By Nick Pisa and Oliver Pickup
Italy ground to a halt today as a general strike brought thousands – if not millions – on to the street in protest at a belt-tightening €45billion (£39.5bn) austerity package.
The strike was organised by the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), the country’s biggest trade union, and saw disruption to flights, buses, trains as well as hospitals, schools, post offices and other government services.
Demonstrations were held in several cities across the country with extra police being drafted in to stop any potential disorder but there were still sporadic outbursts with eight officers hurt by fireworks.
CIGL officials said that three million people had taken part in the strike – which also affected the Amanda Knox appeal trial in Perugia as jury members using public transport were held up.
The strike was supported by British trade union Unison chief Dave Prentis who sent a letter backing the action, expressing the ‘solidarity’ of his members with ‘Italian workers’.
Mr Prentis added that politicians across Europe were in a ‘vicious circle that was increasing as opposed to reducing public debt because of austerity cuts.
What we and European trade unions are proposing as a way out of the crisis is growth – that’s why we wish the best of luck to our colleagues in CGIL in their fight.’
Italy, the third largest economy in the Eurozone, is teetering on the edge of a Greek-style financial crisis with a debt approaching £1trillion – 120 per cent of GDP.
The under-pressure prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has insisted the best way to tackle the crisis is with the tough austerity package which will see cuts in education, health and pay freezes.
But the proposed package has also been hit by backstabbing from within his coalition as supposed allies protest at some of the cuts and to appease them they are scrapped.
Initially there had been plans to move three national bank holidays to Sundays to keep productivity going but this was dropped following a national outcry.
Susanna Camusso, head of CGIL, said: ‘When you are on the edge of the abyss, you have to take a step backwards.
‘This is a general strike against a budget measure which is totally unjustified and as we have seen in the past few hours totally irresponsible.’
Protesters who gathered in central Rome unfurled a banner that said: ‘Change the austerity package to give a future to the country – more growth, more employment, more development.’
One of the most affected areas was Rome airport which saw hundreds of flights cancelled and long queues at airline information desks as passengers tried to find out how to get away.
Ryanair said that 200 of its flights were cancelled across the country as a result of the strike with pilots and crew joining the walkout as well as ground staff and some air traffic controllers.
Trains and buses were also hit and traffic, which is chaotic at the best of times in Italy, was made even worse as people used cars to get to work or take children to school.
Production was also affected at Fiat plants across the country with 25 per cent of the workforce taking part and newspapers were also hit with presses stopping printing.
Italian markets which have suffered huge losses over the last few days were also significantly down as well with the Milan stock exchange showing a drop of more than 2 per cent.
Tonight extra police were also drafted in to protect the Italian Senate where the package was to be debated after paint and smoke bombs were hurled by marchers.