Italy's Workers Strike As Job Losses Mount And Spending Falls Off

WITH Italy's economy showing little sign of improvement, workers took to the streets yesterday.

The four-hour general strike, called by the country's three major trade unions, was cast by organizers in positive terms: It was ``for'' employment, an equitable tax policy, and government adherence to the July agreement that abolished the scala mobile system that indexed wages to inflation.

In some cities, such as Venice, Trieste, Rome, and Naples, workers extended the strike to the entire working day to protest present and potential job losses.

The Confindustria employer's federation predicts that the jobless rate could exceed 12 percent by year's end. And a study by the Mediobanca bank this summer revealed that public and private companies had experienced greater losses than at any other time in the past 10 years.

Labor Minister Gino Giugni cautioned Italians against expecting any quick fixes, saying, ``The employment crisis is very serious and the government is working to give you relief, but a lot of effort and a lot of patience will be needed.''

For the first time ever on the eve of a general strike, employers, through Confindustria, wrote workers an open letter, asking them not to expect that the government could guarantee employment. More specifically, they said not to expect that government aid could get the economy rolling again, thereby protecting jobs.

``Our public spending represents more than 55 percent of the [gross] national product, but the employment rate is only slightly higher than 37 percent, a level 9 points lower than the American rate and 15 points lower than the Japanese rate,'' Confindustria wrote.

Trade union response was cool.

``Confindustria got the address wrong: That letter should have been sent to its members,'' said Sergio D'Antoni, the head of the CISL union, dominated by the Roman Catholic Christian Democrat Party.

Italians are so concerned that they may lose their jobs, that consumer spending has plummeted. Spending on automobiles is down 15 percent; on expensive restaurants down 20 percent; on costly jewelry down 40 percent; and on home entertainment down about 20 percent.

Yesterday's strike followed a strike on Wednesday by the journalists of RAI state television's three channels, who were protesting the policies of the agency's new board of directors.

The board's appointment by Parliament this past summer was heralded as a step toward depoliticizing the networks and making them more competitive. The first channel is dominated by the Christian Democrats, the second by the Socialists, and the third by the ex-communists.

But the result to date has been an increase in the presence of Christian Democrats in RAI management, the much-publicized resignation of the news director of the third channel, and viewer dissatisfaction that has allowed media tycoon Silvo Berlusconi's competing three national networks to beat RAI in the ratings for nearly a month. The Christian Democrats have been the dominant party in Italy for decades and have been hard-hit by the country's political corruption scandal.

Part of the problem is that RAI is in serious financial difficulty. Cost-cutting has led all three networks to dip freely into their videotape libraries and air clips from years past, under the guise of nostalgia.

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