The base unions in Italy

The base unions in Italy

A dossier about base unions (or rank and file unions) in Italy.

The term “base unions” (or occasionally “rank and file unions”) includes many organizations with very different structures. It includes all those conflicting unions presenting themselves as alternatives to the major union confederations (CGIL, CISL and UIL), although not all are formed solely of rank and file members, with no full-time officials.

Base trade unionism in Italy is an extremely complex and varied world, reflecting both the Italian left’s great political liveliness as well as its fragmentation. Its historic roots lie deep in the experience of the 1969-70 Hot Autumn (autunno caldo) when huge masses of workers started participating democratically and with extreme radicalism against the decisions of the big unions. During that period of very hard struggle, the mainstream unions found themselves pushed by the pressure of the workers into fighting some fundamental battles, which led in the second half of the 20th century to an improvement in the standard of living for most of the Italian working population.

During those struggles, the workers organized themselves into consigli di fabbrica (factory councils). These were democratic bodies made up of representatives elected by all workers in single sections or factory departments, regardless of their union membership. The factory councils were then recognized by the mainstream unions as their base bodies and became the transmission belt between the workers, determined to decide themselves the orientation of the unions’ structures, and the unions’ structures themselves. The factory council period was closely linked to the period of the CGIL, CISL and UIL Federation, an attempt to unify the three major Italian unions, born on the wave of the Hot Autumn struggles and which foundered during the 1980s. However, it was in 1978, with the “turning point of Eur” (svolta dell’Eur), that the factory councils, as well as the commitment to a strategy based on collective struggle, were sidelined by the unions.

Although factory councils were strongly criticized by groups from the extra-parliamentary left (which accused them of being an attempt to bridle the workers’ activism), workers very much wanted them to exist and took part in them. Following this path, base trade unionism began to develop, as autonomous organizational organisms opposed to the major unions and as a place where those who had left the main unions encountered political militants with their experience of the revolutionary left.

As we’ve already said, the world of Italian base unionism is intricate with many organizations, some structured and some more fluid. Here, we attempt an overview of the situation as things stand in May 2013.

Confederazione Cobas

Confederazione Cobas (as well as some other base unions, see below) take their name from the comitati di base (base committees) born during the 1980s. The union itself was formed as part of a process starting in 1987 in the wake of a major school strike, with the push coming largely from school workers, followed shortly after by workers in the rail industry. Committees then spread to all sectors, organizing themselves into networks and eventually formalizing themselves into the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base (aka Confederazione Cobas) in 1999.

In addition to building on the experience of the factory councils, the first Cobas also recalled the experience of the unitary base committees (comitati unitari di base). These were born in the 1960s with the purpose of moving factory workers’ struggles from the company level to the political level. They were made up of workers and political militants from the extra-parliamentary left and many founders of the first COBAS came from that milieu. Piero Bernocchi, COBAS school spokesperson, writes: “We have tried to be a union-political organization that does not separate today’s struggles from the future’s struggles, the present society’s struggles from the projects of a transformation towards the desired future society, national struggles from international struggles”.

Confederazione Cobas is an important organization especially in the education sector and the wider public sector, particularly in Rome.


The CUB (Confederazione Unitaria di Base, the Unitary Base Confederation, not to be confused with the unitary base committees mentioned above) is a confederation of base unions set up in 1992, with a regular national structure including full-time organisers, employees and so on. It also provides many services such as tax, social security and legal advice for workers, consumers and migrants.

At present, it is thought to be the biggest base union organization in Italy, with around 500,000 members. It’s active in many sectors, such as construction, transport, media/culture and some industrial sectors though it is strongest in the public sector. It has also called strikes over explicitly “political matters” such as the wars in Iraq and the Balkans as well as in support of the No Tav struggle in Piedmont.


The USB (Unione Sindacale di Base) is a union born in 2010 from a merger between a number of different base unions, some from the CUB. The USB also has a regular national structure with some full-time staff and around 250,000 members. It’s especially active in the public sector and in some particular important struggles, such as the struggle for the right to housing (through the tenants’ union ASIA USB) and for migrants’ rights.

It also gives great importance to the provision of services such as legal advice and migrant support drop-ins.


The USI-AIT (Unione Sindacale Italiana) is a much smaller union, inspired explicitly by the principles of anarcho-syndicalism. It has sections in many cities across Italy, particularly in Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Milan as well as in the healthcare industry. In Milan in particular, it is strong in two large hospitals, San Raffaele and San Paolo, both of which are in big financial trouble and have seen fierce struggle in recent years. At San Raffaele, along with USB, it played a major part in the recent struggle against cuts.

It is also involved in the Flores Magon Libertarian Project, providing medical support and solidarity for Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico.

SLAI Cobas

SLAI Cobas (Sindacato Lavoratori Autorganizzati-Cobas) was set up in 1994 mostly by former CGIL members, many of whom had had their primary political experiences in the autonomous factory struggles of the 1970s. Today it still has bases in some major factories of heavy industry, such as Alfa Romeo in Arese (near Milan) and Fiat Pomigliano (near Naples) as well as having a good presence in Lombardy more generally.

Slai Cobas has also in the past supported members from the union taking part in the Communist Refoundation Party candidates’ list.

SI Cobas

Formed by workers leaving Slai Cobas inthe mid to late-1990s, SI Cobas (Sindacato Intercategoriale Cobas) is at present mostly active in the logistics industry, where it is currently carrying out a fierce struggle over wages and conditions. It is the only base union where the presence of migrant workers is undoubtedly larger than that of Italians and, probably as a result, the average age of its members is notably lower.


Jun 5 2013 21:19

Thank you for posting this, there are surprisingly few english language articles about the Italian base unions.

Jun 6 2013 07:32

Thank you Harrison! There are few Italian language articles as well.

Jun 6 2013 11:09

Is the USI-AIT the IWA-AIT affiliate in Italy or the non-affiliated one? As I seem to remember both use -AIT in their name.

Jun 6 2013 11:35

Mara Malavenda a leading member of SLAI-Cobas at Fiat Pomigliano was elected on the list of Rifondazione Comunista to parliament in 1996 but left the parliamentary group of PRC soon, she served as an independent MP up to 2001 and ran unsuccessfully under the label "Cobas per l'Autorganizzazione" for European parliament in 1999 and in 2005 for the PdCI (former right wing of PRC around Cossutta) ... can remember having read about SLAI-Cobas around 10 years ago, that they have a tendency towards "Anti-Americanism" and "Left-wing nationalism" but don't know if it is true

p.s.: unions which call themselves "sindacati autonomi" don't have anything to do with autonomous marxism, they are as far as I know either non-political or right-wing

Jun 6 2013 13:49
yeksmesh wrote:
Is the USI-AIT the IWA-AIT affiliate in Italy or the non-affiliated one? As I seem to remember both use -AIT in their name.

Yes, it can be confusing. But the USI-AIT mention in this article is the actual USI, AIT Section.

USI-AIT: Website of the AIT Section
USI-Roma: Website of the split organization based in Rome.

Jun 6 2013 14:10
yeksmesh wrote:
Is the USI-AIT the IWA-AIT affiliate in Italy or the non-affiliated one? As I seem to remember both use -AIT in their name.

I thought the USI that split from the IWA lost its industrial sections and only operates through a policy of labour forums?

Nov 17 2015 12:46

very interesting stuff, thanks.
(however, this is listed now on the page of recent posts, but is almost 2 1/2 years old?)

Nov 25 2015 14:44

These distinctions between the confusing variations of so-called base unions and what in the UK/USA are often referred to as 'business' or 'corporate' rather than say 'regime' unions are mostly still relevant I think?

Whilst I'm not a supporter of the ICP I noticed that this left communist organisation based mainly in Italy, more so than others in the left communist tradition, seemed to favour a form of syndicalist organisation as represented in particular by the last mentioned SI Cobas, which in terms of their support for the 'tactic of the united front from below' had at least some similarity in theory to the more recent specifically UK SolFed strategy if we ignore the different historical language usage as between anarchism and Marxist communism. See here for instance:

Jan 17 2016 18:49

So just to add this more current report of another SI Cobas struggle in Italy from a different left communist organisation that I am more sympathetic to:
There is a footnote briefly explaining their slightly different approach to the SI Cobas.
The struggle reported on relates to logistics workers which the 'Angry Workers World' group have reported on and analysed more extensively in their libcom blogs as for instance here:

Jan 18 2016 10:32

Also article by Loren Goldner in Insurgent Notes:

Mar 22 2017 12:01

Now it seems a further division/split in the 'base union' movement in Italy involving the SI Cobas reported on and critically examined from a Left communist point of view here:
Their basic point of criticism would presumably apply more broadly I think to anarcho-syndicalists such as SolFed ? but some of the details in relation to Italy are not so clear.