Italian workers strike in protest over Berlusconi’s austerity measures

A NATIONWIDE strike against austerity measures brought Italy to a near-halt yesterday, piling pressure on Silvio Berlusconi’s government as it tries to convince nervous markets that it can produce and enforce a credible deficit-cutting plan.

Workers for the state railway, city transit systems and ferry services all were on strike for periods.

Late yesterday, the government got a sorely needed boost when Italy’s main industrial lobby Confindustria voiced support for the latest version of the flip-flopping austerity plan, which among other things would increase the IVA sales tax to 21% from 20%.

Previously, Confindustria had criticised the plan as failing to do anything to spur economic growth.

The government, meanwhile, said it would tie passage of the €45.5 billion tax and cut austerity plan to a vote of confidence, as Berlusconi seeks to enforce discipline in his often unruly coalition. The government said the “grave international context of the financial crisis” made the decision necessary.

If the government fails in the confidence vote, it would fall; such a threat is designed to compel legislators to pass the plan, which has changed almost daily as Berlusconi seeks to placate his allies.

The strike by Italy’s largest union disrupted air, land and sea transport, stalled manufacturing and curtailed government services.

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

“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,” Camusso told demonstrators in Rome.

Camusso pledged to bring lawsuits and court cases against the draft plan of austerity measures, which want to make it easier to fire workers.

It is a delicate moment for 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.

The senate is set to vote by the end of the week. The package then moves to the lower house in parliament, with adoption expected by September 15.

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