John Hooper

Rome: Silvio Berlusconi’s Cabinet is to discuss a bill that would limit disgruntled workers in essential services to “virtual strikes” — the “strikers” would continue to work but would not get paid.

The bizarre concept of the “virtual stoppage” amounts to a ban on strikes in cases where skeleton services cannot be guaranteed. It is one element in a package of measures to end the frequent wildcat strikes by transport workers that are the bane of Italian life.

According to an official report, on an average day no fewer than three transport strikes are called nationally or locally.

Many of the bill’s details have yet to be settled and it could be amended or cancelled in Parliament.

But according to a leaked outline, the “virtual” strikers’ pay could be given to charity or used to pay for newspaper ads outlining their grievances. How much leverage that would give the unions is unclear — not least to Italy’s biggest trade union federation, the CGIL. Guglielmo Epifani, general secretary of the CGIL, warned the government that “when it comes to the constitutionally guaranteed right to strike, you need to proceed with great care”.

Wildcat strikes are often called by small, radical labour organisations. Giampietro Antonini, the national convener of one, said they were driven to unauthorised stoppages by transport authorities who refused to negotiate.

The bill includes a provision whereby any union representing less than half a workforce would be required to hold a vote on strikes. As there is no strike pay, stoppages rarely last for more than 24 hours and are usually at the start or end of a weekend. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009