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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands Protest Italy Pension Plan

ROME -- Tens of thousands of people, waving red flags and blowing whistles, marched through Rome on Saturday to protest government plans to reform Italy's generous pension system, which economists say is no longer sustainable.

Organizers told the crowd they numbered more than a million, but police put the figure at only 250,000. Regardless, Italians young and old from across the country flocked into central Rome and massed at the vast Piazza San Giovanni for the demonstration.

Standing in front of a billboard reading "Defend your Future," union leaders and center-left opposition politicians demanded the conservative government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi change course and scrap its reform plans.

"After 30 months, this government has left the country poorer and more divided," said Gugliemo Epifani, leader of the largest union, CGIL. "For this reason, people today are protesting."

Economists have warned that with Italy's aging population and declining birthrate, the country's generous pension system will not be sustainable in the future.

The government pension plan focuses on giving incentives to workers who delay their retirement, starting from next year. Until 2008, however, Italians will still have access to Italy's current system which, after 35 years of work, allows them to retire at age 57.

Berlusconi has gone on prime-time television to explain the reform to the Italian people and why it is necessary. The unions say the reforms aren't necessary and insist Italy's system is perfectly sustainable.

"Berlusconi should listen to the piazza," Epifani told the crowd, which was a sea of red CGIL and other union banners. "There's a majority in the world of labor, as well as in the rest of the country, that is asking him to change a policy that favors the few and punishes the many."

Deputy Premier Gianfranco Fini told Italian news agencies Saturday that the government was prepared to talk to the unions, but wouldn't budge on its bottom line.

"The government won't give into the piazza," Fini said. "Pension reform will happen to guarantee workers' future. We are ready to talk to the unions, but we won't go back."

Saturday's demonstration was the latest in a series of protests and work stoppages staged by unions to protest the proposed reforms. On Oct. 24, a general strike crippled Italy after millions of workers stayed off the job.

Demonstrator Alberto Piro, who traveled to Rome from the southern Adriatic province of Foggia for the demonstration, fought back tears as he waved his union flag, his red CGIL cap perched on his head.

"What makes us angry about this government is that once again it takes from the poor," he said. "We come from a small town where millions are spent uselessly. And taxes are rising for us poor people. Instead of cutting pensions, Berlusconi should cut useless spending."

In 1994, when Berlusconi tried to reform the pension system during his first government, 1 million people took to the streets in protest. Berlusconi eventually backed off, but his attempt had already aggravated tensions among coalition partners, and his government collapsed after eight months.

Savino Pezzotta, leader of the CISL union, warned Berlusconi to listen to the protests this time around and change course.