ROME -- Millions of Italians staged the biggest strike in decades Tuesday to protest the government's plans to make it easier to fire workers. Airports were almost deserted, few trains were running, and banks, schools and post offices were closed.
Workers by the thousands gathered in piazzas throughout the country for mostly festive rallies headed by union leaders and center-left politicians and sprinkled with celebrities supporting the general strike.
In Rome, Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni, of "Life is Beautiful" fame, brightened up a huge demonstration in the Piazza di Popolo. "It's a grand demonstration," he said as the crowd roared its approval. "Everything is beautiful."
In Bologna, demonstrators danced to the music of rock bands. "It's the joy of being united," explained Matteo Pallacani, a 22-year-old draped in a scarlet Che Guevara flag and wraparound sunglasses despite a pouring rain.
The strike did not bring Italy to a standstill, but it slowed it down considerably. Hospitals were providing emergency services only and many factories stayed off the job. Fiat Group said nearly half its workers took part; unions claimed it was 90 percent.
About half the usual number of passenger trains were operating, said state railway spokes-man Carmine Amodeo. "Many people knew of the strike beforehand so they avoided being stranded at stations," he added.
Many foreign carriers, including British Airways, Iberia and Lufthansa, canceled flights; Alitalia, the national airline, scratched more than two-thirds of its flights by midday, said a spokeswoman.
At Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport, international check-in counters were almost deserted. Milan's two airports, Malpensa and Linate, were also at a virtual standstill.
The strike, organized by Italy's top three unions CGIL, CISL and UIL, is labor's response to conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi's vow to reform Italian labor laws, some of the most restrictive in Europe.
CGIL spokesman Alessandro Valentini said participation was "very high" even in the more conservative north. In many factories, virtually all workers had put down their tools, he said.
Talks with unions that the conservative government had hoped would avert the strike broke down last month.
The main impasse is over a reform that would eliminate rules requiring employers to take back workers found to have been fired for "unjust causes." Employers complain those rules hamper their ability to get rid of unneeded workers. Under the proposed reform, employers would have to pay the workers compensation but not take them back.
The government insists the reforms are necessary to make the Italian economy more competitive and attract foreign investment. The unions say the reforms will cost dearly in hard-won job security, widen the gap between rich and poor and undermine Italy's social stability.