by Marzia De Giuli
ROME, March 31 (Xinhua) -- Relations with trade unions have become a frequent matter of discussion for the Italian government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, highlighting an evolution of the traditional negotiating tables.
Since Renzi was sworn in as the new premier last month, he has clashed several times with unions, which have often lamented a "non-existent" dialogue.
Tensions were especially running high when the government days ago passed a package aimed at turning around record-high unemployment rates. The plan included a decree extending the limit for temporary contracts without indicating a specific reason from one to three years, which the unions said will introduce more job insecurity.
Labor Minister Giuliano Poletti said earlier this week that though the government was willing to discuss with unions, "in the end it will decide" about the course of action of labor policies. On Friday, central bank Governor Ignazio Visco mentioned unions among the principal "hindrances" to growth in Italy.
Union organizers dismissed Visco's words as "nonsense." Experts, however, were not surprised by the clashes that they said were revealing ongoing changes in the traditional negotiating tables.
Traditionally, in Italy relations between employers and employees, including labor agreements, tasks and salaries, have been established for the most part in negotiations with unions at the national level in the government's regulatory framework.
But in today's globalized labor market, "unions should favor agreements at the local and corporate levels, instead of remaining anchored to collective agreements that are more rigid and cannot represent the needs of new workers," Michele Tiraboschi, a labor law professor at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia and scientific coordinator of the Adapt think tank, said.
What will be the future of Italian unions? They will have to abandon the "old patterns of irreconcilable conflict between capital and labor," Tiraboschi told Xinhua, while continuing at the same time their mediation work, which he stressed was a fundamental ingredient of a well-functioning economy.
Pietro de Biasi, head of industrial relations at car giant Fiat Group, was in charge of his company's mediation with unions. He said the evolution of Italian unions towards more flexibility started in the late 1990s and was marked in 2012 by Fiat Group, the symbol of Italian postwar manufacturing strength, quitting from powerful employers' association Confindustria.
The evolution of unions in Italy, de Biasi explained to Xinhua, has followed the trend of the world's most industrialized economies. He noted that in France, Germany and Spain collective bargaining agreements agreed at a company level were being given increasing priority over industry-level collective agreements, allowing companies to tailor employment conditions to their specific business situations.
This change process was happening more slowly in Italy, where labor unions and employers' associations have traditionally been managed by "much more centralized systems and have often been connected to political parties because of historical and cultural reasons," de Biasi said.
"But the more a country is developed, the more industries need tailor-made solutions," he stressed. In the new scenario, de Biasi highlighted, transparency was becoming an increasingly important requirement in dealing with unions, which were being asked a greater involvement in companies' goals, strategies and difficulties."
Italy's largest union Cgil head of European Department Fausto Durante, however, warned on the risk of "demolishing" dialogue with unions. "There is a trend in the whole of Europe to reduce their space for maneuver," he said.
Even in this scenario, he explained to Xinhua, Scandinavian countries and Germany were able to set a positive example of "structural and systematic" relations, while Latin countries, including Italy, seemed to be inclined to end the dialogue.
In his view, the Renzi government has shown a clear will to exclude unions from the policy making process. "Should the Italian government really do so, unions will continue to use the instrument of industrial action to express their opposition," Durante stressed.
"We have realized that the labor systems which have better reacted to the global economic crisis were the ones with union relations structured by law," he said.
"In Germany, the chancellor informally meets the unions' leaders every week," Durante noted. At the same way, Italy needs first of all to build a union culture not centered on conflict, he said. "In Italy we are used to first argue and then find an agreement, while we should do the opposite, arguing only if we have not found an agreement."
Secondly, he added, Italy needs to adopt a clear regulation on how unions' relations should be managed.
"We have to remember that the heart of the European social model is the capacity to dialogue with unions and consider them part of the future and economic success," he pointed out.