Italian protesters prepare for Christmas on a tower

2011-12-22 10:59

Three laid-off Italian rail workers are preparing to spend Christmas on a tower in Milan in sub-zero temperatures in a protest that has struck a national nerve in a new climate of austerity.

“It’ll be a strange kind of Christmas,” one of the men, 45-year-old father of three Carmine Rotatore, told AFP in an interview on his cellphone.

A Christmas tree has been set up by some colleagues at the foot of the tower in Milan’s train station and the men are vowing not to give up their protest.

Rotatore, Giuseppe Gison and Oliviero Cassini have been 20 metres up in the tower since December 9 and are refusing to descend until they and 800 colleagues are hired back by a subcontractor of national rail operator Trenitalia.

They get hot meals and drinks on a rope from fellow protesters holding a 24-hour picket at the foot of the metal tower and they say they are preparing for a long stay, equipped with sleeping bags and winter clothing.

The men are all workers on night trains who lost their jobs when Trenitalia reorganised its services on December 11. The service will now be handled by another subcontractor that has hired back 320 out of the 800 laid off.

The reform is not directly linked to Italy’s debt crisis but it comes at a time when many Italians are being asked by their government to make steep sacrifices on pensions and taxes to prevent their country from going bankrupt.

Trenitalia said it was forced to act following a sharp fall in passenger numbers and competition from low-cost airlines, stopping night connections between the south and big cities in the north like Milan or Turin.

The night trains from the south now stop at Rome or Bologna where passengers would have to take high-speed trains to go further north. The reform “avoids the risk of having to abandon this service,” Trenitalia said.

But trade unions say the company is only favouring high-speed rail travel, which is more profitable. “Italy, you are more divided without night trains,” reads a giant banner hung from the tower at Milan station by the protesters.

The three say they do not want any early pension or redundancy pay arrangement; they just want their old jobs back.

“Being sacked was a major blow. We want to work, pay our taxes. We’re not like politicians who live on the backs of the community,” Gison said.

But the protest has been tough on the men’s families.

Cassini is a 48-year-old widower and says it was “hard to leave my eight-year-old daughter in tears”.

But he added: “We had no choice. I am doing it mainly for her, to have a salary and guarantee a dignified life for her.”

Rotatore said of his family: “In a few years, we’ll have to explain to them that we were on this tower also for their future.”

But Rotatore’s wife Giovanna said she was hoping he would come down soon.

“We’ve never been big on Christmas but I hope they come down before it. The children are asking when they’ll see their father again,” she said.

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