Talking of our own historical roots, is tantamount to retracing an important part of trade union history and looking at how trade unions arose in a free, republican and democratic Italy in the aftermath of the Second World War

  • How and why Cisl was born;
  • The early years;
  • The new bargaining policy of the sixties;
  • The ’70s and the ’80s: years of struggle, victories, tragedy and consolidation;
  • Social dialogue and concerted action;

How and why Cisl was born

Trade unions had first been viciously struck down by the fascist regime, then employees and employers were forced together into “corporatist cooperation” inside one, single, fascist trade union for each sector of production. But the working class started fighting against the rising cost of living, then the war itself and the nazi occupation. A struggle soon developing into a great collective movement of antifascist political protest.

Some union leaders of pre-fascist Italy, members of the most representative political parties born again in the struggle, started to get together underground and first in the newly liberated areas of Southern Italy but also in still occupied Northern Italy, discussed the creation of a unitarian but freely joined trade union organisation. It was not an easy process, but it succeeded leading to the signature of the Rome Trade Union Pact which, on 9 June 1944, gave birth to the unitarian Cgil (Italian Workers’ General Confederation).

The split among the founding political parties of Italy’s new democracy (communists, socialists, christian democrats, republicans, etc.), the growing cold war climate, but also and crucially of different views and approaches on specific issues of trade union activity (how best to defend wages’ purchasing power…, how best to promote employment…) were working, though, against unity, even if all trade union fractions shared the same general goal of cooperating in the reconstruction of the country. Unavoidably, they developed their own links with the mainstream political parties and sectarian ideological strife led to gradual, even bitter, division among militants.

Basically, it was a division of principle: a large part of the working class was convinced (to make a very complex and intricated issue extremely simple) that Stalin and his Soviet Union were the workers’ paradise; another large part of working people were afraid (and they were historically right, of course) that model was, rather, similar to hell…

The christian democratic trade union faction, split away in July 1948, in the middle of the worst cold war period, over this issue and upon the occasion of a general strike unilaterally called by the communist and socialist fraction after an attempt to the life of the communist party secretary-general. The Cisl (originally termed Free Cgil) was born and it would be formally named as Cisl (Italian Workers’ Trade Unions Confederation) in 1950. Over the next two years the republican and social-democratic fractions left the Cgil too, giving birth to what, a little later, became the Uil (Italian Union of Labour).

The early years

One of the initial, important decision taken by the new Cisl leadership, at the cost of an internal, painful but inevitable division, was that of defining itself as a non-denominational, not a catholic, trade union. Of course, most of our members identified then, and maybe still identify themselves, as catholics, many of them then voting for the christian democratic party. That was their personal choice, though, not the Cisl’s.

Which immediately joined most other world trade unions in giving birth to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU): a non-denominational International, opposing the communist dominated World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and different from the smaller International Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ICCTU, now WCL).

That is how the Cisl was born, out of a deep political and cultural split of what were two radically antagonistic visions of the world and of the workers place in society.

During its first years of existence, Cisl set out to build a fully autonomous organisation, free from political or religious interference. To this end, trade union training was essential and the Florence Studies and Education Center was created in 1951, entrusted with the task of “educating” the new union leadership along the lines of the pragmatic, not ideologically rooted approach of American trade union practice, much more strongly marked, though, in value based sentiments of solidarity and the search for equality.

This was actually the model which inspired Cisl to perceive the trade union as an association which draws its strength from the free association of workers, who themselves define union’s options and guidelines and constitute at the same time its only raison d’être.

And this is the reason Cisl has always opposed attempts to regulate union activity by law, even if such a law was foreseen in articles 39 and 40 of the Constitution: it would imply regulating by law and from the outside a free association of free human beings and it might imply a sort of binding obligation for any and all workers to join a union.

In 1953 the Cisl tabled a proposal concerning the articulation of the bargaining system which consisted in negotiating wages, or at least part of the pay conditions, at plant or sectoral level: an idea originally resisted by the Cgil but soon to became the cornerstone of union activity for a long time (in 1956, the Cgil top leadership formally recognised Cisl had been right on the issue, and they had been wrong…).

In 1954 a new proposal launched the Workplace Branches, the Cisl’s structures involved in bargaining at plant level.

Even though the autonomy of industrial and trade Federations as national bargaining agents has always been the Cisl’s avowed aim, it was nevertheless difficult to achieve it until the unions were strong enough to assert themselves vis-à-vis the employers and actually engage in plant level bargaining.

Trade unions had a very hard time during the Fifties, their presence often not being tolerated at plant level and the repression of their activity was a common feature of employers behaviour – first because they were “communist”, even the anticommunist ones; and then simply because they were unions, doing their job.

In the political front, Cisl eventually developed some distance from those parties with which it used to have stronger links (mainly, the christian democrats) and it did not hesitate, because of strong disagreement for example on their agricultural policies, to bring down the Segni cabinet in 1957 and in 1960 the Tambroni cabinet, which was supported by the neo-fascists.

At the time, all union Confederations used to have their own political representatives in parliament, elected in the different political parties.

It was only some years later that holding political office, both at the executive and legislative level, was deemed incompatible with being a trade union elected leader. First by Cisl (we strongly supported a government rooted in the nominal western tradition of pursuing freedom and justice, in any case we wanted Italy to be a western country in the cold war division of the times; but were sometimes, even often, at odds with the same government’s social and economic options, favouring industry most often over labour… the Cgil always opposed the government and felt the need to resolve such a contradiction less than the Cisl did…), but later by the other trade union Confederations, too.

The Cisl’s political options – western society v. eastern model of society – were also the determining factor at the time in our relations with the Cgil. Although, on some occasions – mainly at the collective bargaining table -, we presented a united front (the slogan used was “separate ranks but one common struggle”) the division was sharp on international and political issues.

The Cisl principled and, at the same time, more pragmatic approach, thanks also to its determined policy of training highly motivated, highly professional and fully independent trade union leaders, made it to be seen by working people as a modern and competent trade union whose members, in time, came from very different political and ideological backgrounds; even from the far left, because they saw Cisl as, simply, an effective trade union.

The Fiat affair was a good illustration of this attitude: in 1958 the Cisl expelled 105 of its 114 Fiat delegates: they were much too soft in plant bargaining with the Fiat management (and in effect went on to found an employers-friendly union with close ties to the Fiat management) and launched a hard fight, led by a small number of militants of its metalworkers union, which only came to an end many years later when the Cisl Metalworkers Federation staged a great Turin demonstration against repression.

These events were actually a milestone in the history of Cisl… as seen by others, at least, first of all the Cgil itself, since they provided a definitive answer to the criticism of those who considered Cisl to be more “moderate” and accommodating in its relations with employers.

The new bargaining policy of the sixties

Relations between the different confederations, however, continued to be difficult at least until the early sixties, when the first significant nationwide company agreements were concluded (Italsider, Bassetti, Perugina, Franchi). At the same time, Cisl which, first, had persuaded state-owned companies to leave Confindustria and create their own employers Federation, the Intersind, thereby facilitating the emergence of a more articulated bargaining system, called for them to be given and take a more active and independent role in collective bargaining.

Those were also the years when a few Federations, first among others the metalworkers, formed a more formally and consistently united front at local level, and the years of the first large scale union struggles led on the basis of an effective unity of action pact in the steel and electrical industry. The metalworkers agreement of 1963 (unions won the right to bargain at plant-level on issues such as piece-rates, productivity premia and skill-grades) concluded this period of trade union mobilisation.

The general political climate in the country, were a center-left coalition including the socialist party (over the formal protest, but with the de facto even if embittered accord of the communists) replaced the former center-right governments, also facilitated the consolidation of plant level and a more effective national sector level collective bargaining.

Trade unions did not yet enjoy full freedom of action during this period because employers’ resistance to union activity in the work place was still so strong that it could lead to firings and mass dismissal. Trade union rights did not yet fully exist and it was still difficult for union delegates to get inside a plant and call a meeting.

In the mid-sixties the economic crisis brought about a slump. Dismissals in factories and high unemployment levels put at risk the progress achieved during the preceding period. New collective agreements signed were frankly not very much and disappointing to workers.

During this period union activity and union attention spread to new areas, not directly or immediately linked to the work place: the unemployed, for instance, the underdeveloped South of the country, and in the North the issue of working people who wanted to count much more, in society as well as in their workplaces. Unions fought for a policy of reforms which could really meet the expectations of workers, disappointed by now in the center-left coalition government.

The opening of this new front was quite important. It compelled the government, for the first time ever, to get involved in the bargaining process itself, since now at stake were societal issues as well as strictly defined plant or sector centered wage and working conditions. And, at the same time, demonstrated the unions’ new, common will and intention to extend their action to more general societal issues.

The late sixties were marked, of course, by 1968: the symbolic year of students and workers’ alliance (often, though, no more than symbolic itself…), of liberation movements in the Third World developing new fighting strategies, thus underlining the very role of unions in a different light.

In any case, the new fights and, even more, the new “climate” brought about important progress in company-level and industry-wide agreements, led to the abolition of “pay zones”, to the conclusion of the first agreement linking pensions to wages and to the adoption of the Workers’Statute.

But the new “climate” brought also about the most extreme discontent to manifest itself, and its fear of genuine reform. On the right and on the left, as well. On the right, by reiterated attempts at subversion from above (planned and even partially attempted coups, bombs in banks and train stations, what Italians called “the strategy of fear”: to block reforms). And, on the left, by terrorism focused upon the most promising actors of societal reform: judges, union leaders, political party strategists, up to the most prominent reformist leader of the christian democrats, Aldo Moro, kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades.

Cisl was there, as well as and together with Cgil and Uil in the struggle against both subversion and organised terrorism, in defence of civil liberties.

The ’70s and the ’80s: years of struggle, victories, tragedy and consolidation

1969 marked the beginning of the first structured attempt at unification of the trade union movement.

Three successive joint meetings of the Cisl, Cgil and Uil general councils were called to set the dates for the Congress of each organisation to vote its own dissolution, thus paving the way for the first Congress of the new unitarian Confederation. Delays, hesitations, reconsiderations developed, though, and in the last instance showed unity among the three trade unions was not yet really mature enough. So, organic unity only came about, partially, in a few individual union structures and Federations.

In 1972 these efforts led to the foundation of the Unitarian Cgil, Cisl and Uil Federation, a transitional compromise solution that should have been hopefully followed, in a second stage, by full organic integration.

This second stage, however, never materialised; the Unitarian Federation bridge to unity soon became a permanent structure in itself, remote from the rank and file, embodying an incomplete and largely bureaucratic unity concept. Its main, in nay case most important merit was to provide the trade union movement with the unitarian framework which helped them resist and defeat the pressure of fascist subversion and, later on, terrorist intimidation.

1973 and the so-called first oil shock, right after the disorder sown in the world financial markets by the unilateral American declaration of inconvertibility of the dollar, marked the beginning of a deep economic crisis in all major industrialised nations. The unions success over the last few years had, however, strengthened their relative position which, in turn, helped them achieve and consolidate some significant results. A national multi-industry agreement was signed in 1975, improving the balance between pay and pensions, harmonising the cost of living allowance for all categories of workers (up to that time different sliding-scale mechanisms were adopted for each category of worker) and reforming the Wages Guarantee Fund. And, in 1977, another nationwide agreement put a stop to the automatic indexation of seniority allowances and suppressed some public holidays.

These two agreements illustrate a significant change of attitude on the part of the unions, which were becoming active partners in the definition of general economic policy thus committing themselves to help the country overcome a period of deep crisis.

This general orientation was endorsed at an important Unitarian Federation general assembly in 1978 the decisions of which are still central guidelines for Cisl an for the whole trade union movement in our country.

This new approach was facilitated by a generally favourable political climate and the fact that, following the Aldo Moro assassination by the Red Brigades, the country was ruled by a succession of “national solidarity” coalition governments.

The commitment to this strategic option, as already mentioned, stood fast even in the face of repeated, direct threats from extreme right and left wing terrorists who vowed to destroy the trade union movement: a dangerous collectivist demon for the first, a much too successful tool of reform against the hoped for revolution, for the second.

They failed. We succeeded. Even if the Unitarian Federation collapsed (you can not leave a bridge uncompleted much too long: it will crumble down… as it did), our unity of action strategy stands and the goal of trade union organic unity is still on the agenda.

Social dialogue and concerted action

As from 1978, Cisl consistently pursued the strategical options endorsed by the unitarian strategy meetings and played a substantive role (the most consistent, for sure) negotiating important nationwide agreements.

One such agreement, concluded with the government in February 1984, provided for labour cost reduction through a less stringent indexation system in exchange for some economic and tax policy provisions (tax relief on workers’personal income taxes, more generous allowances for low income parents supporting large families, government measures fighting unemployment and allocating public funds to the financing of social contributions).

It was, in the end, a winning agreement, bringing the inflation rate rapidly down to less than 10%, for the first time in a decade, and thereby saving much more purchasing power than any sliding-scale mechanism might ever have. But it was very controversial and subject to such sharp criticism by the communist party and by the Cgil majority refusing their signature at the time, that it brought about the Cgil, Cisl, Uil Unitarian Federation collapse and that a national referendum was called, according to Italy’s constitutional provisions, to revoke a substantial part of its provisions.

They lost. The referendum was won by those standing by the 1984 agreement. And soon the unity of action pact was effectively restored.

The early nineties opened a very critical period for our country’s institutions and political stability. Partly because of the totally new international context marked by the breakdown of the communist model and partly because of the serial corruption finally, in such a new climate, unveiled by the judiciary. The combined action of these two factors undermined the Italian party system as a whole, brought about the crumbling of the christian democratic party, split now among several different centrist, rightist and leftist components, and the virtual disappearance of the socialist party, along with its tainted leadership.

Altogether, the “clean hands” wave of judicial inquiries of the early ’90s, as the whole phenomenon of political disgrace and purging came to be known, set off a deep transformation process which paved the way for the emergence of new political forces and to the attempt, not yet really finalised, to bring about through a majority electoral system a bipolar (democratic/republican, tory/labour-type) political alignment in the country.

Two most important protocols were signed on a tripartite basis (unions, employers and government) in July 1992 and July 1993, both embodying the spirit of social dialogue of the 1990s.

The first protocol was concluded in the wake of the monetary crisis (the September 1992 enforced devaluation of the lira) with the aim of reducing the public debt and the inflation rate by enhancing the role and involvement of social partners and government in a social dialogue process and by the total elimination of the sliding-scale mechanism, thus widening the scope for collective bargaining.

The second protocol somewhat improved the first one: social dialogue was explicitly defined as the most appropriate method to discuss such issues as fiscal and price policies and measures to promote development. At the same time the structure of collective bargaining was subject to an overall review.

This led to a restructuring of trade union presence in the work place: as from the beginning of 1994 all workers in the private sector were able to elect their Workplace Representatives: the RSUs (first elected by public employees only in December 1998). A more democratic relationship was thus created with workers who could exert a better control over all the negotiation process and, at the same time, a first step was taken to create a truly unitarian trade union.