Indian Bank Workers Join Crippling General Strike Against Government Plans

Akito Yoshikane

Communist Party of India supporters and trade unionists shout slogans during a protest rally in Amritsar on September 7, part of a nationwide strike.

Labor and banking unions in India organized a strike on Tuesday over a slew of complaints, including rising prices, economic reforms and anti-union policies.

In the second strike during the last two months, the walkout halted life in the predominantly Communist Party-led states of the country, shuttering schools, businesses and led to some flight cancellations. The walkout was more measured than the nationwide strike led by the national government’s opposition party in July, where people protested against high fuel costs at a time when the population was already dealing with inflation nearing the double digits.

But this time, bank workers joined the mounting dissatisfaction with government plans to reform the banking sector. An estimated eight major trade unions called for the strike, including two large banking unions: the All-India Bank Employees’ Association (AIBEA) and the Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI).

The AIBEA, which is India’s largest and oldest bank union, and other labor groups are opposed to government plans for foreign direct investment in the financial sector and consolidation of the state-run banks that threaten jobs.

AIBEA secretary Vishwas Utagi said in a statement that public banks should be strengthened since they were more resilient during the financial crisis.
Expansion of public sector banks network is necessary for reaching out to the poorest of the poor for making the financial inclusion model of the RBI a success,” Utagi added.

The BEFI, which represents 100,000 workers, echoed a populist tone and criticized the influence of corporate and foreign interests in a statement: It is most regrettable that despite persistant demands of the working class,…the Central Government appears to be totally indifferent to the problems afflicting the lives and livelihood of the common man,” wrote joint secretary Joydeb Dasgupta.

Most of the striking workers were in southern Kerala and West Bengal. The mass mobilization of India’s banking sector is in stark contrast to the United States, where workers in the financial services have never been unionized.

As previously reported here by Mike Elk, less than 1 percent of American bank workers who work in front office positions are in a union. If the financial industry unionized, Elk says workers could influence banks to implement more consumer-friendly policies.

That’s what labor groups in India are attempting to do as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration faces a large deficit. Singh has been pushing ahead with measures to curb spending in Asia’s third largest economy with some difficult budget cuts. The decision to lower fuel subsidies, which would raise prices for the average consumer, was the primary reason for the July strike. More than 828 million people in India live on less than $2 dollars a day.

The timing of the strike this week, coincidentally, occurs at the same time bank executives are attending the annual conference for the Indian Banks’ Association in Mumbai, who say they face a job shortfall for those with the necessary skills.

More than 70 percent of the banks in India are publicly owned. James Fontanella-Khan of the Financial Times says that privatizing banks is suggested to foster competition. But he also points out that India’s state banks pay less than the private sector and could lose their best workers.

While The Times of India, the country’s biggest newspaper, has written off the general strike and protests, also called bandh, as outdated tactics. But the unions have negotiated wage and contract issues before, and will most likely be in the forefront of making sure their needs are met as the country undergoes a transition in the banking sector with disinvestment and mergers.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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