People gather at Piazza del Popolo in Rome during a national day of strike action

Rome (AFP) - Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in support of a national day of strike action in Italy on Friday, which has pitched trade unions against the hard-right government over its 2024 budget.

Teachers, healthcare staff, taxi drivers and postal workers were among those called out in the strike organised by two of the country’s largest unions, the CGIL and UIL.

They say Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s tax-cutting budget woefully underfunds key sectors such as health, education and industry.

Critics accuse the government of chasing votes ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections at the expense of workers and pensioners.

“Meloni, the people are hungry”, read one banner held aloft by protesters gathered in Rome’s historic Piazza del Popolo, while thousands of demonstrators marched in Genoa and Milan.

Unions reported high turnout for the strike at schools and universities, post offices and ports, as well as private firms, including steelworkers and food industry workers.

However, the far-right League party of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini contested this, saying there was “little support for the strike”, particularly on the railways.

Unions say the government's budget woefully underfunds key sectors such as health, education and industry.

Salvini, who is also transport minister, imposed restrictions on the strike to reduce the disruption, to the outrage of union leaders.

In what he described as a compromise based on “common sense”, he halved the duration of the transport workers and firefighters strike to four hours during the morning, while air travel was not included at all.

CGIL general secretary Maurizio Landini accused the minister of an “attack on the right to strike”.

The unions had sought to have their walkout defined as a general strike, which would have been allowed to last 24 hours.

But the watchdog that arbitrates strikes in Italy said it did not meet the criteria, as several sectors were excluded from the action, which is also being spread out over five days.

Meloni has tried to avoid being drawn into the debate.

When asked Friday, on a trip to Croatia, the premier said she had “great respect for the rights of workers, for strikes” – but suggested this one was politically motivated.

“It was launched long before we wrote the budget,” she said.