Italy's brash premier defies his own Left to take on unions in campaign to revive economy

ROME – Italy’s dynamo premier works with his sleeves rolled up and often without a tie. And Matteo Renzi, on a mission to revive a moribund economy, is bringing his barnstorming style to a fight against cozy links between Italy’s political Left and its influential labour unions.

The centre-left Renzi is taking on his own political camp by barrelling ahead with a plan to make it easier to fire workers, putting him on a collision course with union leaders, once stalwart allies of his Democratic party. Unlike Renzi, many Democrats began politics in what was once the West’s largest Communist Party. His challenge was made more urgent Friday as EU figures showed Italy’s economy continuing to shrink.

Renzi’s centerpiece strategy is the Jobs Act — a blueprint for success he hawks nearly nightly on talk shows and by day on the stump through factories north and south. Working its way through Parliament, the legislation features an argument Italians don’t normally like to hear: making it easier to fire will encourage businesses to hire.

One recent Saturday, Italy’s largest union, the CGIL, filled Rome’s streets with hundreds of thousands of angry marchers, some of them unfurling red Communist party flags. Union leaders have been stunned by Renzi’s refusal to negotiate, a bold break with a decades-old government practice of courting both labour and industrial leaders before launching economic initiatives. This week, the union, angry that Renzi won’t budge, called a nationwide general strike for Dec. 5.

“If he thinks he is going to split the country and defeat the workers, he is probably going to get a nasty surprise,” said Rosario Rappa, a protester from the FIOM metalworker’s union, who sported a bandage covering a head wound suffered when a policeman clubbed him in another demonstration.

In Italy, it is so difficult to fire workers that businessmen joke that even stealing from the till doesn’t ensure dismissal. It’s a drag on the economy because many businesses won’t add workers for fear they cannot fire them in bad times.

The Jobs Act would change that. For instance, in the case of unjustified dismissals, many workers would receive compensation but not their job back. The reform also encourages long-time contracts for young people, reversing a trend that leaves them stringing together successive short-lived contracts, depriving them of security that had been sacrosanct for their parents’ generation.

The labour reform will “reduce precarious jobs and extend social assistance, give more opportunity to the 42 per cent of young people who are jobless,” said Alessandro Gozi, a government undersecretary.

Renzi’s staff turned down AP requests to interview the premier.

Renzi brushes off the labour protests with a characteristic bluntness that critics say borders on arrogance. He says unions negotiate with employers, not the government. He derides restive hard-liners in his own party seeking to soften the reform as “intellectuals” out of touch with ordinary citizens. Italy’s 0.1 per cent economic contraction in the third quarter, which bucked a mild EU trend of growth seen even in economically-battered Greece, may give Renzi more ammunition to carry out his painful reforms.

The 39-year-old ex-mayor of Florence barged his way into national power nine months ago, when he ousted fellow Democrat Enrico Letta from the premiership, only days after promising he’d never take the premiership without elections.

Balancing the hard-ball approach, Renzi has a penchant for metaphors to deliver his messages. Last week, he showed up just as construction workers were boring through the final feet (meters) of Apennine mountain to make a highway tunnel. Donning a yellow hard hat, he delivered a pep talk for Italy: “Our country,” Renzi said as cameras rolled, “is capable of emerging from the tunnel of laziness, of fatigue, of resignation!”

For many, Renzi is a refreshing change from left-wing politicians and union leaders who use largely incomprehensible jargon. “For the first time we have a (centre-left) leader that people understand,” said Gianluca Giansante, a political communications professor at Rome’s LUISS university.

With overall unemployment above 12 per cent and triple that for young people, who are going abroad in droves to find work, picking on the unions is “politically, a very astute move,” said political risk analyst Wolfango Piccoli of London-based Teneo Intelligence. Since the 2009 economic slump, he said, Italy’s unions are “increasingly seen as supportive of those who have a job and have a pension and leaving behind the interests of those who don’t have a permanent job.”

A poll published Nov. 2 in Corriere della Sera found 54 per cent of Italians had substantial faith in Renzi. The distant runner-up, with 28 per cent, was Matteo Salvini, whose Northern League party blames immigrants for much of Italy’s economic woes. Berlusconi, who cannot hold public office because of a tax fraud conviction, netted trust of 24 per cent.

Unions are “no longer capable of fully representing the interests, the values of Italians,” said Luca Comodo, an official of the Ipsos polling company which conducted the survey. The telephone poll had a margin of error of between 0.6 per cent and 3.1 per cent.

While the public is apparently on Renzi’s side, “the question here is for how long,” said analyst Piccoli, noting recession clouding the economic horizon and gloomy projections for 2015. Renzi, he said, needs to deliver some results “by early next year or he risks losing credibility with the electorate and investors.”


Trisha Thomas and Maria Grazia Murru contributed to this report.


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