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Friday, 18 October, 2002, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
General strike cripples Italy
View of the deserted Rome Termini railway station
Train services were reduced to a bare minimum
Tens of thousands of Italian workers have been taking part in rallies as part of a general strike to protest against labour reforms and budget cuts by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The strike, called by Italy's largest and most left-wing trade union, caused chaos in the transport sector with air, rail and local transport severely affected.

Striking facts
Protests held in 120 towns and cities
More than 250 flights cancelled
About 35,000 travellers affected
More than 100 train services stopped
Second general strike this year

The trade unions estimate that more than a million members took part in protests, although observers say the industrial action seems to have had less impact than a similar strike in March.

It was the second general strike this year and came amid a growing dispute over labour rights following the recent announcement by car maker Fiat of plans to lay off a fifth of its workforce.

The left-wing CGIL union said it called the strike because Mr Berlusconi's budget and financial policies, as well as his labour reforms, are aggravating the economic slowdown and could end up putting tens of thousands of people out of work.

"Across the country today, millions of workers have joined the call and come out in the streets in protest," CGIL chief Guglielmo Epifani told thousands of workers gathered in the centre of the northern industrial city of Turin, where Fiat is based.

Disruption

Workers carrying red flags, blowing whistles and chanting anti-government slogans took to the streets in 120 towns and cities to protest against labour reforms which they say undermine workers' rights and stiff cuts in health and education in the budget.

A striking worker carries a poster depicting Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi as Pinocchio and reading
The unions are angry at Berlusconi's policies

The worst hit sector was transport - Italy's airports and train stations were scenes of desolation.

The national airline, Alitalia, had to cancel more than 250 flights and tens of thousands of airline passengers were thought to have been stranded.

There was also disruption to the railways, with more than 100 train services - about 40% of routes - cancelled.

Most schools closed as did many banks and health services were reduced to the essentials.

Many Italians opted to take a day off as getting to their workplace was nearly impossible because of protest marches, the lack of urban transport and traffic jams.

Jobs threat

The CGIL is angry over the government's plans to amend a section of a 1970 labour law.

The government wants to make it easier for firms to lay off workers and help the growth of small companies.

The union says the move threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs.

In April, the CGIL, CISL and UIL staged the country's first general strike in two decades to protest against the reforms.

CISL and UIL have since agreed to work with the government, and are not taking part in Friday's action.

"I believe [today's] great participation also shows a great demand for unity. Starting from tomorrow, we must work for trade-union unity," Mr Fassino said in Turin.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jane Bennett-Powell
"120 rallies have been planned around the country"
Carla Corletti, Union official
"We cannot accept the end of the auto industry in Italy"
See also:

11 Oct 02 | Business
16 Apr 02 | Europe
24 Mar 02 | Europe
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