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Last Updated: Friday, 24 October, 2003, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Italians protest at pension reforms
Demonstration in Rome
Trade unions say they will not back down

Protesters marched through major Italian cities on Friday to show their support for a national strike against plans to reform the country's pensions system.

Trade unions said about 1.5 million people had taken part in the demonstrations.

Trains, planes, factories and schools were affected, as workers expressed their anger at proposals to make them work longer before retirement.

Trade union leaders warned Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that the stoppages were only the beginning of their campaign.

'Just the start'

"If the government doesn't change its course and recognise the strength of our arguments, they can expect us to continue our protests," said Guglielmo Epifani, leader of the CGIL union, at a demonstration in Bologna.

The CGIL is the biggest of three unions organising the strike.

ITALY'S PENSIONS DILEMMA
Marilena Venditelli

Mr Berlusconi went on state television to sell the pension reforms to a sceptical nation, telling them it was "necessary, fair and wise".

The reforms would mean Italians would not qualify for pensions before they have paid 40 years of contributions, or reached a minimum retirement age of 65 for men and 60 for women.

At the moment workers can retire at 57 if they have paid into the pension system for 35 years.

Italy's pension system swallows about 15% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Marches took place on Friday in Rome, Milan, Bologna, Naples, Turin and other cities.

Italy's top three unions had urged their 11 million members to join up to 100 demonstrations across the country.

Union leaders are angry at the way the plan was delivered to them without prior consultation, and have said their action is "not a political strike".

The timing could not be worse for Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, who is under pressure from Brussels to get the country's finances into shape amid high inflation and unemployment.

Mr Berlusconi's first government in 1994 was toppled over the pensions issue, but his four-party coalition looked set to stand firm this time.

La Scala cancelled

National airline Alitalia cancelled more than 150 afternoon flights as a consequence of the staggered four-hour strike.

Hospitals said they could only guarantee staff for emergency services, and schoolchildren got a bonus day at home as teachers walked off the job.

Pick up any Italian paper on any day and you will read tales of consumer woes, how the price of a cappuccino has doubled

Firms from carmaker Fiat to domestic appliance maker Merloni scaled back production as employees protest.

And Milan's famous La Scala opera house cancelled its evening performance.

The government will present its measures to parliament before the end of the year, and, if passed, the changes will come into effect in 2008.

But Mr Epifani of union CGIL said: "The majority of Italian workers are against... the so-called pension reform."




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's David Willey
"Rail and air travel are expected to be seriously disrupted by the strike"



SEE ALSO:
Italy's muted pension protest
24 Oct 03  |  Europe
Italians tighten their belts
24 Oct 03  |  Europe
Italy 'must face pension reform'
29 Sep 03  |  Business
Italy slides into recession
08 Aug 03  |  Business


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