Italians launch general strike against austerity

Italians explain why they are striking

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Tens of thousands of Italians have taken to the streets during a day-long strike against the government's latest austerity measures.

Flights, trains and buses were cancelled, and government offices shut.

The government has faced criticism over a 45bn-euro (£40bn) austerity package, and has been scrambling to revise it.

Some measures have been scrapped or watered down, but on Tuesday new additions were made - including a sales tax hike and revised wealth tax.

The sales tax is due to rise from 20% to 21% in the latest version of the austerity bill, while a 3% tax will be proposed for those earning more than 300,000 euros, the government said.

A constitutional requirement to balance the budget and changes to the retirement age will also be inserted.

Almost daily revisions of government plans, endless public discussion of every twist and turn, and increasing alarm among Italy's European neighbours, have put Italy right at the centre of the eurozone crisis, says the BBC's Mark Duff in Milan.

Millions of ordinary Italians are returning from their August summer holidays to an ever more uncertain future, he adds.

'Edge of abyss'

CGIL, which called the general strike, is Italy's largest union federation, and millions of workers were thought to be taking part.

AUSTERITY MEASURES

On 12 August the Italian cabinet approved a series of austerity measures worth 45.5bn euros. It has since revised many of them:

  • A 3% supertax is now included on anyone earning more than 300,000 euros. A wealth tax set at a lower threshold of 90,000 euros was dropped after it provoked howls of protest from, among others, top footballers
  • A new 2% tax on cash transfers home by immigrants, many from developing countries
  • Retirement age: initial plans spoke of raising the women's retirement age to 65. Axed after opposition from the Northern League it was then restore - initially for 2028, then brought forward to 2014
  • A crackdown on tax evasion. Taking on greater importance as other measures dropped. Initial plans to publish everyone's declared income online dropped over privacy concerns. Still includes a threat to jail the worst offenders
  • Cuts in local government spending: Provinces to be scrapped but original measure watered down following outrage at the possible disappearance of some of the country's best known - but tiniest - municipalities
  • Sales tax rise of 1% added to draft bill on 6 September

The CGIL is demanding stronger action against tax dodgers and continuing job protection.

It has been infuriated by a new clause that will make it easier to dismiss workers.

"We are on the edge of the abyss, we need responsible government," said CGIL union leader Susanna Camusso.

"We are striking against measures that are irresponsible, and which put all of the burden on public sector workers," she told strikers in Rome.

However, smaller, more moderate union federations have rejected the strike.

They say there is no point in striking against employers when everybody's jobs are at risk.

In Milan striking workers threw eggs and smoke bombs at banks, in Turin they scuffled with police, while in Palermo in Sicily demonstrators burned the flags of trade unions that refused to take part in the strike.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right coalition has been forced into urgent government spending cuts and tax raises by Italy's eurozone partners.

Parliament is due to pass into law this week its amended austerity plan, first drawn up hastily during the August holidays at the insistence of the European Central Bank.

Many of the original measures in the plan - including a tax on the highest earners, pension reforms, and the scrapping of local councils - have been changed or ditched after raising howls of protest.

The Italian government says the bill will be put to a vote of confidence - a common technique for ensuring the passage of controversial measures.

Stocks falling

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has expressed alarm at the growing spread between German and Italian bond rates.

On Tuesday afternoon stocks in Milan fell more than 3% on concerns about the austerity plan. There were also stock market falls on Monday, and a new rise in interest rates payable on Italian government debt.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has compared Italy's economic plight to that of Greece.

Meanwhile, Mr Berlusconi's popularity rating has sunk to an all-time low.

Italy has helped take some of the focus off Spain's difficulties - though they were also set to come back to the fore on Tuesday, with unions planning rallies to protest against a new constitutional amendment which will oblige governments to ensure that budgets are balanced.

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