Pakistan: Lessons of the PIA strike

The recent strike in Pakistan’s flag carrier airline, PIA, was a magnificent and extremely significant episode in the history of industrial struggles by the workers in this country’s history.

This courageous revolt of the workers once again proved the strength of the working class and its power to stop aeroplanes from taking off, closedown ticketing offices and all other operations of the airline.

The initial strike movement began almost six weeks ago, but when the deadline of 2nd February was crossed the workers moved with courage and determination to stop all PIA operations. All flights were grounded by the strike action and the airline’s operations came to a grinding halt.

pia-attackThen three workers were killed in the brutal shooting by the state forces and more than a dozen injured, some in a critical condition. This infuriated not just the PIA workers but workers in several other industrial sectors. Such was the pressure from below that the pilots association PALPA also had to join the strike action and refused to fly the aircrafts. For eight days the strike was almost total across the country in every city and town that has PIA offices, airports and facilities.

Unfortunately, in the evening of Tuesday 9th February the leadership of the Joint Action Committee (JAC) unilaterally and suddenly called off the strike at a press conference in Karachi. Addressing a press conference, JAC chairman Sohail Baloch announced the decision to end the eight-day long strike and requested "all airline workers to work with full dedication and pay no heed to anyone trying to disrupt flight operations… a kind friend advised us to call off the strike," Baloch said. “The assurance given to us by the government to resolve issues is enough to make us call off the strike… I will meet Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in Lahore on Tuesday. We hope that the meeting with Punjab chief minister will be satisfactory and beneficial both for the government and the employees of PIA," said Baloch. When asked by the press if the JAC had retracted from its demands, Baloch said he would "inform the media about the developments after the meeting with the Punjab chief minister. We can revive this airline; we just need some support and guidance.”

Such remarks stink of capitulation and weakness of the petit bourgeois leaders who didn’t believe in class struggle and failed to mobilise the workers of other industries and services sector. This incident once again proves the vital role of the leadership and its political and ideological orientation.

During the strike, Prime Minister Sharif, though extremely nervous and shaky, from inside tried to pose to the media as taking a tough stance against the strike and said that there would be no negotiations with the striking employees or their representatives in the shape of JAC.

However, behind the scenes desperate efforts on the part of the regime continued. The wily Chief minister of Punjab dispatched his son Hamza to Karachi for the secret negotiations with the leaders of the JAC. It’s not an exception but a norm that Shahbaz Sharif, the boss of the provincial government in Punjab and younger brother of the prime minister, often tackles such issues relating to the central government. Such is the internal crisis and conflicts in the PML (N) federal government that Sharif doesn’t trust his cabinet ministers to tackle such delicate issue.

This episode also lays bare the fear of these capitalist rulers of any movement that is for workers’ rights and fundamental issues like privatisation when the resistance begins to take the shape on the basis of class struggle He is notorious for his brutal tactics and stick and carrot approach. After all he is the most ingenious scion of a family that rose from rags to riches and is infamous for their harrowing atrocities against the workers in their factories. At the same time it exposes the weakness and fragile nature of this two-thirds majority government of the party of the corrupt and rotten Pakistani bourgeois.

After the first two days of this all out strike, pressures started to mount on the striking workers. The reliance of the JAC leaders on the media to generate support for them and dependence on the opposition capitalist parties backfired. The media and the political elite in the opposition, in spite of their cosmetic criticisms of the regime, basically supported the policy of privatisation. The masses were not made aware of the link and the bondage of the demands of this struggle with the problems they faced in their daily lives. Hence the mass mobilisation on a wider scale didn’t materialise. The first (PIA) flight to take off since the start of the strike on 2nd February flew to Jeddah from Islamabad on Sunday, February 7th. Once flights began leaving Islamabad airport, it was becoming relatively easy for the government to convince other stations to resume flight operations. “Pilots who were working as part of ground crews were asked to take the initial flights, and once that happened, other cities were told to follow suit,” a senior PIA official told the Dawn newspaper.

This opened the door across the country for more PIA employees of middle grades to cross the picket lines. However, although fissures began to open up, most workers remained firm and continued the strike inspite of threats and intimidations by the regime. “Only 20 per cent of staff came back to duty by Monday, despite the government’s best efforts to restart flight operations. But it was the arrest of their leaders and falling numbers at the strike camps that finally convinced many employees to come back,” confessed another PIA official. Flights could not take off without the catering service, as per international norms, and since PIA’s own catering service was completely shut down, the management had to arrange for food from Qatar Airlines at five times the normal price. When the protesters’ camps were moved away from the airports by the state forces, the government achieved some leverage. This act was executed with force to ensure that when the camp was shifted out of the way, the strike breaking PIA employees could return to work without any hindrance or moral burden. Employees and pilots who operated these flights from Islamabad were also brought to the airport under the protection of Elite Force commandoes.

Divisions between pilots, ground staff and other PIA employees also played a part in helping the management resume flight operations from Islamabad much faster than other airports. There was also a clear discrimination in the arrest of the workers from different PIA unions participating in the strike in all stations. A “Peoples Unity of PIA” union leader said on television, “It is no secret that People’s Unity leaders were arrested, but Air League leaders were not.” Peoples Unity is affiliated to the PPP while the Air League is under the Labour Wing of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), which is Sharif’s party in power. An administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Dawn that local Air League leaders had been in touch with the district administration over the past five days. He said local police were asked to register cases against Air League office-bearers, but were instructed to provide them enough time margins that they could obtain bail or escape arrest. Airhostesses and female workers were harassed and police vans were deployed outside the homes of several employees. These were acts of intimidation to force the workers and technicians to go back to work.

Several employees had been offered money and promised promotions and other perks to lure them back to work. There were several engineers, flight stewards and other technical workers who refused to accept the offered financial rewards if they came back to work. Arrests and threats against those refusing to recommence work were in full swing by the administration officials and the police. Even media access was controlled. The airport management at some stations had already imposed a ban on journalists’ entry, only allowing them to enter when invited by a competent authority. Although the media coverage in general was against the strike, those journalists sympathetic to the striking workers were prohibited from reporting the developments and the rapidly changing scenarios of this strike movement. This act of this “democratic” government exposed the real nature of these callous capitalist politicians and the dictatorial character of Pakistan’s bourgeois democracy. The Sharifs and their party are in reality the inheritors of the brutal legacy of the atrocious dictator Zia ul Haq. It was General Gillani, Zia’s governor and martial law administrator of Punjab in the 1980’s, who first brought Nawaz Sharif into politics.

The first betrayals came from the pilots union. That was not surprising. PALPA President, Amir Hashmi, said in a television interview with Channel 24 that, “ pilots had not been on strike and nobody was stopped from resuming flight operations, even though there were concerns for the safety of those who crossed the picket.” Hashmi said they were a part of the protest from the beginning, but never supported the idea of a complete strike, "which can have serious consequences on an airline which is already sinking… Pilots are part of a professional body, we are not a political party," he said, adding that the PIA strike had turned into a political arena. He infact refuted the bold act of those pilots who had refused to fly after the shooting at Karachi airport. It is ironic that despite the subversive, and cruel role played by the central, and particularly the Punjab government, in ending the strike, Joint Action Committee Chairman Sohail Baloch had suggested as early as 5th February that they wanted to negotiate either with Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif or Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

After calling off such a bold and courageous strike, the JAC leaders flew into Lahore from Karachi to have a late night meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. The statement of the JAC leaders after meeting was pathetic to say the least.

Talking to the journalists, JAC Chairman Sohail Baloch said that, “the Punjab chief minister heard the members with patience and the party is returning satisfied. The dialogue with the chief minister was successful as we are returning to Karachi appeased… the chief minister acknowledged our right to put forth stance in the issue… ultimately the federal government would negotiate with the Pakistan International Airline employees. Shahbaz has vowed to forward committee’s demands to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. We have informed the chief minister of their reservations over Essential Service Act also.” This is an inglorious end, albeit temporary, to such a valiant struggle of the PIA workers.

In an article on published on 3rd February we wrote, “The strike is another spark that shines a light on the class struggle seething below the surface of a society where the working class, and the mass movement as a whole, is faced by a difficult objective situation and a relative inertia of the class struggle. This requires a much wider and bolder approach by the genuine leaders of the workers. It is an historical obligation of the leaders and trade union activists to support the PIA strike. A united front has to be created to force the rulers into retreat. But concrete action is needed… A call for a complete general strike is a given by such a united front of all the trade unions and progressive political forces. For a victorious general strike, the workers and youth of all industries, sectors of the poor students in the educational institutions and poor peasants in the countryside have to be mobilised. Enterprises under public control not only should be defended, but workers must demand that these should be placed under democratic control of the workers. Several opposition political parties’ leaders are visiting the offices and camps of the striking workers of PIA. All solidarity is welcome, but any intrigue or manoeuvre by political manipulators to make any rotten compromise should be forcefully rejected and quashed. An extraordinary sympathy prevails... This situation may not last long…”

However, this capitulation and retreat of the leadership with the ending of the strike is not the end but can be a precursor of new workers’ struggles and strikes in different institutions, industries and services sectors. This strike is a striking example of the correctness of Marxist perspectives of class struggle. The PIA workers embarked on this all out strike against privatisation in a period when according to opinion polls 60 percent of the population is in favour of privatisation. This was a struggle against the stream. It put the leaders and parties to the test. The workers will have learnt the lesson of the necessity of forging a united union that can be trusted, with its leaders having a firm belief in class struggle and the historical obsolete and reactionary nature of the capitalist system.

This is a setback, but its impact will be temporary and superficial. The prevalent inertia in society cannot last for very long. The strike proved that even in most difficult periods the workers can rise and fight the system and the state. Their strike action can ground aeroplanes, stop trains, cut electricity of, paralyse the state by cutting off the communications networks and can ultimately bring the whole of society to a halt by jamming the wheels of industry and the institutions. However, the most crucial lesson that the youth and the workers can learn from this struggle is that the movement needs a leadership that can fight to the finish and a revolutionary party that can smash the system, its state and transform society.