October 24, 2003

Massive Strike Leads Italy Into Temporary Paralysis


ROME, Oct. 24 — Planes idled on tarmacs, trains stopped running and much of Italy slipped into a state of temporary paralysis today as a result of a massive strike to protest a proposed increase in the retirement age.

Hundreds of thousands of workers heeded the call of the country's three largest labor unions and stayed away from work, and many took part in loud demonstrations that represented more than a single day's sound and fury.

Those demonstrations reflected a growing tension in Western Europe as many governments reassess the affordability of their pension systems and many citizens chafe against the prospect of diminished entitlements.

In Italy, public school teachers played hooky, museum administrators locked their doors and tens of thousands of Italians marched down the main arteries of the country's cities and flooded its fabled piazzas.

"Defend your future!" shouted people in an enormous crowd that gathered about noon in Piazza Navona here. There were whistles, drumbeats and a general air of genuine unease.

Italy, France and Germany have all contemplated, plotted or instituted cutbacks in state pension programs. Their leaders have said that the global economic slowdown, fewer children and more old people are forcing them to do so.

Late last month, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy took the unusual step of addressing the issue directly with Italians by giving a nationally televised speech during the prime-time evening hours.

"Whoever says that everything can continue as it is now is deceiving us," Mr. Berlusconi said, referring to the current Italian pension system. "This is not a sustainable situation."

Many Italians now retire with full benefits from the state before they turn 60. If they are 57 or younger, they can retire after paying into the state pension system for 37 years. If they are over 57, they can retire after 35 years of contributions.

Mr. Berlusconi has proposed increasing that period to 40 years for men under 65 and women under 60, a requirement that would take effect in 2008. The Italian Parliament has not yet voted on the measure.

Mr. Berlusconi's first stint as prime minister, in 1994, ended after just seven months, in part because of disenchantment over his desire to meddle with the state pension system.

He is nonetheless tackling the issue again, even though it entails bringing Italians a kind of bad news that contrasts starkly with his cheery campaign promises two and a half years ago.

Italians elected him to do for their economy what he did for his business empire — make it bigger and richer — but that has not happened.

Some protesters complained that Mr. Berlusconi was mismanaging the economy and that the answer was not to delay workers' retirements. Others said that no kind of budget crunch warranted the kind of reform Mr. Berlusconi was proposing.

"I think we should look in general at the life of a human being, which cannot be considered only in terms of work," said Amico Antonucci, 54, who stood in the crowd in Piazza Navona.

Bianca Pomeranzi, 53, proposed an alternative to Mr. Berlusconi's plan.

"The problem of too little money to pay pensions and a low birth rate could easily be solved by allowing more immigrants into the country," Ms. Pomeranzi said — a solution that many other Italians oppose.

As Italians took the battle over the pension system to the streets, there was ample collateral damage. People waited for buses that did not come, trains that would not leave and planes that did not fly.

Tourists were among the casualties.

In Florence, visitors who were turned away from museums entertained themselves instead by taking photographs of the protesters in the streets.

In Rome, visitors peered longingly, through zoom lenses, at the ruins that make up the Roman Forum, which was off limits for the day.