Steven Star in the New York Times
In Studios & Grand Halls, Feeling a Pinch from Italy
January 31, 2012 Media Source:
New York Times Written By:
As Italy’s new government scrambles to stave off economic disaster, the budget cuts it has imposed are rippling through Italian institutions in New York City, slicing into paychecks and prompting plans to shut down a venerable state-owned television operation.
At the Italian consulate on the Upper East Side, staff members have had their salaries reduced, and officials there are considering closing their nearest satellite office, in Newark. Downstairs, at the Italian American Committee on Education, the annual budget was reduced by about a third. Several blocks away, the Italian trade commission staved off an auction of the mansion it occupies, but has stopped running advertisements for its Made in Italy campaign.
“All of the administration in Italy is going to be rationalized,” said Lucia Pasqualini, deputy consul in New York. “For sure, every public sector will be influenced” by the austerity measures being determined in Rome, she said.
Mario Monti, who succeeded Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister late last year, has been pressing the Italian government to reduce spending and change customs that he argues have made Italy less competitive. On Friday, the Fitch ratings agency lowered its rating on Italy’s debt but said the reduction would have been bigger if not for Mr. Monti’s proposed reforms.
Ms. Pasqualini said that she and her colleagues had sustained cuts in their pay because of the financial crisis gripping southern Europe, but she said she felt lucky that she still had her job. She added that the consulate was considering closing its office in Newark, which provides visas and assistance to Italian citizens. If it closed, she said, the employees there would probably be offered positions at the New York offices, on Park Avenue.
At RAI Corporation, the North American operation of Italy’s national broadcasting network, the proposed action is more drastic. The company, which has produced television and radio reports for more than half a century, has notified 66 employees in New York that they will probably lose their jobs by April.
The shutdown would leave RAI’s correspondents without their own state-of-the-art studios in Manhattan. No longer would they be able to stand on one of the terraces outside RAI’s offices in TriBeCa and report on events with the city skyline as a backdrop. Instead, they would have to go to the studios of another company, like The Associated Press, to produce their reports.
But the workers, more than half of whom are members of a local union, are resisting and complaining that they are being treated differently from their peers in Rome. In a letter to the company’s lawyer, a lawyer for the unionized employees warned that the scheduled shutdown and plan to outsource the production of television and radio news reports would violate the workers’ contract and American labor law. In the letter, the union’s lawyer, Steven E. Star, questioned the authority of Guido Corso, the president of RAI Corporation.
“We would like to be clear that we do not believe that Guido Corso is authorized or capable of negotiating over either the decision to close and contract out the bargaining unit’s work, nor the impact of such a decision,” Mr. Star said in his letter to Peter A. Walker, a lawyer in Manhattan who represents RAI.
Last week, before the letter was sent, Mr. Corso said that the company “decided to have a different situation in the States.” He said that RAI would “probably outsource the production work that is provided by this company to an outside service.”
Mr. Corso later declined to comment further because he said that negotiations with the employees had not concluded.
The deputy consul, Ms. Pasqualini, said the consulate had expressed its support for RAI Corporation as an important part of the Italian-American community in New York. But she said there was little more the consulate could do.
The closing of RAI’s operation would be a big loss for Italian speakers in the metropolitan area, said Anthony Tamburri, the dean of the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute at Queens College.
Dr. Tamburri said he had been interviewed for two shows —“Italia Chiama Italia” and “Focus” — on RAI’s international channel aimed at Italians living outside Italy. “Just those two shows alone are extremely important because what they do is they create this network of information,” Dr. Tamburri said.
The employees of RAI, of course, are most concerned about the potential loss of their jobs in New York when not much hiring is happening in the broadcasting business. One employee said that Mr. Corso had indicated that workers with Italian citizenship might be able to find other positions with the parent network in Rome. But that outcome is not assured because the New York operation is an American corporation, meaning the employees lack the job security that Italian law would afford them.
“It’s very hard to fire someone” in Italy, Dr. Tamburri said. “There is this thought process that you have to do everything you can to make sure everyone has a job.”
The budget cuts at the trade commission influenced its decision last year to sell its five-story town house on East 67th Street, which was once known as the Hugh D. Auchincloss House. A sealed-bid sale was scheduled, with a minimum price set at $32 million.
Aniello Musella, the executive director of the commission, said that the sale was intended to raise money for the commission’s operations but that the sole bid was unacceptable. For now, he said, the commission plans to stay put and find other ways to cope with a tighter budget.
Mr. Musella said the commission was still promoting shoes, clothing and other products made in Italy but had stopped advertising in magazines and other media aimed at consumers. Before the cutbacks, he said, the commission had invested about $2 million in its Made in Italy promotional campaign.
“We are cutting a lot of expense that we had before,” Mr. Musella said. “We are trying to make things in-house instead of outsourcing them.”
The Italian Cultural Institute, a neighbor of the consulate, has turned to corporate sponsors to help finance its exhibitions, like the current one, “150 Years of Italian Genius: Innovations Changing the World,” said Riccardo Viale, the institute’s director.
“Always complaining that there are no public funds is a mistake,” Mr. Viale said. “Every year there has been some cut. These cuts are welcome, because they are necessary.”