|United Press International
News. Analysis. Insight.
|March 23, 2002
|Two Million Italians Protest Labor Law Violence in Largest Protest
Against Government Since the Early 1990s
|By ERIC J. LYMAN
|ROME -- As many as 2 million demonstrators took to the streets of Rome Saturday to protest against proposed labor law reforms and
The massive protests -- thought to be the largest in Italy since a series of government corruption scandals in the early 1990s -- were
originally called to protest the proposed reforms, which would strip away many of the worker guarantees that Italian labor groups worked
hard to develop in the period after World War II.
But after the March 19 killing of Marco Biagi, the government advisor who helped draft the reforms, the events' organizers decided to split
the purpose of the protest. They said that although they did not approve the reforms Biagi authored, they were also opposed to the
violence that claimed the 52-year-old academic's life.
"We felt like the only recourse we had was to continue our plans while making it clear that we in no way condone the killing of Mr. Biagi,"
Massimo Rey, an official with CGIL, Italy's largest labor union, told United Press International before the protests began.
The turnout on Saturday goes far beyond what labor leaders and other organizers of the events said they expected. Before Biagi's killing,
officials from CGIL said they hoped for the protests to be joined by up to 1 million people, a figure that many commentators dismissed
as overly optimistic.
But the events' supporters were galvanized by the shooting of Biagi, and police and media on Saturday estimated the crowds at 1.5
million to 2.0 million -- enough to drape the Circus Maximus and much of the historical center of Rome in red, the signature color of
several of Italy's left-wing political parties as well as of CGIL and other leading labor groups.
Many people on the scene Saturday said they decided to come only after Biagi's death.
"I had always been against many of the labor reforms the right tries to put in place, but I decided to come only after Biagi (was killed)
because that made the topic much more important," said 19-year-old Angela Carboni, who was dressed in a red shirt and hat after
making the 90-mile trip north from Naples for the event.
Rome native Andrea Tirsi, 44, who was carrying a large red flag representing Italy's reformed communist political party, said the dual
focus of the protests was likely a big factor in attracting so many people.
"Both labor law and an opposition to violence are very important issues to many of us here," he told UPI. "I think it is important to illustrate
that even though we do not support the regulations (Biagi) wrote, we still see his killers as barbarians."
Signs carried by demonstrators were more or less split between those calling for an end to the labor reform initiatives, sponsored by
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, and those against what Berlusconi called "a new age of domestic terrorism."
Biagi's proposed labor reforms were unveiled in January as part of a wider initiative to revamp Article 18, which provides workers
guarantees for lifetime employment in all but extreme cases. The reforms are based on the theory that if employers know they will not
have to pay a new hire until retirement they might be more likely to take on new employees, and the company and the economy will
But the reforms are contrary to the traditional way of thinking in Italy, where for generations workers looked to find a good job that they
would keep and hold for their entire working lives. Labor groups that represent such workers are opposed to those reforms and call
them representative of a U.S.-style capitalism that would negatively impact the Italian way of life.
"The kind of indiscriminant hiring and firing that exists in America is fine if that is what Americans want, but it is not what Italians want,"
said Rey, the union official.
In a news release, CGIL said it had used nearly 10,000 buses and about 60 special trains to bring in workers from around Italy. Traffic in
the city center was blocked off and a police and military presence was obvious, with law enforcement officials stationed around the
center every few hundred yards and military helicopters flying overhead.
The protests are thought to be the largest in Italy since a government bribing scandals were brought to light in 1992 and 1993 or when
the country first started embarking on a controversial pension reform scheme in 1993 and 1994.
Biagi was killed after returning home from work on his bicycle on March 19, a murder for which an offshoot of the radical left wing Red
Brigade terror group has claimed credit. The group said they "executed" Biagi because the reforms he proposed "exploited" workers in
favor of a ruling elite.
The Red Brigades were responsible for much of the political violence during the so-called "years of lead" in the 1970s and 1980s. They
are best known for the 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro.
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