ROME (AFP) - - Alitalia's trade unions were warned Wednesday they had less than 24 hours to accept a deal on a rescue plan for the ailing airline, ANSA news agency reported.
"The reply must come in by 3:50 pm (1350 GMT) on Thursday, or 10 minutes before the consortium behind the plan meets to decide whether to save Alitalia from bankruptcy," ANSA quoted government official Gianni Letta as saying.
Roberto Colaninno, the head of the Italian Air Company (CAI) consortium, for his part threatened that "without a consensus, I will withdraw the offer," ANSA reported.
They were speaking at a meeting between CAI and the nine unions, which was also attended by Labour Minister Maurizio Sacconi.
Sacconi said the time for negotiations was over, though Sky TG 24 television said five unions were to make counter-proposals at Wednesday's meeting.
The other four unions signed a draft agreement Monday, but the move sparked attacks from pilots and cabin crews, and continuing strike action by some employees on Wednesday forced the cancellation of nearly 100 Alitalia flights.
Some 1,000 people also demonstrated at the Rome-Fiumicino airport in support of the strike.
The plan has divided the unions, with holdout syndicates continuing to air doubts about it.
Renata Polverini, general secretary of the Uil Transport union which signed the draft agreement, appealed to the pilots' union, in particular, to be more flexible.
"I think at this time, we all need to make an extra effort to get out of this situation in the best way possible," Polverini said.
But Massimo Notaro, president of the UP pilots' union, judged the takeover offer "very weak and leaves us extremely skeptical."
And the country's leading CGIL syndicate said was prepared to reject the deal "if nothing changes," its national secretary Fabrizio Solari said.
Still the government offered an upbeat take on the negotiations.
"I have been and I remain confident," said transportation minister Altero Matteoli. "Nobody today has said no."
The potential buyers, who are ready to put one billion euros (1.4 billion dollars) on the table, have proposed a plan that would reduce the number of workers by 3,250 to 12,500.
CAI administrator Rocco Sabelli said the consortium was prepared to leave wages untouched, but on condition that working hours and productivity are increased.
The CAI plan also provides for a foreign airline taking a minority stake in the new Alitalia. Sacconi said British Airways, Air France-KLM and Lufthansa were all interested, and would not be looking to buy the company.
Alitalia employs a total of 20,000 people, but certain offshoots, such as maintenance and freight operations will be hived off.
Alitalia's collapse would be a political embarrassment for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had promised before the last elections that he would keep it flying under Italian control.
He said on Monday that unions holding out against the rescue deal should recognise that there is no alternative.
"The moment has come to appeal to the sense of responsibility of all those who hesitate and seem not to realise that the alternative is bankruptcy and the loss of 20,000 jobs," said Berlusconi, quoted by ANSA.
The minority union that called Wednesday's strike, CUB Trasporti, bitterly criticised the scheme to restructure the airline, saying it would reduce Alitalia to little more than a domestic carrier.
The government currently holds a 49.9 percent share in Alitalia, a national symbol for Italians since it was founded in 1946, which has lurched for years from crisis to crisis, and from restructuring plans to the latest takeover rescue scheme.
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