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Italians Strike to Protest Government's Cost-Cutting Plan

MILLIONS of Italians stopped work for four hours on Oct. 22 in a general strike aimed at forcing Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti to scrap his 1992 cost-cutting plans.Mass demonstrations took place in major cities and public transport ground to a halt in defiance of last-minute government appeals to call off the strike. Some essential services were hit, although unions representing health workers and firefighters limited their protest to one hour. Schools and banks were closed, many for the day, and dozens of local and international flights were postponed or canceled. Milan's stock exchange opened one hour late. "We aim to get these [cost-cutting] measures thrown out completely, not just watered down," said Giorgio Benvenuto, secretary general of the UIL, one of Italy's three major unions. The three unions, accounting for some 14 million workers, are bitterly opposed to Mr. Andreotti's 1992 budget plan, which they say is unjust and unrealistic. The government aims to raise health-care charges and cap public-sector wage raises next year in a bid to contain a huge budget deficit and keep Italy's economy abreast of its European Community partners. On Oct. 19, the unions turned down an appeal by Andreotti to call off their strike. The Oct. 22 strike was the first all-out stoppage in Italy since May 1989, when a wave of protests, also against new health charges, contributed to the collapse of then Prime Minister Ciriaco De Mita's coalition government. The budget package is currently before Parliament, which has until the end of the year to approve it. The bill aims to save some 60 trillion lire ($55 billion) and keep the budget deficit down to around this year's expected level of 128 trillion lire ($116 billion) through spending cuts, extra tax revenue, and sales of state industrial holdings. Andreotti has already angered the unions by trying to scale back Italy's generous pension system by raising retirement ages and increasing state employee pension contributions. Much of the generous social legislation now costing so much was extracted by the unions in the late 1960s and 1970s following the wave of unrest that swept Europe after 1968. During the last decade the unions have lost ground, however, weakened by the emergence of splinter groups often encouraged by large corporations.

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