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Striking: Right Or Privilege?

As the Chicago teachers’ strike is entering its second week, Mayor Emanuel has pledged to seek an injunction with the court to force instructors back to the classrooms. The mayor maintains that those workers are committed to public duties and it’s illegal for them to strike. (Which mirrors Ronald Reagan’s attitude towards government strikers.)

Lucky for Emanuel, he is not a mayor of an Italian city like the one I live in, Torino. His power would be much weaker. In Italy, threatening mass firing would be immediately dubbed as fascist and courts would not back his stand against strikers. Article 40 of my country’s constitution in fact guarantees every worker a “right” to strike.

A considered critique to this constitutional provision was already given in 1965 by renowned Italian legal thinker Bruno Leoni. According to Leoni, a strike cannot be considered a crime but neither can it be considered a right. That’s because striking is not just absence from work: striking is absence from work in the presence of a contract. So how could failing to perform a contracted duty being considered a right?

What’s worse is that for Italian government workers, this right to strike that guaranteed to each is accompanied by a strong protection from firing. In Italy, a public-sector worker can only be fired for a serious disciplinary reason, not for low performance, not even for overt absenteeism.

Take the case of public teachers’ absenteeism. In the Southern city of Reggio Calabria, on average a public teacher left work for sickness 12.8 days a year in 2011: three and a half times more than a teacher in Asti, Northern Italy. We are speaking about working days: that means almost three weeks every year Calabrian teachers spend at home instead of working. And the milder Mediterranean climate of the seaside Calabrian city couldn’t cause more illnesses than the continental climate in the foggy Padanian Asti.

In sum, if you can’t fire a lazy Italian public teacher, how could you fire a teacher exercising her constitutional right to strike?

But in Italy it has become also evident that striking is a right few citizens can enjoy. Unfortunately, power comes from numbers and for most of the Italian workers -- those employed by small to medium size private companies and self-employed -- striking would be pointless, as they wouldn’t gather enough people to exert political pressure. That’s actually many Italians, to whom the benefit of strike is effectively denied.

Public employees’ ability to blackmail whole cities results in a significant difference in wages between private and public employees. Between 1995 and 2010, while the economy and productivity languished (average Italian GDP’s growth rate between 1995-2010 was 1.03 percent), the average difference between public and private sector’s gross wages grew from 22 up to 33 percent, as calculated by Bank of Italy’s research. Asymmetrically high bargaining power made public employees able to oppose wages from adapting to macroeconomic circumstances much more effectively than the private sector.

Luckily, the United States Constitution was ratified before Marxism was born. As one of my economics professor used to say, the Italian Constitution draft, that came in force in 1948, was split in three parts: one third was written by the Socialist Party, another third by the Communist Party, and the rest from the Catholic centrist Party.

Italy’s recent history teaches us not just that laws should never protect a worker from striking or from being lazy: honestly, we should all admit that protection from firing discourages hard work. Every worker, even the Chicago teachers, should never feel completely shielded from being fired. Striking endlessly and demanding higher wages in the middle of an economic downturn is not a right American public employees have -- although for their Italian counterparts, it is a privilege.