Several hundred thousand workers, pensioners, immigrants and students filled a Rome park on Saturday in protest at the Italian government’s handling of the financial crisis.
Led by Italy’s largest union, the left-wing Italian General Confederation of Labour, many wore red hats or waved the CGIL’s red flag as helicopters circled above Rome’s Circo Massimo, an ancient hippodrome.
"There’s too big a gap between what needs to be done and what is being done," CGIL leader Guglielmo Epifani told the throng, with banners reading "Together to Build a Different Future" and "Down with the New Mussolini."
"It’s a pleasure to see the park filled once more," he said, recalling a mass protest in 2002 that drew three million people to the same venue to protest a bill that would have annulled a law protecting against unfair dismissal.
That protest took place under the last government of Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative self-made billionaire who was elected to a third stint as prime minister last year.
Helping swell the numbers at Saturday’s protest to 2.7 million according to the CGIL — although just 200,000 according to police — 40 trainloads and nearly 5,000 buses as well as two ships had ferried protesters to Rome from all over Italy.
Opposition Democratic Party leader Dario Franceschini received a rock star welcome at the protest.
"It is a falsehood... to say that since the crisis is global the solutions can only be at an international level," he told reporters. "The crisis must be faced with concrete measures taken by national governments."
Franceschini initially hesitated to attend because of divisions within the Italian union movement, notably over the CGIL’s rejection of contract reforms approved by two smaller unions.
Berlusconi has accused the media of exaggerating the crisis and insisted that Italy is doing more than any other country to address the situation.
Italy went into recession in the third quarter of last year, and gross domestic product (GDP) contracted 1.0 percent for the year in the worst downturn since 1975.
The central bank predicts negative growth of 2.6 percent in 2009.
Industry has been hard hit by the crisis, resulting in a spate of temporary layoffs. Job losses totalled some 370,500 in January and February, a 46 percent jump over the same period last year.
One poster, in a reference to the right-wing leadership’s tough stance on crime, notably that of Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, read: "Make the City Safer," with an image of Berlusconi behind bars.
Epifani pledged that the CGIL would keep up the pressure, citing key dates for fresh action including the April 25 national day, Labour Day on May 1, and Republic Day on June 2.
He called for government-labour consultations on industrial and investment policy, particularly in Italy’s chronically underdeveloped south, a halt to lay-offs for the duration of the crisis.
In addition, "the fight against tax havens must continue," he said, calling as well for a new "culture of morality" governing salaries and bonuses for top management.
"It’s not right for a manager to earn 2,000 times more than a young intern or a temporary worker," he said.
Civil Service Minister Renato Brunetta heaped scorn on the protest, telling reporters in Cernobbio, on northern Lake Como: "It doesn’t take a demonstration of 200,000 or 2.7 million to ask for a meeting with the government."