In what has been described as the world’s largest strike ever, tens of millions of workers in India stayed off the job Tuesday to support a 24-hour nationwide general strike called by the country’s major trade unions. “For the first time all the big trade unions have come together to protest the anti-labor polices of the government,” said Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress. Dasgupta called the successful general strike, an “historic occasion.”
The unions called the strike to protest the government’s neo-liberal economic policies, which have concentrated wealth, done little to alleviate poverty, and made the lives of most working people much less secure. The neo-liberal policies were introduced in 1991, and have been supported by all of India’s governments since, regardless of which party was in power. The policies seek to enhance the flow and expansion of capital while restricting the rights of labor.
While the Indian economy has grown at an average annual rate of 7.45 percent since 2001, more than 40 percent of its children are malnourished and nearly 40 percent of the population survive on $1.25 a day or less.
Those lucky enough to have steady employment have seen their standard of living decline as the cost of living climbs and the wages stagnate. About 50 million Indians are engaged in precarious work that is temporary, has few if any job protections, and no social protections such as unemployment insurance or social security.
Meanwhile, India has 55 billionaires whose aggregate wealth equals $255 billion, about one-sixth of the country’s annual economic output.
The strike demands include more government action to rein in price increases, a halt to government plans for privatizing India’s government-run businesses, social security for all, a national minimum wage, labor law reforms that make the laws more fair to workers, and an end to precarious work.
Across India, factories, coal mines, docks, post offices, and railways were shut down by the strike. The strike involved defense, telecommunication, mining, transport, and various public sector workers. Workers in the financial sector also supported the strike.
In Mumbai, India’s financial center, white collar bank employees stayed off the job, which according to Vishwas Utagi, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association caused “a complete shutdown” of the Mumbai banking sector.
Agence France-Presse reports that the government-owned Bank of India office in Mumbai was nearly deserted. A few employees did report to work, but even they seemed to support the aims of the strike. “We are backing the protest because the demands are legitimate,” said one at-work bank clerk to the Agence France-Presse reporter.
In addition to the government-owned banks, the Times of India reports, some private banks in Mumbai were also shut down. Private banks hit by the strike included foreign-owned HSCB, Citi, and StanChart.
Workers at the government-owned Life Insurance Corporation, India’s largest investor, also stayed off the job.
In the northeastern state of Assam, contract workers at the Bongaigaon oil refinery struck. They were joined by public transportation workers, bank employees, teachers, postal workers, insurance workers, and others. The Times of India reports that as a result of the strike business in Assam slowed to standstill.
In the state of West Bengal, Chief Minister Mumata Banjeree threatened state employees who struck with the loss of their pensions. As a result most state employees stayed on the job. But the strike still had an impact. In the state’s capital Kolkata, traffic and business were noticeably slowed by the strike.
“Against all odds people have participated in this strike,” said Shyamal Chakraborty, president of the Center for Indian Trade Unions. “The (West Bengal) government employees were threatened that if they participate in the strike, then there will be break of service (the loss of service time used to calculate pensions). But notwithstanding such threats, there has been a very good response.”
Overall, it’s difficult to know how many people participated in the nationwide strike, but several estimates put the figure at 100 million.
At the end of the strike, labor leaders said that the strike was more successful than they had hoped. In a joint statement India’s main unions said the strike had been a “fitting reply to the utter neglect and insensitivity of the government toward the problems and miseries of tens of millions of working people who are keeping the country’s economy running.
“The working people and their unions will not accept such indifference and will carry forward their struggle to a higher pitch if their basic demands are not addressed.”