Rome swamped by mass pension protest

Hundreds of thousands of people, waving red flags and blowing whistles, marched through Rome today to protest government plans to reform Italy’s generous pension system, which economists say can no longer sustain itself.

Hundreds of thousands of people, waving red flags and blowing whistles, marched through Rome today to protest government plans to reform Italy’s generous pension system, which economists say can no longer sustain itself.

Organisers told the crowd they numbered more than a million, but there were no official figures released from police.

Throngs of people, young and old from across the country, flocked into central Rome and massed at the vast Piazza San Giovanni for a day of protest.

Standing in front of a billboard reading “Defend your Future”, union leaders and centre-left opposition politicians demanded the conservative government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi change course and scrap its reform plans.

“After 30 months, this government has left the country poorer and more divided,” said Gugliemo Epifani, leader of the largest union, CGIL. “For this reason, people today are protesting.”

Economists have warned that with Italy’s ageing population and declining birth-rate, the country’s pension system will not be sustainable in the future.

The government pension plan focuses on giving incentives to workers who delay their retirement, starting from next year. Until 2008, however, Italians will still have access to Italy’s current system which, after 35 years of work, allows them to retire at 57-years-old.

Berlusconi has gone on prime-time television to explain the reform to the Italian people and why it is necessary.

The unions say the reforms aren’t necessary and insist Italy’s system is perfectly sustainable.

“Berlusconi should listen to the piazza,” Epifani told the crowd, which was a sea of red CGIL and other union banners.

Today’s demonstration was the latest in a series of protests and work stoppages staged by unions in protest at the reforms. On October 24, a general strike crippled Italy after millions of workers stayed away from work.

In 1994, when Berlusconi tried to reform the pension system during his first government, 1 million people took to the streets in protest. Berlusconi eventually backed down, but his attempt had already aggravated tensions among coalition partners, and his government collapsed after eight months.

Savino Pezzotta, leader of the CISL union, warned Berlusconi to listen to the protests this time around and change course.

“Today, we haven’t taken to the streets to make the government fall, but to ask the government to change its tune and put new policies in place,” he said.

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