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Millions join Italy general strike

Sergio Cofferati
Union leader Cofferati addresses strikers in Florence  

ROME, Italy -- Italian industry has ground to a slow halt as millions of workers downed tools and took to the streets to protest at government labour reform plans.

An estimated 11 million members of the country's three largest trade unions kept away from work during the one-day strike on Tuesday.

About one hundred thousand people packed the piazzas of Italy's main cities carrying banners and listening to union leaders criticise the planned labour reform which they say increases employers' ability to sack staff.

Unions said rallies in Rome, Florence, Milan and Bologna each drew crowds of more than 200,000 people, while more than 100,000 strikers took to the streets of Turin, Reuters reported.

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Two million strikers were expected to take part in demonstrations in what was being billed as likely to be Italy's biggest strike in the country's history.

But companies and unions were claiming the strike had attracted different levels of support.

Worst hit by industrial action, organised by Italy's top three unions CGIL, CISL and UIL, was the transport system.

Many foreign carriers, including British Airways, Iberia and Lufthansa, cancelled flights and Alitalia, the national airline, scratched more than two-thirds of its flights by midday, a spokeswoman said.

At Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport, international check-in counters were almost deserted. Milan's two airports, Malpensa and Linate, were also at a virtual standstill, Claudio Bianco, head of the Malpensa-Linate press office, told The Associated Press.

Air traffic controllers are not working for eight hours between 0800 GMT and 1600 GMT and Italian pilots, ground staff, air stewards and other personnel are also on strike.

Italy's car maker Fiat said that nearly 50 percent of its staff failed to turn up for work but unions said the figure was nearer 90 percent.

Hospitals were providing emergency services only.

About half the usual number of passenger trains -- 170 of 323 -- were operating, state railway spokesman Carmine Amodeo was quoted by AP as saying.

"Many people knew of the strike beforehand so they avoided being stranded at stations," he added.

Small, non-unionised businesses and shops were not affected by the stoppage.

The three unions said in a joint statement: "There has been a massive response to the strike call from workers across the board, closing a huge number of firms around

the country."

The nationwide strike is the country's first in 20 years and comes amid worsening relations between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government and trade unions.

The country's banks, schools and newspapers were also expected to close for the day.

The stoppage officially began on Monday, with print journalists and printers striking for 24 hours to ensure no newspapers appeared on Tuesday.

The industrial disruption is centred on one particular element of Berlusconi's labour plans -- Article 18 which states that a company with more than 15 employees must reinstate a worker if a court finds that he or she was sacked without "just cause."

It is only a small part of the planned legislation but the government insists it is necessary to change the arcane 1970 legislation if it wants to modernise Italian labour laws and bring them more in line with the European Union.

But the unions say it will make it easier for firms to sack staff and lead to massive job losses.

Berlusconi was quoted by Reuters news agency as telling a meeting of employers' leaders on the weekend: "The strike will stop part of the country, but it will not stop our determination to modernise the country."

The government is preparing further reforms to try and alleviate the tension, primarily a new system of unemployment benefits.

Details are vague, but the government has hinted it will establish a 1.5 billion euro ($1.3 billion) jobless fund -- much less than Italy's largest and most left-wing union, the CGIL, says is necessary.

The union's leader Sergio Cofferati is increasingly becoming the focus for the opposition following the election of the centre-right government of Berlusconi last June.

Cofferati was behind March's rally. Relations between the government and unions deteriorate with the killing of a labour reformer last month by left-wing militants. (Full story)

Some coalition ministers sparked outrage by identifying the assassins with the unions.


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