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Trade Unions


There are more trade unionists in Italy than in any other country in the EU. But with almost 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 ( more than one in four – 43% –  across the three largest confederations). Taking this into account, the ICTWSS database of union membership put union density at 34.4% in 2018.[1] 


There are three main trade union confederations in Italy, although there are also others. The largest is the CGIL, which has 5,518,774 members, although only 2,772,928 of them are employed. The second biggest is CISL with 4,079,490 members, of whom 2,379,871 are employed, and the third largest is UIL, which has 1,966,301 members of whom 1,395,235 are employed (figures for 2017 for CGIL, 2019 for CISL and 2018 for UIL).[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.


Despite this, there are differences of approach between the three confederations, and, in general, CGIL has taken a more combative approach to governments and to the employers than the other two. For example, in 2017, CGIL was alone in its campaign for a referendum against what they saw as the abuse of a government-backed voucher scheme for occasional work. CISL and UIL also opposed the scheme but wanted to find a resolution through negotiations with the employers. However, the sharp disagreements between CGIL on one side and CISL and UIL on the other, which characterised the period running from at least 2009 to 2013, appear to have disappeared. Recently all three have presented a common front on the previously contentious issue of collective bargaining (see section on collective bargaining).


There are other groupings of trade unions outside these dominant confederations. Three, UGL, CISAL and CONFSAL, have seats, alongside the main confederations in the consultative National Council for Economics and Labour (CNEL), which is an indication of their .


The UGL, formerly called CISNAL states that it has 1.9 million members, although this number is disputed by other confederations, and it operates on the right of the political spectrum.[3] In the past, it was close to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, but in January 2018 it signed a cooperation agreement with the right-wing League (LEGA) party, which the League’s general secretary, Matteo Salvini, described as “historic”.[4]


In contrast CISAL and CONFSAL, which are both groupings of autonomous unions, emphasise their party-political neutrality. CISAL, which in the past claimed 1.7m has particular strength in the public sector and finance.One of its largest affiliates is the banking union FABI, which announced at its congress in 2018 that it had 110,000 members.[5]  CISAL states on its website that it is “free from party politics”.


CONFSAL, which was created in 1979 through the merger of two groups of autonomous unions SNALS and UNSA, emphasises on its website that it offers an “alternative to ideological trade unionism”. In 2010 it stated that it had 1.8 million members.[6]


In addition, there are unions not attached to any confederation and unions representing managers, such as CIDA and Unionquadri. There are also 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. 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. ARAN, the agency which represents the state in its capacity as an employer, collects data on the number of unions and union membership across the public sector. Figures published at the start of 2019 show that, for example, there were 284,068 union members in the area of health (excluding more senior staff). Unions in the three main confederations accounted for almost two-thirds (62.7%), but more than a third were in other unions, with 11.5% in a CONFSAL affiliate, 9.5% in a nursing union which is part of a new public sector confederation, CGS, and 8.6% in another nursing union. The remaining 9.7% were in 108 other smaller unions.[7]


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 steady growth in the first ten years of the millennium, the picture for trade union membership in Italy has recently been more mixed, with pensioner membership falling across all three main confederations.  From 2010 until the latest year for which figures are available, the number of retired members has fallen by 7.6% in CGIL (up to 2017), 22.8% in CISL (up to 2019) and 0.8% in UIL (up to 2018).


Membership of those still active in the labour market, on the other hand, has grown in all three confederations over the same period, although, on the basis of the confederations’ figures, the economically active membership of UIL has grown more rapidly than in the other two confederations, although this may also reflect differences in the period covered. Between 2010 and 2017 the economically active membership of CGIL increased by 4.2%, from 2,661,183 to 2,772,928; in CISL between 2010 and 2019 it also increased by 4.2% from 2,284,045 in 2010 to 2,379,871; but in UIL, between 2010 and 2018, the increase was higher at 7.6%, going from 1,296,318  to 1,395,235.


In CGIL and CISL, women make up around half the membership: 48.1% in CGIL and 48.7% in CISL, but the proportion of women in UIL is slightly lower at 41.0%.[8]


[1] Jelle Visser, ICTWSS Data base. Version 6.1. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies AIAS. October 2019)

[2] All figures from union websites: CGIL: http://www.cgil.it/i-tesserati-2014/ CISL: https://www.cisl.it/primo-piano/15102-sindacato-cisl-crescono-nel-2019-gli-iscritti-piu-29-000-aumentano-i-lavoratori-attivi-di-oltre-40-000-associati-il-44-88-degli-associati-sono-donne.html

UIL: http://www.uil.it/tesseramento_cat.asp (All accessed 20.03.2020) The total figure for UIL excludes 307,020 double affilaitions)

[3] See Sindacati, nella messe di dati confusi una certezza: quasi metà degli iscritti non lavora più, Il fatto quotidiano, 4 April 2017 https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2017/04/29/sindacati-nella-messe-di-dati-confusi-una-certezza-quasi-meta-degli-iscritti-non-lavora-piu/3550331/ (Accessed 24.03.2020)

[4] See L’Ugl diventa la succursale (e il magazzino) della Lega di Salvini, Sassate, 3 January 2018 https://www.sassate.it/ugl-succursale-lega-salvini/ (Accessed 24.03. 2020) and Accordo tra l'Ugl e la Lega di Matteo Salvini. Per il sindacato è l'ultima tappa di un viaggio nelle anime del centrodestra, Huffington Post,3 January 2018 https://www.huffingtonpost.it/2018/01/03/accordo-tra-lugl-e-la-lega-di-matteo-salvini-per-il-sindacato-e-lultima-tappa-di-un-viaggio-nelle-anime-del-centrodestra_a_23322652/ (Accessed 24.03.2020)

[5] See https://www.fabi.it/public/documenti/comunicazione-e-immagine/2018_03_09_CommImmagine_CommStampa_Eletti_XXICN.pdf  (Accessed 24.03.2020)

[6] See Quanti sono gli iscritti al sindacato in Italia? http://www.confsaluniversita.it/files/all_1_not_24_con_tabelle.pdf (Accessed 24.03.2020)

[7] Accertamento provvisorio della rappresentatività: Triennio 2019-202,ARAN, 2019 https://www.aranagenzia.it/attachments/category/7601/TABELLE%20ACCERTAMENTO%20PROVVISORIO%20RAPPRESENTATIVITA'%20TRIENNIO%202019-2021.pdf (Accessed 24.03.2020)

[8] ETUC Annual Gender Equality Survey 2019 – 12th edition, by Lionel Fulton and Cinzia Sechi, ETUC, April 2019  https://www.etuc.org/sites/default/files/circular/file/2019-05/ETUC_Annual_Equality_Survey%202019_FINAL_EN.pdf and https://www.cisl.it/primo-piano/15102-sindacato-cisl-crescono-nel-2019-gli-iscritti-piu-29-000-aumentano-i-lavoratori-attivi-di-oltre-40-000-associati-il-44-88-degli-associati-sono-donne.html (Accessed 25.03.2020)

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.