For the first time in 12 years, the tight unity among Italy's trade unions has come unglued. Italy has been plagued with Communist-led strikes, culminating in a general strike March 24. The strikes, instigated by the Communist-backed Confederation of Italian Workers, are to protest the Socialist government's attempt to stall inflation by modifying workers' wages.
In an effort to bring inflation down from 16 percent to 10 percent, Socialist Premier Bettino Craxi has tried to decrease workers' pay raises.
Under the current system, worker salaries are kept in line with inflation according to ''wage-indexing points.'' The government proposes reducing salary increases from 12 points to nine points annually. This would mean a decrease in salaries, after accounting for inflation.
The controversy has ended 12 years of unity in Italy's trade-union federation composed of the Christian Democrat-backed Social Confederation of Italian Workers (CISL), the Socialist Union of Italian Workers (UIL), and the Communist-supported Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL), which has a minority Socialist faction.
The discussion about wage indexing has put the CGIL - which vehemently opposes government attempts to change the wage system - in opposition to its own Socialist minority as well as the two other unions.
''How can a union not be weak when it has experienced three years of zero growth in the economy - and therefore for three years has had nothing to distribute?'' asked the deputy leader of the CGIL, Ottavio Del Turco.
Mr. Del Turco favored at least negotiations before declaring open war on the government. But once the prospect of a union split was unavoidable, he joined his boss, CGIL General Secretary Luciano Lama, in decisive opposition to the government line.
Most observers say that the unions' conduct and therefore their eventual split was due to political rather than socially oriented moves in recent years.
Vittorio Merloni, ex-president of the Confederation of Industry and opponent of the CFIL, disagrees. (It was under his mandate that the government's anti-inflation package was drawn up.) In his final speech at the confederation last week, he expressed concern for the split among the unions:
''We hope there will now emerge a new union more suited to the times we live in. But there's always the risk that one will form based on a spirit of vengeance.''
Premier Craxi also commented on the dispute in a televised press conference last week: ''The government will bow only to the will of Parliament and not to the will of people who take to the streets.''
He said that CGIL reaction was ''exaggerated.''
Although the measures are virtually in effect, they are still under heated discussion in Parliament. The deadline for parliamentary approval is March 22, but it is unlikely that any accord will be reached before then. In sometimes uproarious parliamentary debate, Communist deputies have introduced some 280 amendments to the bill.