FOR the first time in 13 years, teaching unions are preparing to strike over pay which they claim is the lowest in Europe.
Since 1970, teachers' salaries have fallen by around 50 per cent in real terms, while the workload has steadily increased.
A newly-qualified teacher earns less than 2 million lire (pound;666) a month, but has no hope of moving quickly into a higher bracket. After 35 years' service she or he will be taking home less than pound;1,000 a month.
Gone are the days when teachers could retire after just 15 years to start a family or find another job.
Tullio De Mauro, the new education minister, grabbed the headlines when he was appointed earlier this year by saying that Italian teachers were on "starvation wages". He made it his priority to increase the basic salary.
But when the offer materialised earlier this month - a meagre pound;10-a month rise - it was unanimously spurned by the unions as "offensive".
Daniela Silvestri, of the main independent teachers' union SNALS, called it "a miserable tip".
For once, all the unions were in agreement. They are SNALS, the big confederalist unions - CISL and CGIL - which were originally founded to look after the interests of industrial workers, nd the breakaway "grassroots" teachers' unions, COBAS and GILDA, which were formed in the 1980s.
CISL general secretary Sergio d'Antoni described De Mauro's achievement in uniting the usually fragmented union movement against him as "nothing short of a master stroke."
Promising strike action in October, Piero Bernochi of COBAS, said an immediate monthly rise of pound;166 was needed as a first step towards bringing salaries into line with the rest of Europe.
Bernochi believed that a "European" salary would add up to pound;1,333 a month - a 100 per cent rise which would mean teachers earning the same as a university lecturer.
Headteachers are also looking for large rises. Breaking off contract negotiations, Giorgio Rembaldo, the president of the headteachers' association, justified asking for a pound;10,000 annual increase because of the "myriad extra duties" heads must now face.
The extra pay teachers and heads are demanding is unlikely to be found. But Tullio De Mauro said: "If my resignation could help in finding it, I would be glad to offer it."
In spite of the low pay, teaching continues to be a sought-after profession. Last year 1.3 million candidates sat a recruitment exam for around 20,000 posts.