Pakistan: Telecommunications are not for sale!

The Anti Privatization Campaign launched by an alliance of nine unions in the telecom sector has received a tremendous response from workers throughout the country.

Workers pressurise leaders not to betray

The alliance, called "Trade unions Action Committee", has been able to mobilise thousands of workers against the privatization of the public sector telecommunications company, PTCL. The Socialist Movement (CWI in Pakistan) has played key role in the formation of this alliance and is also at the forefront of the Anti-Privatization campaign.

The alliance has decided to begin two hour token strikes from May 13 throughout the country. A resolution to this effect was moved by the members of SMP and the Pakistani Trade Union Rights Campaign, which was unanimously accepted in the meeting of the alliance. The campaign started on May 5 with the placing of black flags and banners on all the telecom buildings. Every PTCL worker wore black arm bands as well to signify opposition to taking this company out of state hands. The campaign picked up the momentum with the rallies on 10th May, which was organized in all cities in Pakistan.

More than 41 000 workers were mobilised in these rallies while all the main national and regional press gave publicity to these events. Workers shouted anti-government and anti-management slogans in the demonstrations. Now the campaign has entered into its second phase in which public meetings and demonstrations will be held in all the main cities. The first public meeting was held on May 12 in Lahore in which more than 4000 workers participated. The mood of the workers was very radical.

The SMP was the only left organization which was present and spoke at this public meeting and played an important role in its mobilization. Even the BBC Urdu World service gave very good coverage of this meeting. All Pakistani satellite TV channels showed news items about the meeting for over six hours on the day it took place. In an indication of the fear that the government has of the potential of this movement to act as a catalyst of wider protests against the economic and social conditions they announced the postponement of the bidding conference (where sections of PTCL would be sold off) and a delay in the proposed privatisation plan. But the alliance has decided to continue its struggle, knowing that the government has proposed a postponement before and then come back with its plans when it feels more confident.

Workers’ mood

The telecomm workers are very radical, but they are not ready to fully trust the leadership of the unions. This has been shown already in the movement so far. The main reason for this mistrust is the role played by the some sections of the union leadership in the past. Workers are particularly furious about the betrayal by the Employees Union leadership in the last strike in October 2004. The telecomm workers participate in all the activities called by the joint campaign but they also have serious reservations. There is a widespread anger against privatisation and other anti-worker policies of the management. In these circumstances it is easier for the leadership to mobilise the workers, but not as simple as before because of their role.

At the Lahore meeting workers forced the union leaders to take a public oath that they would not betray the struggle. Some workers have threatened to beat up any union leaders who betray them and prevent them from entering any premises where telecommunications workers are situated. This mood has forced the leaders to use very radical rhetoric in their speeches. Workers want to fight privatisation but they are not ready to give blank cheque to the leadership – neither will they allow the union leaders to begin negotiations with management until they are fully satisfy that the leadership will not sell out their struggle.

It is evident from the rallies that where leadership is radical and has the confidence of the workers, more workers attended meetings and their mood was more radical.

Role of the leadership

The leadership is still divided on the question of negotiation. One section of the leadership wants to start negotiations with management but other sections are against this. A few union leaders are also not happy and comfortable with the radical slogans and rhetoric being used by more radical union leaders. They were furious when PTURC and SMP members distributed their leaflet against privatisation. A few leaders are openly saying that a handful of communists is sabotaging the movement and they are behind the campaign to boycott negotiations with management. This is not true, because SMP members are not against negotiations but we are opposed to the proposal of halting action while the negotiations are taking place. The role of these opportunist and corrupt leaders has become more visible since they are openly opposing the decision to implement the call for a 2 hour token strike.

The next few days are very important for the movement – if the token strike goes well, the idea of a much more militant and radical struggle to defeat the government’s privatisation plans – outlined by the more left union leaders will have much more support amongst telecommunications workers.

At the same time management is also trying to split the trade union alliance in order to weaken the movement. A few senior management officials are using the influence, which they have on some union leaders to do this.

Now management has adopted a strategy to give some concessions to workers on condition that they will not oppose the privatisation process as a whole. They already have announced a few concessions and they are preparing more to strengthen the pro-management union leaders. As a result a majority of the leadership in reality want to call off the strike and protest movement on the basis of an increase in the wages, job security and a few other concessions.

Role of the PTURC and SMP

PTURC and SMP members have played a key role in the protest movement so far. We are the only political force intervening in this struggle. We have produced a leaflet to explain our position and strategy against privatisation. This is only written material available to the workers on the issue. We have printed 5000 leaflets but we need at least 20000 more to distribute nationally. This leaflet has made a very good impact. Our leading members have been able to make increase the pressure on the leadership not to betray the movement. In some areas we have become a pole of attraction for the radical and fighting sections of workers. We have to continue our intervention in this very important struggle to spread the ideas of struggle and socialism in the wider layers of the advanced sections of the working class.

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May 2005