NEW DELHI, India – A one-day general strike brought many states to a virtual halt here. Up to 50 million workers participated in what trade union leaders called one of the “biggest strike[s] witnessed since Independence,” May 21.

The strike, spearheaded by the left trade unions, protested privatization of public sector entities, new anti-labor laws and attacks on pensions. The government wants to sell state-run companies to raise 132 billion rupees ($2.75 billion).

The unions said the government is also planning to reduce their pensions (Employees’ Provident Fund) interest rate from 9.5 percent to 8 percent. Strikers also demanded more legislation to protect agricultural workers.

Oil, power, coal, mining, steel, engineering and textile industries “experienced massive participation in the strike,” according to strike leaders. Most of the country’s ports came to a standstill. All domestic airlines called off their flights. About 6 million state and central government employees did not report to work. Railway and other transport sector workers also joined the strike.

“We want a complete halt to privatization and other economic policies that favor only the rich,” said Swadesh Dev Roye, leader of the National United Forum, an umbrella group of labor unions in state-run oil companies.

Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) General Secretary M.K. Pandhe and All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) General Secretary Gurudas Dasgupta told reporters that banking operations in the country came to a grinding halt. “Despite intimidation by the management, employees of the Reserve Bank struck work along with the officers and employees in all commercial banks.” This was the first time Reserve Bank employees took part in a strike. Some say the Indian banking industry is under pressure from the World Bank to trim its work force.

“We are protesting the change in labor laws in favor of the employers and the privatization/disinvestment policies that are leading to aggravation of joblessness and unemployment,” said S. Nagarajan, deputy general secretary, All India Bank Officers Association.

One bank employee working since 1977 faces retirement in 15 years. He is worried he could be laid off before then, losing out on his pension. “They want to privatize everything like it is in America. They want do away with job security – they have no concern about someone who is close to the end of his career,” Ajay Kumar Sharma said.

Another striker echoed this view, saying the government was selling profit-making state-owned companies. “We had no alternative but to go on strike. No one’s listening to what we are saying,” she said.

Trade union leaders criticized the prime minister for refusing to meet with the trade unions. Dasgupta said, “The PM talks to sadhus (holy men) and industrialists, but has no time for the working class.”

But he said the government may not want to annoy the trade unions in the run up to national elections next year. The BJP and their allies are seeking “election funds” from multi-national corporations, which are competing for privatization bids. One deputy minister recently had to resign from the cabinet because his secretary had accepted a bribe.

The strike had particularly strong support in the eastern state of West Bengal, which is governed by the Communists and Left Front. Bank official Sukhomoy Mitra said they would do everything it took to oppose the privatization plan.

“We are not opposed to modernization … or greater efficiency in the industry, but we cannot accept surrender to the whims of capital.”

The ruling-BJP’s trade union federation and the largest opposition party – the Indian Congress Party’s trade union federation (INTUC) did not take part in the strike. INTUC, at first supported the strike, but was criticized for pulling out at the last minute.

M.K.N. Moorthy contributed to this article.