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food / travel

Milan's Empty Markets: Italians Start To Feel Nationwide Truck Driver's Strike

In Milan's principal wholesale fruit and vegetable market, shelves are empty due to an ongoing truckers strike in southern Italy. Truck drivers are livid over austerity measures being pushed through by Italy's new reformist Prime Ministe

Days of plenty seem far away for Milan's markets (naypinya)
Days of plenty seem far away for Milan's markets (naypinya)
Fabio Poletti

MILAN – The effects of a massive nationwide truck drivers' strike were visible on a recent morning in Italy's biggest wholesale produce market, on via Lombroso in Milan. "It may just be a strike, but in here it looks like famine," quipped one custodian.

Truck drivers involved in the week-old work stoppage say it's more like a war. The enemy, in this case, is Prime Minister Mario Monti, whose austerity and economic liberalization plans are pushing up fuel prices and threaten to open certain professions to competition.

Among the first casualties of this war are 120 wholesale dealers at Milan's market, who don't have anything to sell. Nothing is arriving from southern Italy. No zucchini. No eggplants. No oranges. "We don't have trucks to pick them up. Here in northern Italy, the trucks are all busy. In southern Italy they just aren't moving," said Michele Piazzolla, owner of Ortopiazzolla, a company specialized in import and export of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Piazzolla spent much of Wednesday on the phone updating his father, who has been receiving pleas from storekeepers begging for oranges. There are no oranges at all. Usually, every morning at 4 a.m., an average of 180 trucks arrives at this huge market. On Wednesday, only 80 arrived – all from northern Italy.

The dealers are at their wits end. Domenico Zuino, of Al.Ma, is specialized in import and export of tropical fruit. "We are saved thanks to Holland, which imports fruit from its former colonies. But if you are looking for a simple head of lettuce, you won't find it," he said.

Though the wholesale market is growing hungry, the city's supermarkets and stores are still fairly well stocked with fruits and vegetables. It's not clear, however, how long they will last. "Stores can go on for other 48 or 72 hours. But even if the truck drivers' strike ended today, we would need at least one week to get back to normal life," said Zuino.

Prices up, profits down

A truck's trip from Sicily takes two days. The suppliers have a lot of goods in their fridges, but not everything will last. "Thank goodness this is not the season of strawberries," one vendor noted. The most delicate fruit would not last long even in the best air-conditioned warehouses.

On a normal day, the market closes at 10 a.m. Some people work until noon, but others stop at 8 a.m. The average turnover for an average January day is around 6 million euros. This past Monday it was 3 million. Three days later it was even less. Alberto Albuzza, president of the local association of fruit and vegetable wholesale dealers, is completely discouraged. "No one wants to send goods without being sure that they will arrive at their destination," he said.

Truck drivers are angry, producers cannot send their goods, and wholesale dealers cannot work. In addition, there is a risk that retail prices will continue to rise.

But at the market, no one seemed upset with the truck drivers. Most in fact sympathized with them. Domenico Zuino, at desk number 68, was working out the expenses. "Every day there are 30 or 40 pallets of goods, for a total of 15 quintals. Today I didn't even get six." Nearby, it was even worse. "If gasoline is more expensive, everything is more expensive. Profit margins are down," one dealer said.

It looks like the usual war between the poor and poorer. But in every war, there is a loser. This time, costumers are the losers. If they are lucky, in the next days they will have to accept second-choice food. If they are less lucky, they will face rising prices, and zero choices.

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