Italy Seized by Public Transport Strike

Reuters, Friday 9 January 2004, 6:06 AM ET

ROME (Reuters)—Transport workers went on strike in several cities across Italy Friday, a day after air traffic controllers walked off the job, forcing thousands of passengers to change planes.

Bus, train and metro workers were holding industrial action from Naples to Milan in staggered strikes, with some starting in the pre-dawn hours and ending as late as 8 p.m. (1900 GMT).

The transport chaos has increased pressure on Italy's center-right government which is pursuing controversial labor and pension reforms.

“It's definitely going to be a ‘Black Friday’,” lamented one Rome taxi driver. “Sure we get more work, but trying to actually get anywhere in this chaos is impossible.”

Public transport job contracts expired in 2001 and workers had demanded a pay rise of 106 euros ($133) a month while employers proposed an increase of 41 euros.

A compromise was reached at the end of last year, but many workers said the pay increase would not cover their loss of purchasing power and threatened to keep up strike action.

Thursday's eight-hour stoppage by air traffic controllers, protesting over pay conditions, is the second in as many months.

As well as the public transport strikes, staff of Italian carrier Alitalia are staging a walk-out on January 19 to protest against a pay freeze and 2,700 job cuts.

Analysts say the spate of strike action has turned up the heat on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whom critics accuse of following no set agenda bar his own.

“The government has little clear economic strategy at this stage,” said Bank of America economist Lorenzo Codogno.

“The risk now is that strikes and pressure from public opinion that could undermine political support for (Berlusconi's center-right) coalition might actually be effective,” he said.

A controversial pensions reform which would take some weight off public spending but would make it harder to retire early, has yet to be debated in parliament.