Italy's Dangerous Showdown

Advocating economic reform in Italy can be a deadly occupation. On Mar. 19, two assassins killed University of Modena labor economics professor Marco Biagi, shooting him at close range as he bicycled home. The respected 52-year-old was a consultant to the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi and an outspoken advocate of welfare and labor law reform--a topic now under intense debate in Italy.

The assassination resembles the killing three years ago of another labor economist and government consultant, Massimo D'Antona. No suspects were ever identified in the D'Antona murder. Authorities believe both killings were politically motivated. Police say the Red Brigade terrorist group has claimed responsibility for Biagi's shooting.

The death comes on the eve of a showdown between Italy's government and labor unions over proposed legislation that would make it easier to fire some workers. Vociferously opposed to the draft law, one of the country's largest unions, CGIL, is planning an antigovernment demonstration in Rome on Mar. 23 that is expected to draw 1 million protesters. Italy's three main labor unions have also called for a general strike in April.

The reforms, which the government says are needed to encourage employment, would whittle away at guarantees that protect workers from unjust dismissal. Italy lacks a universal unemployment insurance system, and many Italian workers, if fired, would receive no unemployment benefits. That's why the unions are unlikely to back down. Italy is bracing for a hot spring.

By Gail Edmondson in Rome

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