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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 19:12 GMT 20:12 UK
Millions strike in Italy
Florence demonstration at Santa Croce
Florence saw the biggest protest with 300,000 people
Millions of Italian workers have joined a general strike across the country in protest at government plans to make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers.

The government is ready to go back to the table for discussions but it intends to continue on the path of reform

Silvio Berlusconi
The strike was called by the country's three main union federations, and has brought parts of the country to a virtual standstill.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said after the strike he was ready to resume talks with union leaders, but insisted that reform of labour laws was necessary.

"Following this general strike, our social partners should return to negotiations," he said.

"The government is ready to go back to the table for discussions but it intends to continue on the path of reform."

Unions said rallies in Rome, Florence, Milan and Bologna each drew crowds of more than 200,000 people, while more than 100,000 strikers took to the streets of Turin, the northern Italian powerbase of carmaker Fiat.

Milan platform
Only a few trains ran, and other services came to a standstill
It is the first general all-day work stoppage in Italy for 20 years.

In Rome, three separate marches of red flag-waving workers converged on the central Piazza del Popolo. Many opposition politicians also joined the protest.

The BBC's David Willey says balloons and effigies of Mr Berlusconi as Napoleon and the Pope have helped to create a carnival atmosphere.

"The country has come to a halt," proclaimed Sergio Cofferati, head of Italy's largest union CGIL, addressing a rally in front of the Santa Croce church in Florence.

The strike has shut down the city's public offices, factories and many shops.

Public holiday

Fiat said nearly 50% of its workforce did not turn up for work, but unions put the figure as high as 90%.

Airports were deserted, with air traffic controllers stopping work for eight hours, disrupting domestic and international connecting flights. Most airlines have rescheduled their flights for after the strike.

Public transport by road, rail, air and sea has stopped all over the country, although some long-distance trains have been running.

Schools, banks, post offices and government offices remained closed all day.

Protester dressed as a devil eats a picture of Berlusconi
The strike has focused public anger at Berlusconi's policies
There have been no live television broadcasts, with only skeleton news reports on the radio. No newspapers were published.

Most small businesses, however, remained open for business.

"This is a piece of theatre that will serve to remind the unions they have a voice and then hopefully the next day labour negotiations will resume," James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University in Rome, told Reuters news agency.

Many Italians treated the day as a public holiday and headed off to the country or the seaside.

Workers demonstrating in the major industrial cities denounced the Berlusconi government's plans to reform Italy's inflexible labour laws.

Rights 'erosion'

The laws make it difficult for medium and large-size companies ever to fire workers once they have been regularly hired.

The unions argue that although the details of the industrial dispute may appear to be marginal, once the government begins to tamper with existing labour legislation, workers' rights will continue to be eroded.

Employers argue that unless Italian industry, already considerably less competitive than most of its EU partners, becomes more flexible, it will continue its downward slide.

The BBC's Brian Barron reports from Rome
"The Italian government wants to curb the powers of union militants"
Giacomo Barbieri of the trade union CGIL
"People have rights, and must defend their dignity"
See also:

16 Apr 02 | Europe
Italy's thorny labour law
16 Apr 02 | Europe
In pictures: Italy on strike
16 Apr 02 | Europe
Festive mood as Italy stops work
15 Apr 02 | Europe
Italy media on strike
15 Apr 02 | Europe
Italy's politicised strike
16 Apr 02 | Business
Flights grounded by Italian strike
25 Mar 02 | Europe
The new messiah of Italy's left
20 Mar 02 | Europe
Ghosts return to haunt Italy
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