Massive strike over education reforms sweeps Rome

Organisers of a protest against the multi-billion-euro education cuts planned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said up to one million people marched in the capital while nine in ten schools were closed.


Hundreds of thousands of teachers, students and parents Thursday took to the streets of Rome and other Italian cities to protest conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's multi-billion-euro education cuts.

Organisers said up to one million people marched in the capital while nine in 10 schools across the country were closed. The education ministry said 57 percent of teachers had observed a general strike called by unions.

The Senate on Wednesday approved cuts of more than nine billion euros (11.6 billion dollars) in education spending for the loss of 130,000 jobs in primary schools.

The reforms include a return to the practice of having only one teacher per primary school class and cutting the amount of teaching time starting in the 2009-10 academic year.

Universities, which also face budget cuts, plan a general strike on November 14.

Opposition leader Walter Veltroni and former anti-corruption magistrate Antonio di Pietro took part in the Rome march under banners with slogans such as "Everyone united together for schools" and "Don't steal our future."

Several union leaders including Guglielmo Epifani, head of Italy's powerful left-wing union, the General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), were on hand for the protest along with a heavy police deployment.

CGIL's Domenico Pantaleo said the changes would "destroy" Italy's public education system.

"These are not reforms, these are just budgetary cuts. The government is destroying public schools and replacing them with a private system. We're not going to discuss it and we will go ahead with the protests," he said.

Berlusconi, elected for a third time since 1994 in mid-April elections, slammed the demonstration, lamenting what he called "the scandalous ability of the left to lie" about the education reforms.

The prime minister last week described the changes as "rationalisation," adding that teaching personnel would be reduced by attrition, and those who remain will have salary increases.

The march came a day after a demonstration outside the Senate turned violent as protesters clashed with Berlusconi supporters, leaving four injured including a policeman.

Thursday's protest in Rome was echoed in other major cities across the country.

Thousands of students paralyzed traffic in Italy's northern economic capital Milan, the ANSA news agency reported.

In nearby Turin, some 50,000 people staged a protest accompanied by the city's theatre orchestra, and in northeastern Venice, several thousand young people occupied the causeway linking the lagoon city to the mainland, ANSA said.

Protests also took place in northern Brescia, Bolzano and Trento, in the Sardinian capital Cagliari, in southern Naples and other southern cities including Reggio de Calabria, the news agency said.

The education cuts were among the grievances on Saturday when hundreds of thousands of people swarmed an anti-Berlusconi protest in Rome.

Opposition leader Veltroni has launched a petition for a referendum to repeal the measures and needs 500,000 signature for the vote to be held.

Tens of thousands of students have been protesting daily across the country in major cities for the last two weeks.

They have frequently held informal open-air classes, hoping to mobilise public support and fend off claims that they are just avoiding their studies.

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