TEACHERS are stepping up protest action over what they believe to be the lowest salaries in Europe.
Two weeks ago, nine out of 10 schools were forced to close when 60 per cent of the nation's 740,000 teachers went on strike, and more protests are planned for the near future.
"A European salary" has become the buzz phrase in the teachers' pay manifesto. After 30 years' service, Italian teachers are taking home less than pound;1,000 per month - 50 per cent less than their colleagues in France, Germany and Britain, according to government figures. Other statistics show that teachers' salaries are falling behind those of all other public-sector workers.
But the offer of an extra pound;20 a month has been rejected as wildly short of the target. Piero Bernocchi, of the grassroots COBAS union, called it a "miserable tip".
For once, all five unions agree. It is 13 years since they last managed to present a united front, but low pay is one issue which transcends the ideological divisions of a union environment which has historically been highly-poiticised.
The government's budget for teachers' pay was frozen last year when a plan to create a new breed of superteachers failed to get off the ground. But even if this money was added to the government's offer, it would mean an increase of only about pound;80 a month after three years' service - a long way short of the pound;150 a month teachers are demanding from next year.
Traditionally, teachers' protests attract the attention of the media for their wry sense of humour and the latest protest was no exception. In Vicenza, in the north, teachers stood at a street corner outside the Provveditorato, the education department, washing car windscreens.
In Rome, teachers led an assault on the parliament building on bikes, sandwiched between placards reading Non rompeteci i cicli!, (Don't break our cycles!): This is a complex pun, since the cycles also refer to the reform of the education system (organised in two and three-year cycles), and also refers to the time-worn expression of annoyance: "Non rompetici i coglioni!" (Don't break our balls!)