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.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Election of Matteo Renzi and the Future of Italian Trade Unions

Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence, was recently elected leader of the Italian Partito Democratico (Democratic Party). All Italians could vote in the contest. Between two and three million Italians (depending on your sources) turned out to cast a vote in the leadership contest with Renzi amassing almost 70% of the vote. With this clear mandate Renzi, at 38, becomes the youngest general secretary of the PD. His criticism of the political class has been scathing and the venom was not reserved for rival political parties. Instead of sparing his left-wing cohorts Renzi built his campaign around the idea that the PD needed a root-and-branch renewal. In this guest post, Darragh Golden assesses the implications of Renzi’s appointment for Italy’s largest left-wing party. Moreover, how will the relationship between political party and trade unions evolve? And what will the implications be for Italian parliamentary democracy in the immediate future?

Italy’s Left-Wing Movement

Photo by framino
Since the political earthquake of the early 1990s the Italian Left has undergone a number of evolutions (and leaders). For starters social democracy was chosen over communism with the Partito Comunista Italiana becoming the Partito Democratico di Sinistra. Absorbing a number of smaller parties the latter then became the Democratici di Sinistra (DS). Again further steps were taken to distance the party from its communist past with the removal of the hammer and sickle as the official party emblem. In 2007 the DS morphed once again and dropped the sinistra from the party name to become the currently named Partito Democratico. The colours of the national flag were adopted as the party logo.
Renzi has been recognized as a proponent of Third Way politics. Stylistically, he has the charismatic attributes that were associated with Blair in the mid-1990s. His speeches are delivered with gusto and often accompanied with visuals in the background. His energy and enthusiasm is reminiscent of Berlusconi twenty-years ago and Renzi will undoubtedly appeal to disaffected voters of the centre-right which too is undergoing its own identity crisis. He has become popular by declaring war on the ‘old guard’ of the political party. In his sights are the likes of D’Alema. Dismay with the current PD prime minister, Enrico Letta, has also been expressed. There is, however, another twist in the Italian saga.

Upon the election of Renzi, the likelihood of snap elections being called was not entirely implausible. Whatever hopes of an early election might have been dashed by a finding by the Constitutional Court which declared the Italian electoral law unconstitutional. This means that parliament needs to pass a new electoral law before elections can take place. Given the political nature of such a law, its formulation might take some time. Meanwhile the impatience of Italians is starting to show (see below).   

I am, however, more concerned with the substance rather than style of Matteo Renzi. Amongst other things Renzi has mentioned re-writing the Italian constitution. He has mooted pension and public sector reform as well as tax reductions. According to Renzi, labour policy needs to be ‘emancipated’ from the grip of the trade unions. On the bigger economic questions Renzi remains ambiguous. He has, however, mentioned that he will take the European Commission to task on its policy of competitive austerity.

Renzi and the Unions

The election of Renzi over the CGIL-backed candidate, Cuperlo, as general secretary of the PD does not bode well for the relationship between the party and the Italian unions, especially the CGIL. The CGIL leadership has been critical of Renzi since his first failed attempt at becoming party leader over a year ago. This is down primarily to Renzi’s proposals which include the need for greater labour market flexibility. He has also stated that labour market policy needs to be ‘emancipated’ from the grip of the trade unions. “The trade union is dead, if it doesn’t change”, Renzi exclaimed. 

Matteo Renzi, Photo by Il Fatto Quotidiano

Leader of the CGIL, Susanna Camusso, too has recently spoken of the need for change. Nevertheless, the change she has in mind is more likely to set the CGIL and Renzi on a collision course rather than ameliorate relations. At a recent conference in Bologna, Camusso declared that general strikes are no longer effective, which might be interpreted as saying that more radical actions are required. Should this prove to be the case then the leadership of the PD and the CGIL are on an inevitably confrontational course. The latter, however, are not without their woes. Internally the Camusso leadership has been criticised by the leader of the metalworkers’ federation (FIOM), Maurizio Landini.

Writing in the pages of La Repubblica Landini has slated the CGIL leadership for signing social pacts with the employers’ association Confindustria. “A pact with Confindustria”, he writes, “would be a choice dictated by fear, an escape from reality. We should have the courage not to sign pacts with no sense but look for innovative agreements based on mediation and exchange.” Perhaps Camusso’s recent statement is one of intent more along the lines of Landini? Another alternative, albeit an ambitious and complicated one, is an agreed agenda between the three trade union confederations on questions of political economy.

Although the CGIL and the PD are not formally affiliated there are strong historical links between the two. Upon Renzi’s election, Camusso commented on the “need for dialogue, but in the spirit of mutual autonomy.”  The term ‘autonomy’ has been a much (ab)used term in trade union circles. With Renzi’s appointment the term might regain some of its authenticity again more along the lines of FIOM and Landini. Such approaches, however, raise an important question: How much can a trade union achieve without political support? Again there are similarities with Blair’s strategy in the UK to put clear water between the Labour Party and the unions. What lessons can we learn from this?

The Future of Italian Democracy

Italian democracy and politics are in crisis. The centre-right party has split. Supporters of Berlusconi exited from the governing coalition. Nevertheless, the coalition, led by Enrico Letta, survived as thirty senators refused to follow Berlusconi’s order. One of the thirty included Berlusconi’s protégé Alfano, who was being primed to replace Berlusconi as leader. Currently, the leaders of the main Italian political parties are not members of parliament. Renzi (PD), Berlusconi (neo-Forza Italia), Grillo (Movimento 5 Stelle) and Salvini of Lega Nord are all extra-parliamentary leaders. What implications does this have for parliamentary democracy? Renzi aside, the other leaders are vociferously critical of the European Union.

Currently, waves of protests are taking place in numerous cities up and down the Italian peninsula. Spearheaded by transporters and farmers against the increasing price of petrol the composition of the protest groups is becoming increasingly varied. Dubbed the Forconi or pitchfork movement the protests have brought together students, the unemployed, farmers, truckers, neo-fascists, ‘ultra’ football fans and alter-globalists.  

Photo by mtmsphoto
While these protests might not come as any great surprise, given Italy’s anaemic economic performance and a paucity of political leadership to introduce political reforms, there remain a number of unanswered questions. It seems clear that the various groups are united when it comes to the Italian political class and political system. Nevertheless, questions regarding the origins, true agenda and leadership remain unanswered. Despite these open questions, some politicians, such as Beppe Grillo (M5S) and Lega Nord, have been quick to piggyback on the unrest. The former has constructed his 5-Star Movement against political patronage and the political class writ large. Neither Matteo Renzi nor the trade unions are exempt from Grillo’s critique.

Contextual conditions are important and it is in times of crisis that alliances are formed or divisions are crystallised. Should an anti-EU right-wing mobilization emerge as a powerful force, the new leadership of the PD might be more reluctant to distance itself from the trade union movement. This remains to be seen, but what seems clear is that the Italian peninsula is in turmoil.

Darragh Golden is a Ph.D. student at University College Dublin (UCD) and currently a member of the Transnational Labour Project at the Centre for Advanced Study in Oslo. His research is focused on the assessment of the positions of Italian and Irish unions on European integration since the mid-1980s.

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