Nearly one million bank employees in India, including some with private and foreign banks, went on a two-day nationwide strike Thursday demanding higher wages and a better social security net.
The strike has been called by the United Forum of Bank Unions -- an umbrella organisation representing nine unions of officers and other staff in the banking industry.
According to reports coming in from across the country, people were able to withdraw money from automated teller machines (ATMs) even though other services like getting demand drafts and obtaining cheque books were affected.
"No transactions till Saturday in any public sector bank or branches," said K.F. Mamadapur, secretary of one of the striking unions, the All-India State Bank Officers' Federation, in Bangalore.
Apart from the staff in all state-run banks, those with private entities like Catholic Syrian Bank and foreign ones like HSBC also joined the agitation. But the operations of some institutions like ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank and Standard Chartered were unaffected.
"Around 10 lakh employees across all the public sector and private sector banks have gone on strike," said Rajen Nagar, national president of another union -- All India Bank Employees' Association.
"We are also protesting against unnecessary government intervention, which is delaying our wage settlement," Nagar told IANS in Kolkata.
The wage revision is due from November 2007.
In Karnataka, about 80,000 employees of public sector and old private banks across the state, including 25,000 in the city are on strike.
As a result, there were long queues at ATMs in Bangalore.
"People are queuing up in large numbers at ATMs to withdraw as much money before they run out of cash. With heavy withdrawals and no replenishments, most ATMs will turn dry by Thursday night or early Friday," Mamadapur said.
In Hyderabad, too, there were long queues outside the ATMs, some of which ran out of cash in the afternoon and are unlikely to be replenished before Saturday.
Over 10,000 branches of 26 public sector banks in Andhra Pradesh remained shut. In seven northeastern states, more than 30,000 bank employees took part in the agitation.
Said Usha Ramakrishnan, who has an account with the State Bank of India in Delhi: "I was able to withdraw money. But I will have to go to a private bank -- ICICI Bank or something -- to get a pay order. The kind of trouble we used to face earlier isn't there now. But it is irritating."
The main demands of the striking staff are wage increase, a better social security net to take care of their post-retirement needs and a proper policy for giving jobs to the family members of deceased or disabled employees on compassionate grounds.
The unions have been demanding a 20-percent wage hike, and rejected the offer of 17.5 percent increase made Wednesday by the Indian Banks' Association (IBA) that represents the bank managements.
The government had asked the unions to hold talks with the bank managements and the chief labour commissioner, but the parleys were inconclusive.
"The association is playing with us. When they agreed to 17.5 percent hike initially, they brought in another clause that the pension load should be borne equally," said N.S. Virk, vice president the All India Bank Officers' Association.
"This is after they signed a memorandum of understanding," he said.
"We are on strike. Future course of action will be decided by the forum," said Virk, suggesting that more such agitations would follow if the government and the bank managements do not manage to pacify the unions.