Understanding Italian Strikes

Another general strike in Italy has been announced for this Friday, November 14th, that will affect almost all forms of travel and public transport throughout the country.  Such a strike seems like a crippling affair when reported by English news sources, one with the potential to ruin plans and strand travelers.  However, as with everything else in the Bel Paese, strikes are not the same as they are “back home” and the amount of fear and panic they induce is mostly unnecessary.

So how do strikes really work here?  Well, strikes work pretty much the way other stuff works here – that is to say, not very well.  In the US, a strike means the negotiations have failed and the result is a total shutdown until an accord can be reached.  The threat of a strike is powerful because if a strike comes there’s guaranteed to be serious losses.  It’s the end of the line.  And if the strike was ultimately carried out half-assed, then it would undermine the threat of future strikes.

Here that’s not the case.  Here, they are optional.  They’re flexible.  It means, maybe the bus will run, and maybe it won’t.

To understand strikes you have to understand Italian unions.  They operate with or without the support of the people they are calling to strike.  They are essentially independent entities who lobby government for laws that govern workers rights and will affect different categories of employment, but they don’t require employees to join the union in certain sectors to lobby for them.

When you see news about strikes, what you’re seeing is not a notice from organized workers themselves, whose collective voice is being expressed by a union official.  Instead, it’s the union which is calling the workers of that sector to strike – and whether they do or not is up to them.

I get up and I go on strike

A few important things to note, to get a better grasp of how severe a strike can be:

- the trains to the airport from Termini station, such as the Leonardo Express, cannot be affected by strikes.  This is guaranteed by law.

- often, the Freccie, or high speed trains, cannot be affected by strikes – only the regional ones.

- for public transportation, the buses and metro are obligated to run for a few hours that are crucial to get people to and from work – around 8-9am and from 5-6pm.

- workers don’t have to notify employers that they intend to strike, and can’t be reprimanded legally for participating, so companies have to operate in the grey area of not knowing how much a strike will affect them either.

To sum up: a transport strike doesn’t mean that there won’t be buses or that you won’t be able to get where you’re going. It means there will be delays and you can expect to waste some time and have to be a bit flexible and easy going about it.

But, wait, that’s what it’s always like here, isn’t it?

Updated news about the actual hours and the companies/unions involved can be found at this Italian website which is fairly easy to decipher and updated regularly:  http://www.mit.gov.it/mit/site.php?p=scioperi

Sciopero Generale – General Strike

Tomorrow a general strike has been called by a major worker’s union in Italy called CGIL. From 9am to 5pm, September 6th will be a day without reliable transport (if any at all) and many other disruptions, country-wide.

Obviously motivated to protest the government’s recent austerity package, which is necessary to balance the budget, this strike will certainly have the same effects as all the others – more hassle on the public, more losses to business, and no change in government. The reason for this ineffectiveness is blindingly clear – those that are pulling the strings up top are not relying on the metro to get to work.

The purpose of this article though isn’t to get too political, but really just to inform the visitor what they can expect and what sort of things will or won’t be operational. Unfortunately, that touches a nerve deep at the root of this problem:

no one knows.

Seriously – dig around and see what you can come up with, other than the vague description copied from blog to blog about the hours involved a minimum train service guarantee (with no specifics). I think to fully understand this, we need to explain what makes a worker’s strike in Italy and how that differs from a worker’s strike elsewhere (I’ll compare the U.S. just for argument’s sake).

Let’s say you belong to a union in the U.S. and that union is having trouble negotiating with the employer of those workers. The union will decide to strike or not and as a member you will have to follow your union’s decision. There will be collateral damage, but the employer essentially will lose its workforce until it can negotiate with the union and satisfy their demands, at which point the strike will be called off. Now, that seems pretty basic. I didn’t even have to look that up on wikipedia – you can just sort of put those pieces together from what you’ve seen in the movies.

In Italy it’s different. In Italy, a union will call a strike, and whether you’re a member of that union or not, you have the RIGHT to participate and you don’t have to give any sort of notice to your employer that you won’t be showing up to work that day. It’s completely elective. If you work in a bank, or for the bus system, or in a cafe, or for a school or hospital, it’s up to you whether you want to exercise your right to strike. What this means is that there is nothing but collateral damage because most likely the employer has absolutely no control over whatever demands aren’t being satisfied. And since no one really knows who will participate or not in the strike (even the member numbers of CGIL itself won’t give you any indication of the expected levels of participation) the country really has no idea what will or will not be effected.

So there you go – you’ve come here looking for solid information, and sadly, you won’t find it. But at least now you know why.

It’s because as with many questions in Italy – there is no answer.

Will you still be able to take a train to the airport – yes. That much is official. Will you be able to take the train to Venice – who knows? Maybe, but it might be 10 hours late and jam packed because the other trains were cancelled. In the meantime, go follow one of the marches. Usually there’s a number of Italian, hippie/punk-rock types with dreadlocks swigging beer and someone from the communist party blasting the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” on loudspeakers from a car in the procession.

That surely beats a day at the office, right?

Update:  Valeria Latteri, who does Consulenza del Lavoro, and is an all around expert on such issues, has pointed me to the exception to this rule – the essential pubic services – which by law must be upheld.  The full letter of the law, for anyone who speaks not only Italian, but legalese, can be found here for your reading enjoyment.

by Steven Brenner

Tourist Tax in Venice – Contributo di Soggiorno a Venezia

From August 24th, 2011, the Comune of Venice will also impose a tourist tax on all non-residents staying in the city. As the third city in Italy to add this “tourist tax” (following after Rome and Venice earlier this year), Venice has a slightly different spin on it: they are promoting it as a way to become an individual “sponsor” of such a great city. As with Rome and Venice, the tax is to be collected wherever you are being accommodated. A look at all the variations of the price to be paid shows that Venice surely wins the Most Confusing Award.

Here’s what you need to know:

• Limit to 5 nights – in other words, if you’re staying for more than 5 nights consecutively, you only pay the tax on the first 5 nights.
• Amount varies based on 3 factors: season (high or low), location (Murano, Venice, mainland, etc.), and category (whether it’s a campground, hostel, hotel, guesthouse, etc.)
• Under 10 years old – not applicable
• From 10 – 16 years old – 1/2 price
• Tour guides of groups of 25 or more or bus drivers are excluded
• hostels exempt

High Season
- January, 1 and from the following Sunday to January, 6.
- Carnevale
- From Wednesday before Easter to the following Tuesday
- From April, 1 to October 31
- The week of December 8
- From December 23 to 31

Prices by Category – High Season
5 star hotel €5 (Venice) €4,50 (Venice Lido and Islands) €3 (mainland)
4 star hotel €4 (Venice) €2,80 (Venice Lido and Islands) €2,40 (mainland)
3 star hotel €3 (Venice) €2,10 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,80 (mainland)
2 star hotel €2 (Venice) €1,40 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,20 (mainland)
1 star hotel €1 (Venice) €,70 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,60 (mainland)
Historic Residence €4 (Venice) €2,80 (Venice Lido and Islands) €2,40 (mainland)
Guesthouse 1° €2,50 (Venice) €1,75 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,50 (mainland)
Guesthouse 2° €2 (Venice) €1,40 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,20 (mainland)
Guesthouse 3° €1,50 (Venice) €1,05 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,90 (mainland)
Bed & Breakfast €3 (Venice) €2,10 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,80 (mainland)
Vacation Rental Apartment €2 (Venice) €1,40 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,20 (mainland)
4 star Campground €,40 (Venice) €,28 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,24 (mainland)
3 star Campground €,30 (Venice) €,21 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,18 (mainland)
2 star Campground €,20 (Venice) €,14 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,12 (mainland)
1 star Campground €,10 (Venice) €,07 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,06 (mainland)

Prices by Category – Low Season
5 star hotel €2,5 (Venice) €2,25 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,50 (mainland)
4 star hotel €2 (Venice) €1,40 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,20 (mainland)
3 star hotel €1,5 (Venice) €1,05 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,90 (mainland)
2 star hotel €1 (Venice) €,70 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,60 (mainland)
1 star hotel €,50 (Venice) €,35 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,30 (mainland)
Historic Residence €2 (Venice) €1,40 (Venice Lido and Islands) €1,20 (mainland)
Guesthouse 1° €1,25 (Venice) €,87 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,75 (mainland)
Guesthouse 2° €1 (Venice) €,70 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,60 (mainland)
Guesthouse 3° €,75 (Venice) €,52 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,45 (mainland)
Bed & Breakfast €1,50 (Venice) €1,05 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,90 (mainland)
Vacation Rental Apartment €1 (Venice) €,70 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,60 (mainland)
4 star Campground €,20 (Venice) €,14 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,12 (mainland)
3 star Campground €,15 (Venice) €,10 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,09 (mainland)
2 star Campground €,10 (Venice) €,07 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,06 (mainland)
1 star Campground €,05 (Venice) €,03 (Venice Lido and Islands) €,03 (mainland)



For more information, or for the rates on motels and tourist villages (which I’ve purposely excluded because, frankly, it’s already complicated enough), check the official pdf available through the Comune di Venezia.

by Steven Brenner

Tourist Tax in Florence – Contributo di Soggiorno a Firenze

Florence as of July 1st will also impose a tourist tax on all non-residents staying in the city for up to 10 days (in other words, the tax is only imposed on the first 10 days of a consecutive stay).

Exemption include:

• children under 10 years old

• patients coming to Florence for medical reasons (in local Florence hospitals)

• parents or guardians of those under 18 coming from medical reasons

Prices per person, per night, apply as follows:

1 star hotels – €1
2 star hotels – €2
3 star hotels – €3
4 star hotels – €4
5 star hotels – €5
campgrounds (1,2 and 3 star) – €1
campgrounds (4 star) – €2
hostels – €1
vacation rental apartments – €1
guesthouses (run by small agencies) – €2
guesthouses (family run / bed & breakfast) – €1
historical residences – €4
agriturismo (1 “spike”) – €1
agriturismo (2 “spikes”) – €2
agriturismo (3 “spikes”) – €3

For more information, visit the website of the Comune di Firenze.

by Steven Brenner

5 Things I Hate About Rome’s New Tourist Tax

* Update:  as of September 1st, 2014, Rome’s tourist tax will increase to €3 per person, per night (maximum 10 nights) for all guests over 10 years of age, to €3 per person for 1 and 2 star hotels, and €3.50 per person for 3 star hotels, B&Bs and vacation rentals.

You come to Rome for the food, the sunshine, some nice thin, crisp pizza and cheap, good wine.  You don’t come to Italy because it’s neat and orderly, and you certainly don’t come to learn something about politics (unless you’re studying failed democracies and corrupt, oversexed politicians).  So maybe when you read my complaints below about this new tax you’ll think, “Well, it’s Rome – what do you expect?”.  And I agree – I’ve lived here long enough that a colossally stupid idea like a tourist tax doesn’t surprise me one bit.  But I also own a hotel, The Beehive, so I’ve been following the issue closely and see a series of points demonstrating not just how bad an idea it is in general, but how badly it’s been “thought out” and implemented.  Of all the criticism I read from the Italian news, none of it really addresses the problems I see with it.

Some background:  as of 1 January 2011, all tourists (even Italians from other cities) coming to Rome are subject to a tourist tax (tassa soggiorno) to be collected by the establishment where they are staying.  The tax is 1 euro for stays at campgrounds, and 3 euros per person for stays at 4- or 5-star hotels and 2 euros for stays anywhere else whether a 1 star hotel (like The Beehive) or a bed and breakfast.  Children under 10 don’t pay at all and the tax caps out at 10 nights.  If you’re coming for medical reasons you also don’t have to pay.  There’s also a tax at all the paid beaches for non-Roman residents (free public beaches in Italy are rare), which is even more unthinkable.  Maybe I’m the odd man out here, but you couldn’t pay me to spend the day at Ostia, let alone ask me to pay a tax to sit there, ass-to-shoulder, frying in the sun on an already overpriced lounge chair.

There’s no doubt that Rome is severely over budget, especially due to the drop in tourism over the last few years, meaning less income and less sales tax revenue collected.  The theory behind all this offered by its supporters, however, is that Rome has many tourists who aren’t really paying their keep, and it’s only fair for them to share in the enormous expense to maintain the Eternal City.

We, as hotel owners, found out about this in mid-December.  We weren’t contacted or notified by any government agency – not even the tourist board who certainly knows we’re there when they do “routine” police checks to make sure everything is “in order”.  On December 23rd, I believe, it was finally approved-approved (no, that isn’t a typo – in Italy there’s approved, and then there’s still the possibility that it’ll just sort of go away.  So approved-approved means, yes, you really gotta do it), and still at the time of writing this, a month later, there has been no information given as to how we have to account for the money collected.  All we know at this point is that every 3 months we’ll have to pay what we’ve received, but there is no understanding of what, if any, documentation will have to be submitted, or should even be kept on-site for those “routine checks” I keep mysteriously putting in quotes (perhaps that will be another post!).

So we’re a month in and there’s been lots of criticism as well as talk among all sorts of crazy politicians to adopt this tax in other cities too, maybe even all the regional capitals.  The national hotel association, Federalberghi, is planning a day of no reservations on March 17th, 2011, in protest, which should cost the country millions in losses.  That’ll show them!  We’ll just leave tourists stranded for a day and pay our staff to catch up on uploading some pics to Facebook.

Many people who support the tax have noted that other major cities, like New York and London, have a similar tax, so it should be fair in Rome as well.  Well, here I’m getting to the heart of my post – as an American I feel qualified to comment on just the highlights of why Rome ain’t New York:

1.  Nothing in Rome works well.  Compared to NY, Rome can feel like a developing country.  Worse, maybe, in some ways.  I’ve lived in a developing country, and there are many things that run much better there than in Rome.  So the tax isn’t really to recoup money spent on the city and it certainly isn’t going to be used to improve it.  For tourists from developed nations, Rome is an embarrassment – disabled and riding the subway to the Vatican?  If you managed to make it down to the platform, plan to stay down there as there’s likely no working elevator at your destination to get up to street level.   The list of shortcomings thanks to city administrators is long, but let’s just agree on the basic premise here – comparing New York to Rome  in terms of how the city is run is laughable.

2.  There are no “servizi” that are free that the public is utilizing.  You pay for the buses and subways.  You pay to go in the Colosseum.  You pay to eat, sleep and everything else you do as a tourist and the places where you eat and sleep are already paying the taxes to collect the rubbish you create.  Maybe you partake of good, clean Roman water?  Hard to argue that you would have to pay for something that runs continually into the sea whether someone drinks it or not.  So what is it that tourists use that require upkeep?  Free public toilets?  There aren’t any.  Clean streets and sidewalks and lack of graffiti-free walls?  Ha.  Medical care?  Well, yes, that is free for tourists, but that is the one area they are NOT taxing, rather than just not making it free anymore for non-residents who use the system.

3.  In the US, all taxes – both sales tax and hotel tax – are excluded from the base, published price of everything you buy.  It is a different sales culture completely and we are used to seeing a price tag and adding on all the hidden bits.  In Italy, and everywhere else in Europe, the prices are ALWAYS inclusive of sales tax (IVA), so whereas in NY, all hotels publish their pre-tax prices, and apply the same tax, in Rome, everyone publishes their post tax prices and then has no clear understanding of whether that includes or excludes the tourist tax.  No specifications have been given by the government either.  The playing field in NY is level – all prices are without taxes and all taxes are the same for everyone as a percentage of the price.  In Rome many will publish their price without the tax to seem more competitive and charge it on arrival and someone else will keep their prices the same not wanting to deflect tourists and then lose the money themselves.  In other words, without regulating how this tax is communicated, there’s loads of room for confusion, which is already pretty standard in Italy.

4.  The prices that vary between a hostel and a 3 star hotel are from 20 euros a night to 300 euros a night.  The tax is the same.   By the way, there’s no regulation in Rome to control prices so hotels can charge whatever they want, regardless of their star rating, so long as it’s been communicated in advance to the authorities.  This means that for a 3-star hotel guest, 1.5% of his stay is in this extra tax.  But a hosteler, who is coming specifically on a tight budget, is paying roughly 10% more per night.  Not exactly a fair deal for owners in the budget sector, nor does it make Rome the likely choice for those traveling on the cheap.

5.  More illegality.  Here’s how it works: some sly person (a “furbone” as they’re called in Italy) will charge tourists the tax and not report it and pocket the 2 euros per night (which for a 3-bedroom B&B could equal 3,000-4,000 euros per year).

For those of you who don’t read Italian, the total expected intake here is 80,342,276 euros per year.  I’m not against that at all.  Rome could certainly use it and even if 80,000,000 of it goes to getting the city out of debt and only 300,000 goes to removing some graffiti and dog poo (and the other 42,000 will end up in someone’s pocket), that would be an improvement.

But if we’re going to compare Rome to NY, let’s also follow the example of American thoroughness – let’s make this new tax logical and easy to understand and implement.  What we don’t need is another Roman mess that costs tourists and the travel industry more money.

by Steven Brenner