'If I were in Berlusconi's shoes, I would try to save money whilst finding a reasonable solution. With the European Commission currently poised to take Italy back to the ECJ for mega-fines, Berlusconi's government now finds itself between a rock and a hard place.'

DAVID PETRIE

 

 

 

'We will either prove that citizens' rights enshrined in the Treaty are enforceable or we will prove the opposite. If the latter turns out to be the case, then all talk of "European citizenship" and a "fellowship of nations" will be shown to be nothing other than a load of impressive- sounding nonsense, which the Eurosceptics believe it to be.' 

DAVID PETRIE

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

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Pursuing Goliath: an interview with lettori leader David Petrie

Notwithstanding over two decades of proven job discrimination and four Euro-Court decisions, some 1,500 foreign-language lecturers, or lettori, who teach in Italy's 63 state universities still await a final solution. David Petrie recounts his long battle to obtain justice for the category

JUST Response: When exactly did you begin your job discrimination battle against the Italian university authorities and what was the precise nature of the discrimination at the time?

David Petrie: I was contracted by the University of Verona in 1984 as a self-employed teacher. This was fine by me, though it meant that I had no social security, health or pension contributions paid. But on the other hand, it meant I could sell my labour outside of the university if, where and when I felt like it. A private university in Bolzano offered me very lucrative work at weekends and paid my train and hotel bills. The faculty dean in Verona got wind of this and pulled me in saying that there was a scam going on and that I was a collaborator, albeit an innocent one. The Bolzano private university students were also enrolled at Verona. These "cockroaches at Bolzano University", he said, would expect their students to get special treatment at the Verona exams. Fiddling exams is common practice here in Italy. You either ask the teacher for preferential treatment through family or friendship contacts, which in Italian is called "raccomandazione" [a special recommendation for preferential treatment on the basis of criteria other than academic merit, Ed] or else you set up a scam whereby a teacher is being so overpaid that he will fiddle the exams without even being asked. Looking back, I suppose I was a bit naive. But I felt aggrieved on 2 counts: first, it would never have occurred to me to fiddle exams; and second, Verona University was paying me modestly as a self-employed professional, but had appointed me a public examiner and was also treating me as if I was a full employee. The dean threatened not to renew my contract. Well, I said, if you treat me like an employee you are going to have to pay my insurance contributions as you do for Italian teachers. So the experience of being abused and the threat of having my livelihood withdrawn when I was struggling to maintain a family and newly born daughter woke me up to the fact that this was not what was happening to Italian teachers doing the same job. I recounted these details to a friend, Noreen Burrows, who is professor of European law at the University of Glasgow and she offered advice that was to lead me to the European Parliament and eventually to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

JUST Response: What advice did Professor Burrows give you and how did your legal battle take off and develop in Italy and Europe?

Petrie: Professor Burrows examined the facts and concluded that the Italian authorities were infringing EU law on free movement of workers. She drove me to see the Scottish Labour MEP, Hugh McMahon. He got his teeth into the problem and did not let go. On 9 February 1993, I took a coach of 65 students and lecturers from the University of Verona to the European Parliament in Strasbourg where we petitioned President Egon Klepsch, claiming discrimination on the grounds of nationality concerning social security, pensions, security of tenure and career progression. The authorities in Verona began to wake up and slowly they tried to "disappear" us out of existence, removing chairs from the office, our names from the internal phone book and kicking us off the exam commissions. To this day I don't exist in the University of Verona, despite 18 years' service look for me or any other foreign lecturer on Verona University's website and you will draw a blank. But they went too far too quickly; they moved 13 of us into a basement office with 2 desks. I photographed the office and went back to Strasbourg. On 13 July 1995, McMahon secured an emergency debate at the Strasbourg plenary where the European Parliament passed a Resolution on human rights debate. The Italian authorities were stunned to see Verona University condemned alongside other abuses in China, Kashmir, Srebrenica, Mexico, Sudan and Morocco. Here was the University of Verona, supposedly a seat of learning, caught and exposed for a campaign of vilification and dirty tricks. The vote went overwhelmingly in our favour. To their credit, a number of Italian politicians supported us, though most just disappeared from the chamber. Eleven MEPs abstained from voting and 3 Flemish nationalists voted against us.

JUST Response: It will seem odd to non-Italians that universities, normally associated with the promotion of positive values such as truth, democracy, freedom and justice, should be actively engaged in what amounts to the denial of these very values and the promotion of job discrimination. How would you explain this to our readers in, say, North America, Australia and Britain? What sort of people are these rectors and professors that we are talking about and how did they get their jobs?

Petrie: First of all, let me point out that we are talking about illegitimate and legally proven discrimination. Those perpetuating the discrimination do not perceive of themselves as doing anything wrong. Indeed they felt under attack; they felt that they were the victims of an attack from foreign lecturers trying to cheat their system. In a way they were right. We were claiming rights enshrined in the EU Treaty concerning fair treatment, which is anathema to the Italian system. The discrimination we suffered has been studied in detail in a Stanford University PhD thesis, which described the Italian university system as a medieval-style guild which jealously protects its own members, while resisting any change from outsiders. Now then, you have put me on the spot with this question, because I do not want to offend the considerable number of honest hard-working Italian academics who work in Italian universities. But this tiny minority will not be personally insulted even if they might think it imprudent to say what I am about to say. In Italy you get a professorial post through "raccomandazione". All Italian university professors know exactly what this means. Notice that I am using the word "professors" here as opposed to "academics". This is crucial, because to get a position as a professor you do not need an academic track record. What you need is the "recommendation" of the guild and you get this by showing deference to the guild. Indeed, having a good academic record might raise suspicions. You could embarrass the guild by "showing off" how bright you are, thereby exposing the larger group to ridicule, disrespect and odium. These genuine Italian academics are hounded out of the institution and sometimes out of the country. Most escape to the USA. So, the fact that an institution calls itself a "university" means nothing in itself. Just as you would not assume that a man with a wrench in his hand must be a plumber, do not assume that an Italian professor is a time served academic. Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised. I have been, but not too often.

JUST Response: How can there be a considerable number of honest hard-working Italian academics who work in Italian universities if the only way to get in is, as you say, by "raccomandazione"? Doesn't this and the fact that hardly any of them have ever spoken out against dishonest practices and corruption which they must surely either have actively engaged in or else been tacit accomplices to paint a far worse picture?

Petrie: Well, "raccomandazione" is the system but it is not foolproof. It has to keep up appearances, and the corrupt do not wish to be perceived of as such. Let me give you a couple of concrete examples. I know someone who studied abroad, is pretty smart and could hold his own in any university in the world. But he did not have a "raccomandazione", so he was approached by one of the examiners and asked to withdraw and told he would get in next time. He got angry and threatened to expose the pressure. The threat was taken seriously, the "sure" winner got ditched and the candidate who was threatened got in, thereby providing a ready made rebuttal of any suggestion that the exam was fixed. It was fixed, but in this case something went wrong and the best candidate got in. This is pretty rare though. Another example: there are six jobs going and one outstanding candidate applies. He has a good chance of getting a job. Why? Because he distracts attention from the five "raccomandati" dunderheads and ends up vindicating the system. Once in, the outstanding candidate might shun, or be bored by, squalid politics and get on with some genuine teaching and research. He might just think that life is too short to take on the system. He himself will not be bribed or cajoled and he'll leave the guild alone if they leave him alone.

JUST Response: So those candidates who have the dual misfortune of being bright and having no recommendation are obliged to threaten and blackmail the examiners while agreeing to turn a permanent blind eye to all future corruption. To many readers this will sound more like Dante's Inferno or the mafia than a university. Certainly, nobody seems to come out of it very well. Going back to the lettori's continuing battle for justice, there have been four historic EU decisions so far. Could you give us a brief summary of each of these, what your own personal involvement was and what changes they brought about?

Petrie: The ECJ ruled in 1989 that limiting lettori contracts to a maximum of five annual renewals was illegal since the same rule did not apply to Italian teachers. The Italian state took so restrictive a view of this judgement that you could say they were circumventing it. They said: "the 5-year rule is illegal but it does not say in black and white that we cannot offer annual contracts". So in 1993 this was put in black and white by the ECJ, which said that since Italian teaching staff enjoyed open-ended contracts then so should foreign teaching staff. The Italian authorities then shifted the goalposts, stating that we could have open-ended contracts, but not as teachers. So they passed a new law inventing a new category of workers instead of simply giving open-ended contracts to the lettori. Meanwhile,  three of us at Verona University were blocked from applying for temporary supply teaching posts. We challenged this and the ECJ in 1997, in conjunction with the Venice Regional Tribunal in 1999 ruled that this too was illegal. A further case is now pending for damages. Finally, the European Commission supported by the UK brought Italy to book in June of last year for failure to fulfil its Treaty obligations. The door is now open for sanctions. The Commission decided on 16 October 2002 that Italy should be sent a reasoned opinion, which is the last step, the final threat before going to the ECJ to ask for mega-fines to be imposed. 

JUST Response: How would you estimate the damage that the Italian state and its universities have caused to the credibility of EU institutions as a result of such prolonged and evasive behaviour by a founder state?

Petrie: The two pillars of the Treaty are "free movement of goods" and "free movement of persons". Our case makes a mockery out of the latter. The whole system needs to be reformed. A system which allows one state to abuse its "host" workers from all the other states for at least 14 years cannot in any conceivably sensible way be labelled a "union" or a "community". There are some very small signs that encourage optimism. The Venice Regional Tribunal, following the ruling from the ECJ on access to supply teaching posts, did decide in our favour against its own state. Even so, the decision still has not filtered down to the Universities, which continue to reject applications from lettori for these teaching posts. The Commission's instruments are woefully and laboriously complicated and slow, and they are understaffed for the job that they are asked to do. To enforce this ruling would actually require two further cases to be brought to the ECJ: one to establish non-compliance and another to ask for sanctions. All of this would take at least another five years. The Treaty cannot work if individual rogue states do not cooperate in the spirit of the law. Europe has serious states which value the rule of law and "chancer" states which do not. France has an even worse record than Italy in complying with EU law. Statistics compiled by Transparency International show Greece to have corruption levels well out of line with the rest of Europe, and Italy is not far behind. Finland, for example, is almost squeaky clean. How they can even sit down at the same table as the rogue states is beyond me.

JUST Response: How aware do you think successive Italian governments, including the present one, have been of the lettori problem and of the sad state of its universities generally?

Petrie: It is not just difficult but actually impossible to find anyone anywhere who has a good word to say about Italian universities. Successive Italian governments have been lobbying all the Italian political parties in the European Parliament. Their Permanent representative sent a lobbying note to try and spike a Parliamentary Resolution last October. But it backfired, the document leaked and MEPs were scathing about an embassy trying to thwart the democratic work carried out by the Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee. People in the present government are aware of the problem and are sympathetic. Alleanza Nazionale [Gianfranco Fini's rightwing party which currently forms part of the ruling Berlusconi coalition, Ed] conducted a very comprehensive study of the problem and came out 100% in our favour, much to the annoyance of the so-called trade unions such as the CGIL [Italy's largest trade union for university employees, Ed], whose lickspittles cooperated in an ignominious attempt to downgrade us to laboratory technicians. Forza Italia deputies have been courteous and encouraging. They have no love for the university fiefdoms, traditionally strongholds of the left. But they are unlikely to be enthusiastic about picking up a huge bill for a problem they did not create.

JUST Response: If you were in Silvio Berlusconi's shoes what precise action would you take at this stage in order to solve the problem?

Petrie: If I were in Berlusconi's shoes, I would try to save money whilst finding a reasonable solution. With the European Commission currently poised to take Italy back to the ECJ for mega-fines, Berlusconi's government now finds itself between a rock and a hard place. They will have to settle. But they will not want to spend any more cash on Italy's most obvious white elephant.

JUST Response: It is fairly likely that Berlusconi will see this interview. Is there something you would like to say to him directly?

Petrie: Like everyone else, Berlusconi knows that Italian language and literature professors are the most underworked, overpaid "academics" on the globe. They teach 2 hours and 15 minutes per week for 30 weeks of the year. Their research is breathtaking in its shallowness and irrelevance. Mountains of useless half-baked second-hand trash on post-modernism, translated from other sources and presented as fresh research is regularly inflicted upon hapless punch-drunk students, who memorise such nonsense for exam day and then wisely forget it for the rest of their lives. For this, these parasites pick up a monthly pay cheque of 4,000. Even they cannot seriously believe that they "earn" this money. I'd like Berlusconi to say: "Let's talk business, how about a productivity deal? Our young people need languages. We'll integrate you into our universities in line with EU law but help us to reform our teaching. We want graduates in four years (not 6-8) who have two languages and a fighting chance of going on the job market". And then if I were to indulge in my wildest dream, I'd like him to ask our association to put together a think tank and produce a report on language teaching in Italian universities. We have the expertise, and yes, we have the balls too. We'd certainly show him how to get better value for his money God, that wouldn't be hard!

JUST Response: When and why did you found the Association of Foreign Lecturers in Italy (ALLSI)?

Petrie: In September 1997 after it had become obvious that the Italian trade unions would serve national interests rather than EU community interests 

JUST Response: How many members do you have?  

Petrie: Upwards of 400 at the moment, and we are expanding on a weekly basis. 

JUST Response: What are the typical sort of day-to-day questions you receive from ALLSI members?

Petrie: I reply to about thirty e-mails a day from ALLSI members. Most are about bullying in the workplace.

JUST Response: Why is it that the CGIL still has so many lettori members despite the fact that they are in an embarrassingly obvious way allied to the Italian government opposition?

Petrie: They don't have that many members. They have already lost 200 to ALLSI, but they do have some big strongholds like Bari, Udine, Florence, Trento, Trieste, Padua and Turin.  ALLSI has more members everywhere else. The CGIL line is "let's deal with this at home" any other line, especially the European line, threatens  their muscle. And, being thoroughly undemocratic, they attack individual initiatives such as ALLSI's  immediately. But, on a more sympathetic note, these old 1968 lefties will defend foreign workers provided they do not rock the boat. In this case rocking the boat means occupying teaching posts designated for people with Italian qualifications. Two vociferous CGIL activists I know of had no degree when they were employed in Florence and Verona. But these are exceptions. Nevertheless, many lettori feel safer being "herded" inside a big lefty union. I have never met a single CGIL lettore with an academic track record of any description. But this fact does not set them apart from most Italian language and literature "academics", so they feel a certain safety in numbers.

JUST Response: Despite your obvious positive achievements in the 14 years you have dedicated to this fight for justice and despite the international recognition you have received you were even shortlisted by the ABC Australian radio network two years ago for their "European citizen of the year" prize some of your colleagues have criticised you for allowing the European Commission to drop the issue of lettori's professional status from legal proceedings back in 1998. What is your response to this?

Petrie: They are talking absolute nonsense. The Commission is master of its own affairs. It is not obliged to accept any of our observations concerning its handling of our complaint. Nevertheless, the Commission does, and in our case did consult us, though not as much as it should have, which thereby raised suspicions of a "stitch up". Infringement proceedings are covered by secrecy and this, I believe, is  understandable in some cases and plainly wrong in others. The Italian authorities sent their observations to the Commission. These secret observations were leaked to us and we saw that they contained information which was wrong and indeed contained falsehoods and inaccuracies. We hold the politicos in Commissioner Padraig Flynn's office responsible for the fiasco which followed. He met us personally and we were treated to half-an-hour of  waffle, feigned innocence of the fact that we had sent him a complaint of criminal wrongdoing on the part of the Italian authorities and plain bullshit. We complained through our knowledge of these leaked documents that the Commission had, without consulting us, accepted them as true allegations. We could easily have demonstrated them to be false had we been given the opportunity to do so. We took this complaint to the European Ombudsman, and it was upheld. Angered by the chicanery of the Italian authorities, we applied to them for access to the files. They refused, arguing that the files were covered by EU secrecy rules. We challenged these rules in the Court of First Instance. We lost. But the Court had put in an extra 2 judges to hear our complaint, the Swedish and the Danish governments expressed an interest and the debate on transparency is still a live issue. I do not think anyone in the Commission views us vindictively for having raised an issue which was plainly of public interest and not vexatious. The CGIL and other trade unions signed a national contract downgrading lettori to technician status. The Italian government sent this contract and local collective contracts to the Commission as evidence that status was not an issue. A minority, I repeat, a minority of lettori collaborated in their own downgrading and continue to do so. ALLSI grew from the rage of abused (as the Courts have proved) foreign university lecturers who were employed as teaching staff and are determined to remain teaching staff.

JUST Response: There are currently reckoned to be well over 1,500 foreign-language teachers at Italian universities. A fair number of those who teach English come from non-EU English-speaking countries such as the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Other non-EU citizens teach languages ranging from Russian and Arabic to Chinese and Japanese. Will they all benefit from Euro-Court decisions and will there be a uniform solution for everyone?

Petrie: Legally resident non-EU migrant workers have the same rights as EU migrant workers. That's the theory. In practice non-EU workers are more vulnerable since they have nobody to complain to, unlike EU workers who can go to the European Parliament and the Commission, as we have done. When it comes to the transfer of pensions, non-EU workers will be in very serious difficulty if they fall prey to an unscrupulous host state.

JUST Response: Job discrimination against foreign-language teachers at Italian universities has been going on in various forms since the category was created in 1980. One ECJ judge officially referred to it as a self-defined discriminatory category of workers. That's well over two decades and it's still going on despite 4 Euro-Court decisions. Do you see a final end to the problem and if so, when?

Petrie: When we formed ALLSI in 1997 it was already clear that it was going to be a very long haul indeed. Within weeks rather than months the Commission is likely to send out its reasoned opinion to the Italian state. That is to say, it is now about to show its teeth. Will this coerce Italy? The Italian state has to a large extent circumvented previous ECJ judgements. There is prima facie evidence of further abuses. For example, pension contributions are transferable anywhere in the EU. Many people, including myself, have large holes in their contributions, even though they have paid the contributions. This is a ticking bomb. Italy has a particularly low birthrate and cannot pay its aging population. History tells us that when there is an economic squeeze, foreigners are the first victims. One thing is sure:  ALLSI will have etched out a small place for itself in the history of the EU. We will either prove that citizens' rights enshrined in the Treaty are enforceable, or we will prove the opposite. If the latter turns out to be the case, then all talk of "European citizenship" and a "fellowship of nations" will be shown to be nothing other than a load of impressive-sounding nonsense, which the Eurosceptics believe it to be. 

 

Note: This interview was first published by JUST Response on December 3 2002. The ALLSI website is currently under construction. David Petrie may be contacted at petried@sis.it

 

 

See also: The Domenico Pacitti Archive

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