Built like a bear, Sergio Cofferati may be the only man in Italy who makes Silvio Berlusconi sweat. But it's not Cofferati's husky frame that unnerves the billionaire Prime Minister it's the company he keeps. The leader of Italy's largest trade union, the Italian General Labor Confederation (CGIL), drew more than a million people to a Rome march last month to protest Berlusconi's proposed labor reforms. The bearded opera aficionado was the one inspiring cries of "Bravo!" from the sea of red-clad supporters as he derided Italian conservatives for their claim that free-market policies are compassionate. "It is we," he thundered, "who are the children of solidarity!"
For Italy's left, which is heavy on internal bickering and light on charisma, it was the first real boost since Berlusconi's sweeping electoral victory last spring. Cofferati, now being eyed as a possible future political leader, followed his performance last week by convincing chiefs of the next two largest unions to join Italy's first full-day, nationwide walkout since 1982 on April 16.
The labor movement is rallying in defense of Article 18, a measure that forces employers to rehire unjustly fired workers rather than simply pay financial damages. Most mainstream economists say Article 18 is part of an outdated system of job protectionism that stunts economic growth by discouraging employers from hiring new workers. Cofferati brushes aside the notion of an "Italian anomaly" in the labor market. "When they say they want to increase flexibility they really mean they want to reintroduce discrimination." The bread-and-butter issue has forced Berlusconi into his first major domestic corner after conflict-of-interest and judicial challenges fell flat for the center-left opposition.
Married with one grown son, the 54-year-old Cofferati, who trained as a chemist, is nicknamed "The Chinese" for his Asian facial features and hard-line negotiating tactics. Having risen through the union ranks, he is considered more plugged into grass-roots factory sentiment than his pipe-smoking, Ph.D.-wielding predecessors. Cofferati has also shown he can handle delicate political questions, denouncing insinuations from Berlusconi allies that union unrest was responsible for the Red Brigades' killing on March 19 of Marco Biagi, an architect of the government's proposed reforms. His masterful performance was another sign that with his second and final term as CGIL chief expiring in June, Cofferati has the political skill to make the transition to electoral politics. Leaders of all ideological stripes are sweating at the prospect.
TIME: How do you respond to accusations that union strife leads to left-wing terrorism?
COFFERATI: These words are inappropriate and offensive. Unions have been on the front line in the battle against terrorism, and we have been the targets of terrorists. They see us as an enemy taking part in the democratic system they want to destroy.
TIME: Why is the Article 18 unjust-firing clause, which is applied in just a handful of cases, such a sticking point?
COFFERATI: Article 18 is a work-ers' right the government wants to take away. We want to extend the basic rights to those workers who don't have them. There are more than 2 million part-time or contract workers in Italy.
TIME: How does Berlusconi's current government compare to his 1994 nine-month stint as Prime Minister?
COFFERATI: History never repeats in the same way. Their coalition was more fragmented then. Italy is healthier now, with a consistent possibility for growth. As for Berlusconi, he is the same person with more experience.
TIME: How do you view the E.U.'s labor struggle? .
COFFERATI: The Europe I like enlarges borders, has a constitution and a bill of rights. There should be Europe-wide labor contracts for sectors instead of countries. It's no longer the sum of single countries but a real union.