A dispute over parity of pay and treatment for non-national lecturers in Italy has been going on for 25 years
One very raw day back in February 1999, I went to Kitty O’Shea’s Bar in Brussels to interview Longford-born Henry Rodgers about a three-year-old labour dispute he and other university teachers were locked in with the Italian authorities.
He had travelled up from Rome, and our meeting was just weeks before the birth of my daughter who later this month will graduate with a BA degree.
Meanwhile, back at Italian universities, nothing much has changed in this labour dispute, now 25 years old – despite two EU Court rulings and strong interventions by the European Commission and Parliament.
This week, I spoke again with Henry Rodgers, founder member of an organisation for non-national university teachers who are denied parity by the Italian authorities.
This denial of rights leaves them perennially on lower pay rates and deprived of certain workplace benefits which automatically come to their Italian colleagues doing the same work and with comparable qualifications.
If that looks like something totally at variance with EU rights to live and work anywhere within the 27 European Union member states – it is because that is just what it is.
This week, eight of Ireland’s 13 Euro MEPs have combined to turn up the heat in this marathon dispute.
And they have received a very supportive response from the EU’s energetic Employment Commissioner, Nicolas Schmit of Luxembourg.
Commissioner Schmit has now issued a written reply to the eight Irish MEPs’ formal question about the issue.
He noted that the Italian authorities had responded in part to previous EU Court of Justice rulings in this dispute and had resolved a number of the issues in dispute by Mr Rodgers and his colleagues.
“The main issue remains: the adequate reconstruction of Lettori’s [lecturers’] careers and the corresponding payment of the arrears due to them from the first date of employment, in line with the European Court of Justice’s ruling,” the commissioner said.
The Employment Commissioner also signalled that the EU executive is now contemplating taking a direct hand in this marathon dispute.
He noted that back in April of this year, the Italian authorities carried out a survey of the position of these lecturers across the country and shared the information gleaned with Brussels.
“The commission has carefully analysed the information gathered in this context and since it has found that it constitutes a serious reason for concern, the commission is currently preparing appropriate next steps/decisions,” Commissioner Schmit wrote.
The eight Irish MEPs who have taken up the case are Grace O’Sullivan and Ciarán Cuffe of the Green Party; Independents Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Luke Ming Flanagan; Billy Kelleher and Barry Andrews of Fianna Fáil; and Chris MacManus of Sinn Féin.
They pointedly noted in their question to the commission, that Italian universities already get generous EU grant aid and added that Italy has very recently got the biggest share of the Covid recovery fund.
“Surely, the ethic of reciprocation demands that Italy obey the rule of law and implement the most recent Court of Justice of the European Union ruling in favour of the Lettori,” the Irish MEPs have noted.
When Henry Rodgers and I first spoke, back in what seems like another lifetime ago, there were up to 1,000 such academics and an estimated 40 of them were Irish.
By now some of that number have given up the ghost, but a hardcore, including Henry Rodgers and his colleagues, are determined to fight this one all the way.
It is worth noting that this is not a case of seasonal workers being exploited by their mean-minded employers.
For many of these people, their lives are long centred on Italy with family, social and professional links.
The option of “just coming home to Ireland” is just not realistic for very many of them.
Meanwhile, this case, which has roots that go back to related disputes about maternity leave way back in the late 1980s, has seen a lot of people come and go.
Previous Irish MEPs who took up the cudgels, Proinsias De Rossa and Brian Crowley, have retired from public life.
Henry Rodgers notes that it has also seen the coming and going of 16 different Italian prime ministers.
His association has more recently got the support of one of Italy’s biggest trade unions.
They are now preparing to take their case directly to the current head of government, Mario Draghi, better known in this part of the world as the former head of the European Central Bank.
The battle continues.