Lessons of the Pakistan Telecoms Company Ltd (PTCL) Union Action Committee betrayal of strike
Almost all the leaders of the Action Committee (set up earlier this year to fight management plans for privatisation) have announced their acceptance of the privatisation process at a press conference on 3 August. They signed an agreement with the government to accept privatisation in “national interest and in the best interest of workers”. They also have signed an undertaking to fully cooperate with Etisalat (The Dubai-based Arab telecom giant which has bought 26% of the shares of PTCL) and not create any obstacles in the smooth transfer of management. This betrayal is a big set-back for the campaign against privatisation in Pakistan. These leaders have not only betrayed the telecom workers but the whole working class of Pakistan and all those who supported this historic struggle, nationally and internationally.
The Action Committee leaders want to camouflage their betrayal from workers in Pakistan by using the nationalist rhetoric in phrases like “in the national interest”. Under capitalism the “national interest” means the interests of the ruling class and capitalist big businessmen. There is a constant conflict between the interests of the ruling class and those of the working class. The ruling class wants to exploit the working class to the maximum to get big profits. On the other hand the working class wants to get rid of this super exploitation and achieve decent living standard.
In whose interests?
The privatisation of PTCL is in the interest of ruling class and against the interests of the workers of Pakistan. The ruling class uses propaganda like “national interest” to hide their naked oppression and super exploitation. Through their actions, the Action Committee leaders have served the interests of the ruling class and failed to protect the interest of working class.
The Action Committee leaders failed to form a joint and comprehensive strategy to tackle the situation after the 3 June agreement (in which government announced plans to postpone the privatisation of PTCL). TURCP and Socialist Movement Pakistan members put forward proposals to organise the victory rallies in all the big cities to prepare the workers for a new battle in the event of management withdrawing from its announcement to postpone the struggle. Unfortunately the failure to take any action gave the government an opportunity to prepare and deploy a counter offensive in the form of deploying para-military forces in all telecommunications depots.
A few leaders of the Action Committee were not prepared to fight and wanted to compromise with the government. The same leaders on many occasions tried to sabotage the strike behind the scenes under direction from the management.
Leaders like these only wanted to fill their pockets through betraying the struggle. They were reluctant to resist privatisation from the beginning, because they were not politically against the privatisation policy. In reality they joined the Action Committee to get a good deal from the management during negotiations.
The deployment of paramilitary forces on PTCL premises in a sense represented a victory for the workers, given the circumstances and a moral defeat for the government. It was a clear sign that the government had failed to break the resistance of the workers, even when one section of the Action Committee was on their side. Even the military failed to crush the resistance and was forced to implement a lock out at the telephone exchanges.
Even at this stage the government was not in a position to privatise the company, even when they announced a new date for bidding for PTCL shares.
One of the turning points of the strike was when the Employees Union, whose national leadership had wanted to betray the strike from the beginning, came forward and announced the calling off of the strike and signed an agreement with the government and management to accept the privatisation. Other Action Committee leaders continued the resistance but only half-heartedly. The Action Committee failed to take any significant action to halt the bidding process on 18 June. They failed to develop a joint strategy and united action against the stepping up of the privatisation following their release from official custody.
A few of the Action Committee leaders wanted to make an agreement with the government to accept privatisation, but others still wanted to fight. But no joint meetings were called to develop a new strategy to meet the new conditions. Most of the leaders were involved in a scramble to be seen as the most heroic leader. This situation provided the best opportunity for the management to launch an offensive against the best activists in the strike. They started a process of victimisation of the best activists which created panic among the trade union leaders and many of them started secret negotiations with the government.
Management in effect imposed the “martial law” in the PTCL premises and workplaces. They banned trade union activities and also banned any meetings involving more than 3 workers on the premises of PTCL. The Action Committee failed to form a joint strategy and tried to organise separate activities, which proved fatal in that situation. TURC-P came forward and organised meetings of local leaders and activists of the Action Committee to defy the ban and to develop a strategy in different cities in Pakistan. These meetings encouraged active workers and they started activities on the premises. Action Committee leaders were not happy with this situation and they tried to defuse the anger of the workers and as a result organised meetings in different cities and started to threaten the government to launch new strikes and campaigns. They made some fiery statements and then a few days later announced their acceptance of privatisation. Now they are trying to defuse angry workers by saying that they have been able to get many concessions for the workforce.
One of the biggest lessons for PTCL workers in this strike is that in a period of retreat the present leadership of the trade unions is on the whole unable to escape from a short sighted view of how to fight back which is an indication of their lack of a political programme and ideology. They are more interested in keeping their positions and privileges than to learn important lessons and draw conclusions from this historical struggle. There is no choice but to struggle to get rid of leaders like these and develop a democratic mass trade union in PTCL.
This leadership cannot be removed by activists and socialists just writing correct analysis criticising previous mistakes by such people. Genuine socialists have to participate in workers’ struggles and will have to prove in the practice that they are capable of becoming an alternative to the present leadership.
The one difference between those who regard themselves as “Marxist Intellectuals and Soothsayers” and genuine Socialists is that the former issue advise from outside the movement and make predictions about the outcome of the struggle without taking an active part in it. Socialists, like ourselves, on the other hand, take part in struggles and put forward their ideas as part of the workers’ movement. We don’t only criticize the corrupt leadership and their mistakes, but come forward and prove in the practice the validity of our own ideas and tactics. It is very easy to make a mechanistic prediction from the outside of the outcome of a particular struggle. But the test of a real leadership is to intervene in a struggle or strike to change its outcome. The most important question for genuine socialists is not a prediction of the outcome of a particular struggle, but the role they play in the struggle.
Struggles and the workers’ movement have their own rhythm. It is true that in the beginning the workers unite around the existing leadership and begin a struggle. But workers also learn in the course of struggle and draw conclusions for future ones, closely observing the role of the leadership in the process. They remove corrupt leaders and choose new ones which they consider better. They always elect new leaders from amongst those they know well.
They never wait for the “Marxist liberators” sitting in their ivory tower offices. But such “Marxist liberators” can never understand this process, and when they do not get what they start to criticize the working class for being for ignoring them.
Many people including some so-called “revolutionary Marxists” have started to say that the telecom workers have accepted the privatisation of PTCL, which is not true. There is still anger and opposition against privatisation. The telecom workers have felt and tasted their strength during the strike. Now they know their power and strength. They are not crushed but will return to the stage of struggle with more strength and unity in the future. They will never forget that they defeated the government and forced it to postpone privatisation, but the leadership converted this victory into a defeat. They will not trust the present trade union leaders.
The outcome of the strike has put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of members of the SMP and TURCP who are active in the Telecom unions. It is clear that following the trade union leaders’ betrayal, that workers want to build a new leadership and union. We will have a key role to play in building this new mass democratic union. If it is built on solid foundations it will not only fight privatisation but also will struggle to overthrow this rotten capitalist system and for a socialist society which will end all forms of exploitation and discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, gender, nationality, language, colour and ethnicity
This is an edited version of an article translated from the August edition of the Socialist, the monthly paper of the Socialist Movement Pakistan