Italy paralysed by worst strikes in 25 years

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Italy came to a standstill yesterday as the country's biggest strike in a quarter of a century halted all public transport, in a protest demanding more investment by the government.

Metro and mainline stations were deserted, airports were silent, ferries remained tied up at the docks. Even driving was a challenge, with car hire companies and motorway toll booth operators joining the action and the state-run equivalent of the AA and RAC were not answering breakdown calls.

Getting away from it all on the ski slopes was not the answer as cable car operators were on strike too, as were the people who drive hearses for the nation's undertakers.

Lorries were off the roads, driving schools shut down, dustmen collected no rubbish and roads remained unswept. Some workers walked out for eight hours, others for four. So complete was the strike that one consumer organisation, Codacons, maintained that it was an "illegal paralysis" and a danger to the public.

The strike was ordered by the unions three weeks ago and became inevitable when talks collapsed on Wednesday night. The irony is that it is being called, not against a government led by the stridently anti-union Berlusconi but one of the centre-left whose Transport minister, Alessandro Bianchi, is a communist. Mr Bianchi told Corriere della Sera newspaper: "I have great respect for the strike, and I also understand many of the reasons that have provoked it, but I consider the position of the unions somewhat ungenerous considering all the work I have put in during the past year and a half."

The same newspaper criticised the minister for his "lack of incisiveness" in confronting the strikers, but the most important cards were in other hands.

The minister for the Economy, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, is under huge pressure from industry and Europe to curb Italy's massive public debt.

Practically the only relief was that in Rome taxi drivers were back at work, after blockading the city centre earlier in the week in protest at Mayor Walter Veltroni's plan to issue 500 new licences. Late-night talks resulted in the Mayor agreeing to discuss how and when the new licences would be issued if the drivers returned to work.

The strike was timed to put maximum pressure on the government to add extra funds for the transport sector of the budget, which has been grinding back and forth from one chamber of parliament to the other for many weeks and is now approaching final approval.

Claudio Claudiani, head of FIT-CISL, one of the union confederations involved, said on the eve of the strike: "The government has once again broken its promises. All the initiatives taken by the unions have bounced off the rubber wall erected by the executive. The strike ... will go ahead."

Aggravating the problem both for the government and for the workers is that Alitalia, which cancelled 117 flights, has been in acute crisis all year as potential buyers for the near-bankrupt national carrier melted away, and the national railway system is also suffering from chronic problems.