For part of the last year, South London Local of SolFed has had Cesare, from Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI), the Italian section of our International, as our comrade and guest. As he is returning to Italy, we took the opportunity to interview him about USI, and the situation for workers organising in Italy.
SLSF: What is the size of USI and how is it broken down by region and industry?
Cesare: We have about 1000 dues paying members and about 500 more who are in arrears. We are concentrated in the north of Italy, particularly Lombardy and Emilia. At our last Congress we had new sections join from Genoa, Fiat workers from Portense and health workers in Tuscany.
We have a problem in the south, only having sections in Portense and Naples and scattered individual members. The north is where most of the work is, while the south is very poor with high unemployment.
The attraction of USI is that we are federalist - this is what attracts new sections. Sometimes they have split from Cobas (Confedera-zione dei Comitati di Base - Con-federation of Rank and File Committees) because we offer autonomy for every section and are not a centralised organisation.
Our biggest national union is in health; we also have national unions in the post office, local councils, education and engineering. In addition, there is a small national union which groups together workers on the land with retail workers, such as some in an organic food shop in Milan.
Most of our membership is in the public sector as it is very difficult to organise in the private sector. There is a strong co-operative sector and we also organise there. The co-ops often employ workers who are not co-op members so they are like a normal employer.
SLSF: How has the USI grown over the last 20 years?
Cesare: In 1991, USI called a strike against the first Gulf War with two of the Cobas. This was the first time there had been a strike that wasn't called by one of the big reformist unions. It proved that we were a union and not just a propaganda group. It was from this strike that the Milan Healthworkers union joined. My section joined in 1994, because USI was the only union that was federalist. The difference between USI and the other unions is the internal organisation - we stress federalism and autonomy.
Since the split in 1994, we have grown because people see us as the real USI. We were left with only one national union, in the Post Office, after the split. We have had to rebuild credibility by our activities in the workplace. For example, the section in San Rafaele hospital in Milan has a majority of workers, but was only set up 2-3 years ago.
The anarchist movement has decided in the last two or three years that we are the real USI, for example in Genoa and Parma, FAI (Federazione Anarchica Italiana) members have joined.
At our next congress we will discuss pushing the union in places where we don't already have a presence, learning from the experiences of the Spanish CNT.
SLSF: How do you relate to the other unions?
Cesare: There are four big reformist unions who decide everything. The bosses prefer to deal with them. For example in Milan airport, where Alitalia is about to be sold, the bosses talk to the big unions but the majority of workers are in the alternative unions.
There are seven or eight Cobas; each has a different political position, usually related to which left group set it up. The biggest alternative union is the CUB (Confederazione Unitaria di Base - Unitary Rank and File Confederation), but it is close to Rifondazione Comunista, the reformed Communist Party. There is not much difference between the various Cobas, but the political differences make it difficult for them to take action together.
USI is in a similar position to the Cobas, but is the only union that stresses its federalism, and its sections’ autonomy and has a very distinct internal organisation. It can be very difficult to change the National Secretary of the Cobas - one of them has had the same guy for 20 years - even though they are libertarian. USI has difficulty in rotating tasks at times, but at least we try to change mandates regularly.
Workers, not bureaucrats, should run the union.
SLSF: Can you tell us about the split with the USI-Roma? What caused it?
Cesare: When the split happened in 1994, Rome had many national mandates in the unions for schools engineering, and councils. They decided to make an agreement with another union to get union rights. This other union was in a different international. Their approach to this alliance was authoritarian. They claimed thousands of members but it was all just a fake. The same few people held lots of positions. For example the person who was national secretary of the education union was also deputy national secretary of the engineering union. This goes against all of our practice. The Rome people also had a strong relationship with Rifondazione. They have a big office in Rome, but it was not clear who had paid for it. Now, they only have 2 sections, in Rome and a very small one in Milan. The statistics branch they had, which was quite strong, has joined CUB for the negotiating rights
SLSF: How do they operate and how is it different to USI?
Cesare: The Rome people are better at press releases, the internet and so on. They use the name USI-AIT to confuse foreign readers that they are part of the International Workers’ Association, even though its initials in Italian are AIL. There have been times when we have called a strike and they have written to the government saying that the USI is not striking. This happened in education where the headmaster came and talked to our members and tried to undermine their action with it. Sometimes Cobas use the USI-Roma to undermine us as well. We have a proposal at our congress to change our name in the light of these activities, but our history is important to us and I don't think it will pass. We have also considered taking this to court, but it would have to be in Rome, where we don't have a section. USI-Roma want the name for the historical credibility, but their actions undermine this claim. For example they claim to be anarchists but recommend a vote for Rifondazione.
SLSF: What is USI's attitude to the Italian state’s industrial relations machinery?
Cesare: The RSUs (Rapprese-tanze Sindacali Unitarie - unitary trade union representation bodies) are against the interests of workers. They are about mediation. The RSU gives union rights, which include facility time for reps, meetings in work time and the ability to call meetings with the boss. We don't have this, so have to strike to get it. In the private sector, the reformist unions are guaranteed one third of all seats on the RSUs, regardless of whether they have any members in that industry.
Our approach was to leave the attitude to the RSUs up to our sections, because of our federalism. Most of our sections have now left the RSU and I think those few still using it will leave in the next cycle. It is only a buraucracy - in the Post Office in my town there has been one meeting of the RSU in three years. The benefit of this approach is that the workers decide for themselves, rather than a national congress.
The Healthworkers union were in the RSU before they affiliated. The alternative unions measure their size by the number of votes they get in the RSU elections. We are the only union that has any critique of them.
SLSF: Has the USI done propaganda against the RSUs?
Cesare: Not that I know of. The smaller sections who are only propaganda groups may do so, but generally we find it difficult to do propaganda.
SLSF: What are your relations with anarchist organisations?
Cesare: Most Italian anarchists take Malatesta's view that all unions are reformist, so are spread across all unions. For example the Federazione di Comunisti Anarchici (FdCA) have members in CGIL (Confedera-zione Generale Italiana del Lavoro - Italian General Confederation of Labour, one of the big four) and Cobas. The National Secretary of Education in CUB is in the FAI; the National Secretary of Unicobas is an anarchist. Unicobas has a magazine called Socialismo Libertario but its structure doesn't reflect this. There is not much reflection on the unions in the anarchist movement and no differentiation between unions. This has recently begun to change, as USI shows the difference with federalism and autonomy. As well, younger workers are becoming interested. There is a group of young workers in my town who may affiliate at some point, because we have approached them on practical issues and shown principles. I am the only anarchist in my section where I work.
SLSF: What issues are coming up for you?
Cesare: Our next congress will debate the law on strikes, which is becoming more difficult, especially in the public sector. For example, bus drivers in Milan recently went on strike, but their alternative union stitched them up by denying they had called it and the drivers were fined. We are also discussing our identity as a union, rather than being a propaganda group.