National Sections of the L5I:

Pakistan: Workers force government retreat on privatisation

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

After eight days of all-out strike action, during which two workers were killed, another is still struggling for his life and dozens were seriously injured, the workers of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) have forced the government to shelve plans to privatise the airline.

On Tuesday, February 9, the chairman of the “Joint Action Committee” (JAC) of PIA employees announced the end of the action and a return to work. However, this is by no means the end of the struggle. The government has only postponed its plans for the next 6 to12 months. Its retreat, therefore, marks a partial, but nevertheless very important, success by PIA workers.

Despite the brutal oppression of the strike, and the use of the paramilitary airport security force, the workers continued with full determination. PIA was forced to cancel all international and national flights. This clearly shows that the workers can win, even when faced with an enemy that is prepared to kill for profit. However, some 150 workers now face the threat of victimisation, 15 contracts have been terminated and even leaders of the union have been threatened with the sack by management.

A tactical move
The massive repression backfired on the government and management politically. Throughout the country, workers solidarised with the PIA strikers, a number of unions threatened to take solidarity action. So widespread was the support from the trade unions and working class people, that all the opposition parties, be they Islamist or bourgeois “liberal”, found it necessary to express their concern for the striking workers.

Jamaat-e-Islami, the PPP and the PTI organised “anti-privatisation” conferences and/or calls. Clearly, these are festivals of hypocrisy since all of them have been, or are, involved in privatisations themselves and in imposing anti-union laws. The PTI, for example, is currently enforcing a strike ban on doctors in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which it governs.

All this led to mounting pressure on the PML-N government to defuse the struggle in order to avoid a deepening political crisis. That is what lies behind the announcement to postpone privatisation. It is a measure of their fear of a growing opposition that could develop into an effective, national struggle against privatisation and other IMF-inspired plans, that they not only postponed the selling of PIA, but also halted the privatisation of the power company, WAPDA.

On the other hand, the strike, and the whole campaign against privatisation, raised issues and revealed weaknesses that need to be resolved if the inevitable future struggles are to be won. For example, while there were many expressions of solidarity from other unions and workers' organisations, these remained largely symbolic when what will be needed to force a complete defeat for privatisation will be strike action from other sections. Similarly, while the Pakistan left issued calls for solidarity, there were no concrete proposals, let alone actions, to build local committees that could actually mobilise solidarity.

As the deaths of two strikers makes all too clear, the government is prepared to use lethal force to impose its plans and this will be true when it returns to the offensive. To counter that threat, it will be necessary to go beyond a purely trade union dispute, to politicise the confrontation with the government, develop the means of self-defence of pickets and demonstrations and, above all, prepare for political strike action on a massive scale.

The overall strategy of the strike's leaders, the JAC, is also inadequate, given the government's intentions. The central weakness is the determination to keep the dispute within the bounds of a purely “economic” trade union negotiation. The leaders do not want a movement to develop that would be beyond their control. Their aim is to resolve the dispute around the negotiating table with the government, rather than an intransigent fight against it. That is why they were willing to use the concessions made by government to call off the strike, rather than continue the strike to force the unconditional cancellation of all privatisation plans.

The commitment to negotiating a “settlement” leads to proposals for a compromise with government. This can clearly be seen in the main demand the JAC puts forward. It wants the right to determine how to make PIA economically viable as a state company in the next year. “We can revive the airline, we just need support and assistance,” JAC chairman Baloch stated.

With this in mind, the chairman of the JAC met with the Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, hoping for a “satisfactory and beneficial” meeting, “both for the government and the employees of PIA”. The meeting resulted in nothing, apart from the “assurance” that Shahbaz Sharif will forward the demands of the workers to the Prime Minister, who is his brother.

This corporatist strategy is worse than a dead end. The Pakistan government is not interested in any “co-management” experiments in the state company. It wants to sell it to private investors but it first wants to “rationalise” it, in order to offer it to them as a profitable business. The JAC's negotiating strategy does not only ignore this reality but actually plays into the hands of the government.

The main outlines of government strategy are already clear from its postponement decision. It will use the delay to establish a subsidiary of PIA, which will keep about half of the workforce and some 50 aircraft but, as a new company, will have “clean books”. Meanwhile, the existing PIA will carry all the current losses. It is not difficult to see that the subsidiary will be made fit for the “market” as an attractive investment for profit seeking capitalists. PIA “proper” would sooner or later go bust.

The fact that the government was forced to postpone privatisation at PIA, as well as in other sectors, demonstrates that the workers could actually change the situation and stop the governmental attack, if they combine their forces across sectors. A strategy which directs the workers to taking over (parts of) managerial tasks, and promising to make the company “fit”, can only end at a negotiating table with foul compromises.

Worse, given the continued determination of the government to privatise whole industries, it runs the risk of destroying the momentum that the working class militancy has developed and eventually demoralising the workers.

United front
Revolutionaries and militant workers need to fight for a completely different strategy. They need to fight not only against this or that attack, but combine such struggles into a nationwide, co-ordinated struggle of all trade unions, of all working class people against privatisations and anti-strike laws.

They should demand the formation of a united front of all working class and progressive organisations including trade unions, left wing parties like the AWP, peasant organisations, women's organisations and youth groups.

Such a united front of resistance should not be just an agreement between leaders, it needs a plan of action and democratic, fighting organs in the work-places and communities, democratically controlled councils of action, to carry out and lead the fight.

Obviously, this will not come about spontaneously. All those workers who see the need for a such a strategy, need to combine their forces politically, they need a mass working class party based on a revolutionary action programme.