December 14, 2011 / 4:10 PM / 8 years ago

Italy risks "social explosion" over austerity: union chief

ROME (Reuters) - Italy risks a “social explosion” over the government’s austerity measures and unions plan more protests against them, the head of the country’s largest labor federation CGIL said on Wednesday.

CGIL leader Susanna Camusso told Reuters that Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government was “deeply conditioned” by its need for support from the party of his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, and its austerity plan spared the rich and demanded excessive sacrifices from ordinary Italians.

“We see every risk of a social explosion,” Camusso said in an interview, warning that anger was rising over a pension reform she said was unnecessary, measures that cut already weak purchasing power and a worsening labor market.

The left-wing CGIL and the two smaller and more centrist unions, CISL and UIL, are holding a series of strikes this week to protest against the 33 billion euro plan that aims to shore up public finances and combat Italy’s debt crisis.

Camusso, the first woman leader in the CGIL’s 105-year history, acknowledged that Monti had made some concessions to union demands by reducing cuts to low pensions and slightly easing a housing tax, but this did not go far enough.

“It would be absolutely excessive to say we are satisfied; the solutions are insufficient,” she said, announcing that the CGIL and its partner unions would hold a national street demonstration just before Christmas.

More than half of the CGIL’s 6 million members are pensioners.

Speaking in her office in central Rome, 56-year-old Camusso tried to strike a balance between accepting the need for tough measures to solve the debt crisis and an insistence that the steps adopted were unfair.

“We are flexible in the face of the emergency but we are not willing to accept everything,” she said. “You can’t ride roughshod over people.”


She added, however, that strikes must be used “with a certain caution,” given Italy’s dire economic state, and she seemed to accept that union power was constrained in the current exceptional circumstances.

Monti, a technocrat former European Commissioner, has the support of Italy’s main parties on both sides of the political divide, meaning the unions, and the left-wing CGIL in particular, are often seen as the only real opposition.

In a situation of recession, raising the retirement age meant “closing the door on the young unemployed,” Camusso said, adding that Monti had done nothing for “young people and women who can’t find work, and when they do it is badly paid.”

Only 57 percent of Italians are in work, the second lowest proportion in the euro zone after tiny Malta, and the female employment rate, at just 47 percent is 12 points below the euro zone average.

Camusso acknowledged the austerity plan looked certain to be approved by parliament in a few days. However, she said more protests were needed as an outlet for public anger and to send a message to the government before talks on labor market reform.

She said the reform must curb temporary contracts and give jobless benefits to thousands of unprotected Italians. But she rejected Monti’s view that this should be accompanied by easing of firing restrictions on “over-protected” salaried workers.

“Monti is the only one who is over-protected,” she said, raising her voice for the only time in the interview. “I would like him to introduce me to these over-protected workers.”

Camusso said the CGIL would oppose any attempt to abolish the controversial article 18 of the labor statute which obliges firms with more than 15 employees to re-instate workers ruled to be wrongfully dismissed, with full payment of lost salary.

She also said it was premature to believe Berlusconi - who was forced from power in November - was finished, especially if Monti fails to fix Italy’s problems.

“The satisfaction (at Berlusconi’s demise) must not allow us to forget what we have been through, otherwise he could come back as prime minister again,” she said.

editing by Barry Moody and David Stamp

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