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Telecommunications strike shows important lessons for Pakistani working class

On Friday, 4 June, representatives of the Pakistani government signed an agreement with the nine-union strong Action Committee in Pakistan Telecommunications Company Ltd (PTCL), following ten days of strike action. This was reported on all the major satellite and TV channels, which showed scenes of celebrating telecommunications workers.

In this agreement, the government agreed to the “indefinite postponement of privatisation” and to “all 28 demands [on workers pay and conditions] and unions will start negotiations with the unions with management on the implementation of these demands”. This was an important victory for the telecommunication workers and a major setback for the General Musharraf government. The strike has important lessons for the Pakistani working class and union leaders. Even an article on the BBC World Service website spoke of the agreement as being seen “…as a serious setback to the government’s privatisation plans, and forecast it will hit the stock market badly when it reopens on Monday.” (4 June 2005). This victory was made possible by the mass united action by telecommunication workers. However, it is clear that the struggle against privatisation of the company is not yet over.

The agreement also stated the government, “Privatisation Commission will share all information with the unions and continue negotiations with them, and no further step will be taken on privatisation without the consultation of unions”.

Government will come back

Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP – CWI in Pakistan) and Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan (TURCP) members, who played a leading role in developing the mass struggle of the telecommunications workers which led to the all-out strike, warned the Action Committee that the government’s retreat was temporary and it would come back with further privatisation plans and that telecommunications workers would have to be ready for this.

Over the weekend, the government tried to ignore the agreement it had just signed and the Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunications briefed various journalists that he wished to reintroduce privatisation again by the end of June. What particularly worried the government was the potential of a collapse in the Stock Exchange on Monday morning because recently PTCL shares have made up 25% of the volume of traded shares. Also it is undoubtedly the case that phone lines have been buzzing over the weekend and Musharraf’s allies in the West (US imperialism, the World Bank and IMF) have expressed their dismay at the government’s retreat.

As a result, government spokespeople are implicitly using the fact that some of the union leaders are showing signs of wavering on the issue of privatisation in return for improved wages and conditions, to undermine the extent of the victory that was won by workers last Friday. Socialist Movement members have warned union leaders not to fall into this trap, and emphasised the necessity to show a strong united position to the government during negotiations. We explained that government officials are making these statements in an attempt to give the impression that it is ‘business as usual’ and privatisation will continue without delay.

The Action Committee held a national meeting on Sunday 5 June, where it decided to reject any attempt to link acceptance of the pay and conditions package to privatisation. The Action Committee also threatened to restart the strike if the government proceeded to announce new dates for bidding for shares in PTCL. If the Action Committee maintain this position this will be a positive development, especially since some of the union leaders involved have capitulated to management in the past.

Inspiration

Despite these developments the victory is an inspiration for many workers in Pakistan, who want to fight against privatisation, downsizing, anti-trade union laws and the neo-liberal economic agenda of the IMF and World Bank, viciously implemented since 1999 by the Musharraf regime. The government was able to privatise two of the largest banks and two fertiliser factories without much organised resistance from the trade union leaders.

This does not mean that there have been no militant struggles in Pakistan in that time. In fact many workers struggles have forced the Musharraf regime to retreat on the issues of wages and other anti-working class policies since 1999. The Civil Secretariat employees in Quetta (Baluchistan), Karachi Steel mill workers (Sindh), the public sector workers in Quetta, teachers struggles and a week long strike of United Bank workers are just a few of the few examples of workers’ struggles against Musharraf regime. The workers in Pak Saudia fertilizer factory in Sindh also courageously fought against the privatisation, but its leadership betrayed the strike.

In the last five years, the government has stepped up the pace of the privatisation process and Musharraf felt confident enough to start the process in the state services sector. They tried to privatise PTCL since 1994, but failed on two occasions because of resistance from the workforce. The latest attempt was the most serious. The regime did not expect much resistance from the trade unions and was confident in announcing the start of bidding for shares for the 10 June. But strike action and the protest movement forced the government to retreat.

Lessons of the strike

PTCL workers showed to the right wing union tops, and to even some of the more ‘left’ leaders, that a struggle against anti-working class policies is possible. Privatisation, deregulation, downsizing, anti-union legislation, and other anti-working class policies, can be defeated. Even a temporary success can give confidence to the wider layers of working class to fight against these policies.

This strike also contradicts the claims of right-wing, pro-market union leaders that workers don’t want to fight. The telecommunication workers have proved that it is the leaders, not the workers, which repeatedly try to avoid confrontation. Some of the developments in previous struggles, and since the recent telecom strike ended, shows that Pakistani workers will have to fight not only against the neo-liberal offensive but also against the opportunist right wing leaders of their unions. The workers need democratic unions and fighting leaderships to defeat neo-liberal economic policies.

This struggle is also a practical answer to the so-called ‘left’ leaders and intellectuals, who believe that the working class is finished and is not willing to fight. These people have lost all confidence in the working class changing society and the working class’s revolutionary will and power. In Pakistan, from the comfort of their plush air-conditioned houses in the secluded middle class cantonments, they always criticise the working class for not rising against capitalism and imperialism. These leaders never tried to understand the reasons for the decline in workers’ struggles more recently. But when telecom workers took action, these leaders and intellectuals remained silent and did not even bother to issue a single press statement in support of striking workers.

The telecom workers, once again, proved that workers’ unity is potentially very powerful and, in certain conditions, can inflict a defeat even on a military regime. The enormous mood for unity amongst the workforce, given voice by the demands of the SMP and the TURCP, drove the union leaders together and led to the formation of a united Action Committee. It was important for the workers to forge unity to overcome all divisions, including religious, national, regional, caste and ethnic ones, which sometimes exist amongst the telecom workers. The PTCL management, and the ruling class behind them, have always used these divisions to divide workers in the industry. But, in the recent strike, workers once again proved that they can overcome divisions in struggle. One worker said: “We are not Punjabis, Pashtuns or Sindhis, but we are workers. We think as workers and nobody can divide us on the basis of religion, caste, nationality or language. We have one language and that is no to privatisation.”

The issue of a political party that acts in the interests of the working class also came up sharply during the struggle. The majority of workers were of the opinion that there is currently no mass political party that can defend the interests of working class. Many workers were in the favour of the idea of a fighting for a new workers’ party. The strikers showed their anger against representatives of the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP), and the Islamic Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), when these parties sent representatives to a public meeting called to support the striking telecom workers. Workers cheered speakers from the SMP when they criticised these two parties for being amongst the first to introduce privatisation when they were in government.

The MMA has tried to use the strike to revive its falling support amongst the working class in general and telecom workers in particular. They are using radical rhetoric on social issues and also anti American sentiments to muster their support. However, this reflects the vacuum that exists and actually demonstrates that the potential for a socialist or left party does exist and will become one of the most important questions for the working class as struggles unfold.

The PPP has also shown an interest in this struggle. However, what they are more interested in is coming into power in Pakistan with the help of US imperialism and the Pakistani Generals. They are not ready to denounce neo-liberal economic policies. The PPP will without hesitation implement these policies if they come into power, as they did on two previous occasions. Workers have learned through struggle which political forces are really with them during the struggle. Only socialists showed practical solidarity with striking workers.

This struggle also showed that even a small force can play a key role in struggles, armed with correct ideas, tactics and strategy. The role the SMP played in this struggle is an important example of this. We have small forces with limited resources, but we played a key role in helping to organise the strike and also developing its strategy and tactics. The solidarity campaign launched by SMP through the TURCP had a huge impact on the final outcome of this struggle. The material produced by the SMP and TURCP had a big impact on the consciousness of workers. It helped them take a solid stance against privatisation.

International solidarity
The solidarity campaign forced other unions and federations to come out in the support of telecom workers. This made all the difference in the strike. The Action Committee leaders have already commented on the important role played by the SMP and TURCP during the struggle.

The international solidarity and protest campaign was also vital in the telecom workers’ success. This, again, practically proved that workers internationalism is not just a nice idea but is a reality and a key question for the workers’ movement. The protest letters and solidarity messages, mainly organised by the CWI, gave a boost to the strikers when their stamina was being tested and they faced the threat of harassment by the paramilitary police. International solidarity was seen by the strikers as a living expression of class solidarity, on a world scale. It gave important protection to the strikers and held the government back from taking immediate action against the picket lines and occupations.

Whatever the final outcome of this particular stage of the struggle against privatisation, it is clear that the government lost the initiative during important parts of the strike and the Pakistani working class has learned valuable lessons which will be of great use in future struggles.

Khalid Bhatti

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