ROME Protesters in Italy scuffled with police, burned flags and threw eggs and smoke bombs at banks on Tuesday in what they said could be a taste of escalating public disorder as public spending cuts bring pain to families.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is scrambling to enact deep cuts to prevent a Greek-style financial collapse. Protesters said this could lead to unrest like that seen on the streets of other austerity-hit European countries.
Tens of thousands of striking workers, students and pensioners joined marches in cities from Palermo to Turin, voicing opposition to the proposed 45.5 billion euro austerity package and discontent with Berlusconi's government.
"This is the first step of a crucial autumn, it is the chance our generation has to fight back," said 33-year-old Enrico Sitta at a march in Rome.
Protests in Italy have not reached the scale of mass demonstrations in Spain by groups known as the "indignados", or mass rallies at Syntagma Square in Athens that sparked violent clashes. But some in Rome expect popular anger to intensify if pressure on struggling households continues.
Italy's biggest union CGIL called Tuesday's strike against the austerity plan presented last month by Berlusconi's government, aimed at balancing the budget by 2013.
"They want us to be quiet, but we will not give up," said CGIL leader Susanna Camusso at the Rome rally. "Even if the austerity package is approved, we will be in the squares day after day."
Several demonstrators scuffled with police in Turin. In Palermo, demonstrators burned the flags of trade unions that had refused to take part in the strike.
Eggs and firecrackers were thrown at Bank of Italy offices in Naples, where several police officers were reported injured. Protesters also targeted the Milan headquarters of Italy's biggest bank Unicredit with eggs and smoke bombs.
"Within a year we'll likely see similar protests here like the violence we saw in London," said 52-year-old port worker Vincenzo Pristina, referring to riots in the British capital last month.
"THAT'S MY MONEY!"
Italian workers, who already earn some of the lowest salaries in western Europe, have seen wages stagnate while consumer prices shoot up and are furious at having to shoulder further burdens in the government's austerity plan.
Italy has already introduced delays to retirement and freezes on state salaries as part of previous austerity measures. A plan in the latest package would withhold the retirement funds of public sector employees for two years after leaving their jobs.
Industrial worker Claudio Bargilli, 47, called the proposed cuts "a social massacre".
"The government is presenting cuts upon cuts, and we can't make it to the end of the month," he said, adding that he and his colleagues were already close to the poverty line, surviving on an income of 1,000 euros a month.
Many protesters voiced personal reasons for anger.
"I was supposed to retire this year and now I have to wait another year. And then I can't access my fund for another two years," said 61-year-old Anna Mattei, who works at the Environment Ministry.
"That's my money! I'm tired of being the government's cash card," she said.
Marco Vacca, a 49-year-old industrial laundry worker, said he was protesting mainly against a labour reform which he said was aimed at making it easier for companies to lay off staff, which he believed would create further economic woes.
"Sacking people will not help the economy," he said. "Instead they should lower taxes on ordinary wage earners and make the wealthy pay."
(Additional reporting by Fabio Severo; Editing by Peter Graff)