Tens of millions of Indian workers participated in what is believed to have been the largest general strike in history.
Media reports from India, estimate that 180 million people took part in the one-day strike on September 2.
“The response to the strike has been unprecedented. It is sweeping and outstanding. Millions of workers from across the country have joined us,” said Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) to IANS, India’s largest independent news service.
“Even in Delhi, we are seeing such an impact for the first time,” continued Dasgupta. “Auto-rickshaws and taxis are off the roads, post offices and banks are closed. Even Gurgaon (a city near New Delhi that has become one of India’s leading financial and industrial centers) is closed.”
The strike was a protest against Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s proposed labor law revisions and his “anti-worker” policies.
The strike was called by ten of the country’s labor federations. Only one federation, BMS, the labor federation affiliated with Modi’s political party Bhartiya Jan Sangh (BJS), abstained from support.
The labor federations supporting the general strike issued a 12-point charter of demands that includes raising the minimum wage, broadening the social security system to cover all workers including those in the informal economy and contract workers, halting the privatization of public assets, ensuring that contract workers receive the same pay and benefits that permanent workers doing the same job receive, and reducing barriers to unionization.
Modi is seeking to make India more business friendly by changing labor laws to make it easier to fire workers, make it more difficult for workers to form unions, and make it harder for government agencies overseeing enforcement of labor laws to do their jobs. Modi also wants to privatize government-owned companies and services now provided by the government.
But Pragya Tiwari writing for Al Jazeera, points out that even without the proposed changes, India is already business friendly. There is little enforcement of the country’s laws that protect workers, it’s difficult for workers to join unions, and employers are allowed unrestricted use of contract workers, who do the same work as permanent workers but for less pay and no benefits.
Between 1999 and 2010, contract workers increased from 12 percent of the workforce to 25 percent.
Unions are worried that if Modi is allowed to privatize the country’s public assets like its railways, utilities, and the businesses owned by the government many of the permanent jobs that pay decent wages and provide benefits will be eliminated and the use of contract work will continue to escalate.
The labor federations also demanded an increase in the minimum wage. The current minimum wage is 6394 ($95) rupees a month. The unions want the minimum wage increased to 18,000 rupees ($271) to help working people keep up with the increasing cost of basic goods.
In hopes of staving off the strike, the Modi government announced that it would increase the minimum wage to 9,100 rupees ($136), but the government’s last ditch effort did little to stem the anger of workers who joined the general strike.
And as the number of people who participated in the strike would suggest, there was widespread support for the strike.
“The protesters included large numbers of women, construction workers, industrial workers, hosiery workers, bank, electricity, PSSF, public health workers, contract workers, roadway, and other sections of workers and employees,” wrote one reporter observing the strike in the city of Ludhiana, a city of more than one million in the state of Punjab.
“The strike was almost complete in transport, coal, oil refineries and marketing, automobile, banking and insurance, telecommunications, postal services, defense, and transport sectors,” reports New Age, the newspaper of the Communist Party of India.
“In states like Odisha, Telangana, Kerala, Assam, Jharkhand, Manipur, Karnataka, Puducherry, Tripura and Bihar, it was a bandh-like (total shut down) situation where even markets remained closed,” continues New Age.
Before the strike, the government had been in talks with the unions about its economic and labor policies.
After the strike, unions called for a renewal of the talks, but the leftist-led federations like AITUC and the Center for Indian Trade Unions said that the talks can’t be one-sided and that the government needs to accept input from unions instead of trying to enforce its neoliberal economic policies unilaterally on an unwilling public.