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Trade Unions

There are more trade unionists in Italy than in any other country in the EU. But with half the membership made up of pensioners, overall union density among employees is around a third. There are three main union confederations – CGIL, CISL and UIL – whose divisions were initially based on political differences, although these have become less clear over time.

Italian trade unions have more than 12 million members, perhaps as many as 15 million. However, a high proportion of them are retired (almost half - 49% - across the three largest confederations). Taking this into account, the ICTWSS database of union membership put union density at 35.2% in 2011.1

There are three main trade union confederations in Italy, although there are also others. The largest is the CGIL, which has 5,686,210 members, although only 2,698,012 of them are employed. The second biggest is CISL with 4,372,280 members, of whom 2,311,276 are employed, and the third largest is UIL, which has 2,222,665 members of whom 1,344,039 are employed (figures for 2013 for CGIL and CISL, 2014 for UIL).2 2

In the past these three union confederations had fairly clear political affiliations. CGIL was close to the Communist Party; CISL was created by Catholic trade unionists who were also active in the Christian Democratic Party, while UIL was closest to the Socialist Party. However, changes in the political structure (none of these parties still exist in their previous form) and changes within the confederations mean that this political categorisation is no longer appropriate.



It is clear, however, that in general CGIL has taken a more combative approach to governments and to the employers than the other two. In the recent period this has been clearly evident in the three confederations’ approach to changes in the system of collective bargaining. CISL and UIL agreed a new national framework for bargaining with the government and the employers in January 2009 but CGIL refused to sign (see below). Since then, relations between CGIL and the other two confederations have been difficult, although the agreement on representativeness initially reached in May 2013 and formally signed in January 2014 may be a sign of an improved climate.

This picture of varied relations between the three main confederations is not new. For decades, periods of close co-operation have been followed by periods of greater coolness, if not hostility. The recent period has been one of marked differences and competition between the three traditional union confederations, and the prospect of organisational unity, which was a clear goal in the 1970s, now seems very distant.



There are other groupings of trade unions outside these dominant confederations. The most important is the UGL, formerly called CISNAL. The UGL has signed a number of national agreements alongside the three main confederations, and states that it has 1.9 million members, although its membership is disputed by other, apparently smaller confederations.3 UGL is close to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (formerly Popolo della Libertá) party. Another union grouping with links to the right of the political spectrum is Sindacato Padano (Sin.Pa), which is close to the Lega Nord. It emerged in the early 1990s, but there is no information on membership levels.


Other union confederations include: CISAL, which states on its website that it has 1.7m members in “autonomous unions” particularly in public and finance sectors;4 and CONFSAL, another grouping of autonomous unions, which stated that it had 1.8 million members in 2010.5 In addition some unions in particular industries and occupations are not attached to any confederation. One notable example is FABI in banking, which states it has 100,000 members.6 There are also unions representing managers, such as CIDA and Unionquadri. In addition there are the "cobas", groups of rank-and-file workers working in specific areas such as the railways or the airlines, who have frequently been involved in industrial action. Overall these groupings certainly add to the total of union members, although the numbers claimed by some of the confederations seem exaggerated.

Overall, trade union representation in Italy has become increasingly fragmented in the last 20 to 30 years, particularly in the public sector and transport. Figures published by the state agency ARAN, which represents the state in its capacity as an employer, show that at the end of 2011, there were 1,282,000 union members in the public sector.7 As the public sector had some 3.25 million employees in 2011, this indicates a union density in the sector of around 40%. However, these 1,282,000 members were divided between more than 300 unions, of whom more than 200 had fewer than 100 members and 100 had fewer than ten. The five largest unions in the sector, all with more than 100,000 members, are the schools and the general public sector unions of both CGIL and CISL, as well as the CONFSAL affiliate in schools, SNALS. Together these five accounted for just under 750,000 employees, well over half of all the union members in the public sector.

In the view of some commentators, there is a common feature found among all the autonomous unions, with the exception of the UGL and Sindacato Padano. This is that they are similar to special interest groups, representing small groups of employees, who unite to protect their own specific interests and see no need to take account of other concerns.8

The three main confederations are all organised in the same way on an industry basis, with separate industry federations for metalworking, the public sector, telecommunications, construction and so on. CGIL is the strongest of the three in manufacturing industry, while the strongholds of both CISL and UIL are the public services, although here too CGIL has a level of support comparable to that for CISL. The importance and independence of the industrial federations varies, but some, in particular FIOM, the metalworking federation in CGIL, play an influential role.

After a period of growth, the picture for trade union membership in Italy has been more mixed in the period since 2008. Among the three major confederations, both CGIL and CISL have seen years of both slight growth and slight decline in total membership (including pensioners). CGIL’s total membership in 2013 was 0.1% higher in 2013 than five years earlier, while CISL’s was down by 3.0%, and UIL’s total membership rose by 5.8% in the same period (the UIL figures exclude double affiliations, which in the case of UIL are substantial at around 300,000). Looking just at the confederations’ non-retired membership, the picture is more positive, with all showing growth CGIL between 2008 and 2013 – up 2.4% for CGIL, 2.3% for CISL and 8.6% for UIL – although there has been a slight fall of 0.7% for both CGIL and CISL between 2012 and 2013. In a period when overall employment in Italy fell by 4.2%, from 23.4 million to 22.4 million, these figures suggest that union density is increasing.

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.