Italians protest spending cuts
Rome - Italy's largest union staged a national general strike on Friday disrupting transport and government services in a protest against austerity measures by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government.
The left-leaning CGIL, which has six million members, called rallies in nearly every major Italian city in a bid to force the government to rewrite a €25bn package of cuts, which Berlusconi has said is an essential part of European efforts to save the euro currency.
"No one denies that we need to make cuts, but they must be cuts which are fair and look to the future, rather than just slashing spending," said Susanna Camusso, deputy leader of the CGIL, leading a march in the leftist stronghold of Bologna.
The strike was a key test of strength for Berlusconi, whose poll ratings have reached new lows as unemployment has risen and the euro zone's third largest economy has struggled to emerge from its worst post-World War Two recession.
However, initial support for the strike appeared to be muted, with several bus and metro services in Rome continuing to run and many ordinary Italians expressing their annoyance.
"There are always more and more buses that do not go on strike because clearly you go on strike to attain something and we never seem to attain anything," said driver Maurizio Rinaldi at Rome Termini station, where commuters queued in the sun.
The strike has split Italy's trade union movement, which is roughly divided along political lines. The other two main unions have asked their members to stay on the job.
While most private sector GCIL workers were due to strike for four hours, public sector members will stay off the job all day to underscore their anger. Pilots and ground staff were due to stop work for four hours but flights at Rome's Fiumicino airport appeared to suffer little disruption.
Claims of unfair distribution of cuts
The strike followed union protests in France and Greece this week against plans for pension reform and budget cuts. Members of the 16-nation euro zone have rushed to approve austerity measures in a bid to restore confidence in the single currency and halt contagion from Greece's debt crisis.
After months of telling Italians they were immune to a Greek-style debt crisis, Berlusconi's cabinet in May approved an austerity plan including cuts to funds for municipalities and freezing of public sector salaries.
The Italian Treasury said this week that it expected the plans to reduce gross domestic product (GDP) growth by 0.1 percentage points this year and by 0.2 points in 2011 and 2012.
Polls say a majority of Italians believe the cuts are unfairly distributed and the government's promise of salary reductions for parliamentarians has not changed this view.
Mayors from around Italy placed hangman's nooses around their necks at a Rome demonstration this week, saying the cuts would kill local finances to the point of denying a minimum of social assistance to children, the elderly and the disabled.
Representatives of some of Italy's 20 regions have given the government an ultimatum to either change the budget or the central government will have to take over local responsibilities such as road maintenance.