By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
ROME (AP) — Tens of thousands of Italian workers rallied in Rome on Saturday to protest pension cuts, tax hikes and labor reforms imposed by the government of Mario Monti and to demand more stable work, particularly for the young.
The demonstration organized by Italy's main labor unions came a day after Monti's latest effort to stave off contagion from Europe's debt crisis. His Cabinet on Friday approved measures worth €80 billion ($100 billion) to spur economic growth, streamline the notoriously bloated public sector and lower the national debt.
In the seven months it has been in power, Monti's government of technocrats has pushed through painful pension cuts, labor reforms to make it easier to fire workers and tax increases that have cut into the pockets of ordinary Italians already coping with hard times and youth unemployment at a staggering 36 percent.
On Saturday, Monti said the latest measures signaled the start of "phase two" of his government program, to spur growth for an economy already deep in recession. Just last week, official statistics confirmed the economy contracted by 0.8 percent in the first quarter, the worst in three years.
At the colorful rally Saturday full of union flags and balloons, older workers lamented that their pensions don't get them through the end of the month, particularly with new taxes on primary homes, and that their children have few work options.
"They are making the same people poorer, the retired people," said Emilio Scappini, a retired train conductor who said his daughter was earning a paltry €400 ($505) a month. "But it's not just her, all the young people. And Monti hasn't understood this."
Many workers who protested Saturday have been caught in a welfare limbo between work and retirement brought on by the government's pension reform. The reform left exposed workers who volunteered to retire early and took a payment that should have tided them over until their state pensions started. As part of the reform, the government raised the retirement age, creating a funding gap for at least 65,000, and as many as 390,000 workers.
"We have no idea what our future will be," said Mario Fiore, one of the many Italians caught in the limbo. With a daughter also unemployed, he said he came to the protest from Brescia, in northern Italy, to make his voice heard.
"We are here to ask for something better," he said.
Susanna Camusso, head of Italy's largest union, Cgil, urged the government at Saturday's rally to allow the affected workers to retire according to the previous criteria.