Compared to five years ago, the railway colony of Lahore where all railway workers live and work has an air of demoralisation and fear. The military regime installed military officers in all workshops to spy on workers and take action if opposition developed. Despite these repressive conditions and with the threat of mass sackings, the Railway Workers’ Union (workshops) organised militant struggles against the Musharraf regime.
Unreported in the Western media, General Musharraf has launched a vicious attack against workers’ rights to organise and defend their living standards. While General Musharraf has received praise from Western governments for his participation in the US-led ‘war on terrorism’, there has been no criticism of his vicious anti-working class policies. These include, steep price hikes in basic foodstuffs, stepping up the pace of privatisation and a vicious clampdown on the rights of trade unions to organise. Kevin Simpson, recently in Lahore, spoke to railway worker trade union activists, including Faisal Wahid, the national general secretary of the Railway Workers’ Union (workshops) which has 23,000 members. socialistworld.net
Workers fight Musharraf’s regime
Railway workers’ main anger was directed against Musharraf’s draconian Industrial Relations Ordinance 2002 which destroyed workers’ rights to appeal against dismissal, the right to organise and boosted powers in the hands of management.
In the run-up to the implementation of this legislation, the railways’ management ended piecework payments. This meant that on average railway workers lost 2,500 Rupees (Â£25) from a monthly wage of 4,500 Rupees (Â£45). This began a whole tidal wave of attacks: the ending of benefits for retired railway workers; the stopping of a monthly payment of 250 Rupees (Â£2.50) to help railway workers pay for utilities and, worst of all, the introduction of commercial rents for the shacks that most railway workers live in.
As a result of these attacks, the Railway Workers Union (workshops) began to organise a series of worktime protest actions – demonstrations, rallies. In effect, this amounted to unofficial and illegal strike action under a military dictatorship. Management was shocked by the tenacity of the movement and retreated. They promised to reintroduce piecework payments and gave a guarantee not to victimise any trade union activists.
However, the failure of the corrupt and right wing leaders of the big trade union federations to organise serious solidarity action for the railway workers and also against the IRO 2002, meant that management moved onto the attack once again.
During the movement of the railway workers, trade union leaders like Faisal Wahid were imprisoned and even held in solitary confinement for two weeks. He faces treason charges for speeches made to protesting workers which attacked the generals.
Over 7,000 railway workers were sacked including 500 trade union activists. Using illegal measures, the railway management transferred all the leading trade unionists to different posts thousands of kilometres away from where their families lived and where they had worked for decades.
Faisal Wahid was reposted to Hyderabad and the Deputy General Secretary of the union was transferred from Hyderabad to Lahore, along with 120 other trade union activists. The majority of union leaders transferred refused to take up their new posts. As a result Faisal Wahid – and others – have not been paid for two years.
“Many railway workers are frightened now,” explained Faisal Wahid. “However, it was better to fight the government than just sit back and allow them to stamp all over us. The most important thing is to build solidarity with other workers in Pakistan and with trade union activists internationally. That is why we have been involved in a campaign of protest and pressure to force management to accept the merging of our railway workers union with that of the sh:Open Line union.”
Determined united struggle can be successful – even against the military. Musharraf has attempted to privatise the extremely profitable Pakistan Telecommunications company on two occasions. One of the reasons this failed previously was a decision by the eleven unions in the company to form a joint campaign against privatisation to defeat the military’s plans.
These attacks, which have become commonplace under Musharraf, will only be successful if the trade unions in Pakistan are transformed along democratic lines and their corrupt leaders are driven out by the membership.