Italians strike over Berlusconi's failure to deliver economic miracle
John Hooper in Rome
Saturday March 27, 2004
Millions of Italians stopped work yesterday in a general strike that caused widespread disruption and forced an offer of talks from Silvio Berlusconi's embattled government even before it started.
Public-sector workers went on strike for between four and eight hours, along with others in highly unionised private industries such as manufacturing and banking. The action halted the business of government, closed schools and post offices, stopped buses and underground railways and led to traffic jams in many cities. Both the public and private health sectors were hit.
In Rome, public transport was brought to a halt from 10am until 4pm. In Milan, many who got to work faced long delays on the way home: transport workers announced they would not guarantee a resumption of normal services until 10pm.
In industry, there were wildly conflicting claims. Fiat in Turin said 18.5% of its workforce had failed to turn up for work, but union officials claimed 60% backing for the strike.
Five points behind in the polls, with a virtually stalled economy and European elections looming, Mr Berlusconi's ministers were in no mood for a prolonged trial of strength with the unions. In an interview published in yesterday's edition of the financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, a junior minister, Maurizio Sacconi, said: "After the ritual of the strike, must come dialogue."
Yesterday's stoppages were called by all three main trade union federations to protest at the government's proposed reform of pensions. But the protest broadened to become a generalised complaint about the state of the economy.
The unions, whose protests over pensions reform fatally weakened Mr Berlusconi's first government 10 years ago, seem to have sensed that they could not do the same thing to his second administration.
There is wider public acceptance of the need to curb pensions spending, which already sucks in 15% of Italy's GDP, and the government has tabled a bill that was redrafted after the last nationwide strike in October to meet many of the unions' objections. Among other things, it would raise the retirement age from 57 to 60 from 2008.
Increasingly, voter dissatisfaction is focusing on the prime minister's inability to deliver the "new economic miracle" he promised in the 2001 general election campaign. Unlike France, or even Germany, Italy shows little sign of benefiting from the global economic upswing.
The economy was static in the final quarter of 2003, though the euro zone as a whole returned a growth rate of 0.6%. Among the problems is a rate of inflation that consumer groups insist is much higher than official statistics acknowledge.
But another problem is the government's apparent lack of a strategy for promoting growth. Even some of the prime minister's own advisers are privately impatient at his piecemeal liberalisation.
Mr Berlusconi's government implemented employment reforms largely inherited from the previous government, but it has signally failed to launch a broad-fronted privatisation initiative of the sort many had expected.
The management of the economy is set to be the dominant issue at the regional and European elections in June that are seen as a crucial test of Mr Berlusconi's chances of survival - and the prospects of Italy's opposition leader in exile, the European commission president, Romano Prodi.http://www.guardian.co.uk/italy/story/0,12576,1179200,00.html