Thousands of union workers staging a general strike are marching through more than 50 Italian cities to protest government reforms that they say erode workers' rights.

The general strike, shutting down basic services across Italy, is the first ever by two of Italy's largest union confederations against a center-left government, which have traditionally cozied up to unions. Premier Matteo Renzi insists his tougher line is necessary to return the economy to growth and create jobs.

In a sign of internal discord within his own party, some members of the Democratic Party joined the marches.

The general strike created a patchwork of chaos as local transport, schools, ports and other services were shut down on rotating schedules.