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Workplace Representation

The main employee representative bodies in Italy – the RSUs – are essentially union bodies, even if they are now elected by all employees. The unions nominate the candidates, although the members are directly elected by the whole workforce. The previous arrangements, which reserved a third of the seats for direct union appointment or election, have now ended

The legislative basis for workplace representation is the 1970 Workers’ Statute which provides for trade union representation at company level. However, although the law gives trade union representatives certain rights and protections, it does not provide detailed rules on how they should be chosen.



To provide a clearer structure the three main Italian union confederations, who by the start of the 1990s were working more closely together, agreed in 1991 to set up a new structure, the RSU. This provided a unified committee for all the unions in the workplace with two-third of the members being elected by the whole workforce and one third elected or appointed by the unions. (The rules were different in the public sector, where all RSU members are elected). This structure was accepted in principle in an agreement with the employers’ organisation Confindustria in July 1993 and the details were set out in an agreement for the private sector in December 1993 and for the public sector in April 1994. (For the public sector there was also legislation in 1997.)



These rules were modified in the agreements on union representativeness which the three confederations signed with Confindustria in May 2013 and January 2014. In particular, the requirement for one third of the seats to be elected or appointed directly by the unions was removed. In future all RSU members will be chosen on the basis of the votes of the employees.1



However, despite these general agreements, RSUs are not universal. There are some sectors, including banking and insurance, where they are very rare and the previous form of trade union representation, known as the RSA, continues to exist. The precise composition of the RSA can vary from company to company, depending on the agreement signed. However, under the 1970 Workers’ Statute, it is the unions who are signatories to the appropriate collective agreement who have the right to appoint the members of the RSA. This proved controversial at Fiat, which has withdrawn from previous collective agreements and where, as a result, the RSU arrangements do not apply. This meant that the RSA at Fiat was chosen by the unions which had signed an agreement with the company and that representatives belonging to FIOM, the CGIL metalworking federation, were excluded (see section on collective bargaining). However, in July 2013, the constitutional court declared that the section of the Workers’ Statute that allowed the exclusion of FIOM was unconstitutional, and FIOM had a right to represent its members.



The January 2014 agreement on union representativeness also, in effect, gives precedence to RSUs over RSAs, in that it states that the unions signing the agreement undertake that where an RSU is already in place or in the process of being formed they will not seek to set up an RSA.


However, whether workers are represented through RSUs or RSAs, it is the trade unions that play the central role. Although RSUs are elected by the whole workforce, they remain primarily union committees.


Numbers and structures

An RSU can be set up when there are more than 15 employees in the workplace. The national level agreements for the private and public sectors provide minimum numbers (see table) but these can be improved on in industry and company agreements.

Number employed

Number of RSU members





Thereafter three extra seats for each 300 additional employees up to 3,000 employees then three extra seats for each additional 500 employees.

It is also possible to have an RSU which covers a group of small companies in a particular local area.

The RSU consists entirely of employees and its composition in terms of manual and non-manual employees, should reflect the workforce. This can be achieved through the choice of candidates or though separate voting groups (colleges). There should also be an “adequate representation” of the sexes.

The trade unions themselves agree the rules governing the operation of the RSU. But it is normally chaired by the leading figure in the largest union in the workplace and in bigger workplaces there will be an executive committee. This body, made up of the leading figures in the unions on site, will often take the key decisions, which are then reported back to the RSU as a whole.

The RSU can set up sub-committees on particular issues, such as health and safety, work organisation or the canteen and on some topics, such as new technology or job classification.

There are no national rules which set out how often the RSU should meet as a body or how often it should meet the employer, although these issues are regulated in some industry level agreements. Often meetings only take place “where necessary”.

Tasks and rights

The key function of the RSUs is to negotiate with the employers at workplace level. RSUs are intended to act as the workplace representatives of the trade unions and the agreements, which set them up, give them the power to negotiate binding agreements for their workplace as part of the bargaining structure.

Employers must by law inform and consult with employee representatives on health and safety, the use of public funds for industrial restructuring, large scale redundancies, and business transfers. But most of the rights that the RSUs have to be informed and consulted on specific issues depend on agreements reached at industry and sometimes company level. Normally the agreements will require the employer to provide information and consult on topics such as: the economic and financial situation of the company; investment; the numbers employed; changes in working methods; the introduction of new technology; gender equality and training. The consultation may take the form of joint employer/union committees.

Increasingly, discussions take place in joint committees, which formally are intended to prepare the groundwork for collective bargaining by providing technical support.

Generally speaking these committees are made up half of management and half of union representatives. Members may be permanent or elected on an ad hoc basis depending on the issues to be discussed. The principal aim of these joint committees is to encourage a non-confrontational exchange between the two sides, in the process stimulating cooperation aimed at solving organisational problems.

A number of big companies have set up joint national observatories to monitor market trends and work out proposals to improve competitiveness. They include Whirlpool, Electrolux, Gucci, TIM, Italtel, Parmalat, Piaggio, and Agusta. The agreement signed at the scooter and motor-cycle company Piaggio in June 2004 resulted in the setting up of four joint union management bodies covering: external trends and the possibility of decentralising production or outsourcing; training; working time arrangements; and shift arrangements.

However, in general the role of these joint committees tends to be limited to resolving specific problems rather than examining broader strategic issues

The RSU does not have a major role in general trade union activity in the sense of promoting the union and union policy. This is more the role of the trade union outside the workplace.

Elections and term of office

Following the January 2014 agreement on union representativeness, all members of the RSU will in future be elected by the whole workforce in a secret ballot but can only be nominated by the unions. Before this agreement, two-thirds of the members were elected and one third was nominated by the unions, in line with the support they had received in the election.


To be able to nominate, a union must: either have signed the January 2014 agreement – the three main confederations; or have reached an agreement at industry level for the company concerned; or have a formal constitution, support the January agreement and the two agreements in 2011and 2013 which preceded it, and have the support of at least 5% of the potential voters (at least three individuals in companies with fewer than 60 employees). Voting is on the basis of a list system, and unions cannot propose candidates for more than two-thirds of the seats.


The arrangements agreed in January 2014 bring the private sector in line with the public sector, where legislation already provides that all RSU members are elected.


RSU members are elected for three years. At least three months before the end of this period of office, they or the unions involved should take the initiative to begin the process of new elections. Under the January 2014 agreement on union representativeness, the term of office for RSA members is also three years.

Protection against dismissal

Members of the RSU as well as the union workplace bodies they have replaced are protected against discrimination by the Workers' Statute which expressly makes anti-union behaviour unlawful.

Time off and other resources

RSU members are legally entitled to paid time-off on the basis of a formula set out in the Workers' Statute. This provides a total for the committee of an hour per employee per year where there are fewer than 200 employees; 8 hours a month for each 300 employees where there are fewer than 3,000; and 8 hours a month for each 500 employees or part thereof where there are more than 3,000. Each member is also entitled by law to 8 days unpaid leave a year for union business.

In practice collective agreements often improve on this. Frequently the time-off will be re-divided so that leading members of the RSU have more time-off than others. In some large plants there may be someone completely freed from normal duties although this is less common than in the past.

Employee representatives have a general right to make use of notice-boards and the RSU, or other type of representation, should have an office, where there are more than 200 employees. Some industry agreements also allow for the limited use of external experts.

Representation at group level

Collective agreements allow the creation of a group level co-ordinating committee when there are several companies in a group, or several workplaces in a single company. The RSUs in the group send members to this co-ordinating committee and full-time officials of the unions will also normally attend.

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.