Italy's Labor Leaders Ponder a Modified Austerity Program

LEADERS of Italy's three major trade unions met yesterday to decide whether to accept a modified austerity program put forward by Prime Minister Giuliano Amato.

Following a four-hour general strike across Italy Tuesday, Mr. Amato softened earlier proposals on pensions and health benefits. Worker resentment on these issues led to the work stoppage.

Amato's austerity plan is an effort to cut Italy's massive public debt, in part to meet requirements set down by the European Community for participation in the EC's future unified market and common currency. The action followed the abolition of the scala mobile, the system under which wages increased along with inflation. The dissolving of the wage indexation system was another issue of contention; it was accepted by union leaders this summer, but caused a storm of opposition from the union rank and fil e.

Some members of CGIL, the largest trade union, have already begun talking of staging another strike. The small Rifondazione Communista, the rump of the former Communist Party, supports such action.

But Bruno Trentin, the leader of CGIL, said he couldn't foresee another strike before early November, when the union holds an assembly of delegates. "The general strike won't free us from the Amato government," Mr. Trentin added.

This is a testing time for Italy in which the economic and political situation remains decidedly unsettled. The lira was removed from the European Monetary System Sept. 17 (following devaluation by 7 percent), because of the battering it received from the strong German mark on world currency markets. It has yet to return.

RECENT studies by a number of leading Italian research organizations show that poverty and unemployment are rising, the current discount rate (at 15 percent the highest among the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations) is hurting Italian businesses, and the economic divide between the North and the South of Italy is growing.

The latter development comes as Sen. Umberto Bossi's Northern League gains new political strength in the prosperous industrial North. A prominent plank in the League's platform is that Northerners' tax money is unfairly being used by Rome to prop up the less-developed South. This argument, and the party's stands on immigrants in the North, have caused many to brand the League racist.

The latest voter survey shows Mr. Bossi's party, which has become influential only in the last couple of years, clobbering the traditional parties in Turin, Milan, Brescia, Bergamo, Genoa, Venice, and even in traditionally Communist Bologna.

The League's growing strength - a third of the people in Mantova voted for it in late September city elections - worries the more established parties, particularly those on the left.

Claudio Martelli, the No. 2 in the Socialist Party until early this summer, would like to build a "Democratic Alliance" of the left to replace the traditional left-of-center parties. Mr. Martelli has also called for the resignation of Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, whose party and personal prestige have been hard hit by months of judicial investigations into the bribing of public officials in return for construction contracts and other favors.

On the center-right, meanwhile, the Christian Democrat Party has seen the sidelining from public office of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti for the first time in decades and the resignation of party boss Arnaldo Forlani, another stalwart, following the party's disappointment at its poor showing in April elections.

Mario Segni, a reform-minded party figure, received the most sustained applause of the day at a rally he held here on Saturday when he said that a large part of the party was "irremediably condemned" because of its past policies and practices. He, too, called for the creation of a Democratic Alliance of clean, reform-oriented politicians.

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