By Catherine Hornby
ROME (Reuters) - Protests against public spending cuts in Italy are just a start and could escalate in coming months as they have on the streets of other European countries, striking Italian workers said on Tuesday.
Flanked by students and pensioners, workers joined marches in cities from Palermo to Turin, voicing opposition to a proposed 45.5 billion euro austerity package and discontent with the way Italy is being steered through the euro zone crisis.
"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, marching in central Rome.
Italy's biggest union CGIL called Tuesday's strike against the austerity plan presented last month by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, aimed at balancing the budget by 2013 and avoiding a Greek-style financial meltdown.
Protests in Italy have not reached the scale of the "indignados" demonstrations in Spain or the mass rallies at Syntagma Square in Athens that sparked violent clashes over government cutbacks. But some in Rome expect popular anger to intensify if pressure on struggling households continues.
"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.
"With all these cuts to health and social services, the weakest will pay as always, and there's no future for the youth of the country," he said.
Industrial worker Claudio Bargilli, 47, called the proposed Italian 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.
"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.
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 labor 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."
(Editing by Peter Graff)