Interview. We spoke with the new head of CGIL, Italy’s most important labor union, about resistance to women’s issues within the ranks.

Is there room for feminism in Italy’s largest workers union?

Maurizio Landini was recently elected secretary of CGIL, Italy’s largest labor unions, and has a million things vying for his attention. So I am particularly grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to interview him. All the more reason for not wasting time and getting right to the topic I wanted to ask him about.

Can you tell me why you refused to participate in the general strike on March 8?

We did not refuse. On the contrary, we took part wherever the conditions allowed it, in the case of the school workers and the public employees, where strikes were announced. We believe that a strike should be prepared beforehand. If a union calls for a strike and it fails, that does more harm than good. This is an essential point: women should not feel that they have been excluded. That was the deal breaker for us, a point on which we must continue to discuss. Anyway, wherever the conditions were present to announce a strike, we gave it our blessing at the union level.

But their demands and their reasoning have never been taken seriously by the union.

That account of the situation is frankly ungenerous, while it’s true that we still have many problems. This is exactly why we are saying that a discussion must be held with everyone together.

Also, take into account the fact that women now head the unions for a number of categories of workers within CGIL, as well as many Chambers of Labor and regional structures. There was no refusal to participate by the Confederation on the merits of the strike, but rather an objection regarding the method: the platforms must be shared by all.

Women’s particular modes of thought and practice have always been excluded from both political forces and trade unions. It is precisely for this reason that a radical change of course is needed. The issue is not usually talked about within CGIL, but I would say that it is a hot issue today and that it is overdue to be taken up by society; in some countries, such as Spain, women are now at the forefront of political initiatives, for instance in major Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona.

This topic is actually well represented within our organization, but it has met with resistance, and it still does. The pressing task for me at this point is to make up for the delay in addressing this: an issue that doesn’t concern only the men and women in the union, but also, in part, women amongst themselves. Many of our female colleagues have remarked that the debate among women is very diverse, and that it is difficult to proceed while ensuring the discussion doesn’t stop at the first divergence of opinion. You can’t just say, “Either you agree with absolutely everything we’re saying, or we won’t talk to you anymore.” We should look again at the manner of debate, in order to put an end to the practice of mutual mistrust.

The current thinking on these issues originates from the ‘70s, it didn’t exist before, and it has not been easy, as it involves many changes from how we previously thought. To understand each other, we must establish a relationship of trust, or at least one without suspicion.

That is true, which is why I think we should get at the heart of the matter with completely new questions: what does it mean for the union, and especially for us men, to take up the issue of gender differences?

Do you think you will encounter difficulties in your organization on this issue?

Objectively speaking, yes, I do. The task before us is not merely the establishment of a committee on equal opportunities, which is always something for which we can come to an agreement—but rather a discussion about how to affirm a completely new worldview, which, I think, is a more advanced one, and how to change the balance of power and freedom between women and men.

It is an unequal balance, which has led to the male domination of society over the centuries: that is the crux of the matter.

It is necessary to change many habits that affect the forms and manner in which politics is done from within the union. For example, in national contracts, from a formal point of view, there are equal rights for both women and for men. But the reality is very different, both in terms of wages and careers: women have lower wages and are hampered in their careers. First of all, we need to start the debate in the minds of each and every one of us. The culture of being sensitive to such differences implies a fundamental change. It is obvious that there is resistance. However, I would not underestimate the painstaking steps forward that we have achieved, even if they are small ones. We have decided to address an issue that has been there for centuries, and it is no coincidence that we have chosen to entrust Susanna Camusso with overseeing gender policies. She was the one who started the debate and made us understand that this is not an issue that applies only in particular places, but an absolutely general one.

After all, what theme can be more fundamental for CGIL that a broader look at work? As you have acknowledged, it is precisely in this area that the discrimination against the female presence is all the more visible and manifest.

It is no coincidence that we have taken the strategic decision to set up a platform for gender-based collective bargaining: there can no longer be a platform of demands, at the national or company level, which does not address this point.

You’ll also have a problem with the Church on this point.

Perhaps, even if a good debate has been started among them as well. Pope Bergoglio is meeting opposition in his own Church on burning issues such as environmental, economic and social problems. In Verona, I saw the manifestation of a backward part of the culture and the Catholic hierarchy, leaning on the most obscurantist, undemocratic, illiberal and fascist part of Italian politics and the Italian social movements: a dark clerico-Fascist mixture, as Melloni, the historian, called it. We must oppose this neo-conservative alignment culturally, socially, politically and also spiritually.

Nowadays, Bergoglio is the one who is speaking more clearly on some of these points.

I agree. His conception prefigures the idea of a Church that seems to me to be different from the past. The strongest change is precisely regarding work. And we must approach the issue of the relationship with the Catholic world, which, moreover, is looking towards us and looking for a dialogue. On May 16, I will go to Gregorian University for a meeting with the associations of Church volunteers. They have an agreement with the FLAI (in the agribusiness field) to provide food to the parishes and families in need. I would like us to go further than a charitable gesture, because, clearly, a discussion is possible between these two worlds.

It was John XXIII who made a breakthrough, but later, with Karol Wojtyla, the Church moved backwards. Besides, there was a decline in the late ‘70s, also in the field of politics.

Certainly, during those years there was a different orientation for all the left wing forces of our continent.

And in Italy, Berlinguer introduced the notion of the “historic compromise” (the Italian Communist Party allying with and accommodating the Christian Democrats), which did not bring anything good for the left. On this point, Trentin’s writings should be reevaluated, as his work on unions based on factory councils seems to have remained a unique strand of thought in the field.

We are thinking about some events that would try to approach this them. For example, the Fondazione Sabattini is preparing an event on Bruno Trentin, particularly on his relationship with the Catholic world. It is a research that has not been done before.

This is also relevant for the education of young people. When listening to the young users of the Rete Della Conoscenza, what struck me was that, although they are very busy with many things, they consider themselves to be free from what they call “factory culture.” Even in the very problematic conditions of having insecure jobs and temporary work, they think they are more liberated on account of that.

But the question of freedom regarding work is an important one, because it is also from this point that the idea of the union must return and make inroads. Actually, the Left has historically never questioned the model of organization of work: there was Taylorism in the USSR, as well as in China. That production model was never really challenged. Within CGIL, we are reopening the issue for discussion, trying to put trade union autonomy itself on a concrete basis, something on which we should focus more. An autonomy both from companies and from politics.

As for the issues being raised by young people with the recent protests about the climate, that is a much stronger radicalism than what the union or politics have put forward so far. They are doing this without there being an ideological thrust behind it, but it is precisely for this reason, on account of the radical critique of the capitalist mode of production, that their actions are so disruptive. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to rise up to the challenge. Nowadays, the theme of freedom in connection with work is one to which we must pay attention. I am not thinking so much about particular individuals, but rather about emerging trends.

When I had just finished speaking at the demonstration on Feb. 9, below the podium, a group of 15 riders asked me for a meeting. The driver’s strike that brought Amazon’s activity to a halt in Lombardy—no small feat—had been arranged by them, together with the transportation union. These are important signals that should not be missed. At Malpensa, 19,000 employees, with very different types of contracts, from drivers to cleaners, without whom the airport cannot function, have opened up a Chamber of Labor. This is a way to give substance to the confederal principle, and to inclusive collective bargaining. We should do the same thing in shopping malls, in large hospitals and in many other workplaces where there are many different contracts offering different provisions, but where workers are doing their activities in broadly the same conditions. The unions are still structured as they were 50 years ago, when the categories used to be defined in a very different way. Nowadays, these areas are no longer the same, and we also have to think about how to change.

The factory environment that I experienced in my youth in Milan was constraining, but it also offered a constancy in terms of place and time that today’s industrial workforce no longer knows.

The world of work is very divided. There are dozens of types of contracts, and now hundreds of collective contracts. From these, many are so-called “pirate” contracts, signed by pro forma unions without any real representation. We have initiated a debate about how to move towards a law on workers’ representation that would be supportive of collective bargaining. Furthermore, work means more than just wages and rights, it must also be judged on its quality. We have collected more than 1.5 million signatures for the “Charter of the Universal Rights of Labor,” which we have presented to Parliament, and which does not aim to go back to the old statutes, but to redesign the whole of labor law and the rights of individual workers. Pursuing the argument a bit further, we get to the questions of what you produce and how you produce it. This also reopens the discussion on the balance of life and work.

This also concerns women.

Certainly, if we’re talking about shifts, that’s not the same thing for a man and a woman. If we can make our differences into an element that unites rather than divides us, that would be a great change. Let’s see if we can.

One objection that the most intelligent women could bring here is that on this issue, a union will run up against problems that lie at the very core of the civilization: the male worldview is different from that of women.

Right, this is how Susanna Camusso now ends all of her speeches: “The future is female, deal with it. Men have been unable to change how things are.”

For 2,000 years, men have been educated in a certain way, and that is how their mothers have taught them as well, not only their fathers. You’re up against a very difficult task.

Definitely. Fortunately, CGIL is a great and beautiful organization, and it doesn’t leave you to face problems alone.

There is great distrust towards the quality of today’s politics.

And there are good reasons for that. But I am confident. Our Feb. 9 march, which filled the Piazza San Giovanni in Rome, the strikes by the construction and transport workers, the women’s march that was held in Verona at that conference supported by the Lega and the most fundamentalist and obscurantist part of the right, the march in Milan against racism, the march in Padua for the remembrance of the innocent victims of the Mafia, and the determined protests by young people, where they took action in a direct, unmediated manner—these are all signs of hope. I don’t want to dwell too much on this, but what was very striking in the kids’ protests was their lack of fear, the very opposite of Salvini’s approach, who relies on stoking fear in us, the adults.

There is also the problem of the contacts between Salvini and the right wing across Europe. But I understand, it’s not possible to deal with every problem at once.

No! It’s better to try and do one thing at a time, and, if you can, do it well.

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