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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 but the members are directly elected by the whole workforce.

The legislative basis for workplace representation is the 1970 Workers’ Statute which provides for trade union representation at company level.[1] Agreements between the main union confederations and the employers, particularly in 1993 and 2014 (see section on collective bargaining), have built on this to create a new workplace representative structure, the RSU, bringing all unions in the workplace together. However, the structure foreseen by the Workers Statute, where each union would have its own representative body at company level, the RSA, continues to exist in some companies.


Under the terms of the Workers Statute (Article 19), RSAs can be set up by unions who are signatories to the collective agreement covering the company concerned (normally the industry-level agreement), although in 2013 the right to set up an RSA was extended by the court to unions who have been involved in the negotiations even if they had not signed the agreement.[2]


RSAs are single union bodies, so, where they exist, there may be more than one in a single workplace. In 1991, as part of a general move to greater cooperation, the three main Italian union confederations agreed to set up a new structure, known as the unified trade union representation (RSU). This established a single committee for all the unions in the workplace, and initially two-thirds of the members were elected by the whole workforce and one third elected or appointed by the unions. (The rules were different in the public sector, with all RSU members being 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. Instead all RSU members were to be elected by the employees.[3]


However, despite these general agreements, RSUs are not universal and in many companies RSAs continue to exist, sometimes alongside the RSU. Figures from the ISTAT survey for the period 2012-13 show than 12.1% of companies with at least 10 employees had an RSU and 11.8% had an RSA.[4] Both bodies were less common in smaller companies and found more frequently in larger ones: in companies with between 200 and 500 employees 58.8% had an RSU and 41.8% an RSA, while in those with more than 500 employees, 61.5% had an RSU and 57.6% an RSA.


There are also sectoral differences. For example, while in manufacturing RSUs were more common than RSAs – 21.2% of companies had an RSU but only 12.9% had an RSA, in finance and insurance the situation was reversed, with only 3.9% of companies reporting an RSU compared with 45.3% with an RSA.


Since this information was collected the situation may have changed, as the January 2014 agreement on union representativeness stated that the unions signing the agreement undertook that they would not seek to set up an RSA that where an RSU was already in place or in the process of being formed.


However, whether workers are represented through RSUs or RSAs, it is the trade unions that play the central role. RSAs are entirely trade union bodies, chosen by union members and acting on their behalf. RSUs, in contrast, are elected by the whole workforce, but remain union committees.


Figures from Eurofound’s 2013 European Company Survey show that at that point 27% of establishments in Italy with at least 10 employees had some form of official employee representation, either through an RSA or an RSU. This is higher than national ISTAT figures which if RSA and RSU coverage is added together (and some companies have both) produce a total of 24%. The Eurofound figure for employee representation in Italy is slightly below the EU28 average of 32%.[5]


Numbers and structures


Under the terms of the 1993 and 2014 agreements between the unions and employers, an RSU can be set up when there are more than 15 employees in the workplace. This is calculated on a full-time equivalent basis, with part-time staff counted in proportion to the number of hours they work and the figure for temporary staff depending on the average number of months worked in the previous two years. Agency staff are not included.


The national level agreements for the private and public sectors set a minimum number of RSU members (see table) .


Number employed

Number of RSU members

16 to 200


201 to 3,000

3 for each 300 employees or part thereof

More than 3,000

An additional 3 for each 500 employees or part thereof


However, these ratios can be improved on in industry and company agreements, as the agreement for the retail, wholesale and wider service industry shows.[6]


Number employed

Number of RSU members

16 to 50


51 to 90


91 to 200


201 to 300


301 to 600


600 to 1,200



Above 1,200 employees the number of members in the RSU in the retail, wholesale and wider service industry increases by two for every 1,000 additional 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”.


Under the terms of the Workers’ Statute, an RSA can in principle be set up in companies employing more than 15 workers (five in agriculture). However, industry level collective agreements often provide further details. The agreement for the retail, wholesale and wider service industry, for example, allows each union signing the agreement to set up an RSA provided they have a set level of membership in the workplace. The membership thresholds are: three, where there are between 15 to 60 employees, five, where there are between 60 and 200, and seven, where there are more than 200 employees. The agreement also states that RSAs will only be set up if, over the course of 24 months, it has proved impossible to elect an RSU.

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 RSU’s rights to be informed and consulted on specific issues depend on agreements reached at industry and sometimes company level. These agreements will include the information and consultation requirements included in the EU’s 2002 information and consultation directive (2002/14 /EC), which was implemented in Italian legislation in March 2007. For companies with at least 50 employees, this covers information about the company’s “activities and economic situation” and the right to be informed and consulted about the “situation, structure and probable development of employment” as well as being informed and consulted about “decisions likely to lead to substantial changes in work organisation or in contractual relations”


Normally industry and company-level agreements are slightly more detailed and demanding, and require the employer to provide information and consult on topics such as: investment; the numbers employed; changes in working methods; the introduction of new technology; equal opportunities and training. For example, the retail, wholesale and wider service industry agreement specifically provides for the unions to be given information on company plans for significant reorganisation, outsourcing, changes in procurement, restructuring, use of atypical employment, technological innovation and changes that affect corporate structure. They should also be given details of corporate social responsibility initiatives, such as the adoption of a specific code of conduct.


The consultation increasingly takes the form of joint employer/union committees, which are intended to prepare the groundwork for collective bargaining by providing technical support. Typically, 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.


Several big companies have set up joint observatories to monitor key developments. For example, the industry-level agreement for the energy and oil industrycalls for larger companies to have observatories meeting twice a year which look at investment plans, economic and energy forecasts, structural changes and employment developments, while the metalworking agreement also provides for company-level observatories in companies employing at least 3,000 workers, while, in those with at least 2,000, there should be joint committees on training and equal opportunities.


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.


The role of the RSA is not defined in detail in the legislation, but in in broad terms it is to protect the rights of union members.

Elections and term of office


Following the January 2014 agreement on union representativeness, all members of the RSU are 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. 


As set out in the Workers’ Statute, the term of office for RSA members is also three years.

Protection against dismissal


Members of the both the RSU and the RSAs are protected against dismissal by the Workers’ Statute (Article 15) which expressly makes discriminatory behaviour such as dismissal or other forms of detriment 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 (Article 23), which originally applying to the RSA structure where each union has separate workplace representation – a separate RSA. The time off is calculated separately for the key figure for each RSA,  and provides 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. In addition, these individuals are entitled by law to 8 days unpaid leave a year for union business.


These rules are less suited to the RSU structure where there is a single union body at the workplace rather than several, and collective agreements often include arrangements which take better account of the RSU structure, which typically include representatives of three unions. The agreement for retail, wholesale and wider service industry agreement for example provides time-off rights for three RSU members in workplaces with up to 200 employees, and goes up in further blocks of three as the size of the workplace increases.


As well as establishing how many RSU members have time-off rights, the same agreement also improves on the amount of paid time off allowed, providing 50% more paid time off than the legal minimum –  one-and-a-half hours per employee per year companies with fewer than 200 employees and 12 hours per month rather than eight in larger companies.   


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 noticeboards 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.

Training rights


Neither RSU nor RSA members have a specific statutory right to training to carry out their duties.

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.

[1] Statuto dei lavoratori (Legge 300/1970)

[2] This followed a dispute at FIAT which led to there being no agreement between the company and the metalworking union FIOM (part of CGIL). Decision by the Constitutional Court 3-23 July 2013, no. 231

[3] Protocollo d'intesa del 31 maggio 2013 and Testo Unico sulla Rappresentanza: Confindustria – Cgil, Cisl e Uil, 10 gennaio 2014

[4] Progetto CNEL-ISTAT sul tema “Produttività, struttura e performance delle imprese esportatrici, mercato del lavoro e contrattazione integrativa”, December 2013 https://www.istat.it/it/files/2016/03/Report_Cnel_Istat1.pdf

[5] Eurofound (2015), Third European Company Survey – Overview report: Workplace practices – Patterns, performance and well-being, Figures for Table 44

[6] Contratto collettivo nazionale di lavoro (CCNL) del commercio per i dipendenti da aziende del terziario, della distribuzione e dei servizi, 30 March 2015

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.