Saggio da San Frediano #7 – Construction Unionism Italian Style

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Tourists marvel at Italian construction from ancient times to the Renaissance. Thousands flock the streets of Florence fawning over miracles of construction like the Duomo, the Baptistry and the Belltower. But I am more interested in another side of the construction equation; the workers themselves and the structure of their unions and their practices. I know little of the early guild structure in Italy although I suspect it is similar to the craft structures of England and our own colonial America with young men apprenticed to a master craftsman to learn a trade. In Rome Mercedes Landolfi, the International Affairs Director of FILLEA, graciously offered to discuss Italian construction unionism. FILLEA is the construction section of the CGIL, which, with more than five million members, is Italy’s largest trade union confederation.

Gramsci house

FILLEA’s headquarters building was once a hospital and, in 1925-1926, the residence of Antonio Gramsci just prior to his arrest and imprisonment by Mussolini. As a union headquarters, it is modest by American standards—small, cramped rooms, and few staff. But the staff was warm and immediately welcoming. Our informal discussion was capped off by lunch at the Limonaia in Villa Torlonia up the street.

American and European unionists often talk past each other because our labor relations systems are so different. In the United States, 13% of construction workers are represented by unions, particularly in public works, heavy highway and big commercial jobs. In Italy all constructions workers — over one million in all — are covered by national union agreements. There are three major union federations, the CGIL, the CISL and the UIL, all of whom have construction affiliates. They represent building trades workers under master national contracts that all three federations sign. There are about 1,404,000 construction workers in Italy. The CGIL has approximately 25% (353,975) of constructions workers signed up as members, but that figure is more impressive when you recognize that membership is voluntary. There are no “agency” or “union shops” in Italy where membership is a “term and condition” of employment by contract. Workers join the union based on agreement with its mission, presumably with certain clarity and consciousness. This is true throughout the system of Italian industrial relations whether manufacturing or service or construction. Overall union membership in Italy as a percentage of the total workforce is 35%. In the US we are at about 6.7% in the private sector.

The other distinguishing feature of Italian construction unionism, compared to the United States, is that the unions are industrial and not craft-based. All constructions workers regardless of skill, be they electricians or laborers, are in the same union organization. Their skill differences are recognized in their pay categories but not by having a separate union. Mercedes explained that to deal with seasonality a “Cassa Edile” (Construction Fund) exists, financed by the employers, to deal with out of work stipends and medical leaves. Training is done in the same joint fashion as stateside with labor/management training funds and institutes.

C linea construction in Rome

In the United States, protecting the rights of immigrant workers, often used as a low wage pool to undermine the unionized crafts, is a vital issue. In the Italian agreements, specific articles protect the rights of immigrant workers. The day after our meeting, Mercedes was headed to Milano to meet with a giant Italian-owned construction multinational that is part of the consortium building the soccer stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. She said the FILLEA was pushing that company to sign an international accord to protect the rights of the workforce in Qatar. How does FILLEA convince Italian union members of their interest in such work? She said it was all about raising the floor worldwide for construction workers. Unspoken were the rich, underlying left-wing traditions of internationalism that permeate Italian unionism and transcend workers’ immediate material self-interest.

We discussed women in the trades. In the United States, the numbers are widely recognized to be low—typically below 10%. She said Italy’s numbers are similarly low. However, she mentioned that the majority of the workers on archeology crews are women, and that every major construction company has an archeology staff. Often in Rome, and elsewhere, ground is broken but projects have to halt when invaluable archaeological sites are unearthed. For instance, when construction of a third major subway line in Rome, the Linea C, was stopped when ruins dating from ancient times were found and the archaeology team swung into action. These are workers represented by FILLEA. Women Archeologists of the World Unite!

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About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California.

View all posts by Peter Olney →

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