Milan strikers herald red-hot autumn

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The Independent Online
STONES, metal bolts, eggs, a smoke bomb and insults were hurled at trade union leaders in Milan yesterday in what many Italians feared was the start of an autumn of violent protests against the government's austerity measures.

A union leader, protected by two police riot shields, tried to speak to the 100,000-odd protesters for a few minutes until he and his colleagues were finally howled off the platform. Two newspapers failed to appear because of strikes, and a three-mile tailback of lorries formed at the Chiasso border point with Switzerland as customs officers walked out. About 300,000 people have taken part in 12 other protests in Bologna and other towns in Emilia Romagna.

'This is the biggest industrial action in Italy for the last 20 years,' said Bruno Trentin, leader of the left-wing trade union federation, the CGIL, the country's biggest such grouping. The previous day Mr Trentin had been jostled and pelted with eggs, tomatoes and bolts by protesters in Florence shouting 'sell- out' and 'traitor'. Trade union leaders said they feared similar violence in demonstrations to be held today in Naples. Further strikes and a big demonstration in Rome are planned tomorrow by militant left-wing grassroots organisations.

Before he was driven from the platform in Milan, Silvano Veronese of the smaller UIL federation warned that 'to split the unions and divide their leaders does no service to the movement'. But he also warned the government that the unions and workers do not propose to submit to the 'high level of social injustice' in the government's measures.

Left-wing militant workers have promised a 'red-hot autumn' of wildcat strikes. Commentators noticed with a shudder that Tuesday's incident was uncannily similar to one that, after the currency crisis of 1977, befell Mr Trentin's predecessor, Luciano Lama, at a students' protest in Rome and set off the notorious 'hot autumn' of that year.

The workers are angry at the austerity measures, described by one union leader as 'iniquitous, authoritarian and anti-social' taken by the government to cut back the colossal state deficit which has undermined international confidence in Italy and was a main cause of the recent devaluation. They are also particularly bitter at the unions for having accepted a deal with the government to abolish wage indexation - the scala mobile - just before it devalued the lira, creating the likelihood of further inflation.

A 'red-hot autumn', as has been promised by the network of grassroots factory committees would put enormous pressure on the government to back down from its austerity plans, which involve sizeable sacrifices in pension rights and health care. But the Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, warned yesterday that 'these measures absolutely must not be watered down'. Otherwise, he warned, 'I would quit'.

Mr Amato, who has a majority of only 16, knows that none of the parties wants a political crisis at this juncture, much less the fresh elections that would follow if, as seems probable, no other government could be found.

There are fears that the protests may slip out of control of the three main trade union federations, given their unpopularity which could be exploited by far left- and right-wing groups. The fading credibility of the former Communists among the workers may tempt many to look to irresponsible groups as a channel for their frustrations.

One Neapolitan union leader yesterday warned that there was an 'attempt to turn the clock back to the dark years of terrorism'; he appealed to workers to reject 'provocations in the streets'.

An official inquiry has been launched into the rulings of a Sicilian judge who has annulled the sentences on hundreds of Mafiosi over the past six years, Reuter reports. The governing council of Italian judges is examining rulings handed down by Corrado Carnevale, who sits on the supreme court. He is best known for freeing Mafia 'Godfather' Michele Greco from jail last year.