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Italy’s Union Crushing Left Slides to the Right

Heading in a better direction?

Strange as it may seem, or perhaps not, knowing it’s happening in Italy, the nation’s once union-friendly supposedly left-leaning PD democratic party is no longer union friendly.

Under the leadership of Matteo Renzi, the PD is locking horns with Italy’s unions. The unions are not at all happy that their old friends have suddenly turned on them and nor are some of the members of Renzi’s own party who must be experiencing something of an idealogical quandary. For now, though, the anti-Renzi’s are still on the former boy scout’s self-built Italy life-raft. How much longer they will stay aboard is an unknown but Italy’s politicians have been known to change idealogical hats at, er, the drop of a hat. Indeed, Italy’s ethically-challenged politicos may change ideologies several times during their long and exceptionally well-paid political careers. Now, it seems, an entire political party is swinging in a different ideological direction.

Traditional left-leaning PD voters must be wondering just what the heck is going on and one doubts many of them would vote for what they once believed was a party which stood for workers rights. Italy’s voters are rather fickle though, so who knows? It is not beyond the realms of possibility that right-leaning Italian voters may opt to vote for the ever more right leaning PD.

Propelling the swing to the right, is Matteo Renzi, the leader of the formerly left leaning PD party. Renzi is arguing that by forcing through certain reforms, he’ll free up Italy’s sludgy employment market and that this will both kick-start Italy’s depressed economy and make life easier for the nation’s workers who should be able to find work more easily.

Italy’s unions, on the other hand, disagree, and they believe the reforms will turn the clock in terms of employee rights all the way back to 1960s. Italy’s Article 18 “workers’ statute” came into existence in 1970 after extensive protests.

Article 18 protects Italy’s workers so effectively, it has put off many companies in Italy from offering employees permanent jobs.  As a result, Italians have been ending up with short-term work contracts which tend to be poorly paid too. Rarely do these temporary contracts become permanent as it is far more cost effective to employ workers on a temporary basis and, of course, when contracts end, poorly performing employees can be sent packing. Even worthy employees may find themselves on the streets and I have seen this happen.

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Finding permanent jobs in Italy has become ever more difficult and salary levels tend to be low. As a result, Italy’s economy has been suffering because workers with short term contracts find it hard to obtain credit to buy houses or cars and other items which tend to keep economies afloat. And, of course, low salary levels mean saving is harder. Workers without steady jobs are reluctant to start families too. Italy’s birth rate is notoriously low and falling. Not even reproductive immigrants appear to be able to reverse the low birth rate trend which is now at a historical low.

The effects of the global crisis have made matters even worse sending levels of unemployment in Italy’s 15-24 age group to nearly 50%.

Something needs to change and it is believed by Italy’s government that by eliminating or reducing the effect of Article 18, the nation’s employment market will become more flexible. This is the primary objective of the Jobs Act. Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen, and some are unsure the Jobs Act will have the desired effect. Jobs Act or not, Italy’s tangles of red tape may also hinder the effectiveness of what is being touted as a landmark employment law reform.

Italy’s unions are extremely wary of either alterations to Article 18, or, heaven forbid, its repeal. If Article 18 goes, the unions’ fear is that Italy’s employers will fire employees willy-nilly and for whatever reason they can dream up.

On the other side of the coin, Italy’s employers tend to find the nation’s unions more of a hinderance than they should be. They do have a point. Although times have changed and businesses can no longer expect to be around for decades, Italy’s unions have not and do not appear to want to move with the times – they still seek to maintain the “job for life” ideal.

What Italy’s unions probably never expected was a challenge to their power coming from Italy’s political left. Unless, of course, that political left is no longer sitting on the left-hand side of the fence. Under the leadership of Matteo Renzi, Italy’s PD party is sliding ever more closer to the political right with which it has formed an alliance to govern Italy.

While one might expect a right-wing party to engage in union bashing, instead in topsy-turvy Italy, it’s Italy’s left which is taking on the unions. Could the United Kingdom’s Labour party have got away with turning on the trades unions? Unlikely. The UK’s Labour Party would not even have tried as it would know that its credibility would have reached zero in the eyes of its voters. Well, firstly, Italy is not the United Kingdom and secondly, after the Thatcher right effectively minimised union power, the Labour Party transformed into a beast which was less left-wing than ever before. The same is now happening in Italy except Italians did not vote for a party which is swinging to the political right. Indeed, nobody voted for Matteo Renzi at all.

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