Italian Government, Unions Meet as Protests By Alitalia Workers Continue

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's top aide and several ministers sat down with Italy's main labor leaders Wednesday to try to resolve a dispute which has grounded hundreds of Alitalia flights at a time when the airline is struggling to survive.

Outside the premier's office, where the meeting began in early afternoon, hundreds of workers held placards and shouted slogans like, "Berlusconi, we are here. We await you."

The ailing airline warned travelers that more than 200 flights risked being canceled on Wednesday, as the protests showed no sign of letup.

With a 24-hour train strike slated to begin on Thursday evening in an unrelated labor dispute and an election campaign for the premiership heating up, pressure was building on the government to get the Alitalia workers back on the job.

The workers are protesting Alitalia's restructuring plans, including cutting jobs and spinning off the airline's flight unit from its less profitable ground services business.

They have been picketing at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport for days.

The Italian government holds a 49.9 percent stake in loss-making Alitalia, whose future is on the line.

Among participants in the talks was Labor Minister Roberto Maroni, who has raised the specter of bankruptcy for the airline if strikes continue, and has warned that the government won't bail out Alitalia. Berlusconi's right-hand man, Cabinet Undersecretary Gianni Letta, was also attending.

Representing labor at the talks were the heads of Italy's three main nationwide labor confederations.

In an interview on Sky TG24, Berlusconi denounced the unions.

"Citizens should know that if they are camped out in the airport it is the fault of unions on the left," the conservative premier said.

Much of Italy's labor movement sympathizes with the left.

One of the union leaders at the meeting, Savino Pezzotta, criticized the government for not including Alitalia's management in Wednesday's talks.

It is necessary "to start the negotiations, understand everybody's reasons and find solutions," Pezzotta, who heads the CISL labor confederation, told La Repubblica in an interview published Wednesday.

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