Pakistan:Telecom strike remains solid as one union leadership betrays struggle

Regime uses ‘sticks and carrots’ to try to force through privatisation

In a shameful betrayal of the struggle against the privatisation of Pakistan Telecommunications (PTCL), the national leaders of the Employees Union, one of the unions in the nine-union strong Action Committee, announced on national television (Tuesday 14 June) they were signing a deal with the government. Even worse, they implied they were acting on behalf of the rest of the Action Committee, and called on telecommunications workers to go back to work.

This betrayal could not have come at a more crucial time in the telecom workers struggle against privatisation. The Action Committee had boycotted further negotiations with management, regarding them as a tool used by management to bully the unions into agreement on privatisation.

The government retaliated by unilaterally announcing the restart of privatisation for 18 June, flagrantly reneging on their signed agreement with the unions on 4 June, which stated "privatisation would be indefinitely postponed". The government also stationed army units in all the telecom depots, instituted a lock out, made wide scale arrests of striking workers, sacked over 30 leading telecom activists from their jobs, and ensured the temporary banning of trade unions within PTCL.

Yet, even at this stage, the strikers still refused to be forced back to work. The Action Committee announced the restart of the strike and threatened to shut down the telecommunication system because of the arrests.

When Telecommunication workers were faced with the full force of the state, and while their families were harassed by the police and military, President Ziauddin, and Secretary-General, Rana Tahir, of the Pakistan Telecommunication Employees Union, made their announcement on television. This must rank as one of the worst betrayals in the history of the trade unions in Pakistan. One of the Employees Union officials justified this traitorous action with the comment: "We are now asking all employees to attend office in the greater interest of the country"! However, even in the Employees Union, this action has not been fully supported, with some regional structures of the union coming out against their leaders’ betrayal.

The other members of the Action Committee were able to get some press coverage to explain that these renegades were not talking on behalf of the Action Committee and that the struggle will continue. Later, in the same day, four senior trade union leaders, including some from the more left unions in the Action Committee, were arrested in Karachi. A meeting of the Action Committee later decided – with the future of the strike in the balance – not to go ahead with shutting down the telecommunications system.

The government continued its arrests the following day, especially when it saw that in the Punjab there were some workers going back to work. But the government overplayed their hand, and, later on that day, the strike began to harden once again.

Workers’ militancy and international protests

This increased militancy, together with international protests, many of them organised by the CWI (protest letters flooded into the offices of the Telecommunications Ministry and the PTCL) forced management and the government back somewhat. The 90-day detention orders on many trade union leaders were lifted and over 150 workers were released from prison.

The strike is still solid in Baluchistan, North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and in the Sindh. In some areas of the Punjab it has weakened. Given what has been thrown against the telecommunication workers, it is incredible that the struggle has lasted this long.

Government desperate to end dispute

Despite using the military to crush the strike, management and the government are desperate to end this dispute. This morning (16 June) they issued a press release stating that five other unions had agreed to the deal on offer. Not many people had heard of these unions before – mainly because they only exist on paper or are creations of management.

The PTCL management have almost doubled the package on offer to about Rs5.2 billion, which they hope will act as a sweetener to get workers to accept privatisation. This package includes a 30% pay increase, guarantees for no redundancies for two years for workers employed before 1992, quotas for employment of children of retired telecommunications workers and leave encashment to the equivalent of £5-600 per worker.

However, management has said that this deal is only on the table if all the unions sign it. And one of the clauses in the deal includes a commitment not to campaign against privatisation. The remainder of the Action Committee has so far unanimously opposed this deal and say the struggle will go on.

As part of the effort to mobilise support for the telecommunication workers in Pakistan, members of the Socialist Movement Pakistan, and the Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan (TURCP), along with other trade unions and organisations, like the Pakistani Rights Movement, organised an all-parties conference against privatisation, for 16 June, in Lahore, as part of the process of setting up a national Anti-Privatisation Alliance. Over 70 different national trade unions say they are going to send representatives to the conference, including the All Pakistan Clerics Association, which has announced a one-day solidarity strike for the 18 June, the day the government begins the bidding process for PTCL. The Anti-Privatisation Alliance in Karachi involving members of the Socialist Movement Pakistan also organised a demonstration to the Press Club in the city.

‘Dawn’, the main English-language newspaper in Pakistan, had as its main story, on 16 June, a demonstration organised by the Trade Union Rights Campaign and Pakistan Rights Movement, which was made up of the sons and daughters of telecommunication workers.

Internationally, pressure continues to grow on the Musharraf regime on this issue. Neil Anderson, Head of UNI Telecom, the international trade union body representing telecom workers, sent a letter of protest to Pakistan’s President Musharraf and called on all its affiliated unions to do the same. The ICFTU has also started a campaign of letters of protest to President Musharraf and news has just come in that the International Labour Organisation has sent a protest letter to the Musharraf regime over the arrest of workers.

Picture from Dawn.

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