Commentary. In order to get out of the current crisis, there will be a need to invest very large amounts of state money and to organize work according to different rules.

The time has come to renew workers’ rights, long overdue

The first proposal for a “workers’ rights statute” was made by Giuseppe Di Vittorio in 1952 at the 3rd Congress of the CGIL union in Naples, a proposal which was the offspring of the Labor Plan launched at the 2nd congress in Genoa in 1949. Di Vittorio knew very well that it was necessary to keep economic growth closely tied to the guarantees offered to those who had to make it happen.

Eighteen years passed before this idea finally took shape, became reality and was voted in by Parliament. It was a long period of time during which the Italian economy grew with great speed and very many contradictions, in a context in which the state owned many production facilities. The so-called “boom years” were accompanied by great social conflicts, because companies were unwilling to grant wages and individual and collective rights that were commensurate to the immense efforts of the workers.

With the advent of the center-left and under pressure from the PCI, many labor laws were debated and approved: pension reform, workplace safety, rights for working women.

I have a very clear memory of those years because I started working in 1969. The year before, a very forceful struggle had broken out at Pirelli Bicocca against the practice of paying by the piece, which continued the following year with the protests of the administrative employees, who demanded conditions in line with the improvements guaranteed for workers within the framework that the Statute was drawing up. I started working on June 9, and on June 10 I went on strike for the first time.

In 1970, at the same time as the Workers’ Statute came into effect, the Factory Councils were born. They are one of the first institutions arising from the Statute — and they are a necessary counterpart to it, because the councils are tasked with verifying the rules of the Statute are applied in the factory.

Those were years in which important changes in representation took place: even the Confindustria changed its tune. The famous “Pirelli plan” contained proposals that aimed at collective well-being, something unthinkable only a short time before.

This small historical and personal account is meant to show that the Statute was the direct result of the years of conflict that gave rise to a new political dimension and a new leading role played by workers.

In the 50 years since then, the Workers’ Statute has worked well in all its aspects: with regard to the centrality of the dignity of workers and to facing the economic crises of the following decade—produced by essentially international phenomena, as evidenced by the failure of the Pirelli-Dunlop merger—by regulating and guiding the behavior of companies toward workers. The Statute allows the conflict between the company and the workers to remain on a physiological level, allowing both sides to move in the same direction. In subsequent years, the Statute brought in its wake new positive legislation on rights, representation and the environment, legislation that at the same time enriched the Statute itself.

At the beginning of the ‘90s, a terrible crisis was overcome thanks to the agreements of 1992 and 1993 with Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and the consultation process—i.e. the budget law was first discussed with the social partners and only brought before Parliament afterwards—which allowed the country to overcome the situation and make a new start: the metalworkers’ contract was approved without even an hour of strike, thanks to advance bargaining.

However, at the beginning of the 2000s, the Statute came under attack by the right and by then-President Berlusconi—who was ultimately stopped by the unions’ firm response in defense of Article 18, a provision that had a very high symbolic value. But it was the left that went into government later, advocating Blair’s Third Way and a wrongheaded response to globalization—with rigor alone, instead of the importance of knowledge proposed by Jacques Delors—that led to the weakening of the Statute with Matteo Renzi’s Jobs Act.

The basic idea was that workers’ rights could be taken away because there was such a large field of new jobs and mobility between countries that made them inapplicable and outdated. The cancellation of workers’ rights was presented as an innovation against the rigidity of the past, a rigidity that companies supposedly overcame by relocating to countries where they could fire people at will and pay them lower wages.

But now we know: the downsizing of the Workers’ Statute has caused nothing but damage, bringing no benefit for companies. Today, faced with a situation to which the word “dramatic” does no justice on account of the global pandemic, we must—of course—limit the economic damage, but the great issue of a new Workers’ Statute already stands out.

In order to get out of the current crisis, there will be a need to invest very large amounts of state money and to organize work according to different rules, not just during the transitional phase. It will be necessary to redefine the ways of providing health care and essential public services; it will be necessary to bring back bargaining.

Economic policy must now be set based on projects in which the state is once again a protagonist, or even the proprietor—not necessarily forever, but certainly in the recovery phase. The manner of working will have to be changed, in terms of working hours, shifts, working from home.

To accomplish all this, we need two things: we need a three-sided dialogue between the government, companies and trade unions, giving a precise role to those who represent the labor force, and we need a law on representation: “erga omnes” is no longer enough, we need to know who is representing whom from those who are negotiating. Platforms are needed at first, and then the agreements must always be validated by the workers’ vote: in the very complicated future that awaits us, we cannot have unclear representation.

This is the direction which must inform the push for the Workers’ Statute right now. Of course, we can overcome the difference in status between employed and self-employed workers—as CGIL has proposed with the initiative for a new statute based on the Charter of Universal Labor Rights—but the real emergency is wrongfully categorized “self-employment,” because millions of young people are in this situation and it is difficult for them to have any representation.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!