Millions mobilise to reject Berlusconi reforms

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The Independent Online

Italy ground to a halt yesterday as millions of workers protesting against proposed labour reforms took part in the country's first general strike in 20 years.

As they strolled past the designer boutiques opposite the Spanish Steps, 22-year-old Marco Cecchi and his father, Ugo, were enjoying their day out in the capital.

"I didn't vote for Berlusconi!" read the slogan on Marco's T-shirt. Ugo, a chemical engineer, was waving his well-worn red union flag with gusto. The two men from the industrial town of Pomezia were among the millions who took to the streets to paralyse Italy yesterday with the first general strike in 20 years.

Air, rail and ferry transport ground to a halt. Schools, banks, courtrooms and public offices shut their doors and assembly lines at many factories were deserted as Italy's trade union movement mounted a massive show of force against the government over labour reforms. Hospitals guaranteed only emergency service.

Tens of thousands took part in rallies in Rome and cities across Italy, the protests seen as a sign of wider dissent at the policies and governing style of their media mogul Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Families with babies, pensioners, students, professors and blue-collar workers all turned out to show their dissatisfaction with education reform, foreign policy and the anomaly of the country's richest businessman also holding the prime minister's office.

Italy's main newspapers joined the strike and only a few dailies, including one owned by the Berlusconi family, bucked the ban. Television channels, including the Prime Minister's three private networks, offered reduced bulletins without video.

Union officials estimated that their strike call was heeded by some 13 million workers ­ some 80-90 per cent of salaried employees ­ though independent observers say the figure was smaller.

Sergio Cofferati, the leader of the most militant union, CGIL, told a packed square in Florence that the turnout meant that the "government must now change its course". He said: "The country has come to a standstill, as if it was a Sunday. The government must reflect on this and stop being provocative."

At the centre of the showdown is a clause, Article 18, in labour legislation, which guarantees an unfairly sacked worker his job back. The government wants this "jobs-for-life" clause waived in certain cases. The clause has become a powerful political symbol and a rallying point for dissent.

The row, which has been rumbling since November, turned nasty with last month's murder of Marco Biagi, an adviser working on the reforms. Ministers have accused the unions of supporting terrorists.

Recent opinion polls show that even people who voted for the centre-right coalition disapprove of the government stance on Article 18. Mr Berlusconi has said he is ready to restart dialogue with the unions as of today but will not bow to their demands to drop the reforms.