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Italian Workers Protest Revision of  Labor Law - 2002-03-23

Hundreds-of-thousands of Italian trade unionists and workers took to the streets of Rome on Saturday to protest against the government's planned revision of Italy's labor law. The protesters called for workers' rights to be respected. Supporters of Italy's largest trade union turned out in the hundreds-of-thousands in Rome to say "no" to changes in the labor law. Security was extremely tight, and the center of the capital was closed to traffic.

Thousands of buses and special trains brought members of the CGIL trade union from all over Italy. Crowds of demonstrators could be seen throughout the city waving red communist flags and raising banners against the proposed changes by the government.

"Without social conflict there is no democracy," said one demonstrator. "We are here to defend not just the rights of workers," he said, "but the country's right to freedom."

Marchers converged on Rome's ancient Circus Maximus, where a minute of silence was held in memory of Marco Biagi, a respected economist who had been working on labor reform, and who was shot to death in Bologna earlier this week, in what was believed to have been a political killing.

An offshoot of the Red Brigades, which carried out political killings in the 1970s and 1980s, claimed responsibility for Mr. Biagi's assassination.

The leader of Italy's major trade union, Sergio Cofferati, addressed the huge crowd that gathered at the Circus Maximus. He declared that demonstrators had turned out in such large numbers to defend the rights of workers and to raise their voices against political terrorism.

"Defeating Terrorism," Mr. Cofferati said, "is a need and task for everyone, now more than ever - of all democratic people, of those who have the state as a point of reference."

The Italian government has been working to reform labor legislation that would make it easier for employers to fire workers. Millions of Italians have jobs for life, and the government wants the job market to become more flexible and more in line with other European Union nations.

Talks between the government and the unions broke down last week, when the government said it was not prepared to make concessions. Following the killing of Mr. Biagi, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the government would forge ahead with the labor reform, and urged unions to return to negotiations.