ITALIAN petrol stations began a 60-hour strike late today to protest against rising costs and falling profits, causing long queues as drivers rushed to fill up before pumps closed.
Hitting at the peak shopping period before Christmas, the strike comes at unwelcome time for retailers. Weak consumer spending has been a key factor in Italy's sluggish economy, which has been dipping in and out of recession since 2008.
"It is incredible, with all that petrol costs us nowadays, that they can even think of going on strike," Rome resident Ida Lauro said as she queued in her car.
Unions have agreed to maintain minimum service on motorways, with at least one station open every 100 km (62 miles).
In a joint statement, unions said they called the strike to combat "a true aggression against the roughly 24,000 small businesses and 120,000 workers in the sector".
They say oil companies have forced stations to absorb the costs of discounting campaigns, allowing them a profit of just one euro for every 100 euros ($130) or 55 litres of petrol sold.
Oil distributors in Italy Esso and Shell were not immediately available for comment. A government attempt to come to an agreement with the unions this week fell through.
Workers will demonstrate outside government buildings in Rome on Wednesday to pressure the state to intervene.
The strike will end on Friday morning on ordinary roads and late on Thursday on motorways.
Between December 17 and 22 the petrol stations will refuse to pay oil companies for refills. Then, between Christmas and New Year, they will refuse credit and debit card payments in protest at bank charges on electronic payments.
Mario Monti's technocrat government has cut spending and raised taxes since it was appointed last year to pull Italy out of a debt crisis, and is the focus of increasing protests.
The government was thrown into crisis last week when the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi withdrew its support, prompting Monti to announce he would resign once the 2013 budget bill is passed before Christmas.