Industrial action can bring out the worst in people. Sometimes it triggers verbal abuse or violence. Sometimes it produces thought-crime. Stranded recently in the rain on the wrong side of town by a transport workers walkout, thoughts like what this country needs is a good dose of Margaret Thatcher popped into my head.
That is quite a confession, considering the controversy caused by the former British prime ministers policies, which encouraged privatisation and broke trade union power in the country during the 1980s. But in all fairness, the recent period of industrial unrest in Italy has been a bit much, even by Italian standards.
In the last few months the countrys air traffic controllers, public transport employees, doctors and health workers have all downed tools. So have different groups of Alitalia staff, other airline and airport workers, often without warning. Italys students, university teachers and magistrates are also unhappy about proposed government polices.
So why have Italian unions taken to striking so often? In many cases government reforms are stirring the trouble.
Doctors and health workers are angry about proposed spending cuts in their sector and about a drive to decentralise power to regional authorities. They are concerned this will undermine the national health system, leading to inequalities between richer and poorer regions. They also argue it will lead to a gradual backdoor privatisation of care services.
The nations university professors are protesting about education minister Letizia Morattis plans to alter recruitment procedures. Under the new system, aspiring university lecturers would have to take national exams to be eligible for higher education posts. Universities would only be able to choose academic staff from lists of professors who have passed these tests. At present, candidates simply compete directly for positions offered by the universities. Moratti says the changes will ensure there is more meritocracy in higher education recruitment. The professors, however, feel the changes will undermine their institutions independence and put up an additional barrier to employment which will encourage even more young researchers to pursue careers abroad. Morattis reform would also allow professors to have other jobs or run private consultancies without having to sign a salary-slashing part-time clause in their contracts. The academics would just have to promise to dedicate 350 hours of teaching time to the university, including 120 hours of direct contact with students. Protestors argue this will penalise professors who give all their energies to the university, as they would get the same salary as the part-timers.
Magistrates belonging to the ANM (Associazione Nazionale Magistrati) are angry about the new justice reform bill now making its way through parliament. They called off a threatened protest when a compromise was reached on the terms of the bill in the senate, but they have said that they are still ready to strike if they don't like future developments. The measure, which is designed to separate the function of the judges from those of prosecutors (at present magistrates can both preside at trials and act as prosecuting attorneys), is now before the lower house.
Alitalia employees, meanwhile, are fighting against a restructuring programme. This was originally designed to ready Alitalia for privatisation but the government has now said that it does not want to sell off Alitalia, at least not for the time being. However, redundancies and a wage freeze are still on the cards as bosses say these are needed to get the company back in the black. The airline is reportedly losing _50,000 an hour at the moment. The unions are demanding that Alitalia soften the plan, arguing that the real problem is not overstaffing but management inefficiency.
Unions have called a four-hour general strike for Friday 26 March against proposed reforms of Italys pension system. The strike will be similar to last Octobers protest, which saw the participation of some 10 million people. The reform in question is intended to stop the nations ageing population bankrupting the social security system. Present demographic trends indicate that by 2030 Italy will have more pensioners taking money out of the system than workers paying into it. The government wants to prevent this by lifting the retirement age to keep older people in the labour market for longer. The latest plan is to raise the retirement age from 57 to 60 in 2008, and then to 61 in 2010, although the details change frequently. People will be able to retire beforehand if they have 40 years of social security payments, but will be given financial incentives not to do so. There is also talk of making the retirement age for women the same as for men; currently it is slightly lower for women. The unions dispute the need for these reforms, arguing previous pension overhauls in 1992 and 1995 by the centre-left government of the time left the system in good shape.
Finally, there is the case of the public transport workers. This was a simple question of workers pushing for overdue raises. The unions intensified protests because pay increases were two years overdue. They claimed that, with post-euro inflation munching into real salaries, drastic action was required.
In theory this dispute has been resolved. Italys three main trade union federations, CGIL, CISL and UIL, recently signed an agreement with employers. However, militant grass-roots labour group COBAS, which caused chaos in Milan last autumn with unscheduled walk-outs, has broken ranks and rejected the deal, and is threatening to keep fighting for more money.
Picture: Februarys demonstrations against reforms to the education system meant another day of traffic chaos in Rome.