ROME - Hundreds of thousands of workers staged demonstrations across Italy
on Friday as the country's largest union caused disarray with a one-day strike
over the center-right government's economic policies.
It was the second general strike in six months and follows dozens of half- and full-day stoppages across a range of industries this year as worker anger over Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's policies boils to the surface.
Air, rail and public transport systems were affected on Friday as an estimated 250,000 union workers marched through the streets of the financial capital Milan and similar rallies were held in more than 100 other locations countrywide.
Demonstrators take part in a rally organized by CGIL union in central Rome's Piazza
Navona square during a national strike October 18, 2002. Italy's air, rail and
public transport systems were thrown into disarray on Friday as the country's
largest union launched a one-day strike against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's
economic policies. The strike by CGIL union, which represents nearly six million
people, comes at a sensitive time for the government as it wrestles with a stagnant
economy and a deepening crisis at carmaker Fiat, the country's largest private
employer. REUTERS/Vincenzo Pinto
The demonstrations are a major headache for Berlusconi, who has never forgotten that the last time he was prime minister, in 1994, his government fell after just seven months shortly after millions took to the streets to oppose planned pension reforms.
The left-wing union has said it called the strike because Berlusconi's budget and financial policies, as well as his labor reforms, are aggravating the economic slowdown and could end up putting about 280,000 people out of work.
While the strike snarled public transport and was expected to interrupt nearly half of all rail services, it was not likely to bring Italy to a standstill since the two other major union groups have refused to back the walkout.
The one-day action in April had been backed by all three major union federations and produced the biggest work stoppage Italy had seen in two decades, with about 13 million people staying away from work.
Friday's strike by the CGIL union, which represents nearly six million people, comes at a sensitive time for the government, which is wrestling with a stagnant economy and a deepening crisis at carmaker Fiat, the country's largest private employer.
"We are demonstrating that we are still alive, that we are fighting," said Vittorio Iori, a CGIL member, as he marched under a banner through the streets of Rome.
Around 35,000 national and international air travelers were expected to be affected as airline Alitalia canceled or delayed more than half its scheduled flights and other carriers were forced to abandon connections into and out of Italy.
CGIL organized 120 rallies around the country, with the main demonstration planned for Fiat's northern hometown, Turin.
"We've won the challenge," declared Guglielmo Epifani, the head of the union, as he addressed tens of thousands of workers in Turin's central square. "The strike, which has been adhered to throughout the country, tells us that we are right."
In recent weeks, Italian companies have announced more than 20,000 lay-offs, with Fiat alone planning to shed 8,100 workers -- about 20 percent of its Italian auto workforce -- as it struggles to return to profit.
More than 1,000 workers from a Fiat factory in Sicily traveled to Rome on Thursday to protest against the threatened lay-offs, but were prevented by police from marching on the government's headquarters.
Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman who portrays himself as a champion of the market economy, has pledged a "strategic strengthening" of Italy's once-vibrant vehicle sector, raising speculation that the state might buy into Fiat.
But with government coffers running low because of the general economic downturn, such a move looks increasingly fanciful. Some Berlusconi allies argue quietly that Fiat should be left to the mercies of market forces.
Epifani, who became CGIL chief last month, said this week Friday's stoppage was to show the government just how urgently it needs to rework its financial and social policies.
After the April general strike, which was a protest against the government's plans for reforms to make hiring and firing easier, the government struck a deal with two of the big three union federations to water down the proposals.
The CGIL is hoping Friday's demonstration will prompt the government to reconsider not only the labor reforms but also next year's budget, which it says does not do enough to spur growth in an economy that has barely grown in the last year.
"I hadn't realized that a general strike meant even the museums are closed,"
said Emma Marsh, 27, a British tourist in Venice whose flight to Gatwick was canceled.
"But of all the places to be marooned by a strike I guess this is the best." (With
additional reporting by Gianni Montani in Turin)
© Reuters Limited 2002