Monti forces through right to sack

With most union leaders caving in, the Italian premier has got broad agreement for the proposed eradication of the workers statute. Toby Abse reports

Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister, has shown himself to be no more than a puppet of the European Central Bank. Any pretence at mediation between capital and labour has gone. The days of tripartite ‘concertation’ between government, employers and unions are over.

Even what would have been a substantial concession from Susanna Camusso, the leader of the militant CGIL union confederation, was judged to be totally inadequate by this ruthless representative of the bourgeoisie. At the final meeting between the government and the ‘social partners’ on Tuesday March 20, Monti proved even more intransigent than his labour minister, Elsa Fornero. The last substantial gain of the Italian workers’ upsurge in the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969 - article 18 of the workers’ statute of 1970 - now looks like being wiped out. Although the CGIL executive has called for a protest strike of all its members, the rest of the union bureaucracy has simply caved in.

For months the European Central Bank had been insisting that article 18 had to go - this ultimatum was already contained in the famous secret letter from the ECB to the Italian government in August 2011. Labour market ‘flexibility’ - in other words, the right to sack workers at whim - was regarded as a key objective by the ECB, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and all the international speculators who lurk behind the seemingly impersonal ‘markets’, about which Monti and his ilk speak so frequently.

Article 18 protected those in workplaces employing more than 15 people from arbitrary dismissal by forcing companies to make an offer of reinstatement to any worker sacked “without just cause”. Whilst mass collective redundancies were, of course, not covered by this article and the financial settlements such workers got varied widely in different periods, different regions and different industries, the victimisation of individuals for their trade union or political affiliations, or even for just standing up for their basic human dignity against the arbitrary bullying and harassment so characteristic of company bosses and line managers the whole world over, was a risky undertaking in any sizeable Italian workplace.

It needs to emphasised that in the whole period between the defeat of the fronte popolare communist-socialist alliance in the April 1948 general election and the upsurge of massive working class militancy at the end of the 1960s such arbitrary sackings were an everyday occurrence in many Italian workplaces; the CGIL - and particularly its engineering section, Fiom - was systematically discriminated against, if not excluded outright in many key factories, including the Fiat plants in Turin. Whilst it is true, as the bourgeois media often emphasised, that only about 10% of the Italian workforce were covered by article 18, this should not be seen as a reason to decry its importance - such protection in larger workplaces did have some influence on smaller employers’ behaviour, at least at times when the labour movement was strong. Rifondazione Comunista did on one occasion launch a sustained campaign to extend article 18 to all workers. This culminated in a referendum - one of the many in which a quorum was not reached because of the cynical abstentionism urged by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his supporters.

‘Just cause’

Recent discussion around article 18 and the protection it offered to individuals has divided sackings into three categories. These are economic, disciplinary and discriminatory (relating to race, gender, religious and political beliefs and so forth). Article 18 meant that, regardless of which of these motivations was behind the sacking, a tribunal could impose the worker’s right to reinstatement on the employer if the redundancy was judged to be “without just cause”. The package that the Monti government will now seek to impose means that only ‘discriminatory’ sackings, if proved, would warrant an automatic reinstatement, whilst unjust ‘economic’ sackings would just result in some measure of financial compensation (currently between 15 and 27 months salary is being suggested). In the case of unjust ‘disciplinary’ sackings, the normal procedure would be financial compensation, with the judge having the right to ask for reinstatement in “grave cases”.

Last week it was widely reported that Camusso was prepared to accept such a deal in relation to ‘economic’ sackings - something which gave rise to much discussion within the ranks of the CGIL leadership, where Fiom was in total opposition to any alteration at all to the existing provisions of article 18 - but in the end the government was absolutely determined that the rules on ‘disciplinary sackings’ be altered as well, which was more than Camusso could stomach.

Although in the end Camusso adopted a very honourable position of totally rejecting the government’s proposals, something needs to be said about ‘economic’ sackings, where it could be argued she showed too great a willingness to compromise - the classic posture of the traditional social democratic trade union leader (even if there is very good reason for thinking that she was put under enormous pressure by Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the ex-‘official communist’-dominated Partito Democratico, to make such a concession). Obviously, whilst collective redundancies for economic reasons are a normal part of any variant of the capitalist system, individual ‘economic’ redundancies are a rather different matter. It is all too frequently the case that the employer will claim an ‘economic’ motivation for getting rid of somebody considered to be a troublemaker rather than using disciplinary procedures, let alone engaging in overt discrimination.

Thursday March 15 was marked by two important meetings which had an impact on the course of the last few days’ events. The first was an informal meeting of the CGIL leadership, including representatives of all the regions and occupational sectors. This meeting was a marathon - starting at 10.30am and not finishing until 6pm. Maurizio Landini, the general secretary of Fiom, led the minority who argued for total opposition to any change in article 18.[1] TheCorriere della Sera estimated that Landini had 20%-25% support, but was clearly unable to obtain detailed information about who said what at the meeting - whatever their internal differences, the CGIL leadership maintained collective discipline in the knowledge that any detail about divergences would be useful to their opponents in the negotiations.

This informal meeting was determined to make sure that Camusso was accountable to her executive and agreed that an official meeting of the CGIL leadership on Wednesday March 21 would decide whether or not they would agree to Camusso signing any draft agreement put to her by Monti and Fornero the day before. In the event, Camusso very publicly refused to sign on the day, and this meeting, like Fiom’s eight-hour strike on March 9 and its subsequent two-hour strike on March 20, undoubtedly helped to act as a counterweight to the pressure being put on her by the Partito Democratico (PD).

Some hours after the CGIL leadership meeting, on the evening of March 15, there was a prolonged summit at Palazzo Chigi, the official residence of the prime minister, between Monti and the three main party secretaries, Angelino Alfano of the Popolo della Libertà (PdL), Pier Ferdinando Casini of the Christian Democratic Unione di Centro (UdC) and Bersani of the PD. Whilst questions connected with television and justice were discussed over aperitifs with the relevant ministers present, a more restricted group stayed for dinner and a detailed discussion of employment laws - including, apart from the prime minister and the three party leaders, Fornero, Corrado Passera (infrastructure minister and former head of the Banca Intesa) and Vittorio Grilli, the deputy minister for economics.[2]

This grouping reached an amicable deal, which included drastic modifications of article 18 - in all probability more or less what was proposed on March 20. Although this was not the first summit of what journalists call the ABC (Alfano, Bersani, Casini), it was by far the most blatant indication of a grand coalition - against the working class - that we have seen so far. The gathering was immortalised by Casini, who got one of his subordinates to take a photograph of the three of them sitting down with Monti standing up behind them - something which neither Bersani or Alfano would have agreed to if Casini had given them any advance warning, since neither the PD’s nor the PdL’s electorate would have reacted with much enthusiasm to such an image.

For the PD this photograph in practice suggests a change of alliances - in the days before Berlusconi’s downfall, Bersani had been photographed between the Italia dei Valori leader, Antonio Di Pietro, and the Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà leader Nichi Vendola, the so-called ‘Vasto photo’, something which had alienated the Christian Democrat Casini. He may well prefer the PD to his former partners in the PdL, but had no desire to consort with radical lefts, hard-line anti-corruption campaigners or advocates of secularism or gay rights. Whether or not Camusso shared the concerns of Vendola and Di Pietro, who were bound to wonder if their agreement to a centre-left alliance for this year’s local, and presumably next year’s general, elections still stood, she was not all keen on the parties negotiating over her head and behind the back of the CGIL. As she explained, “If the government has made an agreement with the parties, this gives us cause for concern.”[3]

By this stage Camusso had made it clear that she was not prepared to make any concessions about ‘disciplinary sackings’, which she regarded as a completely different category from ‘economic sackings’: a change in the law relating to the former would be a much more overt indication of the change in the power relations between employer and employee. Having got her to accept in principle some alteration in the procedure for ‘economic sackings’, the politicians had wrongly assumed that she would be equally pliable on this question - Monti continued to brief the press that Camusso’s opposition was only tactical and that an informal agreement would be reached at the weekend at the Confindustria conference in Milan.

Union collapse

Whilst both Camusso and Raffael Bonanni (the leader of the second largest union confederation, the CISL) had agreed to attend this gathering some time previously and Monti was automatically expected to attend in his official capacity as premier, the sudden decision of Elsa Fornero and Luigi Angeletti (leader of the third main union centre, the UIL) to join them at the conference gave rise to the mistaken notion that a tripartite agreement was imminent.[4] On the contrary, for a brief period Camusso managed to get Angeletti to join her in opposing the changes in relation to ‘disciplinary sackings’, temporarily isolating Bonanni in his collaborationist position.[5]

On the crucial day Bonanni managed to talk Angeletti out of his remaining scruples and Camusso alone resisted to the end. At 8pm, after four hours of discussions between the government and the ‘social partners’, Monti brought proceedings to a close and asked the participants for a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the deal as a whole, telling Fornero (who had wanted to avoid asking the participants for opinions on the new version of article 18): “No, it’s useless. We all know that is the issue.” Monti clenched his fist, saying, “Signori, please, let’s wind up.” One after the other, they all said yes.

Camusso did not realise that Angeletti had been bamboozled by Bonanni and Emma Marcegaglia, the president of the employers’ federation, Confindustria, in a private meeting early in the day.[6] Camusso said: “A mediation has not been attempted on article 18. The proposal has remained exactly the same as the one the government presented at the beginning. This is the third measure, after pensions and liberalisations, that penalises the workers and the weaker social groups, who continue to pay too high a price. It is the result of a government that only looks at the financial markets.” But she warned: “You have risked opening a long season of tensions.”

Monti, apparently unperturbed, said: “I appreciate the frankness of your intervention. I take note of the critical judgment. But I reply to you that this government has a great regard for the weak and the workers. It is also true that we have looked at the markets because we can’t do anything else. It is also through this that we have avoided for Italy situations like that of Greece. This is the right way to help the weakest, because if the country went bankrupt it would be these who would suffer most.” The tone was restrained but icy on both sides. Monti had tried to get Camusso to agree to take a more favourable position on the first part of the agreement (about contracts and ‘shock absorbers’) than on the second (article 18 itself), but she had retorted: “No, the overall judgment of the CGIL is single and critical.”[7]

Camusso said: “The CGIL will do all it can to oppose this reform. It will organise the necessary mobilisations. It will not be a short-term thing.” On March 21 she accepted Fiom’s call for a general strike. However, following the surrender of the CISL and UIL, and with the left virtually absent from the political stage, the situation can hardly be described as favourable. At least Camusso, as an old-fashioned social democrat, is in the last analysis unwilling to follow the treacherous road down which two former ‘communists’ - PD leader Bersani and current state president Giorgio Napolitano - have sought to drag her.


1. See Corriere della Sera March 16.

2. Monti is not only prime minister, but the nominal holder of the economics ministry as well - this was a tactic to reassure the markets when the technocratic cabinet first came to power.

3. La Repubblica March 17.

4. Roberto Mania, writing in La Repubblica March 17.

5. See Enrico Marro, ‘Angeletti rafforza “il fronte del no” Oggi un vertice a tre’ Corriere della Sera March 19 for some remarks about disciplinary sackings ascribed to collaborators of Angeletti and Roberto Bagnoli; and ‘Bonanni: lotterò per l’intesa. Seguiamo la via dei partiti’ Corriere della Sera March 19 for an interview that conclusively demonstrates Bonanni’s supine attitude.

6. An episode showing that Bonanni is not just a servant of the politicians, but a lackey of the bosses as well.

7. Enrico Marro, ‘Il premier e Camusso, l’ultimo duello’ Corriere della sera March 21.