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Fiat 'No' would be grounds to quit Italy, says Berlusconi

Premier backs carmaker over Mirafiori, sparks furore

12 January, 18:10
Fiat 'No' would be grounds to quit Italy, says Berlusconi (ANSA) - Rome, January 12 - Firms would be justified in quitting production in Italy if workers at Fiat's Mirafiori plant in Turin reject a contested production deal in a vote this week, Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday, causing a furore.

Workers at the northern city's historic plant will vote on Thursday and Friday on the second factory-specific accord Fiat has agreed with moderate unions to enable it to increase shifts, cut benefits and limit workers' right to strike, among other things.

CEO Sergio Marchionne says such deals are needed to boost productivity and efficiency at Italian plants in order to press ahead with plans to invest some 20 billion euros in Italy over the next five years.

But the left-wing CGIL and its engineering workers' arm FIOM are staunchly opposed to these agreements, made outside Italy's long-established system of nationally negotiated collective contracts, branding them an attack on labour rights. ''I hope for a positive outcome,'' Berlusconi said after an Italo-German summit in Berlin, backing Fiat's drive for ''greater labour flexibility''.

''If this outcome were not to come about, companies and entrepreneurs would have good reason to move to other countries''. Marchionne has threatened Fiat will drop its plans to invest in Mirafiori if workers fail to back the deal, warning there are ''very many alternatives'' to the Turin factory outside Italy.

Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), the biggest opposition group, blasted Berlusconi's comments as ''shameful''.

''Berlusconi doesn't realise because he's a billionaire, but we pay him a salary that will seem paltry to him to pursue the country's interests and not to get companies to leave,'' Bersani said. CGIL chief Susanna Camusso was not impressed either.

''It would be good if the business and political world said, if that's your idea of the country, it's better that you leave,'' she said.

Nichi Vendola, the leader of the small Left, Ecology and Liberty party, described Berlusconi's words as ''high treason''.

Tension is particularly high in Turin before the vote on the deal, which follows a similar one for Fiat's Pomigliano d'Arco plant, near Naples.

Several red five-pointed stars associated with Italy's Red Brigade terrorist group have been found daubed on advertising hoardings in Turin over the last few days, including one telling Marchionne to ''screw yourself''. Trade unionists in favour of the Turin deal, meanwhile, on Wednesday abused Vendola, who described the plan and the vote on it as ''filthy'' during a visit to Mirafiori.

FIOM has called an eight-hour strike on January 28 against the agreements.

In addition to expressing outrage at Berlusconi's comments, the PD has also criticised the centre-right government for not trying to mediate between Fiat and FIOM to create ''constructive'' negotiations. ''They have washed their hands of this from the start,'' said Stefano Fassina, the PD's economy chief.

''We are the only country in the world that has not implemented an industrial policy to face the crisis with, the only country that backs negative things such as threats to leave the country''. Fassina added that Marchionne should be summoned to parliament to give further details on Fiat's investment plans for Italy, which some say are too vague.

Marchionne claims Fiat is trying to usher in necessary changes to industrial relations in Italy out of ''affection'' for its native land. ''We are absolutely convinced that the way industry is run in Italy must be renewed on the basis of our international experience,'' Marchionne told reporters at the Detroit motor show Tuesday.

''We are trying to change a series of long-standing relations that have guided the Italian system. In this sense, we are guilty, as we are trying to change this system, update it and make it competitive.

''You can't mistake that for an insult to Italy. We love Italy and that's why we are trying to change it. It's a superhuman effort that no one else would make''.