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Sri Lanka: Now Rajapaksa turns his guns on the workers

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Roshen Chanaka Ratnasekera, a 21 year old machine operator, is dead. He was shot by police on May 30 when they attacked striking workers demonstrating against the imposition of a pension scheme that will rob thousands of their savings.

The police attack was then backed up by army units. Their aggressive attempt to disperse the demonstration provoked a militant response from other workers. Across the Free Trade Zone in Katunayake, 40,000 took to the streets, forcing the authorities to close the entire zone.

On June 1, when news of the death was finally released after a news blackout, trade unionists held a spontaneous demonstration in Colombo. The Inspector General of Police, Mahinda Balasuriya was sacrificed by the regime to try to deflect attention away from the government that is really responsible.

The pension proposals have now been withdrawn but the attempt to introduce them, and the magnificent fightback that has stopped them, could mark an important turning point in Sri Lankan politics. President Mahinda Rajapaksa fought a brutal war against the Tamils in which at least tens of thousands of civilians were killed. In that war, both the army and the police were allowed, indeed they were encouraged, to use maximum force safe in the knowledge the government would always protect them.

Rajapaksa justified the setting aside of all legal restrictions on the police and army by saying victory would bring peace and prosperity to the whole island. That was always a lie – but with the state controlled media and the Buddhist temples fanning the flames of Sinhalese chauvinism, many believed it. As the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka argued throughout the war, peace would soon reveal the truth. The truth is that the Rajapaksa family used the war to grab control of the state's finances and paid for it with foreign loans. Now they want to force the workers and farmers to pay for those loans. The pension plan was just one part of this.

The fightback by the workers also revealed some important truths. The most important is that the workers were prepared to fight in the first place – and the experience of the fight has made them more militant. But, the workers' organisations, the trades unions, showed many weaknesses. There are more than 12 unions involved in the Free Trade Zone alone and that divides the workers when they need to be united. Many unions are very small and only locally organised, yet the attack involves workers across the country.

Even the nationally organised unions and alliances, like the Joint Trade Union Alliance (JTUA) the Free Trade Zone and General Services Trade Union (FTZGSTU) the National Trade Union Centre (NTUC) and the National Union of Migrant Workers (NUMW) showed themselves inadequate when a determined fight was necessary. While many of these have been promoted by NGO's and others, like the NTUC, are associated with political parties, the supposedly Marxist JVP in that case, all are limited by their commitment to compromise.

Their conduct of the dispute over pensions shows the contradiction that cripples all of them. The positive side is that, as trades unions, they immediately understood the importance of opposing the government's plan and they initiated a strike that brought out 20,000 workers. Many had never been on strike before and the majority were women workers – who would be the worst affected by the proposals. Such a big strike did have an impact on the government. After a week, the Labour Minister, Gamini Lokuge, indicated a willingness to reconsider the proposals. Thinking that they had achieved as much as they could, the union leaders called off the strike.

The Minister, of course, calculated that the pressure on the government was now off and made no move to actually withdraw the proposals. Quite rightly, the workers themselves decided to continue the strike, even against the advice of their leaders. It was the workers' determination that forced the withdrawal of the proposals – although even that is not yet guaranteed – and it was their militancy that the police and army wanted to try to crush. After the confrontation, and the shootings, the union leaders suddenly rediscovered their militancy. They began talking of calling out workers in all the Free Trade Zones, as many as 250,000, until the pensions bill was dropped altogether – there was even mention of a general strike.

How should workers respond to this change of heart? They should tell their leaders not just to talk about strikes but to go ahead and call them! Just as it was the call from the leaders that produced such a big strike in the first place, now, with the whole country alerted to what the pensions bill would mean, a call from them for a national strike until the bill is dropped altogether could generate a class-wide fightback. In fact, it would open the possibility of much more than that.

But, should the workers simply wait for their leaders to act? Definitely not, we saw last week that they cannot be trusted to lead a really determined fight, the danger is that they are still only looking for a compromise. At the same time as calling on the leaders to act like leaders, the workers need to organise themselves to take the necessary action, just as they did at Katunayake. To do this, they need to organise themselves, locally at first but nationally as soon as possible. Local elected strike committees, representing all striking workers, not just those already in unions, are the key first step to ensuring the workers themselves control the action.

In the longer term, activists in all the unions should demand that progress is made towards overcoming the divisions between different unions. The SPSL supports the building of “industrial unions” that unite all workers in an industry, irrespective of their employer, their particular job or skill, or where in the country they work. The textile industry, for example, is the biggest earner of foreign currency in Sri Lanka, yet the great majority of its workers, especially women, are paid disgracefully low wages. The employers find it easy to get away with this when there are so many different unions – and most workers are in no union at all.