Pakistan: Airlines workers win

Four-day strike called off. Government accepted all three demands

Thousands of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) workers ended their 4-day strike as the government accepted their demands. Victorious workers immediately started to celebrate their victory with drum beating and dancing, in which both male and female workers at all the airports of the country participated. Workers distributed sweets and congratulated each other on this very important victory.

The four days of struggle by the PIA workers forced the Pakistan Peoples Party-led government (PPP) to accept all the demands. Aijaz Haroon, managing director of Pakistan International Airlines, stepped down late on Friday night following successful negotiations between the government and the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of the PIA employees.

The workers refused to resume work until Aijaz Haroon was removed. They breathed a sigh of relief when the government accepted his resignation. The government has also re-instated all the sacked employees.

PIA suffered heavily in the last five days. The workers showed their immense strength and courage during the strike. More than 250 domestic and international flights were cancelled during the four days of strike.

The strike action was so solid that all operations were halted. All flights on Friday were grounded, the fourth day of an industrial action that had so far cost the carrier more than a billion rupees ($11.8 million).

“There is a complete shut down. No planes are flying,” said Mashhood Tajwar, a spokesman for PIA. Tajwar said at least 10,000 to 15,000 passengers were affected.

The victory came with blood, sweat and tears of many thousands of workers, including women workers who stood firmly with the male workers and faced a lot of pressure from families and management. The striking workers once again proved that the working class can overcome all the nationalist, religious, sectarian and ethnic divisions during the course of struggle.

PIA workers showed great unity during the strike and workers from different nationalities and ethnic and religious backgrounds fought together to defeat the management and the government.

The dispute started when PIA management signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Turkish Airlines for code sharing. All the unions and associations of the middle level officers, including pilots and engineers, in PIA rejected this MOU and termed it ‘anti-workers’ and ‘anti-PIA’. These unions and associations formed the JAC and started the protest campaign against the MOU and management.

The JAC organised peaceful protests against management across the country to press their demands. PIA management tried to repress the protesters and sacked six senior pilots and threatened to sack hundreds of others if they continued the protests. This move provoked the workers and JAC announced an indefinite strike and sit-in.

The government and management used all the possible measures to defeat this strike. The government deployed paramilitary forces on all the airports to frighten the striking workers. The Airport Security Force (ASF) baton charged the striking workers at Karachi airport and tried to end the sit-in. The paramilitary forces tried to do the same at Islamabad airport. But these strong-arm tactics failed to defeat the strike; instead the strike became even more solid.

The management and government also tried to split the pro-PPP union and created the impression that the People’s Unity trade union was supporting the government and management. The president of this union, along with some other local leaders, openly sided with management and tried to organise counter-demonstrations against the strike. People’s Unity is affiliated to the PPP since 1974 and played a role in the struggle against the military dictatorship of General Zia.

Now the PPP government wanted to replace the elected leadership of the union and install their own handpicked stooges as leaders. A couple of months ago one of the close aides of President Zardari and a PPP senator forcibly took over the union offices of the People’s Unity. He also threatened that all those leaders who are not blindly following the anti-worker policies of the government will be removed and face dire consequences for their opposition to the government policies. When paramilitary forces and the ASF failed to end the strike and sit-in at the main airports, this senator ordered his armed goons to attack the striking workers at Karachi airport. These thugs, with the help of the police, brutally attacked the workers and injured more than 100 workers.

They mercilessly beat up both male and female workers. Many workers fell unconscious because of torture and beating on the fourth day of strike. The police arrested more than 200 workers. But this brutality and repression failed to defeat the strike. Sohail Baloch, the JAC leader, said that the strike would continue until their demands were met after this attack. “We have long been warning of this action, but it looks like the government wants to protect one person and put the 20,000 odd PIA employees and hundreds of thousands of its passengers in trouble,” he said, referring to PIA director Aijaz Haroon.

“I assure you that the strike will continue. We wouldn’t have come this far if we had to compromise on our justified demands.”

That was the last desperate attempt by the management and the cronies of the government to save the managing director of this state-owned airline. The government feared that this brutal attack would further spread the strike, with unions at other public sector entities joining. So the government immediately announced that it would accept all the demands.

This is an important victory not only for the PIA workers but also for the workers’ movement in Pakistan. This victory will encourage the workers and unions of other public sector entities to come out and start their struggle.

This is the second important victory for the Pakistani workers in the last two weeks. KESC workers in Karachi also won their battle with management reinstating all the 4,500 sacked workers. These successful struggle show that, not only are struggles possible, but victories are possible, even under the most difficult circumstances.

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February 2011