A general strike called by Argentina's largest labor group today to protest low wages and foreign debt payments forced most commercial and government activity to a halt.

The 24-hour labor action was the most successful of four general strikes called since democracy returned here two years ago. It underscored mounting worker discontent with the erosion of real wages and an absence of economic growth under President Raul Alfonsin's austerity program.

With most buses and trains not running, subways operating on a holiday schedule by administrative personnel, few taxis on the streets and many businesses closed, the Argentine capital looked as deserted as it does on a Sunday morning.

Radio stations carried only music and weather notices as broadcast journalists joined the strike, and government offices were largely empty. News reports from major provinces described similar scenes.

The General Confederation of Labor, an umbrella organization representing 2.5 million union members -- roughly one-third of the Argentine work force -- said the strike had been 97 percent effective.

In an afternoon statement, the confederation said the work stoppage was "a popular referendum" against government economic policies and "against the subordination of our economy to the demands of the International Monetary Fund."

Contributing to the strike's success were several noneconomic factors. With many people on vacation in the middle of South America's summer, activity already was slack. The protest shrewdly was scheduled for a Friday, offering the prospect of a three-day weekend to those who participated. Tens of thousands of Argentines headed for South Atlantic beaches, despite the absence of lifeguards.

Another key was the support the strike received from public transport workers. With many buses and trains out of operation, alternative means of commuting were hard to find in this sprawling metropolis.

The labor confederation announced the strike two weeks ago, after talks broke down with government and business representatives about a 1986 wage policy. Alfonsin recently said he would not allow the unions to "twist his arm" to win wage increases that could bring back high inflation, which his austerity program dramatically squelched.

Buoyed by congressional election results last November, in which Alfonsin's Radical Civic Union scored a comfortable victory, and by public opinion surveys that show the president's popularity still strong despite frustrations with his economic policy, the government appears determined to confront the powerful union confederation, which is largely aligned with the opposition Peronist movement.

While recognizing the right to strike, government and Radical party officials have sought to turn the action into a painful reminder of the past, when Peronist administrations granted large wage increases, spurring inflation and debasing the national currency.

Alfonsin stunned the country last June, when, to combat an annual inflation rate that had topped 1,000 percent, he suddenly imposed a freeze on prices and wages, put a stop to the printing of new money to finance the budget and introduced a new currency, the austral, to replace the oft-devalued peso. But despite the official controls, some prices creeped up from June to December, causing a cost of living rise of 20 percent in that period and a jump in food prices alone of 59 percent. Meanwhile, wages remained largely fixed.

The government finally authorized a 5 percent wage increase at the start of this year, but union leaders called it insufficient. They contended that Alfonsin's anti-inflation program has succeeded largely at the expense of lower paid workers.

Their discontent with government policies has crystallized around the issue of Argentina's $50 billion foreign debt.

Union officials say the solution to the problem of low wages is to use hard-currency export earnings to reactivate the economy instead of to service the debt.

Today's general strike marked the crest of a wave of labor actions in recent weeks. These have included wildcat strikes by phone operators, garbage collectors and subway workers, slowdowns by postal workers and air freight handlers, and periodic stoppages by airline pilots and railway employes.