Sunday, October 3, 2010


Sciopero. It’s the most dreaded word to any traveler in Italy. If you hear or see the word sciopero (show-pair-oh), perk up your ears ‘cause there’s a labor strike a-coming, and it’ll probably affect your means of transportation.

Train workers, especially, tend to strike at the drop of a hat, although city transit systems are pretty prone to it as well.

The funny thing is, these aren’t unplanned affairs, and the strikes are announced days or even a month ahead of time. Strikes have a set hour at which they will begin, and a precise time when they’ll end.

This isn’t the American-style “walk out until management agrees with you” strike; in Italy they do it merely to make a point.

On occasion the sciopero is over contracts or work-related issues, but more often it’s used as a form of vague, general protest, and—although this isn’t journalistically verifiable—it’s hard not to suspect that sometimes, someone just want a day off.

Italy's state railway, FS, is made up of many unions, and any one of them deciding to strike usually either (a) ruptures a key link in the train-operating system, thereby derailing all service, or failing that, (b) causes a cascade effect whereby other train unions decide to join in the strike for fun.

Ticket window personnel in particular seem to love to, ahem, show their solidarity with fellow unions. The only thing to do when you hear about a sciopero is to replan your travels, take a bus, or, if you happen upon one unexpectedly, grin and bear it, camp out in the station, and line up early if you want a seat on the first train headed out.

Also know that when a particularly significant or ominous strike is called, at the preappointed hour, some trains will simply stop, in the middle of the countryside, and the train personnel will climb off and head to the nearest bar for an espresso and a smoke.

Cascading strikes lend an inauspicious beginning to my career
True story: In 1996, when I landed at Rome’s airport to start the research for my very first guidebook, there was a sciopero of the grounds-crew drivers who operate the shuttles to take passengers from the tarmac to the terminal.

After two hours on the plane, I and my fellow passengers finally squabbled loudly enough that we were let off to walk—in the rain—with all the other stranded plane-loads of people toward the terminal. 

When we got to there, lo and behold, there was also a sciopero of the baggage handlers. 

As the day wore on, plane after plane kept arriving, and each new group of passengers packed into the luggage claim area with the rest of us, watching the empty luggage belts do their figure-eights around and around. 

We had landed before breakfast. I got out of there after dinner-time, my luggage soggy and dripping from being left out on the landing strip all day in the rain. 

The next morning, I went to the Rome train station at 6:30am to catch an early morning train to Florence

Guess what? Sciopero. 

The first train headed north was to leave “probably around 4pm.” 

The station was teeming with people hot, tired, angry, resigned, or confused. Many groups were sprawled out on top of their pieces of luggage as if they were cushions in a harem, staking out their plot of floor on which to wait, sending spousal contingents to the over-extended snack bars to bargain for bottled water and sandwiches. It looked oddly like a middle class refugee camp. 

I left the scene, but returned at 2pm to make sure I found a spot on that train—a wise move, as I turned out to be one of the last people lucky enough to find space.  Not "a seat," mind you. Just space. As in: two square feet of floor in the tiny entrance vestibule of the very last car on the train.

Once I squeezed into my postage stamp of territory—alongside eight other passengers crammed into a place where maybe six could stand uncomfortably—I and my new friends just sat there, perched atop our bags with knees tucked under chins, trading strike stories until the train finally pulled out of the station... after 8pm.

Related Pages
Trains in Italy
The Italian rail system
Train tickets and reservations
Train stations 101
The Rome train station

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