* Italy’s largest union calls national strike, marches
* Opponents say budget cuts hit workers, spare rich
* Workers strike for either four or eight hours (Updates with marches in several cities)
By Daniel Flynn
ROME, June 25 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Italian cities on Friday during a general strike by Italy’s largest union to protest at cuts by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government.
The left-leaning CGIL, which has six million members, held rallies in Rome, Milan and several other cities in a bid to force the government to redraft a 25-billion-euro ($34 billion) austerity package, which Berlusconi says is an essential part of European efforts to save the euro.
“No one denies that we need to make cuts, but they must be cuts which are fair and look to the future, rather than just slashing spending,” said Susanna Camusso, deputy leader of the CGIL, leading a march in the leftist stronghold of Bologna.
In Rome, a long line of protesters blowing whistles and waving red CGIL flags snaked past the Colosseum, which organisers put at 40,000 people. In Milan, the CGIL said 80,000 attended a rally, but police estimated the figure at 35,000.
Many of Friday’s marchers also bore placards against car maker Fiat FIA.MI, which is wrangling with unions over plans to improve labour productivity at a plant in southern Italy.
The strike was a test of strength for Berlusconi, whose poll ratings have reached new lows as unemployment has risen and the euro zone’s third largest economy has struggled to emerge from its worst post-World War Two recession. [ID:nLDE6520J7]
However, support for the stoppage appeared muted, with several bus and metro services in Rome still running and many ordinary Italians expressing their annoyance. The government said that just under 2 percent of state workers had heeded the strike call as of midday on Friday.
“There are always more and more buses that do not go on strike because clearly you go on strike to attain something and we never seem to attain anything,” said driver Maurizio Rinaldi at Rome Termini station, where commuters queued in the sun.
The strike has split Italy’s trade union movement, which is roughly divided along political lines. The other two main unions have asked their members to stay on the job.
While private sector CGIL workers were called on to strike for four hours, public sector members were due stay off the job all day to underscore their anger. Pilots and ground staff were due to stop work for four hours from 0800 GMT but flights at Rome’s Fiumicino airport appeared to suffer little disruption.
The strike followed union protests in France and Greece this week against plans for pension reform and budget cuts. Members of the 16-nation euro zone have rushed to approve austerity measures in a bid to restore confidence in the single currency and halt contagion from Greece’s debt crisis. [ID:nLDE65N0M1]
After months of telling Italians they were immune to a Greek-style debt crisis, Berlusconi’s cabinet in May approved an austerity plan including cuts to funds for municipalities and freezing of public sector salaries.
Polls say a majority of Italians believe the cuts are unfairly distributed and the government’s promise of salary reductions for parliamentarians has not changed this view.
The Italian Treasury said this week that it expected the plans to reduce gross domestic product (GDP) growth by 0.1 percentage points this year and by 0.2 points in 2011 and 2012.
Representatives of some of Italy’s 20 regions have given the government an ultimatum: change the budget or take back responsibility for local services like road maintenance.
Mayors from around Italy placed hangman’s nooses around their necks at a Rome demonstration this week, saying the cuts would deny assistance to children, the elderly and disabled. (Additional reporting by Philip Pullella and Gabriele Pileri; Editing by Myra MacDonald)