By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti set a collision course with the country's biggest trade union on Tuesday after talks on a historic reform to employment protection law failed to produce a deal.
The left-wing CGIL union, which represents some six million workers, said it would throw all its resources into opposing legislation which the labor minister said after the meeting would go further than expected by weakening protections against dismissal provided not only in new employment contracts, as planned, but also for millions of people already in jobs.
Monti admitted he was "worried" by the refusal of the CGIL to support a reform which investors say is a touchstone for how far the technocratic premier can shake up an Italian economy that he was brought in to rescue from a downward spiral of public indebtedness, low productivity and low employment.
But the prime minister, who says he wants to serve only for a year and who has so far impressed Italians and many investors abroad by bold efforts to clean up the state's finances, said he had secured during several hours of talks in Rome the "broad overall backing" of other labor leaders.
The key reform to Article 18 of the labor code, a talisman for the unions of achievements they secured from bosses 40 years ago, would now be put into the legislative process, Monti told a news conference. Big employers complain it is virtually impossible to get rid of staff who fail to perform, discouraging them from taking on new workers and damaging productivity.
One result has been the creation of a two-tier labor market, where established employees are protected for life by powerful contracts and younger Italians are condemned to spend years either out of work or on precarious temporary contracts.
"WE WILL MOBILISE"
CGIL chief Susanna Camusso accused Monti's technocratic administration of bad faith and not having been serious in the negotiations. Monti was "trying to solve the many problems of the labor market with the idea of easy firing", Camusso said.
"We will mobilize, we will do everything necessary to counter this reform," she told reporters. That is almost certain to mean strikes and mass demonstrations of a kind Monti has so far been spared as he has ridden a wave of concern about economic crisis which has muted protests against change.
Labour Minister Elsa Fornero would work over the next two days to fine-tune details in order for the government to proceed with legislation to present to parliament, Monti said.
Startling for some, however, will be Fornero's announcement that the changes to Article 18, widening the grounds which employers in larger companies may use to dismiss staff, would affect not only, as expected, people joining firms for the first time but also those who have existing employment contracts.
That could stir deeper opposition among millions of Italians who have grown ever more concerned for the future of their jobs.
While the reforms do not go as far as some labour experts had urged, their successful implementation is still likely to bolster confidence in Monti's ability to push through the kind of far-reaching changes that are needed to restore growth and reduce Italy's crippling burden of public debt.
Appointed in November as financial market turmoil threatened to suck Italy into a Greek-style debt crisis, Monti has already moved to shore up public finances through a mix of spending cuts, tax hikes and an overhaul of the pension system.
Late on Monday, Italy's influential President Giorgio Napolitano called on unions and employers to reach a deal in the interests of the country.
The three main labour confederations, which represent a substantial part of Italy's 12-million-strong union membership, are divided. The CGIL accused the more moderate CSIL and UIL, which offered only token resistance to Monti's plans, of "abandoning the possibility of a common position".
The discussions are being watched closely by financial markets, which have been reassured by Monti's first months in government, but remain nervous about growth prospects in the troubled euro zone.
More than 30 percent of 18- to 24-year olds in Italy are unemployed, and only about 57 percent of Italians have a job, giving the country one of the lowest employment rates in the euro zone.
It also has some of the slowest growth on the continent. Monti must revive the economy if he is to convince markets that Italy can pay off its huge debt, amounting to around 120 percent of gross domestic product.
Italy's benchmark bond yield has fallen to below 5 percent from perilous highs of close to 8 percent near the end of last year. But investors may start changing their view if Monti fails to pull off the labour reforms he has promised.
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald)