ROME -- Senior Italian ministers lined up on Wednesday to express willingness to resume talks with unions over labour reforms, a day after an eight-hour general strike brought the country to a near standstill.
While industry groups questioned the exact level of worker participation in the stoppage, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his ministers appeared keen to put the day behind them and return to talks with restive labour leaders.
Moments before leaving for a visit to Romania, Berlusconi struck a conciliatory note, saying his government was ready to talk when the unions wanted, although he added that reform was still the best thing for the labour market.
"The government has invited the other social parties to resume dialogue and has said it is ready whenever they are to take up the opportunity," he told reporters.
"A wise union should always be aware of the need for reform, which is something our public accounts show is needed and the European Union agrees is necessary."
Labour Minister Roberto Maroni, who for six months before the strike met union leaders on a near daily basis to try to come up with an agreement on freeing up labour laws, said he expected negotiations to resume "within days".
"There could be a first meeting on Friday," he said, but added it would probably be with only one of the union leaders.
Yet for all the government's apparent willingness, and hints that the unions could return to the table too, neither side showed any intention of backing down on Article 18, the labour law the government wants to change and which led to the strike.
"If we wanted to change our stance on Article 18 we would have done so before the strike," Maroni said.
Room to Move
Tuesday's strike, which closed schools and banks, brought air and rail transport to a virtual halt and saw about a quarter of the workforce walk off the job, was the largest industrial action Italy has seen in 20 years.
It was called to protest Berlusconi's plans to alter one clause of a labour law drawn up in 1970. The government says reforms are necessary to make labour more flexible, boost employment and give the country a competitive edge.
The unions argue that altering Article 18 will make it easier for companies to fire staff and would only be the first step in a gradual erosion of workers' rights.
Union leaders touted the success of the strike, claiming adherence of 90 percent -- against industry claims of 60 percent -- but also left room open for a resumption of talks.
Savino Pezzotta, leader of the second-biggest union CISL, is expected to join Labour Minister Maroni at a seminar on labour issues on Friday, the first possibility for talks to resume.
Friday's seminar is being organised in the name of Marco Biagi, a labour economist and government adviser who was gunned down last month by leftist guerrillas.
His killing heightened tensions between the government and unions after ministers suggested union leaders were responsible for creating the political climate which led to his death, a charge that unions refute.
While the government appeared keen for a quick return to negotiations, there is likely to be a hiatus of several days before there is unity amongst the three major unions about the next step they want to take.