Thousands of Italians march over austerity plan

ROME (Reuters) – Thousands of Italians marched in Rome on Saturday to protest against the government’s austerity measures that include cutting funding to local authorities and freezing the salaries of public sector workers.

The “It’s all on our shoulders” protest by Italy’s largest union comes ahead of its one-day strike on June 25 against the 25-billion-euro austerity plan approved by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government to stave off a Greek-style debt crisis.

The union, CGIL, says the austerity measures are unfair, with a disproportionate share of the pain borne by the poor working class. The labor group has almost 6 million members, over half of whom are pensioners.

Students, retirees, temporary and public workers marched through central Rome holding aloft balloons and red flags, while some played music and football as the procession came to an end.

“There is a part of the population — mainly public workers — but also private workers who pay heavily. The sacrifices are practically made by them alone,” said Guglielmo Epifani, the head of the CGIL union. “There’s another part of the country that is not called to make the sacrifices it could have.”

The union said about 100,000 Italians were at the protest. The figure could not be independently verified.

The demonstration won the backing of some opposition parties like the centrist Italy of Values and the Communists but has not garnered support across the board, in a sign the government will be able to implement the measures without major difficulties.

Italy’s other two major unions have refused to back the protests by the CGIL union, while centrist leader Pierferdinando Casini called Saturday’s demonstration “useless.”

“Many in Italy haven’t yet realized that we’re sitting atop a volcano that is about to explode,” Casini said. “No one today can afford to sit by the river and wait for a corpse to float by, because the corpse might be that of our country.”

Analysts have warned the austerity budget is likely to send Berlusconi’s sliding approval ratings down further.

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