The strikes, organized by the far left Cobas union, are the first in two days of planned protests and could test the unity of Letta’s uneasy left-right coalition just weeks after he survived a confidence vote in parliament.
Letta’s 2014 budget, unveiled on Tuesday, has become a focal point of discontent, with unions complaining about freezes on public sector salaries and what they say is an insufficient easing of the tax burden on workers.
“With this budget the government is continuing to hurt a country which is already on its knees,” said Cobas spokesman Piero Bernocchi as he prepared to join a rally in central Rome.
“Even after austerity has proven to be disastrous, with debt rising, the economy crumbling and unemployment soaring they still continue with these policies,” he said.
More than 100 flights were cancelled at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, 80 percent of buses were not running in the capital and rail and underground services were disrupted in other cities.
“We are tired, we are fed-up, we can’t live in this way. They are continuing to cut and ask for enormous sacrifices. Enough is enough!,” said protester Aida Utaggio, waving a banner at the start of the march in Rome.
Italy has been in recession since mid-2011, a slump which was worsened by the tax hikes and spending cuts adopted by former Prime Minister Mario Monti at the height of the euro zone debt crisis.
Letta had built up expectations the budget would reverse years of austerity with a cut in payroll taxes, but was unable to deliver due to disagreements in the government over how to fund them.
The result was only a marginal adjustment of tax rates and, while the package involved no net fiscal tightening, it continued unpopular policies like salary and hiring freezes and blocks on inflation adjustments for pensions.
Letta took office in April after an inconclusive February election but his unpopular government, combining his Democratic Party (PD) with its traditional center-right rival the People of Freedom (PDL), has been riven by internal disputes which have prevented the reforms needed to help the economy recover.
Susanna Camusso, secretary of Italy’s biggest trade union CGIL, told Italian Radio 24 on Friday that the three main unions—the CGIL, CISL and UIL—were working towards a national general strike against the budget.
The budget has also been attacked by employers, the media, and senior politicians in Letta’s coalition, who have virtually disowned the package.
This raises the risk it may be completely overhauled during its passage through parliament and that a new political crisis may not be far away after PDL leader Silvio Berlusconi came close to toppling Letta earlier this month.
Rome is gearing up for further protests on Saturday when leftist and anarchist groups will march in the capital. Some are planning to camp overnight in the square in front of St. John’s Basilica, a traditional site for union rallies.
Thousands of police will be stationed in the center in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the violence seen at similar protests in October 2011, when several people were injured as protesters rioted, smashed windows and set fire to cars.