ROME — Well-dressed Romans in warm clothing, led by flag-bedecked taxicabs and garbage trucks, paraded around the Coliseum and spilled into the Piazza Venezia here Wednesday, bringing with them a message of protest and the specter of yesterday.
The protest march, echoed in other major Italian cities as the climax of a nationwide general strike, emphasized the current unraveling of hard-won labor peace in Italy and underlined the fragility of the latest coalition government.
Wednesday's four-hour strike, which ended in chilly Rome just in time for lunch and rain, crippled transport and public services but failed to shut down the country. A dizzying round of walkouts big and small this autumn have revived Italy's traditional image as a stop-go country assailed by labor mayhem. Work hours lost to strikes, which had fallen 70% between 1983 and the end of last year, are rising dramatically.
Strangely, the epidemic of strikes reflects not the strength of Italy's traditional labor confederations, but their weakness, in the judgment of Italian observers.
In recent weeks, only the lucky and the patient have managed to travel in or out of Rome's airport. Successive strikes have been held by pilots and cabin attendants, ground personnel, baggage handlers and airport technicians. Garbage collectors have been on strike, and, on and off, so have train and bus drivers, telephone operators, health workers, civil servants, diplomats, court workers, school teachers and post office employees.
Wednesday's general strike, the first in three years, was called by the three principal labor confederations, which respond to the country's three largest political parties; Christian Democrat, Communist and Socialist.
Italian observers said the strike was an attempt by the confederations to reassert their authority against maverick autonomous unions responsible for most of the recent wildcat strikes.
"The labor conflict is becoming 'Lebanon-ized.' Everything is unraveling," complained Giorgio Benvenuto, secretary general of the Socialist confederation. "The workers at the airport are saying that when doctors and diplomats strike, they get support from the government and the newspapers. And so, they say, 'Why them and not us?' What arguments do we have to convince them? And so you get the triumph of the do-it-yourself trade unions."
Many of the annoying sector strikes, which have numbed a country that lately had been congratulating itself for rapid economic growth, are the work of grass-roots unions responsive principally to local conditions.
"In Italy, there is an inverse correlation between the number of strikes and the strength or weakness of the government," said sociologist Franco Ferrarotti. "The workers are asking for a greater share of prosperity. They all demand better salaries and working conditions, but each sector has its own specific characteristics. They prefer to act independently, believing that the three main confederations have become too distant, too bureaucratic."
The proclaimed purpose of the confederations' call for Wednesday's strike was to protest the decision by Prime Minister Giovanni Goria's government to scale back promised income tax reductions in 1988 and to increase health-care costs as two means of combatting inflation and reducing an alarming public deficit.
A recent attempt by Goria to pass a law requiring 15-days' notice for strikes in the public sector was rebuffed by Socialists within the ruling coalition.
Earlier this month, Goria offered his resignation after a mutiny over economic policy by another of his coalition partners, the Liberal Party. Goria won a vote of confidence Wednesday in the Chamber of Deputies to complete formal re-establishment of his government, but his grip remains tenuous amid labor unrest that was manifest even as legislators voted.