Italy’s culture workers threaten national protest

While government moves to limit right to strike by reclassifying museums as “essential public services” on a par with schools and hospitals

by Tina Lepri, Hannah McGivern  |  2 November 2015
Italy’s culture workers threaten national protest
Trade union protests have closed down museums and archaeological sites across the country. Photo: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
Tension between trade unions and the Italian culture ministry over the future of the heritage sector has hit a fever pitch. Union protests have closed down museums and archaeological sites without warning this year, leaving thousands waiting at the entrance of Pompeii during the summer heat wave.

On 22 October, Italy’s Chamber of Deputies passed a measure to reclassify museums as “essential public services” on a par with schools and hospitals, effectively limiting the right to strike. Culture workers would be required to give 10 days’ advance written warning for all industrial action, and the culture ministry could impose a minimum interval between strikes to avoid disruption. The Senate must approve the measure by 20 November for it to become law. In response, unions have threatened a national strike.

The tipping point came on 18 September, when the gates were closed for three hours at the Colosseum—Italy’s most visited monument, with six million tourists a year—and all the archaeological sites in Rome’s historic centre, including the Imperial Fora, the Palatine Hill, and the Baths of Diocletian and Caracalla. Italy’s Council of Ministers drafted the decree to regulate the strikes later that day.

Roberto Alesse, the president of the Commissione di Garanzia per gli Scioperi, an independent body that mediates between the unions and the government, said at the time that the decree represented an “extraordinary opportunity” to update existing legislation that dates to 1990. “It is a question of whether the strike call responds to the need to protect workers, or if it is nothing but the continuation of an arm wrestle between the unions and the government over culture, to the detriment of consumers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government has agreed to unblock funds to pay delayed 2014-15 wages to all culture ministry employees. However, some trade union representatives say that they have more global concerns.

“The delayed payment of overtime was not the only cause of the assembly and the closure of the monuments,” said Claudio Meloni, the ministry’s representative for the General Italian Confederation of Labour (CGIL), the country’s largest trade-union federation. He cited the “insecurity” of the Italian heritage sector following recent reforms passed by the culture minister Dario Franceschini and a national shortage of “1,300 staff members”.

UPDATE: On 5 November the Italian Senate passed the bill restricting culture workers' right to strike by a vote of 138 to 67 (with 14 abstentions). The wording of the law recognises "museums and other institutions and places of culture", including archaeological sites, monuments, libraries and archives, as "essential public services", subjecting unions to stricter rules on strikes and assemblies.

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