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Nationwide Strike Targets India's Economic Policies

Workers from the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) shout slogans during a protest rally in Mumbai February 28, 2012.

A number of key Indian economic sectors were temporarily crippled Tuesday by a nationwide strike to protest government labor policies and inflation. The strike is unprecedented to the extent it unified a number of politically opposed groups, including those affiliated with the ruling coalition itself.

Transport, financial and postal services ground to a halt in many parts of India, as 11 central trade unions stayed off the job to protest what they call "anti-labor" policies of the central government.

The nationwide strike is a setback for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress party-led government, as its leaders ignored personal pleas from Mr. Singh and other senior officials not to proceed.

G. Sanjeeva Reddy is the president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the central trade union affiliated with the Congress party. He says Tuesday's strike showed a unity which is historically unprecedented.

"This time, they all joined together. After independence, this is the first time all trade unions have come together and gone on strike," he said.

Workers from a wide range of public sectors are demanding the government curtail its hiring of contract workers, which they say deprives permanent workers of a livelihood. They also want the government to stop privatizing state-run companies.

Trade Union Congress President Reddy says the lack of a mandated minimum wage and a social safety net for India's 300 million non-unionized workers are also major concerns.

"No political angle. It is purely a labor strike for the industrial workers' demands," he said.

Union leaders say they will measure the government's reaction to Tuesday's strike before deciding on any future action. The possibility of similar strikes in months ahead adds pressure to a government already confronting the slowest rate of economic growth India has experienced for years.

Efforts to stimulate the economy, especially by encouraging foreign direct investment, have been politically gridlocked by debates surrounding major corruption cases that have emerged during the present government.