The fate of troubled airline Alitalia hung in the balance Thursday, with the company's unions set to announce whether they will take or leave a proposed takeover offer of Italy's flag carrier.
The company's nine unions are divided about the rescue plan offered by the Italian Air Company (CAI) consortium, with a deadline for them to make a decision fast approaching.
The group of Italian entrepreneurs was scheduled to meet in Milan at 4 pm (1400 GMT) to decide whether to press ahead or withdraw their offer, which includes a plan to slash 3,250 jobs.
Three of Alitalia's nine unions approved the rescue plan on Wednesday following a last-gasp meeting with CAI at government headquarters.
For their part, the six other unions prepared counter-proposals, including on work contracts, that they would present to the consortium before the 1400 GMT deadline expires.
The country's leading union, the left-leaning CGIL, warned it was prepared to reject the deal "if nothing changes," its national secretary Fabrizio Solari said. The pilot and flight crew unions remain opposed to the proposal.
CAI chief Roberto Colaninno said he would withdraw the offer if the unions failed to reach a "consensus."
But the daily La Repubblica said he might press ahead with it if CGIL accepts the deal or abstains over the opposition of other unions.
And Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has made Alitalia's remaining in Italian hands a matter of political prestige, said the takeover by CAI could go ahead without CGIL's consent.
"In our business model, pilots are employees and not a professional association," Colaninno said Wednesday, showing his defiant stance towards the pilots' union.
La Stampa newspaper reported that Colaninno wants to reform social relations within a future Alitalia in order to reduce the pilots' power.
CAI, which is ready to put one billion euros (1.4 billion dollars) on the table for the airline, plans to keep 12,500 workers from Alitalia and Air One, the country's second airline, which would merge with the bigger company.
CAI administrator Rocco Sabelli said the consortium was prepared to leave wages untouched, but working hours and productivity must be increased. The consortium also pledges to give workers seven percent of profits.
The plan also provides for a foreign airline taking a minority stake in the new Alitalia. Labour Minister Maurizio Sacconi said British Airways, Air France-KLM and Lufthansa were all interested, and would not be looking to buy the company.
Offshoots, such as maintenance and freight operations were to be sold off, which would cut the Alitalia workforce.
The government holds a 49.9 percent share in Alitalia, a national symbol for Italians since it was founded in 1946. But it has lurched for years from crisis to crisis.
The airline, which was placed under special administration in August, may soon be unable to pay for fuel as it teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.
A withdrawal from CAI could lead to certain death for the company as the government, which already made a 300 million euros emergency loan to Alitalia in April, would no longer be able to use public money to save it.
The government has spent five billion euros in the last 15 years to keep Alitalia afloat.
Alitalia's collapse would be also be a political embarrassment for Berlusconi, who had opposed a takeover offer from Air France-KLM that was rejected by the unions in April.
Berlusconi promised before elections this year that the airline would remain under Italian control.
Source: AFP Global Edition