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Thousands in Italy Protest Government Plans to Reform Labor Laws - 2002-10-18

Thousands of Italians are taking part in a general strike Friday, to protest government plans to reform labor laws. The strike is the second in six months and has caused serious transportation problems across the country.

Italy is at a virtual standstill and traffic in the cities is in chaos. Buses and trains are running in very limited numbers. The national airline Alitalia was forced to cancel 275 flights, leaving passengers stranded at airports throughout the country.

Thousands of Italians took to the streets to protest the center-right government's plans to reform labor laws and make it easier to fire employees. In addition, the strikers say Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's efforts to cut government spending are aggravating the economic slowdown and putting 280,000 jobs at risk.

The walkout was called by Italy's major trade union, the CGIL, which has nearly six million members.

Union leader Guglielmo Epifani says the strike is in the interest of all Italians.

He says the strike is a strike for Italy because Italy's future must be accompanied by economic policies aimed at strengthening production, employment and the quality of labor. The government has done exactly the contrary, Mr. Epifani says. It has cut the rights of workers because it thinks this is the way to compete.

Adding to the anger of union leaders is the recent announcement by Italy's largest private sector employer, Fiat, that it is laying off one-fifth of its workforce at Fiat Auto.

The union leader, Savino Pezzotta, of the CISL union, says the cuts at Fiat will do lasting damage to Italy's auto industry. He says the Fiat crisis is reason for great concern. There are thousands of jobs at stake, Mr. Pezzotta says. And also there's an industrial strategy at stake if this country wants to maintain its place in the car-making sector.

Thousands of job cuts have been announced in recent weeks by other Italian companies, as well. The Berlusconi government says its measures are aimed at boosting the growth of small and medium companies, which in turn will boost the economy. But union leaders say the reforms are nothing but a threat to the job security of workers.