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Opinion and Analysis For Members

OPINION: Italy's constant strikes are part of the country's DNA

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
OPINION: Italy's constant strikes are part of the country's DNA
Transport strikes are hardly unusual in Italy, but will there be any over the Easter holidays? Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

The Italian news is full of reports of strikes - again. Silvia Marchetti explains why striking is part of Italy's social fabric, and why it's always the same old story.

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Each time there’s a major strike the whole of Italy, especially big cities like Rome and Milan, descends into chaos. 

Be it a transport or rubbish disposal strike or public sector employees simply ‘crossing their arms’, as Italians would say (‘incrociare le braccia’) to skip work, it’s usually disruptive - and particularly for foreigners and tourists who might not be as accustomed to such frequent strikes.

Constant strikes are part of Italy’s DNA, and it’s also a dysfunction that plagues this country. I’ve lived in four other European countries and have never experienced the amount of monthly strikes we have in Italy.

READ MORE: Keep up to date with all the latest strike news in Italy

The evening news is flooded with reports of the ‘disagi’ (disruption) caused by strikes but it’s always the same drill. 

Italians get seemingly mad, saying how it has made their day a nightmare between bringing the kids to school and getting to work late, or complaining about a cancelled flight or train ride that would have brought them for the weekend to Bologna. But then everything falls back into the same routine.

It’s like playing a broken record.

Strikes in Italy are a cultural and political issue. Italians may get annoyed because it affects them but they are also by now used to them. It’s part of their inbred fatalism. 

My gran would say ‘ci hanno fatto il callo’ (meaning ‘they’ve formed a callus’, as if to say that bearing the burden of so many strikes has made them passive).

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Italians who participate in strikes tend to be specific types of workers that have fixed job contracts protected by trade unions, such as pilots, bus drivers and factory workers. We have also created a word for that: ‘sindacalizzato’, to refer to a privileged worker who belongs to a trade union.

READ ALSO: Should you travel in Italy when there's a strike on?

In Italy trade unions have enormous powers, more so than in other European countries. I am aware that trade unions are the end result of centuries of fights for workers rights’ and democracy, however in Italy things are extreme: they can push through a specific job category contract, a salary raise, establish how many holidays a worker should have in a year, and even sometimes decide which specific people should be hired.

I have several friends who teach at Italian high schools and they become enraged whenever  a colleague with fewer years of teaching experience gets a promotion or a fixed position (‘cattedra’) not based on merit or years worked, but just because he or she has been a member of the teachers’ union since the start of their career.

It’s a bit like being a member of a political party, if you’re not ‘tesserato’ (don’t have the trade union membership), your chances of landing a dream job in a specific sector are slim.

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It is amazing how trade unions are often more powerful than trade lobbies and employers themselves. This power is clear each time Fiat car workers ‘cross their arms’ for a pay raise, or steel plants that are central to the country’s economic growth shut down in protest.

So where does this power come from? Many laws approved by the government are made in agreement with trade unions and business lobbies, it’s the so-called consultation with working groups, which is a mechanism that has ruled in Italy ever since the birth of the republic. 

READ ALSO: CALENDAR: Italy's transport strikes in summer 2023

Government ministers regularly hold meetings with trade union representatives and employers to discuss key measures including those concerning fiscal policy and taxation.

So it comes as no surprise that strikes are the weapon of choice for Italy’s trade unions. 

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What does get Italians mad, more than the strike disruption itself, is the fact that strikes have always been a powerful tool used to persuade politicians and force employers to pay higher salaries, while ordinary people see their daily life being used as a political pawn. 

When planes are grounded because cabin crew are on strike it’s the usual background noise, albeit irritating. What really annoys some people is that these workers are so protected by their trade unions that they can afford to skip work in protest.

People who are self-employed, professionals, VAT-holders, teleworkers and freelancers can’t strike, because they are not represented by any political group or trade union that could organise a potential strike. They would just be striking against themselves anyway, given they’re self-employed.

Foreign visitors get very worried when they hear about a transport strike in Italy, and I’ve personally met a family who embarked on a 72-hour trip one sultry summer day before they made the Rome-Florence train ride. 

It’s hard to reassure tourists that the next one won’t be as disruptive, but then again when it comes to Italy it’s really all very unpredictable.

These strikes in my view are barely effective in the short term, but in the long run, especially if continuous, they become ‘threats’ and increase the unions’ leverage power, so they eventually do bear fruit in the form of a slight pay raise.

Trade unions here are still strong, just old-fashioned and slow to kick-start change - as are so many things in Italy.

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