Two million Italians march to stop Berlusconi - and terrorism

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The Independent Online

Some two million Italians waving red flags and carrying red roses converged in the heart of Rome yesterday to protest against the Berlusconi government's attempts to end Italy's jobs for life culture by making it possible to fire workers.

The massive turnout sent a powerful signal that the unions also rejected political terrorism after the government's key adviser on labour market reform was assassinated while cycling home from work in Bologna last week.

Only hours after the murder, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused the unions of creating the political climate which "feeds the inhuman ideology that moves the hand of the killers".

It was the biggest demonstration in Italy since a massive rally against pension reforms in 1994, during Mr Berlusconi's first wobbly seven month government.

On a sunny spring day, six noisy and peaceful marches departed from different areas of the city to converge on the ancient Circus Maximus, in a turnout which far exceeded the expectation of the trade union organisers.

"This is people power, this is democracy, this is something that Mr Berlusconi with all his billions can't buy" exalted Nino, a port worker from Genoa as he carried his communist banner past the Colosseum.

"We are not going to let this government just trample on or throw away workers rights that have been won through decades of hard struggle" said Rita, who had travelled for more than 24 hours from her Sicilian home to take part.

And said Simone, an economics student in jeans and a keffiyeh: "I'm here not just to defend workers' rights but because I am against everything this government has done and the arrogant and repressive way they are doing it."

Alongside organised trade union groups were high school and university students, families with children, middle class couples, workers in overalls and pensioners. Political leaders of the centre-left, intellectuals and showbiz personalities mingled among the crowd. Security was tight with a heavy police presence and helicopters whirring overhead, for fears that trouble makers might infiltrate the festive crowd.

The rally was originally planned as a show of force by the biggest and most left wing trade union, CGIL, against a package of labour market reforms – in particular the governments determination to abolish Article 18 of the Workers Statute which ensures that virtually any sacked fulltime worker has the right to win their job back rather than be paid off.

But last week's murder changed the tone of the event, turning it into a protest against terrorism as well as show of strength by the unions. Black ribbons were tied around the flag standards as a sign of mourning at the Rome rally and there was a minute's silence before the concluding speech.Government adviser Marco Biagi, a 51-year-old labour expert, was assassinated just a few yards from his home. Mr Biagi was a key author of the controversial reforms that the centre right government is trying to push through. His death was claimed by the "Red Brigades for the Construction of the fighting Communist Party", a splinter group of the original urban guerrillas.

Police believe the formation, also responsible for killing another labour consultant three years ago, comprises die-hards from the old movement, in jail or at large, and a new generation of terrorists. Italian secret services said yesterday they believe other attacks are being planned. Mr Berlusconi vowed on television on Friday that the terrorists "would not stop the government's reforms" and urged the labour unions to reconsider their approach.

But addressing the masses in the circus where Roman chariots used to race, the CGIL leader Sergio Cofferati said "you are our response to terrorism". He said attempts to tarnish the workers movement as sponsors of terrorism were false and a "clumsy attempt to demonise opposition".