MILAN (Reuters) - Italian unions, joined by students and leftwing groups, demonstrated across the country on Friday against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's planned overhaul of job protection rules.
Metalworkers union FIOM-CGIL held the first of two strikes as Renzi's government prepared to push new legislation on hiring and firing through parliament by the end of the year.
There were anti-government protests in cities from Milan and Rome to Naples and Palermo in the south, with isolated clashes in which several people suffered minor injuries.
Major unions, which depend heavily on public services and a declining number of large industrial employers, have resisted the changes, which they say will undermine worker rights.
In a deliberate attack on one of the central credos of the Italian left, Renzi has pledged to scrap rules which offer workers in companies with more than 15 employees the right to go to court to win their jobs back in cases of wrongful dismissal.
As well as discouraging foreign employers, he says the rules, which only apply to employees on full contracts, discriminate against workers on short-term contracts that offer virtually no protection.
FIOM Secretary General Maurizio Landini said the strike, which followed a 1-million-strong demonstration in Rome last month, had drawn "extraordinary support".
"We will continue until they change their position," he told a rally in front of Milan's massive Gothic cathedral. "We don't just want to oppose things. We want to change the country."
He said Article 18 of the labor code, which contains the job protection rule, should be extended to all workers in Italy.
The plan to change Article 18 is the most sensitive part of a labor reform promised when Renzi took office in February.
Economic data on Friday showed Italy is back in recession, underlining how important reform is to Renzi, who needs concrete results to back his calls for more budget flexibility from his EU partners.
The plans currently going through parliament would allow workers laid off for business reasons a financial payoff but no right to reinstatement.
However, under provisions agreed by Renzi's center-left Democratic Party on Thursday, they would keep provisions that allow courts to order a company to reinstate workers ruled to have been dismissed wrongfully for disciplinary reasons.
Renzi proposes a new contract with a sliding system of job protection that would increase with seniority.
Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Hugh Lawson