The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Struggle for Public Water in Italy

On 9 October, I gave the paper ‘Sic Vos Non Vobis’ – ‘For You, But Not Yours’: The struggle for public water in Italy at the Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney . The paper is about the Italian Water Movements Forum (Forum), a broad alliance of trade unions, social movements, development NGOs and environmental groups, and its successful mobilisation for a referendum against the privatisation of water in June 2011 (see also Road to Victory). Trade unions and other social movements find it often difficult to co-operate due to their different histories and institutional structures, as argued in an article on the European Social Forum. In this blog post, I will analyse how the Italian Water Movements Forum was able to bring together such a wide range of different groups into a successful campaign.

Tensions within the Forum

Tensions in alliances within and between trade unions and social movements are normal and the Italian water movement was no exception in this respect. First, there were tensions inside CGIL, the largest Italian trade union confederation. While Funzione Pubblica – CGIL (FP-CGIL), the largest Italian trade union federation organising public sector workers, strongly supported the movement against privatisation from 2004/2005 onwards, the smaller federation FILCTEM – Chimica, Tessile, energia, manifatture, which actually organises workers in privatised water companies, played no role. Having a much more narrow vision of its tasks as a trade union, it argued that it does not matter whether a company is private or public as long as the workers of these companies have good salaries and working conditions. In the end, CGIL as the confederation came down on the side of FP-CGIL during the referendum campaign. Nevertheless, there had been genuine concerns about unsettling the balance between forces on the right of the union, focusing on social partnership and social dialogue with employers and the government, and forces on the left and their emphasis on broader alliances and wider struggles.

Photo by Marco Menu

Moreover, for some within the Italian trade union movement there had been concerns about co-operation with other, often more radical organisations which were outside their control of trade unions. The G8 meeting in Genova in 2001 and the violence occurring around the large counter-demonstration at the time were still fresh in the memories of union activists. Many argued that trade unions cannot co-operate with these people of the black block, regarded as prone to violence. By contrast, the rank-and-file unions USB and Cobas, also actively participating in the Forum, have had no problems with this, being already involved in all kinds of networks and alliances as a result of their very different constitution and ideological outlook.

Inside the movement, the large FP-CGIL struggled with the form of co-operation, in which each organisation had the same weight regardless of the number of its members. The national Coordination Committee, which is composed of representatives from territorial committees and national associations, is the main decision-making body. Every water committee, even if it is from a small village, can send a representative with an at least formally equal say in decisions, as, for example, the large FP-CGIL. From a representative democracy perspective, this was regarded by some as undemocratic. At the same time, however, it is pointed out that the Forum is based on consensus and that while every representative has an equal voice, in practice those representing large organisations have carried a greater weight in discussions and, therefore, decision-making.

On the other hand, many social movement activists had concerns about co-operating with trade unions, which they perceived to be conformist and part of the establishment. They accused them, for example, of over-looking the plight of the increasingly large number of precarious workers. The Comitato Italiano Contratto Mondiale sull’Acqua (CICMA), the Italian wing of the world water contract movement, was also slightly critical of the involvement of trade unions, perceived to represent special interests. People would be citizens first with a human right to water, and workers second. The campaign could not really incorporate issues such as workers’ pay and working conditions and remain broad and inclusive at the same time, it was argued.

Finally, the left-oriented network of social centres ARCI (Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana) was a member of the Forum as well as the catholic network of social centres ACLI (Associazioni cristiane dei lavoratori italiani). Although they deal with similar social problems, they come from rather different ideologically backgrounds. While ACLI is affiliated to the Catholic Church, ARCI is a left-wing, antifascist movement. How was it possible to unite such a variety of different organisations successfully? 

Water as the rallying point on the road towards victory

It was especially the single issue of water, which made the large alliance possible. There had been many concrete examples, which demonstrated that privatisation had not resulted in more efficiency, lower prices and higher water quality. The necessary investment in infrastructure had not been made and prices had gone up. While CGIL federations are in disagreement with USB and Cobas on all trade union issues – the latter accuse the former of having regarded themselves as co-managers of capital since 1992/1993 – water privatisation and its negative implications for workers and users allowed them to come together in a joint campaign.

Photo by Daniela Napoli
Moreover, the theme of water also included symbolic power with water being understood as a fundamental source of life, as a human right and commons. This discourse resonated with the Catholic Social Doctrine, facilitating ‘the mobilisation of Catholic groups, particularly during the referenda, and contributed to highlight the moral, symbolic and cultural aspects of the contention, consolidating a broad popular consensus over the principles of social justice and universality that should inspire water management’, according to Emanuele Fantini.

Underlying the victory in the referendum was the success of the campaign to dominate public discourse. As Fantini states, ‘the 2011 referenda marked the success of the Italian water movement in framing the issue of water services management in terms of human right, the commons and democracy, against competing frames referring to the technical aspects or to the governance of the water sector’.

Importantly, the main frame combined three sub-frames, the cosmopolitan, local and radical sub-frames, which overlapped while at the same time attracting different groups. The opposition to water privatisation was, thus, transformed into a struggle for a new type of democracy and against the commodification of life. The perceived violation of a human right, the right to water through privatisation was an important motivation for people to identify with the movement and become actively involved.

And it was not only different organisations, individual citizens too rallied around the theme of water and voted ‘yes’ in the referendum. While centre-right parties such as the Lega Nord had not endorsed the referendum, many people who normally vote for centre-right parties also supported the referendum.

The wider implications of the Italian water movement

After the victory in the referendum in June 2011 (see Tommaso Fattori), the Forum was disappointed to see that the implementation of the referendum outcomes was delayed and partly even blocked (see also La Lotta Continua). And yet, it would be incorrect to argue that the Forum’s struggle had been in vain. First, although re-municipalisation of water did not occur on a large scale, the further privatisation of water companies was stopped in Italy. 

Second, the Forum’s referendum success in Italy encouraged the European Federation of Public Service Unions to launch the first European Citizens’ Initiative on water as a human right, collecting successfully more than 1.8 million signatures across the European Union. In turn, this convinced water activists in the Greek city of Thessaloniki to hold their own, independent referendum on water privatisation. A large majority against water privatisation resulted, which contributed to the Greek state abandoning plans of privatisation (see also The Thessaloniki water referendum).

The focus on water as a commons, the organisation of which requires a new form of democracy, is clearly one of the key contributions by the Italian water movement. It offers a new, an alternative way of how to organise the economy beyond this distinction between public and private and, therefore, indicates a clear transformative capacity. Is this notion of the commons only suitable in the case of water, or could it be extended to other general services such as education or health? The answer to this question could be important for the wider organisation of resistance to privatisation beyond the struggle for public water.

This post was first published on the Progress in Political Economy blog of the Department of Political Economy at Sydney University, 15 October 2014:

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

13 November 2014

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