries used to leave the factories every morning. Today, it's down to 1,500.

Franco Sita, a 73 year-old with snow white hair and beard, began work at 14, and worked for 20 years at Iris Ceramica, one of the largest of Fiorano's factories. "I asked for a job on the Friday and the guy told me to start on Monday. I said 'Can I start on Wednesday'?, and he said 'No, we need someone on Monday.' It was so easy back then."

Sita is also still enrolled in a union despite not having worked for 15 years. But it's not the same one as Giancarlo, which is a significant detail. Deep divisions between Italy's main union confederations are another factor in the movement's loss of clout in recent years.

Sita shunned the CGIL in favour of the more moderate Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (CISL) "because I've never been a leftist."

The CGIL has almost 6 million members, over half of whom are pensioners, compared with 4.5 million for the CISL. The smaller Italian Labour Union (UIL), which takes a similar, moderate line to the CISL, numbers around 2.2 million.

Back in 1994, when the three unions fought alongside each other, they brought down Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's first government with their mass protests over plans to raise the retirement age. As recently as 2002, in their last major show of unity, they forced Berlusconi to backtrack on policies to ease firing restrictions, though even then the CISL and the UIL declined to participate in a historic rally of some 2 million workers organized by the CGIL.

But in recent years acrimony between the unions has grown, with the CGIL accusing the other unions of betraying workers with their increasingly conciliatory, pro-government positions. In July, when Berlusconi announced a 25 billion euro austerity package that cut local government funding, froze public sector salaries and raised the retirement age, only the CGIL staged protests while the other unions said the measures were tough but necessary.


As in Spain, a generation gap has opened up in Italy. While trade union loyalty remains high among many nostalgic pensioners, it is weakening among active workers.

"At work you have to look out for yourself, you'll die of hunger if you follow the unions," says Giovanni Nuzi, a swarthy 47 year-old who has worked for 10 years at Florim Ceramica in Spezzano.

Nuzi left his home in the poor south-eastern Puglia region two decades ago to look for work but is considering going back, having spent much of the past three years at home on reduced pay due to the economic crisis.

He is enrolled in the CGIL but insists this is only for their help with tax returns and paperwork. He has never been to a protest rally or gone on strike. "If I strike I'm considered a trouble-maker and at the first excuse they chuck you out," he says. "Before, you could leave one factory and walk into the one next door, but it's not like that anymore. The companies have the power now."

Some 100 miles to the north-east in Padua, services and manufacturing are more diverse and political sympathies lean firmly to the right, but the economy has been similarly ravaged by recession -- and trade unions are struggling.

After the owners of iron foundry Fonderia Zen declared bankruptcy last December, the workers kept production going in a spectacular attempt to keep the company afloat. "We basically ran everything ourselves for three months to meet orders," says Aristide Trivellato, a 51 year-old assembly line worker. "We were here all hours and my marriage nearly collapsed, but it was also an enriching experience."