Italy brought to standstill by austerity strikes

Italy was brought to a halt by a nationwide strike against austerity measures, piling pressure on Silvio Berlusconi’s government as it tries to show it has a credible deficit-cutting plan.

The strike by Italy’s largest union shut down air, land and sea transport, halted manufacturing and curtailed government services.

Susanna Camusso, head of the CGIL union, said the current proposal for cuts needs to be thrown out and substituted with fairer measures. Unions claim it fails to create jobs while putting too much burden on workers.

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“We are striking against measures that are unjust. We are striking against measures that are irresponsible, and which put all of the burden on public sector workers,” Ms Camusso told demonstrators in Rome.

She promised to bring lawsuits and court cases against the current draft plan of austerity measures, which among other things want to make it easier to fire workers.

It is a delicate moment for Mr Berlusconi’s government, which is under intense international pressure to pass measures this month aimed at balancing the budget by 2013. Worries that it is backtracking on some of its pledges have seen investors push up the country’s borrowing rates.

Italy’s president has urged political leaders to come up with “more efficient measures” citing “alarming signs” that the financial crisis is worsening.

Workers for the state railway, city transit systems and ferry services all were on strike for periods throughout the day, creating difficulties for travellers. Hospital workers, postal employees and bank tellers also joined in. And workers for industrial concerns such as Fiat also participated.

In an unusual alliance, union hard-liners and the main industrial lobby agree that the measures contain virtually nothing to stimulate Italy’s flat economic growth. But two other unions refused to join the strike call, saying it sent the wrong message to investors.