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In Italy, an effort is underway to change a law that is sacred to much of Italian society, the now-considered a roadblock to the country's economic recovery. The law makes it difficult for companies to fire organized workers. Previous attempts to change it haven't just failed, they've gotten men killed. Less than five months in office, Italy's technocrat, Prime Minister Mario Monti is the latest man to attempt sweeping labor reform.
As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, he has a lot of work to do.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Since taking office, Mario Monti has pushed through a round of tough austerity measures, budget cuts, pension reform and some deregulation. Now he's tackling the third rail of Italian politics - reforming the labor market. His government negotiated at length with organized labor, but no agreement was reached on a draft bill. And workers have been taking to the streets throughout the country
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
POGGIOLI: The biggest bone of contention is Article 18 of the workers' statute.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: This protesting worker told a reporter, Article 18 is the keystone of our society. It dates from 1970 and was organized labor's greatest triumph after years of tense industrial relations.
The law says that if a court finds that a worker at a company with more than 15 employees has been unfairly dismissed, the worker must be reinstated. Employers say that by making it so hard to fire workers, the law essentially ensures job tenure and is the main cause of decades of economic stagnation.
Political analyst James Walston says that actually the numbers of workers who resort to Article 18 are very small.
JAMES WALSTON: The employers maintain that just the presence of this article frightens off investors. The unions say it is a fundamental protection. Both are fighting over symbols.
POGGIOLI: For many Italians, Article 18 is an untouchable symbol. The last two attempts to change it ended in tragedy. Ten years ago, the academic behind the reform was shot dead by a leftist terrorist group. Three years earlier, the same happened to another academic working on employment reform.
But the real problem of the Italian economy, many analysts say, is a decade of stagnation and the growth of a two-tiered labor market. While older workers have permanent job contracts with generous pensions, the younger generation can only hope to get a temporary contract with no benefits and no security. The jobless rate among young Italians is over 30 percent.
Paolo Falco, a 27-year-old economist who left Italy and found employment at Oxford University in England, says unions should stop focusing on Article 18.
PAOLO FALCO: (Through translator) They should focus on young workers with temporary contracts. And please, do not sell us out again as the unions did in the past in order to protect their older members. That's what led to this two-tier system and unacceptable inequality.
POGGIOLI: Susanna Camusso, leader of Italy's biggest trade union with some six million members, acknowledges that for too long organized labor ignored the problem young workers exploited thanks to temporary contracts. But she accuses the government of making workers - young and old - rather than wealthy Italians bear the biggest brunt of its reforms.
SUSANNA CAMUSSO: (Through translator) This is creating a wider gap between rich and salaried workers. And with growth and investment policies constantly being postponed, new jobs are not being created and unemployment is growing.
POGGIOLI: Camusso has already announced a general strike in May to protest changes to Article 18. Along with making it easier to hire and fire, the government's bill includes pension and unemployment benefits also for short-term contracts. Yet, with Italy in its third year of recession, skepticism is widespread. Most Italians do not believe the reforms are going to create jobs and growth. A poll found 67 percent oppose the measure.
But Prime Minister Monti is standing firm.
PRIME MINISTER MARIO MONTI: (Through translator) Italy's recession is caused not only by the broader international economic crisis, but also by long-delayed structural reforms. We are determined to continue along this reformist path.
POGGIOLI: However, Monti seemed surprised by the extent of opposition to the bill. And he had to give up hope of its speedy approval. The bill now faces a heated parliamentary debate, which could substantially delay and water down the law.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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