October 30, 2014 / 10:09 PM / 3 years ago

Italy union head accuses Renzi of seeking confrontation

ROME (Reuters) - The leader of Italy’s largest union accused Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Thursday of deliberately stoking conflict with the labor movement and ignoring the growing cost of the economic crisis for Italian workers.

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi speaks during a meeting on the sidelines at a Europe-Asia summit (ASEM) in Milan October 17, 2014. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

Speaking a day after four workers protesting against job cuts at a steel plant in southern Italy were hurt in clashes with police, Susanna Camusso, secretary general of the CGIL, said the government had chosen a “logic of confrontation” to drive its political agenda.

But she said Renzi was disregarding the depth of the problems facing Italian workers and families after the worst economic downturn since World War Two.

“I understand that the government doesn’t want to admit there’s a social crisis but what happened yesterday was a concrete manifestation of the social crisis this country is going through,” she told Reuters in an interview.

Metalworkers’ union FIOM has announced two days of strikes on Nov. 14 and 21 and Camusso confirmed plans for a wider general strike backed by the CGIL but gave no date.

Abandoning courtesies normally extended by center-left governments to the unions, Renzi has made it clear that he believes they are part of a system that needs to change and he is not interested in hearing their opinion on labor reform.

Weakened by declining membership and the erosion of the industrial base that once gave them much of their membership, unions have struggled to come up with a response.

However the clashes on the streets of Rome sparked a furious reaction against the government, with images showing the bloodied heads of workers and angry standoffs between demonstrators and police dominating news bulletins.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told parliament that Italy faced “difficult weeks ahead” but he sought to calm tensions with a statement that the right to protest would be guaranteed.

“We have to make sure that this difficult moment of crisis does not become an involuntary spark that sets off tensions that could spin off dangerously,” he said.

Camusso, a former archaeology student who began her union career in the 1970s, has been one of the fiercest critics of the 39-year-old Renzi since his drive to scrap job protections for full-time workers as part of a wider Jobs Act.

In many ways an embodiment of the traditional left that Renzi has sought to consign to the scrap heap, she said a mass demonstration last Saturday, in which up to one million people protested against the labor reforms, was a sign that discontent was growing.

However she denied that the union saw itself as political opponents of the government or in alliance with leftist dissidents in Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party.

“We are not trying to create a new political movement or a party, we just represent the rights of workers,” she said.

Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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