CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Since the early 1990s, the crisis of traditional employers’ associations has been a central issue of academic debates on the restructuring of interest groups in Europe.  [1] Two main sets of factors have been broadly identified to explain this crisis: the rescaling of states  [2] and the transformation of production systems.  [3] These phenomena appear to have helped diversify the arenas of negotiation between employers—and in particular the associations representing them—and the public authorities. These dynamics have also increased the complexity of the representation of interests. The business community consequently appears increasingly fragmented, disparate, and marked by divisions (sectoral, territorial, technological, etc.). Traditional employers’ associations, particularly national peak associations,  [4] seem to have found it difficult to adapt to these dynamics and are losing their legitimacy in many European states.  [5]

2In this context, several studies have sought to move beyond national perspectives in order to examine the reorganization of the mechanisms of employers’ collective action at other territorial levels. Consequently, over the last twenty years, the analysis of the mobilizations of interest groups at the European level has become a fertile field of study in political science.  [6] For its part, research on sub-national territories is a less integrated field of study, primarily as a result of the more or less decentralized nature of states and of the disciplinary traditions that have engaged with this issue in the past. In this regard, it has predominantly been works on industrial relations, in this case around the concept of local concertation, that have shown a continued interest in the territorial mobilizations of business interest groups.  [7] This issue has barely found an echo in research conducted in France on politics and territorial politics.  [8] Conversely, North American academics have long included the territorial mobilization of business interest groups in their analyses.  [9] Consequently, researchers working in the field of territorial politics have recently allowed this issue to regain its relevance in European contexts.  [10] These studies are characterized by a strong theoretical approach, which sees the territorial restructuring of the state as an analytical prism through which to study the institutionalization of forms of collective action at the meso levels. They have therefore helped fill a gap in the literature on local public policy by revealing the “institutional isomorphism” of interest groups.  [11] Despite their undeniable contribution to our understanding of the adaptation strategies adopted by interest groups—in particular employers’ associations—in response to the decentralization reforms enacted in several European countries, these works have somewhat neglected the analysis of power relations. Moreover, they tend to focus on a recent time horizon.

3In this article, we would like to propose taking a different approach, focusing on the political rationales underlying the reconfiguration of employer mobilization in response to changes in the institutional and economic order. We will focus on a domain of public-policy activity with which local governments have engaged heavily since the 1970s: support for competitiveness and technological innovation. These policies seek to transform local production systems in response to changes in the conditions of international competition. Through this analysis, we seek to demonstrate that the territorial variable  [12] is an ideal prism through which to view the transformation of employer mobilization and, more broadly, the mechanisms through which employers build and maintain their political influence. In order to address this issue, we will adopt an analytical framework borrowed from the field of comparative political economy, and corporatism more specifically, which we will apply at meso levels.  [13] Corporatism has often been interpreted in the literature as a system of relations between the state and organized socioeconomic actors, belonging to a given historical moment—the Keynesian period—and to specific national contexts, in particular, those of Austria and Northern European countries. Conversely, in this article, we will use it as an analytical framework to understand the evolution of employers’ capacity to mobilize and participate in shaping policies on innovation and competitiveness.  [14] In this respect, we will focus on the relations between local public authorities and business interest organizations. We will consider these modes of relations as institutions that represent a range of opportunities and limitations for employer mobilization (see Figure 1).  [15] Through an analysis that is both dynamic and rooted in historical context, we will argue that the (non-)evolution of these relations over time allows us to understand the changes in the power relations within the employer class and between employers’ associations and local public authorities.  [16]

Figure 1. Analytical framework

tableau im1

Figure 1. Analytical framework

4This article seeks therefore to understand whether and how employers have been able to maintain a central role in shaping local development policies by renewing and adapting their strategies and structures over time. Our view is that the evolution of the political-institutional  [17]and economic context contributes to the reconfiguration of the mobilization of employers, in particular their forms of collective action.  [18] More specifically, we will demonstrate that the institutionalization of local governments  [19] impacts employers’ capacity to collectively defend their interests by shaping economic policies. That said, taking into account these institutional conditions does not shed any light on the variability of the causes defended over time. In this neo-institutionalist perspective, we will therefore incorporate economic factors, including, in particular, the structure of local production systems.  [20] In this regard, we will consider how the sectors and the production models of firms have evolved as a result of technological changes and the opening up of international markets.  [21]

5Empirically speaking, this article concerns employer mobilization in an urban region of Italy: Milan.  [22] This case is particularly relevant for two reasons. Firstly, it is characterized by a high concentration of industrial and services companies.  [23] Secondly, it is situated in a national context in which, despite the marked fragmentation of representation, employers’ associations have traditionally been organized on a territorial basis (see Appendix 1).  [24] We will examine these mobilizations over an extended period—from the industrial crisis of the 1970s to the start of the 2008-11 economic and financial crisis—that was marked by profound institutional and economic changes. On the one hand, the intensification of decentralization and the end of the First Republic in Italy wreaked havoc on certain mechanisms, such as the mediation of political parties,  [25] that had governed the relations between local public authorities and employers’ associations. On the other hand, the post-Fordist transition and the process of globalization led to a change in the productive base, putting many actors under strain, in particular traditional employers’ associations. Our analysis will explore three programs in which employers’ associations and local governments, in particular the regional council, participated (see Table 1).  [26] These interventions are emblematic in terms of their impact on local economic development (resources allocated, physical transformation of the territory and economic sectors) and the political challenges they posed, as regards conflicts within the different fringes of the employer class and building political consensus among elected representatives.

6Our argument is organized into three parts that correspond to three time periods in which it is possible to identify variations in the types of relations established between employers and local governments. Changes in the political context and the organization of local production contributed to the reconfiguration of employer interests and more generally of power relations with local public authorities. The institutional trajectory of these relations therefore reveals the balance that was gradually established within Milan’s employer class between strategies defending the status quo and the introduction of incremental changes into local economic development policies.

Table 1. Interventions supporting local development

PeriodPrograms analyzedMain actors
1970-80 Pacchetto Economico and creation of CESTEC (Centro Lombardo per lo Sviluppo Tecnologico delle Piccole Imprese) Regional council and employers’ associations (in particular Federlombarda)
1981-94 North Milan technology park (which includes the redevelopment of the Bicocca district) Regional council and firms
1995-2011 Patto per lo sviluppo dell’economia e del lavoro (1998, renewed by each regional legislature)Strategic committee for competitiveness (2006)Accordo di Programma for competitiveness (2006, renewed in 2010)Calls for specific projects run by Assessorato Attività produttive Social partners, chambers of commerce, universities, third-sector organizations, etc.Regional council (Assessorato Attività Produttive) and regional network of chambers of commerce (Unioncamere).Individual firms or employers’ associations

Table 1. Interventions supporting local development

Region building and the Fordist crisis: Employers’ organizations in the driving seat of regional policy (1970-80)

7In a context of a slowdown in industrial production, the 1970s were characterized by the implementation of the first economic development policies delivered predominantly by regional governments that were still under construction. During this period, Milan’s employers began to mobilize at the regional level and established fairly institutionalized relations with regional administrations. Due to its uncertain legitimacy and still limited administrative resources, the regional council relied heavily on the economic expertise provided by employers to build up its activity in the economic sphere.

8The production crisis of the 1970s had a marked effect on the economic fabric of the urban region, in which industrial firms still had a strong presence. These firms came together in a territorial representative association, Assolombarda (Associazione industriale lombarda),  [27] which was distinctive in that it brought together several major Italian companies (Pirelli, Falck) as well as business owners from the local petty and middle bourgeoisie. Indeed, in 1970, around 85% of the companies that were members of Assolombarda had fewer than 100 employees. This association played a central role in national industrial policy through its participation in Confindustria (General Confederation of Italian Industry).  [28] At first very critical of decentralization, the association quickly adopted a more nuanced stance. The failure of certain national economic planning measures and the tensions with trade union organizations  [29] led the industrialists to gradually change their position.  [30] This evolution is particularly visible in the case of Milan, where employer mobilizations supported and strengthened region building, thus enabling some institutional barriers to be overcome. Indeed, following the first regional elections in 1970, there was a period of uncertainty concerning the transfer of powers and resources from the state level. Below is an extract from a speech made by the president of Assolombarda, Giuseppe Pellicanò,  [31] in 1972 at the general meeting of the association, which clearly expresses the expectations of Milan’s industrialists for the region:


It falls to the regions to overcome the deadlock that characterizes the centralized and bureaucratic state machine. [...] The regions must not only promote a renewed relationship between the political class and citizens, but also foster the emergence of a new political class and a new way of doing politics that is more effective, more commensurate with the real issues, and closer to the expectations of the people and the demands of the productive sectors. This scenario has encountered objective resistance; I am referring to the difficulties relating to the definitive transfer from the state to the regions of the administrative powers provided for by the Constitution. Once the regions have acquired effective operational autonomy, the problem of defining the “rules of the game” will remain. These rules enable everyone, and I mean everyone, including business owners, to truly participate and have the opportunity to contribute to the tangible construction of this new institution.  [32]

10Milan’s industrialists supported the regional services in the implementation of the first interventions providing assistance to companies,  [33] while helping to strengthen the legitimacy of the regional institution more broadly. This symbolic support was accompanied by specific actions and an internal reorganization intended to facilitate interactions with the regional council. In 1971, Milan’s industrialists then proceeded to create a regional association, Federlombarda, which was nonetheless controlled in practice by Assolombarda.  [34] Moreover, through its economic office, the association launched a series of research memos on the productive fabric of Lombardy. We note that, at the time, the regional council did not have its own research and planning center. The expertise and information provided by Assolombarda’s research office therefore proved to be central to the development of the first regional measures supporting industry. In the mid-1970s, the Regional Council of Lombardy, led by a DC-PSI majority, decided to adopt an industrial strategy. In this context, ever closer relations were established between Federlombarda’s offices and the services of the Assessorato all’Industria (Department of Industry) of the regional council. These negotiations were further facilitated by the close proximity between the political and economic elites.  [35] They resulted in a programmatic document—the Pacchetto economico—which was adopted in 1978 and incorporated a large proportion of the demands made by Federlombarda. Two measures bore the mark of the employers’ association: the creation of a regional center to support SMEs with technological innovation (CESTEC), jointly managed with the employers’ associations; and the decision of the regional council to delegate to them the management of territorial centers dedicated to technology transfer and to providing assistance to companies.  [36]

11The mobilization of Milan’s industrialists no doubt inspired and fostered the first regional economic policies, by ensuring they would have crucial operational and political support. Over this period, interorganizational interaction intensified around both the joint preparation of memos and reports and the participation of employer representatives in the work of the regional commissions. The creation of the regional organization responded in particular to Assolombarda’s desire to institutionalize the cooperative relationship it had with the regional council, claiming that it represented all industrial interests in the region. We are therefore confronted by the significant capacity for collective mobilization among employers in the urban region, since, during this period, the regional council still had limited internal administrative capacity and expertise. The type of relationship that had developed between the regional council and Federlombarda thus resembled a form of government guided by interests.  [37] Without its own internal administrative capacity, the regional council was heavily reliant on the employers’ organizations, to which it chose to delegate the pursuit of certain objectives on which there was substantive agreement: the prosperity of the productive fabric and the maintenance of political consensus. Indeed, the majority of regional measures consisted of providing assistance to SMEs and large companies to enable them to respond to the crisis in the traditional industrial sectors, which were at that time dominant within Assolombarda.  [38]

The “partitocrazia” and the differentiation of the industrial bourgeoisie: The major firms playing solo (1981-94)

12The industrial production crisis, which began in the 1970s, was accompanied in the years that followed by the massive relocation of productive activities. This process accelerated the specialization in services of the urban region compared with the rest of the region (see Table 2). The physical and productive transformation of the urban region was therefore shaped to a lesser extent by collective actions involving the public authorities and employers’ associations. In this second period, we can observe the fragmentation of employer interests, with ad hoc alliances between major companies, elected representatives, and officials within the regional government gradually replacing the negotiations through collective mediation by employers of the previous period.

Table 2. Change in the proportion of employees by geographical area (1971-91)

Var. 1971-81 Lombardy Region Province Milan (city)
Industry – 3.5 – 8.0 – 26.4
Services 27.5 23.1 11.1
TOTAL 11.4 3.1 – 8.8
Var. 1981-91 Lombardy Region Province Milan (city)
Industry – 8.4 – 12.3 – 13.5
Services 10.3 11.5 6.8
TOTAL – 1.5 2.3 – 2.2

Table 2. Change in the proportion of employees by geographical area (1971-91)

Source: OETAMM (Osservatorio economico-territoriale dell’area metropolitana milanese) “Evoluzione della struttura economica dell’area metropolitana milanese nel corso degli anni ‘80 e linee di tendenza per gli anni ’90,” (Milan, 1994), 90­101.

13On the political front, the mid-1980s saw the onset of a period of electoral volatility that destabilized political alliances (juntas)  [39] and gradually narrowed political activity to partisan issues. In order to manage the ongoing socioeconomic transformations, the regional representatives gradually shifted their focus towards building governing coalitions rather than developing public policies. This shift led to the erosion of ties with business, which some bureaucrats attempted to limit by prolonging cooperative relations with Milan’s employers.

14During this period, the regional council strengthened its administrative capacity and sought to reinforce its legitimacy, in particular by expanding the capacity of its research and planning center, the Istituto regionale di ricerca della regione lombardial (IReR) (Lombardy Regional Institute for Research).  [40] It was the IReR’s technocrats that put forward the idea of a prospective research project called Progetto Milano in the early 1980s. This project sought to define a development strategy for the urban area of Milan and to encourage the emergence of joint projects. The prospective research work lasted five years (1982-87) and gave rise to several publications and conferences.  [41] Given the scope of the research conducted, Progetto Milano was an important vehicle for legitimizing the regional institution and in particular its research center. The management of research was centralized by the IReR’s technocrats who worked with academics from Milan to carry out the studies.  [42] The elected representatives of the regional council approved the project but were not particularly involved in the process, if at all. The findings were communicated to them, but they did not take up the recommendations articulated. The technocratic management of the project and the ambition of the IReR experts to limit the influence of the parties  [43] led to a compartmentalization of the political and administrative spheres, which hindered the translation of the recommendations articulated in the studies into action programs.

15Nevertheless, the work carried out for Progetto Milano contributed to the emergence on the public agenda of the issue of the competitive position of the urban region of Milan in the international arena.  [44] One of the project’s key strands was the formulation of public policies that could support the transition from a factory-city (città-fabbrica) to a post-industrial metropolis. Among the various proposals, we would like to note one study on the technological regeneration of the Nord Milano area, which was a hub of large Fordist companies, in particular in the steel industry.  [45] The study was conducted based on a project to create a technology park in the Bicocca district led by Pirelli, which, in the early 1980s, had already announced its desire to close its production facilities in Milan. Fairly tough negotiations then ensued between the company, the trade unions, and the regional council. Pirelli put forward the idea of making Bicocca a technological hub, a proposal that was received favorably within the local governments and consequently facilitated negotiations with the unions. The signing of an agreement for the regeneration of the district was presented in the following terms by the socialist vice-president of the Regional Council of Lombardy, Luigi Vertemati (PSI):


At the start of 1984, I held in my hands the Pirelli file [full decommissioning of the Bicocca production facilities and relocation of some production units near Milan and in the urban area of Turin]. I thought without hesitation that the proposal would be seen by public opinion as a sign that a company that symbolized the city was abandoning us. We urgently needed to find a solution both to reverse the situation of conflict and negativity that had driven negotiations between the company and the unions, and to transform the “Bicocca issue” into a challenge for the future.  [46]

17Pirelli’s is not an isolated case. The major industrial firms that owned the brownfield sites freed up in the city center and the immediate surrounding area engaged heavily with the implementation of urban development projects. These were presented and justified as projects promoting the technological development of Milan’s productive fabric, but they responded de facto to the need for liquidity  [47] in order to support the restructuring and especially the differentiation of their productive models. Beyond these individual mobilizations, these major companies also experimented with forms of collective action outside of the traditional associations representing employers. As such, Pirelli and other firms became stakeholders in an association created by some IReR technocrats and academics that had participated in the Progetto Milano: the Associazione Interessi Metropolitani (AIM).  [48] This association had the express purpose “of studying the issues of the Lombardy metropolitan area, to promote its balanced modernization within the Italian metropolitan system, and to increase its international competitiveness.”  [49] More specifically, the AIM sought to raise elected representatives’ awareness of projects of “metropolitan interest” (biotech consortiums, high-speed cabling in the regional territory, etc.), in which the members of this association were often involved. It advocated a development model for the Milan urban region that was highly focused on new technologies and the creation of high value-added activities.  [50] However, this model, driven forward by the major firms, struggled to garner support within traditional employers’ associations, in particular Assolombarda,  [51] which gradually took up these issues from the early 1990s, without really altering its strategy or its position.  [52] During the 1980s, the association’s activities continued to focus primarily on the management of trade union negotiations in the industrial sector, in particular due to the pressure exerted by SMEs in the metalworking sector, which were faced with the decommissioning of steel production facilities. The differentiation of the productive fabric of the urban region and the productive models of its members resulted in the strengthening of ideological oppositions within Assolombarda. Increasingly exposed to the interference of political parties,  [53] the association emerged from this period weakened.

18At the same time, the negotiations between the regional council and employers tended to be focused on specific issues, through bilateral relations that primarily involved the major industrial companies undergoing restructuring. Consequently, the capacity of employers to influence local economic development remained strong, but predominantly concerned those firms involved in one-off projects, in cooperation with experts from the regional council and outside of the collective mediation provided by the employers’ associations. Assolombarda lost the central role it had acquired during the preceding period in the negotiations with the regional council. It underwent an internal crisis, triggered by the misalignment of the strategies of the upper and petty industrial bourgeoisie. At the same time, “new” forms of collective action led by major groups outside of the traditional associations, such as the AIM, failed to penetrate the political agenda.  [54]

19The erosion of the cooperative model of the 1970s can therefore be explained by the convergence of several factors. The economic and political changes that took place in the 1980s caused the balance among Milan’s employer class to be reconfigured, while weakening its capacity to act and to negotiate collectively with political actors. The power of the political parties and the spread of corrupt practices during the 1980s  [55] conditioned more broadly the emergence of collective projects for territorial development, over which ad hoc interventions were preferred. The crisis surrounding the capacity for collective action in this period led employers to rethink their approach and their strategies of representation. We will demonstrate that this reconfiguration was built on the legacy of the types of relations cultivated with local public authorities in the 1970s, which were embedded—while being reconfigured—in a radically different institutional and economic context.

The differentiation of the productive fabric and the institutionalization of the regional council: Towards selective pluralism (1995-2011)

20In this third period, the specialization in services of the Milan urban region compared with the rest of the regional territory was amplified, particularly until 2001 (see Table 2). From the 2000s onwards, productive systems in the Milan region continued to be restructured, with a significant increase in jobs in the new information and communication technology sectors, to the detriment of industry (see Table 3). These economic changes were linked to political and institutional developments that contributed to the reshaping of employers’ spaces of action. On the one hand, several institutional reforms stabilized the regional executive powers—through the direct election of the president—and significantly strengthened the powers of the regions in the field of economic development.  [56] On the other hand, the crisis of the political parties seemed to open up a new space for employers’ organizations (associations and chambers of commerce) in the territorial representation of their interests.  [57] We can observe that, as a result of these institutional and economic transformations, a type of relation that we call “selective pluralism” was established. Faced with the growing power of regional bureaucracies and the pluralization of employer representation, some associations came to occupy a privileged place in the shaping of local economic policy.

21From the late 1990s onwards, regional policies supporting economic development became more significant. This evolution can be explained both by political will and by the combined effects of national reforms and European policies (see below). Beyond traditional interventions of providing assistance to companies, the regional council intensified in particular its support for local and technological production systems (districts and clusters) and promoted the creation of mechanisms for cooperation between companies (business networks). In order to institutionalize its economic activities, it set up concertation bodies,  [58] the largest of which was the Patto per lo sviluppo dell’economia del lavoro in Lombardia (Pact for the Development of the Economy and of Work) launched in 1998 and renewed without fail by each legislature. The pact for development is a body that facilitates concertation on the strategic challenges of economic and social development faced by the region, and brings together various socioeconomic, business, and trade union partners. However, according to the employers’ associations, “agreements” within these bodies are hard to achieve. Consequently, relations were developed informally between employers’ associations and the regional council (in particular, the Assessorato alle Attività Produttive) around specific issues of regional policy. The following comment was made by a director of Confindustria Lombardia,  [59] who was interviewed in relation to interactions between employers’ associations and regional bodies in the context of the pact for development:


The regional council has prioritized a principally procedural approach, without addressing the substance. The communication of documents for prior notice, the majority of which had already been drafted and approved, was done with very little advanced warning. Furthermore, the Patto per lo sviluppo is a very large arena, with chambers of commerce, local authorities, universities, trade unions, etc. We have requested several times that the upstream work be strengthened, more informally and in a less ritualized way, in order to enable us to work together. This would make it easier to achieve a real consensus. [...] The situation changed when we re-established a collaboration with a specific assessorato [division], and then the interactions were more regular.  [60]

Figure 2. Evolution of jobs (by percentage) in the Milan urban region (2000-13)

tableau im2

Figure 2. Evolution of jobs (by percentage) in the Milan urban region (2000-13)

Table 3. Evolution of jobs in industry and services (1991-2007)

1991Var %2001Var %2004Var %2006Var %2007Var %
Milan (city) Industry 147,818 - 92,112 ­ 37.69% 96,190.47 4.43%87,594­ 8.94%87,9000.35%
Services 462,129 ­ 562,430 21.70% 593,964.1 5.61% 616,722 3.83% 636,065 3.14%
Province Industry 566,789 - 448,895 ­ 20.80% 426,861.73 ­ 4.91% 400,928 ­ 6.08% 401,336 0.10%
Services 789,000 - 1,015,927 28.76% 1,093,669.59 7.65% 1,147,472 4.92% 1,182,083 3.02%
TOTAL1,355,789-1,464,8228.04 %1,520,531.3 3.80%1,548,4001.83%1,583,4192.26%
Lombardy Region Industry 1,381,039 - 1,219,729 ­ 11.68%1,179,134.47­ 3.33% 1,138,820 ­ 3.42% 1,140,078 0.11%
Services 1,465,689 - 1,846,459 25.98%2,007,555.38.72% 2,131,713 6.18% 2,194,557 2.95%
tableau im4

Table 3. Evolution of jobs in industry and services (1991-2007)

23These informal links were modeled on the structure of the relations that had characterized interactions between the regional council and employers—in particular industrial employers—in the 1970s. However, we can identify two types of evolution in relation to that era. We can observe, firstly, a disintermediation of relations between territorial employers’ associations (Assolombarda) and the regional council through the regional association. This dynamic was more broadly part of the pluralization of the system of representation of employer interests, with a new role played by the chambers of commerce, which were strengthened by several reforms undertaken in the 1990s.  [61] From then on, the regional council largely relied upon the regional network of chambers to promote the territorialization of its activities, in particular through a partnership agreement providing for the co-funding of different measures in support of competitiveness.  [62] As stated by a director of the regional association of chambers of commerce, this approach was less about rethinking the development models than about increasing the effectiveness of public policy, by basing it on measures supporting businesses and providing innovation grants:


We tried to bring some order to activities in the region and the regional chambers of commerce in order to make public policies more effective. The challenge for the region was to divide up the territory through the chambers of commerce and to disseminate regional policies through a type of capillary action. For the chambers, this meant having greater control over the resources pumped into their reference territories.  [63]

25The chambers of commerce were therefore directly involved in the development and implementation of regional policies. The employers’ associations—including Confindustria Lombardia—instead lobbied the regional bureaucracies informally. This enabled them to gain access to information that was then relayed to their members to help harness financial resources. Regional policies supporting innovation and the competitiveness of businesses were in fact exclusively organized through calls for project proposals, centralized by the regional services.  [64] In this regard, a regional official did not hesitate to describe the region as a “call for project proposals machine,”  [65] underlining the highly fragmented nature of regional activity and the lack of coherence of the mechanisms for action. This situation was the result of a clear political choice made by the elected representatives of the center-right Forza Italia-Lega Nord coalition that governed the region for eighteen years, over four terms (1995-2013). This political continuity is rather indicative of the capacity of these two parties to represent the interests of two core groups in the socioeconomic fabric of Lombardy: the workers and owners of SMEs and VSBs, which were impacted by globalization; and the corporate powers of industry and the advanced services sector, which had strong roots in the Milan urban region and were represented in particular by Assolombarda.  [66]

26The majority of the representatives of the political and administrative elite that governed the region during this period had close ties to a religious movement, Comunione e Liberazione (CL),  [67] whose principles inspired regional policies. They sought to promote the self-organization of society on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity,  [68] which in fact resembled a neoliberal form of organization.  [69] In this regard, it was in particular the associations representing the interests of VSBs and tradespeople—which faced more difficulties organizing collective action and coordination between businesses—that seemed to demand more incentive-based and targeted interventions from the regional council:


There are “blueprints” that succeed one another but, without a collective project, we could easily go astray. The Lombardy region has recently invested 20 million euros into the business networks, which is no small thing. With this money, it will be possible to support investments, but we must also assess the real impact of these incentives on company strategies. This type of intervention is useful for shaping the market, but without public input the projects are often abandoned by the companies. Beyond the range of European and national policies, we need ideas, a more active policy.  [70]

28Beyond the distribution of funds to support technological innovation projects or forms of coordination between businesses, the regional council chose not to take on a coordinating role for the different initiatives led by employers and their associations, especially since they were related to a sub-regional territory. The region therefore became institutionalized at the cost of a growing bureaucratization, strengthened by the direct management of the European development and cohesion funds. Although this institutional change was not unfavorable to certain employers’ associations, which maintained privileged access to the assessorati,  [71] it did however lead to the fragmentation of regional policies, and gave rise to major issues around how to organize collective action in support of local economic development.

29In the case of the Milan region, the employers’ organizations (associations and chambers) adapted to this institutional configuration by attempting to carve out a different role for themselves in shaping local economic policy. More specifically, from the mid-1990s onwards, Assolombarda—following the example of Confindustria (see Appendix 1)—gradually opened up its membership to services companies. The aim was to strengthen its representativeness of Milan’s economic fabric,  [72] and this was supported by a restructuring of the organization and its working routines. The “territorial” dimension of its representation activities was heavily promoted; the association presented itself as a key actor in shaping economic policy in the Milan urban region. Firstly, it intensified its production of studies and programmatic documents that sought to define development priorities in order to strengthen the competitiveness of the Milan urban area. Producing these studies was a way of lobbying local governments, but also—and above all—of constructing the collective identity of the association in response to a greatly refreshed pool of members.  [73] Secondly, the association substantially broadened the range of services it offered to members. According to its directors, it was not just about organizing “big events”  [74] (conferences and seminars) or general training activities, but rather about personalizing services around emerging themes related to the competitiveness of businesses and regional development. Finally, it attempted to position itself as the initiator of public policies, through the implementation of interventions (for example, the creation of business networks bridging companies part of different value chains) that could be run autonomously  [75] or in response to calls for project proposals from the regional council. The renewal of the association’s repertoire of actions was built on an organizational legacy, of economic expertise in particular, that the employers were proud of and valued. Although this expertise had in the past been a decisive factor in establishing exclusive relations with the regional council, the development of the regional services in this third period made this repertoire of actions less effective. Consequently, Assolombarda was committed primarily to regaining its representativeness and partially lost its ability to directly influence regional policies. It nonetheless continued to occupy a privileged place in shaping local economic development policies.

30The role of coordinating the various initiatives in the field of economic development seemed by now to have been assumed by the Milan Chamber of Commerce.  [76] The chamber’s activism followed on from an internal process of restructuring its functions and staff that enabled it to considerably strengthen its administrative capacity, while diversifying the operational areas covered.  [77] The directors of the Milan Chamber of Commerce saw themselves as actors able to “inject innovation” into public policies, by trying in particular to shape the agenda of the regional council. As such, their activity echoed the role played by the IReR technocrats, who, first on the margins of the regional council and then within the AIM, had attempted, without success, to effect a change in the regional policies. The actions of the directors of the chamber of commerce also appeared to be restricted, but for different reasons. As chamber representatives, they were constrained by the conflicting pressures and vetoes of the different fringes of the employer class—industry and services, as well as commerce.  [78] Furthermore, as highlighted by the former chief of staff of the president of the Milan Chamber of Commerce, the elected representatives maintained control over the policies implemented and tended to prioritize policies that could achieve the greatest consensus possible:


The willingness of the chamber to “act as a system” was hindered by the still heavy presence of political actors, who were not at all prepared to say, “development planning, the vision of the country, that’s a job for you [the chamber representatives].” The region, the province, and the municipality could not neglect to implement initiatives for companies, because business owners are electors, they vote and they represent the middle class [ceto medio] in our territory.  [79]

32The gradual divergence of the economic interests of the urban region from those of the rest of the region and the pluralization of employer representation eventually led to public policies that favored the status quo:


We are constrained. One of the major constraints stems from the fact that we have never been the initiators of a change of perspective on the economic development trajectories of the urban region.  [80]

34This model of development had long been necessary for the survival of several firms—in particular SMEs—struggling to respond to the challenges posed by the opening up of international markets. In this regard, we hypothesize that the weak public regulation favored by the regional council responded to the desires expressed by employers in the urban region and that this especially benefited the employers’ associations with the most resources (organizational, relational, etc.), in particular Assolombarda. The association intensified its assistance to its members in order to facilitate their access to regional calls for tenders and to harness the financial resources available to a very large group of firms. To this end, it relied on ever more advanced internal expertise and on the informal ties it had developed with the regional services through the regional association. At the same time, it independently developed services to support the competitiveness of those companies most open to international competition, in particular through the creation of business networks bridging companies with different value chains.

35The change in the economic context following the 2008 financial crisis came into play here as a factor likely to destabilize the balance established between the traditional firms and those that had a more pronounced technological dimension. The downturn in production contributed to widening the gap between the competitiveness of the urban region and that of the Lombardy region (see Figure 3). More specifically, the clout of companies in the new technologies sector increased considerably in the Milan region. Moreover, the major services companies operating in these sectors (such as Accenture) had acquired positions of power on the Assolombarda board of directors. The association changed tack in favor of policies geared towards new technologies by promoting, in particular, the importance of the city and its role as the “powerhouse” for the rest of the region (and the country).  [81] However, it remains to be seen to what extent these international companies will be able to assume a leadership role in changing the model of development of the urban region and whether they will be able to amalgamate the interests of the business owners of Milan’s local bourgeoisie.  [82]

Figure 3. Change in added value (2,000 = 100) (2000-13)

tableau im3

Figure 3. Change in added value (2,000 = 100) (2000-13)

36In this article we have examined the capacity of employers to mobilize collectively on a territorial basis in order to influence public policy. To this end, we have sought to focus on the power relations between public and private actors by taking a diachronic and contextualized approach. This has enabled us to shine a light on how employers adapted strategically to the changes that resulted from institutional and economic developments. The analysis of the Milan case has allowed us to demonstrate that employers participated persistently in public policy processes at the local level and that, in certain circumstances, they succeeded in influencing public policies and in playing a role in the local political arena. Nevertheless, we have shown that the integration of economic interests into public policy processes is intermittent and varies over time. Finally, we have revealed a pluralization of the forms of representation of employer interests, despite the resistance of one traditional employers’ association: Assolombarda. Our analysis has enabled us to identify different types of relations between local governments and employers, which correspond to different configurations of local development policies (see Table 4).

Table 4. Evolution of the relations between employers’ associations and local governments and local development policies

Changes in the productive context Fordist industrial crisis affecting the entire regional territory Expansion of the services sector in the urban region and relocation of industrial activities Globalization and technological transition: gradual divergence of the economic fabric of the urban region from that of the rest of the region
Institutionalization of policy Weak administrative capacity Partitocracy Development of regional bureaucracies
Capacity of traditional employers’ associations to coherently express interests Strong (Assolombarda) In crisis: divergence of the interests of major industrial firms and SMEs. Emergence of alternative, but weaker, forms of employer collective action (AIM) Renewed in a context of the pluralization of representation, with strengthened chambers of commerce
Type of relations Management of interests through collective negotiation Bilateral relations—strong influence of special interests Selective pluralism
Local development models Broad direct assistance to industrial companies (SMEs, major firms) and collective action by employers’ associations supporting technological regeneration projects Maintenance of the regime of assistance for industrial companies to enable them to respond to production crises and support for property and technological regeneration projects focused on the urban region and driven by major firms Fragmented public interventions through calls for project proposals, though gradually specialized on technological issues, and highly specialized activity of employers’ associations (club goods)

Table 4. Evolution of the relations between employers’ associations and local governments and local development policies

37Thus, in the first period, an interventionist model was established, which provided direct assistance to struggling industrial firms. This model was the result of the fairly institutionalized negotiations between Assolombarda and the regional council. At this time, the latter had few administrative resources, which explains the integration of the demands made by the association of Milan’s industrialists. Collective mediation favored the implementation of broad measures in response to the industrial production crises, which benefited both SMEs and major firms.

38Nevertheless, this system began to erode from the 1980s onwards, following the divergence of the productive models of the major industrial firms and SMEs, which also affected Assolombarda’s ability to mediate. The major industrial firms then sought to develop ways to exert pressure from outside of the traditional bodies of representation by building direct and privileged relations with segments of the regional technocracy and by engaging in alternative forms of collective action, in particular through the AIM. The narrowing of regional politics to partisan issues acted as a break on the establishment of stable forms of cooperation with the employers’ associations. In this period, more exclusive relations between public and private actors led to more sporadic policy making, with the interests of the major firms dominating. We could note here that although collective negotiation was in crisis, the system of assistance for SMEs was retained.

39Finally, in the third period, the employers’ associations sought to respond to the diversification of the economic fabric of the Milan region by renewing their strategies and structures. Assolombarda developed its operations in the area of economic cooperation and the provision of highly specialized “club” goods and services for its members. The professionalization of the association went hand in hand with the development of the regional bureaucracies that supported the economic activities of the regional council, which became more substantial. Nevertheless, regional policies sought to satisfy the greatest number of companies through the proliferation of calls for tenders, which were poorly integrated despite the efforts of the chamber of commerce. In this pluralist system, the employers’ associations with the most resources (financial, relational, expertise) were still able to occupy a privileged place. This situation led to the implementation of public policies that generally maintained the status quo, around which targeted actions were formulated, mainly by the employers’ associations. The diachronic analysis of employer mobilization and development policies also reveals a model of incremental change, which resembles the typology of institutional layering as defined by Mahoney and Thelen.  [83] We see the gradual introduction of new mechanisms for supporting those businesses more geared towards technological innovation—without calling into question the more general forms of assistance—which particularly benefited industrial SMEs and were distributed from the 1970s onwards by the regional council.

40In conclusion, the Milan case has allowed us to demonstrate that, since the 1970s, employers have participated in shaping local economic development policies by investing their efforts at levels other than the national level. Our analysis therefore complements other recent studies on the territorialization of economic interest groups by focusing primarily on their strategies for adapting to decentralization reforms. For our part, we have suggested reintroducing structural economic factors into the analysis and focusing on the political exchanges at the center of negotiations between employers and local governments,  [84] based on an analysis of public policy. The corporatist theory proved therefore to be particularly effective for drawing lessons from the Milan case that can shed light on the reconfiguration of industrial relations and the processes of constructing interests. We would like to highlight three main points.

41Firstly, the Milan case presents a “traditional” employers’ association, Assolombarda, which, despite the diversification of the economic models of companies and the changes in the institutional context, was able over time to maintain a central role in shaping local economic policy. One of the foundations of corporatist theory is the centrality of the organizational dimension of the power of influence of employers and, more broadly, of politics. In this regard, we have seen that the activation and renewal of these organizational resources over time has enabled this association to continue to be an unavoidable and powerful actor. Its ability to attract international companies from new technology sectors is an indicator of the organizational strength underpinning its power.  [85] This power relies heavily on the actors that it represents. Despite the conflict between industry and services, the association has been able to continue to represent a very broad range of SMEs and major firms over the long term. Although this particular characteristic can be explained in part by the structure of the local productive fabric, it is also the result of an explicit strategy to regain its representativeness, which was undertaken in particular from the end of the 1990s. Being able to represent, in the long term, the interests of small business owners as well as those of major firms has made the association a constituency on which local governments have gradually built their political power.

42Secondly, our analysis has demonstrated that interests are shaped and defined within political processes, in interaction with institutions and within particular historical socioeconomic contexts. Epistemologically, the corporatist approach has thus enabled us to mediate between and combine the contributions of neo-institutionalism and of a more structural Marxist-inspired perspective. Our analysis has demonstrated that the impact of institutional factors and changes in the macroeconomic context affecting the structure of local production systems is mediated by political rationales, as a result of the way in which employers incorporate these opportunities and constraints into their collective mobilization. In doing so, the results of our analysis indicate the importance of being open to analytical pluralism when interpreting the links between economics, politics, and society at the national  [86] and subnational levels.

43Finally, the diachronic and dynamic prism adopted in this article has enabled us to demonstrate that the territorial mobilizations of employers cannot be explained solely by factors linked to historical legacy, such as the extent to which organizations of collective representation have engaged on a regional level or even the deterministic effect of the restructuring of contemporary capitalism. This finding demonstrates the scientific interest of taking territories seriously when analyzing forms of employer mobilization and state-society relations. This also applies to national contexts in which the sector and the national level have traditionally structured employers’ forms of collective action and their negotiations with public authorities.  [87] Without assuming the existence of forms of economic and social regulation that are cut off from national institutional configurations and the dynamics of globalized capitalism, this article suggests that decentering the focus towards territories could be a heuristic strategy to understand the tensions and reconfigurations of employers’ collective action and representation strategies, at a time when the territorial boundaries of states  [88] and the lines between economic sectors are being transformed, driven in particular by globalization and technological change.


1. Representation of employer interests in Italy

44In Italy, the representation of employer interests has traditionally been highly fragmented, more so than that of trade unions. Currently, there are twelve national intersectoral associations that cover different areas (industry, services, trade, artisan activities, and cooperatives).  [89] Beyond its fragmentation, the system of employer representation is characterized by a traditional territorialization, which takes precedence over sectoral organizations. This is particularly the case with Confindustria. Established in 1911 in Turin, it brought together the territorial associations that were created spontaneously towards the end of the nineteenth century. Consequently, in its early years, Confindustria did not have its own central administration; it was instead more of a “coordinating office” for the different fringes of the industrial bourgeoisie, against the labor movement.  [90] It was only in 1919 that Confindustria moved to Rome and set up a headquarters and a centralized organization. During the fascist era (1926-45), the regime decided to organize itself territorially at the provincial level. Following the Second World War, Confindustria revamped its statute and structure several times, while maintaining strong territorial roots. Currently, companies are subject to double membership; they can be members of both the territorial and the sectoral organizations. Generally, the preferred choice is direct membership of the provincial territorial associations. In terms of the number of member companies, Confindustria has a membership of 150,000 businesses (500 million euros). The association of industrialists in Milan brings together around 5,000 businesses (250,000 employees) and has a budget of 35 million euros.

2. Research methods and empirical data used

45The empirical data were drawn from a doctoral thesis in political science on local development policy governance methods in the regions of Lyon and Milan. The first two sections use primary and secondary written sources from the review of the existing literature on Milan and Lombardy (collection of the Braidense National Library in Milan) and an original documentary analysis of the gray literature through the examination of the catalogues of the documentation centers of local governments (Éupolis, formerly IReR), the Milan Chamber of Commerce, and private research centers (Fondazione Feltrinelli, AIM). The contemporary part is primarily based on twenty-two semi-structured interviews conducted with elected and permanent representatives of local and regional governments and local interest groups (chamber of commerce, territorial employers’ associations). The interview format was based around the evolution of the issues on the agenda and the mechanisms and negotiations within the networks for concertation and implementation of local economic development policies. It sought in particular to understand the issues on which the various (public and private) actors interviewed were mobilized and the relationships between them (cooperation or rivalry). Finally, the analysis of the evolution of the economic fabric of the region was based on secondary data and on data drawn from national (Istat) and international (Eurostat) databases, which were cross-checked with data extracted from the analysis of the reports produced by employers’ associations (in particular Assolombarda).


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    Colin Crouch and Franz Traxler (eds), Organized Industrial Relations in Europe. What Future?, Aldershot, UK, Avebury, 1995.
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    The concept of rescaling, introduced initially by Marxist geographers, refers to the study of the processes of changing the levels of economic and social regulation. It has since been taken up by political science works on the restructuring of the state and the redistribution of political power between different territorial levels. According to Michael Keating, this concept is “the process by which systems of social regulation, collective action, representation and legitimation are migrating to new territorial levels” (Michael Keating, Rescaling the European State. The Making of the Territory and the Rise of the Meso, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, Preface).
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    J. Rogers Hollingsworth and Robert Boyer (eds), Contemporary Capitalism. The Embeddedness of Institutions, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
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    This term is used to describe intersectoral employers’ associations that operate predominantly at the national level. See Franz Traxler and Gerhard Huemer (eds), Handbook of Business Interest Associations, Firm Size and Governance. A Comparative Analytical Approach, Abingdon, Routledge, 2007.
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    For the French case, see Cornelia Woll, “The Reform of MEDEF: A Chronicle of the Difficulties of Employers’ Collective Action,” Revue française de science politique 56(2), 2006, 255-79.
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    This research provided convergent results, in particular on the renewal of the groups’ repertoires of action and their impacts on the actors deemed able to legitimately participate in public policy processes. See Sabine Saurugger, “Expertise: A Means of Participation for Interest Groups in EU Policy Making,” Revue française de science politique 52(4), 2002, 375-401.
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    Ida Regalia, “Territorial Pacts and Local Level Concertation in Europe: A Multi-level Governance Perspective,” Florence, European University Institute, 2007 (NEWGOV – New Modes of Governance Report); Annette Jobert (ed.), Les nouveaux cadres du dialogue social. Europe et territoires, Brussels, Peter Lang, 2008, pp. 25-103.
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    This question has been posed primarily in the field of urban governance. As such, the focus was less on employer mobilizations than on the processes of building capacity for collective action. See Stéphane Cadiou, “La politique territoriale des groupes d’intérêt” in Gouverner sous pression? La participation des groupes d’intérêt aux affaires territoriales, Paris, LGDJ, 2016, pp. 9-40. Other studies have focused more on the specific characteristics, in terms of repertoires of action and the local mobilizations of economic interest groups. See Julie Pollard, “Interest Groups Seen from the Local Perspective: Property Developers in the Housing Sector in France,” Revue française de science politique 61(4), 2011, 681-705.
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    See Jefferey M. Sellers, Governing from Below: Urban Regions and the Global Economy, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
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    See Michael Keating, “Rescaling Interests,” Territory, Politics, Governance 2(3), 2014, 239-48; Michael Keating and Alex Wilson, “Regions with Regionalism? The Rescaling of Interest Groups in Six European States,” European Journal of Political Research 53(4), 2014, 840-57. For an analysis of employers’ associations, see Iván Medina and Joaquim M. Molins, “Regionalism and Employer Groups in Spain, Italy, and the UK,” Territory, Politics, Governance 2(3), 2014, 270-86. For the Italian case, see Alex Wilson, “Re-Scaling of Interest Groups in Modern Italy,” Territory, Politics, Governance 2(3), 2014, 249-69.
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    Keating, “Rescaling Interests.“
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    In this regard, Philippe C. Schmitter highlights: “The territorial dimension, long regarded as constant in Europe—supposedly frozen into place by the extraordinary resilience of the nation-state and its system of interstate conflict and cooperation—was thawing, assuming new configurations, and beginning to demand treatment as a variable.” (Philippe C. Schmitter, “Levels of Spatial Coordination and the Embeddedness of Institutions” in Hollingsworth and Boyer (eds), Contemporary Capitalism, pp. 311-8, specifically p. 312).
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    Studies on meso-corporatism have mainly focused on sectors and more rarely on territories. Examining the territorial dimension could be seen as a side effect of these studies, which have not however found a following among researchers focusing on territories. This is explained mainly by the “crisis” of the concept of corporatism. See Alan Cawson, “Corporatism and Local Politics” in Wyn Grant (ed.), The Political Economy of Corporatism, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 1985, pp. 126-47; Christopher S. Allen, “Corporatism and Regional Economic Policies in the Federal Republic of Germany: The ‘Meso’ Politics of Industrial Adjustment,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 19(4) 1989, 147-64; Jeffrey J. Anderson, The Territorial Imperative: Pluralism, Corporatism and Economic Crisis, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
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    Oscar Molina and Martin Rhodes, “Corporatism: The Past, Present, and Future of a Concept,” Annual Review of Political Science 5, 2002, 305-31.
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    Renate Mayntz and Fritz W. Scharpf, “L’institutionnalisme centré sur les acteurs,” Politix 55(3), 2001, 95-123.
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    James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen, “A Theory of Gradual Institutional Change” in Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 1-37.
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    The corporatist approach is part of the current of traditional neo-institutionalism, but has its own specific characteristics. Traditional neo-institutionalism focuses predominantly on the primacy of the state—and the forms of the state—to explain the strategies and modes of action of social actors. In contrast, the corporatist approach is interested in the processes of defining interests, which depend on employers’ and trade unions’ rationales for collective action and on the relations established with government institutions. See Cathie Jo Martin, “Beyond Bone Structure: Historical Institutionalism and the Style of Economic Growth” in David Coates (ed.), Varieties of Capitalism, Varieties of Approaches, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 47-62.
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    The latter emerged in our analytical methodology as an institutional variable that is both dependent and independent; the characteristics of employers’ organizations influence how these actors define their interests and how they act in the political sphere. See Jan Beyers, “Policy Issues, Organisational Format and the Political Strategies of Interest Organisations,” West European Politics 31(6), 2008, 1188-211.
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    By institutionalization we mean the process of gradual differentiation of the systems of political governance of social interests. In this instance, institutionalization is studied through the analysis of the power and modes of action of local administrations and their relations with political parties and interest groups.
  • [20]
    See Jonas Pontusson, “From Comparative Public Policy to Political Economy: Putting Political Institutions in their Place and Taking Interests Seriously,” Comparative Political Studies 28(1), 1995, 117-47.
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    Colin Crouch, Patrick Le Galès, Carlo Trigilia et al., Local Production Systems in Europe. Rise or Demise?, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.
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    Like Italian sociologist Arnaldo Bagnasco, we consider localized analysis to be a heuristic strategy to “understand in vivo the mechanisms participating in the process of social change.” The Milan region is therefore understood here as an entity with specific characteristics (social, political, etc.) that can nevertheless be considered as representative of wider dynamics around the reconfigurations of employer mobilization. Arnaldo Bagnasco, Società fuori squadra? Come cambia l’organizzazione sociale Bologna, Il Mulino, 2003.
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    The urban region contributed to the industrialization of Italy in the “Glorious Thirty” given its high concentration of firms and financial capital. As such, in 1961, Milan and its urban region produced around 15% of national GDP and 25% of industrial production, and hosted around 30% of limited companies’ headquarters. See Giuseppe Berta, La via del Nord. Dal miracolo economico alla stagnazione, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2015.
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    Alessia Vatta, “Italy” in Traxler and Huemer (eds), Handbook of Business Interest Associations, 204-28.
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    Renata Lizzi, “I gruppi d’interesse in Italia fra continuità e cambiamento: fattori istituzionali e dinamiche di policy,” Rivista italiana di politiche pubbliche 2, 2011, 179-209.
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    The regional councils were traditionally responsible for distributing assistance to businesses and financial support for innovation (districts). The provinces’ interventions on the other hand were more intermittent and dependent on external funding (in particular European funding). For this reason, we will focus predominantly on the relations forged between the different organizations representing Milan’s employers and the regional council.
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    Various industrialist federations were set up in the Milan urban region in the late nineteenth century. They merged into Assolombarda in 1945. The association traditionally represented industrial companies from the engineering, metalworking, and chemical sectors. See Dante Ferrari, Quasi un secolo fa: dall’Archivio Assolombarda, Milan, Edizioni industria lombarda, 1988.
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    See Joseph La Palombara, Interest Groups in Italian Politics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1964.
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    Alessandro Pizzorno, Lotte operaie e sindacato in Italia, 1968-1972, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1974.
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    We are referring to the analysis of Francesco Indovina, according to which employers’ shift to regionalization is explained by the desire to defuse social conflict at the national level and within factories (Francesco Indovina, “Le forze sociali e l’uso dell’ente regionale” in Ettore Rotelli (ed.), Dal regionalismo alla Regione, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1973, 231-48).
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    Giuseppe Pellicanò, the director of a medium-sized engineering company, represented a nexus between large Fordist companies and SMEs.
  • [32]
    Assolombarda, “Relazione del Presidente G. Pellicanò,” Assemblea generale Assolombarda, Milan, April 6, 1972. Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language material in this article are our own.
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    The regions did not have broad powers in the area of economic development but they would gradually increase their use of indirect instruments, such as investment firms (finanziarie regionali), that enabled them to allocate assistance to SMEs and to support the regeneration of production sites.
  • [34]
    In fact, Federlombarda had no employees; the analyses and observations produced and sent to the regional council were prepared by Assolombarda. See Chito Guala, “Gruppi di pressione” in Ettore Rotelli, (ed.), La regionalizzazione, Milan, Giuffrè, 1983, vol. 1, pp. 865-949.
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    From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, the Lombardy region was governed by a coalition between the DC (Christian Democracy) and the PSI (Italian Socialist Party). Despite instability due to the dependence of local policy on the strategies of the national parties, the political history of Lombardy’s regional institution was marked by a strong continuity regarding the composition and presidency of the regional coalitions. As such, between 1970 and 1992, Lombardy only had Christian-democratic presidents, including Piero Bassetti (1970-74) and Giuseppe Guzzetti (1979-87), who personified the alliance between the DC and employers. In particular, Bassetti was a key figure of Lombardy’s industrial bourgeoisie, as the owner of a textile business which was emblematic of the first phase of industrialization in the nineteenth century.
  • [36]
    Marco Maraffi, “Le politiche industriali” in Le relazioni fra amministrazione e sindacati, Milan, Giuffrè, 1985, vol. 2, pp. 1139-40.
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    We have borrowed this expression from Michael M. Atkinson and William D. Coleman, “Strong States and Weak States: Sectoral Policy Networks in Advanced Capitalist Economies,” British Journal of Political Science 19(1) 1989), 47-67.
  • [38]
    See Maraffi, “Le politiche industriali.“
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    In particular, the DC lost votes as a result of the growing power of the PSI. This situation changed the balance of the DC-PSI alliance upon which the government of the regional council was based. See Roberto Biorcio, “La società civile e la politica: dagli anni del boom a fine millennio” in Duccio Bigazzi and Marco Meriggi (eds), La Lombardia, Turin, G. Einaudi, 2001 (“Le regioni dall’Unità a oggi” series), pp. 1025-60.
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    The center was officially founded in 1974, but it did not become operational until 1977-78.
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    We are referring to the eleven volumes of the IReR-Progetto Milano series (Milan, Franco Angeli, 1984-90).
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    “Il Progetto Milano nella strategia dell’IreR: intervista a Pier Giuseppe Torrani,” Urbanistica 78, 1985, 99-100.
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    Consequently, during the presentation of the project, the elected representatives of the regional opposition (PCI) opposed the chapters on lottizzazione (allocation) that would have guided the choice of the academics involved. This anecdote is indicative of the interference of the political parties in the technical aspects of the project (Proceedings of the conference presenting the Progetto Milano, July 2, 1982; source: library of the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation, Milan).
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    Luigi Dadda, “Il livello tecnologico dell’area metropolitana milanese” in IReR-Progetto Milano (ed.), Tecnologie e sviluppo urbano. Prima conferenza internazionale, Milano, 15-16 giugno 1984, Milan, Franco Angeli, 1985 (Atti della conferenza Internazionale del Progetto Milano), pp. 267-323.
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    Roberto Camagni and Maria Cristina Gibelli, “Il Progetto Pirelli/Bicocca nel quadro di una strategia di riqualificazione del Nord Milano: rapporto finale,” 1986; source: Éupolis library (formerly IReR).
  • [46]
    Published in Il Sole 24 Ore, July 9, 1985, quoted by Daniele Nepoti, “Cronaca di una trasformazione urbanistica” in Matteo Bolocan Goldstein (ed.), Trasformazioni a Milano. Pirelli Bicocca direttrice nord-est, Milan, Franco Angeli, 2003, pp. 59-92.
  • [47]
    See Maria Kaika and Luca Ruggiero, “Land Financialization as a ‘Lived’ Process: The Transformation of Milan’s Bicocca by Pirelli,” European Urban and Regional Studies 23(1), 2013, 3-22.
  • [48]
    The AIM was established in 1987 on the initiative of Pier Giuseppe Torrani, former chairman of the IReR. The founding members were banking institutions and major firms: Banca Commerciale Italiana, Bastogi, Cassa di Risparmio delle Province Lombarde, Italcementi, Italtel, Montedison, Pirelli, and La Rinascente. In a second phase, the AIM was also joined by Falck, Credito Italiano, Finaverdi, and Snam.
  • [49]
    Statute of the association, AIM archives.
  • [50]
    See Paolo Fareri, “La progettazione del governo a Milano: nuovi attori per la metropoli matura” in Bruno Dente (ed.), Metropoli per progetti, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1990, pp. 163-220.
  • [51]
    This was despite the fact that the chairman of the association in the 1980s was Ottorino Beltrami, who had been the director of Olivetti in the 1970s.
  • [52]
    The title of a symposium, “The City Between Fear and Development,” organized by the association, reveals the divisions and doubts that were felt by Milan’s employers during this period. See Associazione industriale lombarda, “La metropoli tra paura e sviluppo [incontro-dibattito]?: Auditorium Assolombarda,” Quaderni Assolombarda, Milan, Assolombarda, 1990.
  • [53]
    Massimo Mucchetti, “Radiografia dell’Assolombarda,” Orientamenti nuovi per la piccola e la media industria 9, July 1979, 8-15.
  • [54]
    The AIM—based on open membership for industrial and banking firms that supported particular projects on the basis of convergent interests—was gradually abandoned by companies, becoming a de facto cultural association.
  • [55]
    In 1992, revelations about corruption involving members of Milan’s political and economic class led to the “clean hands” court case, which would later be extended to the whole of the Italian political class. This systemic crisis would lead to the dismantling of the parties that had dominated the First Republic, in particular the DC and the PSI, and the gradual rise of new parties (Forza Italia) and anti-establishment movements, such as Lega Nord, which would predominantly take root in the northern regions of Italy. See Donatella Della Porta, “La capitale immorale: le tangenti di Milano” in Stephen Hellman and Gianfranco Pasquino (eds), Politica in Italia. I fatti dell’anno e le interpretazioni, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1992.
  • [56]
    These reforms also introduced innovations in terms of modes of public policy, in the form of contracts and public-private partnership instruments. The reform of Title V of the Constitution abolished the principle of the hierarchical supremacy of the state; the regions were given responsibility for all functions not exclusively reserved for the national level (foreign policy, finance, public order, culture, research and universities). See Luigi Bobbio, “Italy: After the Storm” in Bas Denters and Lawrence E. Rose (eds), Comparing Local Governance: Trends and Developments, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 29-46.
  • [57]
    Paolo Feltrin, “La politica e gli interessi” in Paolo Perulli and Angelo Pichierri (eds), La crisi italiana nel mondo globale. Economia e società del Nord, Turin Einaudi, 2010, pp. 113-73.
  • [58]
    Matteo Bolocan Goldstein and Paolo Perulli, “Rapporto sulla concertazione territoriale in Lombardia,” Milan, Ires Lombardia, 2001.
  • [59]
    Although Assolombarda managed the regional organization in the 1970s, it still contributes 40% of its funding today. Confindustria Lombardia’s human resources remain very limited (15 employees) compared with Assolombarda (over 150), which continues de facto to have a significant say in the definition of its strategy.
  • [60]
    Interview with the deputy director of Confindustria Lombardia, 2012.
  • [61]
    The chambers of commerce played a somewhat marginal role in public policy before 1990, notwithstanding their traditional role of representing territorial economic interests within national institutions. Their activity was limited to purely administrative functions and was also subject to the interference of political parties and the state. The reforms of 1993 and 1997 gave the territorial chambers the ability to govern themselves as they broke down the relationship of domination by the political sphere. The chambers consequently became public institutions governed by employers’ associations, which appointed the council members and the chair. See CCIAA, “La Camera di commercio di Milano: storia di una riforma istituzionale, 1982-97. Primo resoconto di un quindicennio di idee, azioni, fatti,” (Milan, 1997).
  • [62]
    Accordo di programma (AdP) for competitiveness, signed in 2006 and renewed in 2010. Although the financial contribution of the region was dominant (60% of 259 million euros for the 2006-09 period), the AdP was co-managed through joint technical committees and a co-chaired secretariat.
  • [63]
    Interview with the director of business services, Unioncamere Lombardia, 2012.
  • [64]
    Claudio Nidasio, “Le scelte strategiche delle direzioni generali: analisi e primi elementi di valutazione” in Francesco Longo (ed.), La gestione del decentramento. Governance e innovazione organizzativa nell’esperienza di regione ed enti locali in lombardia, Milan, Giuffrè, 2005, pp. 43-80.
  • [65]
    Interview with the director of business services, Regione Lombardia, 2012.
  • [66]
    Roberto Biorcio, La rivincita del Nord. La Lega dalla contestazione al governo, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2010, 87.
  • [67]
    Present predominantly in the national territory, the association—which had several thousand members—was a pool for the recruitment of the local political (as well as administrative, academic, and economic) class. Among its supporters, we can note Roberto Formigoni, who was president of the regional council from 1995 to 2013.
  • [68]
    Alessandro Colombo and Tim O’Sullivan, “The Lombardy Model of Governance” in Alberto Brugnoli and Alessandro Colombo (eds), Government, Governance and Welfare Reform. Structural Changes and Subsidiarity in Italy and Britain, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 2012, pp. 81-94.
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    Roberto Biorcio and Tommaso Vitale, “Prefazione: la parabola del New Labour e la politica italiana” in Florence Faucher and Patrick Le Galès (eds), L’esperienza del New Labour. Un’analisi critica della politica e delle politiche, Milan, Franco Angeli, 2014, pp. 7-24.
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    Interview with the head of business services and competitiveness, Confederazione Nazionale dell’Artigianato e della Piccola e Media Impresa (CNA), Lombardy, 2012.
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    To the contrary, as demonstrated by Valeria Fargion, Leonardo Morlino, and Stefania Profeti, European cohesion and regional development policies favored the organization of public policy arenas at the regional level. The forms and modes of negotiation were not uniform, nor institutionalized, across all Italian regions (Valeria Fargion, Leonardo Morlino, and Stefania Profeti, “Europeanisation and Territorial Representation in Italy,” West European Politics 29(4), 2006, 757-83).
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    However, the composition of its pool of members in terms of their size did not evolve. Of all member companies, 38% had fewer than 10 employees, 77% had fewer than 50 employees, and 1.5% (70 companies) had more than 500 employees. Companies operating in the industrial sectors of metalworking-engineering and chemicals, and the advanced services sector, represented 32%, 13%, and 32% of all members, respectively (Source: Association’s social report, 2013).
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    Vittorio Biondi, “Le associazioni di categoria come attori del governo del territorio: l’esperienza di Assolombarda,” Territorio 41, 2007, 79-82.
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    Interview with the head of the Territory, Energy, and Environment Department, Assolombarda, 2012.
  • [75]
    Deborah Galimberti, “Gouverner le développement économique des territoires: entre politique et société. Une comparaison des régions de Lyon et Milan (1970–2011),” PhD diss. in political science under the supervision of Gilles Pinson and Enzo Mingione, University of Lyon-Jean Monnet University Saint-Etienne (under a joint supervision arrangement with the University of Milano-Bicocca, 2015.
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    Following the presidency of Bassetti (1982-95)—first president of the Regional Council of Lombardy and member of the DC (see above)—Carlo Sangalli, also a former deputy with the DC (1968-94), took over in 1997. He recently ended his fourth term (1998-2017).
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    From the mid-1990s onwards, the chamber had a network of agencies in order to provide goods and services to businesses in different sectors poorly covered by the regional council (support with exports and international trade; assistance with implementing technological innovation projects within the context of European policy, etc.). Beyond these services, the chamber also took on the role of producing material on economic development through the intensive production of studies and the management of a research unit on the economy of the Milan region.
  • [78]
    Galimberti, “Gouverner le développement économique des territoires.“
  • [79]
    Interview, 2012.
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  • [81]
    Assolombarda, “Fare volare Milano: piano strategico 2014-16. 50 progetti per rilanciare le imprese e il territorio,” 2013.
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    Taking up sociologist Mauro Magatti’s analysis of the changing attitudes of Italian business owners after the 2008 economic crisis, it would be interesting to understand whether these major international companies could become spokespersons for a “new productive bourgeoisie,” more forward-looking in terms of global competition and technological innovations, but that remains nevertheless in search of an ethos. See Mauro Magatti (ed.), La nuova borghesia produttiva. Un modello per il capitalismo italiano, Milan, Guerini, 2015.
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    Mahoney and Thelen, “A Theory of Gradual Institutional Change.“
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    Molina and Rhodes, “Corporatism: The Past, Present, and Future of a Concept.“
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    The case of Milan also seems to differ from the Paris case, in which we see, conversely, a differentiation of the forms of employers’ collective action, in particular global firms, which have engaged heavily with alternative organizations to the traditional employers’ associations. See Sophie Grillat, “L’action collective métropolitaine des entreprises ordonnatrices de la globalisation: analyse comparée des stratégies d’influence à Londres et en Île-de-France,” PhD diss. in spatial and urban planning, Université Paris-Est, 2014.
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    David Coates, “Conclusion: Choosing Between Paradigms – A Personal View” in Varieties of Capitalism, pp. 265-71.
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    We are referring to the reflections of Cawson in the mid-1980s, which in our view find new meaning today, at a time when the territorial boundaries of the state and the relations between levels of regulation are being called into question (Alan Cawson, “Conclusion: Some Implications for State Theory” in Organized Interest and the State. Studies in Meso-Corporatism, London, Sage Publications, 1985, pp. 221-6).
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    Patrick Le Galès, “States in Europe: Uncaging Societies and the Limits to the Infrastructural Power,” Socio-Economic Review 12(1) 2014, 131-52.
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    Vatta, “Italy.“
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    Luca Lanzalaco, “La rappresentanza degli interessi a livello territoriale: il caso delle associazioni imprenditoriali italiane in prospettiva comparata,” PhD diss. in social and political science, European University Institute, 1988.

From the case study of Milan urban region, the article focuses on the forms and capacity of business actors to participate to territorial public action in the long run. Relying on the corporatist approach, it shows that the relations between business organizations and local public actors vary over time in reaction to both institutional and economic changes. Despite this, the most organized business actors have been able to renew their influence over time. The analysis complements researches on the territorialisation of economic interest groups in Europe, by factoring in structural variables and power dynamics.


  • business interest groups
  • state-society relations
  • corporatism
  • neo-institutionalism
  • territories
  • local economic development policies
  • Milan
  • Italy
Deborah Galimberti
A doctor of political science and of European urban and regional studies, Deborah Galimberti is currently a research engineer at the University of Franche-Comté as part of an Institut de recherches économiques et sociales (IRES) (Institute of Economic and Social Research) project on union mobilization and the process of metropolization in France. Her publications include “Organisations intermédiaires, intérêts et politiques territoriales de compétitivité dans la région Rhône-Alpes,” in Stéphane Cadiou (ed.), Gouverner sous pression? La participation des groupes d’intérêt aux affaires territoriales, Paris, LGDJ-Lextenso Éditions, 2016, “Droit et société” series, pp. 123­39. Her work, at the intersection of the sociology of public policy and the sociology of economic policy, examines local development policies and the reconfigurations of the relations between the state and society from a comparative perspective, specializing in France and Italy (Triangle, ENS de Lyon, 15 parvis René Descartes, 69342 Lyon Cedex 07).
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