Exercising Workers' Rights: The Italian COBAS Experience
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In this paper I will use the Italian union COBAS as an example of successful grass-roots organisations, as an opportunity to explore the transformations of Italian unions during the last few decades, and as a starting point for a more general reflection on the dynamics of trade unionism. In particular, I will recall how COBAS were built in the 1980s to defend the rights of school workers from kindergarten to secondary education. Moreover, I will emphasise that COBAS wre organised as a structure of short-term representatives, who were elected by open assemblies of workers. Whilst COBAS organised highly successful strikes and rallies, they never had access to the actual negotiation process, which the government granted only to those unions that accepted substantial limitations on the right to strike. However, industrial actions promoted by COBAs resulted in the highest pay increase for school workers in decades. More generally, COBAS demonstrated in practice that it was possible to reject the professionalism of union representatives. Moreover, they broke the nearly absolute monopoly of the three Italian trade union confederations, namely CGIL, CSIL and UIL, which were closely affiliated with the three major Italian political parties. Finally, they exposed the shift of focus of such union confederations, which were prioritising the defence of their own negotiating power as organisations ovr the defence of teh rights of workers they claimed to represent.
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