United Press International

News. Analysis. Insight.
April 16, 2002
Massive Italy strike draws mixed reviews
By ERIC J. LYMAN
UPI SpecialCorrespondent
ROME -- Millions of members of Italy's three largest labor unions walked off the job Tuesday in a 24-hour strike to protest proposed
reforms that would make it easier for employers to fire workers. But reports were mixed as to whether the general strike -- Italy's largest
in 30 years -- had a deep enough impact to convince the government to back away from its reform plan.

Public transportation, schools, factories, banks and the post office all ground to a halt Tuesday or worked at low capacity with skeleton
staffs. Hospitals accepted only emergency cases.

Union leaders declared the strike a success, with Sergio Cofferati, the head of CGIL, the country's largest labor group, calling the strike
"a resounding and unprecedented victory" that would force the government to backtrack on the proposed labor law changes.

But other observers were less sure. Government officials appeared on television to declare that the impact from the strike was less than
they anticipated.

"Italy slowed, but it did not stop," said Umberto Bossi, the head of the Northern League, a leading member of the ruling government
coalition.

According to television reports, around half of the country's passenger rail schedule was on operation and most operating trains ran
behind schedule. Several foreign air carriers cancelled the day's flights to and from Italy and national flagship carrier Alitalia said that it
was operating at only around 30 percent capacity.

The impact was limited by the fact that around half of Italy's 23 million workers are not unionized and that Italian law allows for workers to
strike for a maximum of only 24 hours.

"In the end, this sort of strike has only a limited impact because most people can afford to view it as an inconvenience that lasts only a
limited time," Bologna economist and labor expert Tilio Bataglia told United Press International.

Leading up to the strike, experts billed it as a showdown between the country's powerful labor unions and the government led by media
tycoon and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Unions see the country's rigid labor laws as a protection against worker abuse, while the
government sees liberalization as the best way to make the Italian economy more competitive.

Commentators said that whichever side failed would emerge from the standoff with reduced power and credibility.

Early indications are that the government may have come out ahead, with spot polls showing that broad support for the protesters did
not come at the expense of strong backing for the labor law reforms Berlusconi's government is proposing.

"A spot survey of people we first talked to last week shows that at least initially, the public seems to continue to back what they see as an
initiative aimed at making the economy more efficient," Maria Caldoni, assistant director of the polling firm Opinioni, told UPI.

If that is indeed the case, it was not evident in Rome's main plazas, where thousands of workers gathered to voice their opposition to the
reforms. Though the size of the demonstrations did not measure up to protests against the reforms that included as many as 2 million
in Rome alone last month, most of the capital city's largest plazas were dominated by workers carrying signs representing the leading
trade unions and shouting slogans.

"It is about time for Italian workers to voice their discontent," said Ciro La Grota, a member of UIL, another leading union, who was
protesting in Rome's Piazza Navona. "The government wants to pass laws that will allow workers to hire and fire workers like game
pieces ... we must show that workers should be valued more than that."

Early fears that some of the protests could turn violent proved unfounded, as police reported no significant injuries at any of the country's
demonstrations.

Leading up to the strike, union leaders vowed to follow Tuesday's activities with weekly strikes if the government did not back away from
its reform plans. But on Tuesday, labor leaders were vague about whether they would call for another work stoppage next week, with a
spokesman for CGIL telling UPI that future plans would be evaluated in the coming days.
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