Pakistan: The experience of the PTCL workers' struggle - Marx's proletariat is very much alive and kicking!

The recent struggle of the PTCL workers in Pakistan has been an inspiration to workers around the world. It has shown that the Pakistani working class is alive and kicking. The Pakistani Marxists of The Struggle played a key role in this dispute.

Since we received this article the regime has reneged on the agreement reached with the workers and has moved in with brutal measures, arresting 300 workers. We are expecting an update on the situation and will publish it shortly. (June 13, 2005)

On May 25 representatives of several multinational companies attended a pre-bid investor meeting in Islamabad. They had gathered to ask questions in order to judge the health of the Pakistan Telecommunications Company Ltd (PTCL), which was about to be privatized by the government of Pakistan.

The same day, as the hot summer sun was rising in Islamabad, telecommunication workers and union activists from all over the country were also gathering at the central headquarters of the PTCL. The main gates of the headquarters were closed and a heavy police contingent was stationed outside. As the number of workers swelled and their tempers began to rise, the police noticed the change in mood and did not move to stop the demonstration of more than 2,000 workers that had gathered by 11:00 am.

As the demonstration started to move ferocious activity began in the halls of power. The actual bidding and sale of the PTCL was to take place on May 29. As the demonstration moved the slogans of the workers became more and more political. From slogans against privatization workers began to chant slogans attacking the Musharraf regime and the Pakistan army itself. After a few hours the regime backed down. The date of sale was postponed from May 29 to June 10. This sent a wave of confidence through the workers who began to sense their own power. After decades of relative inactivity, these workers had come together to demonstrate in Islamabad. And the movement had only just begun when the government budged! The cosmetic concessions and government’s supposed acceptance of all 27 of the workers’ demands failed to calm the anger of the striking PTCL employees.

By the evening the congregation of workers’ at PTCL headquarters had swelled to more than 8,000 workers from all across Pakistan. The workers eventually broke down the gate to the headquarters and occupied the premises. They erected a stage and the congregation took the shape of a rally in the occupied headquarters. The union leaders began to make speeches. One of the leaders who made some conciliatory remarks was booed and was eventually physically removed from the stage by the workers. After that, no other union leader dared to make any conciliatory remarks.

This movement was the continuation of several regional strikes and other workers’ actions against the attack on the PTCL workers. One of the most important regional struggles was in Quetta, Balochistan where the state used brutal force to crush the movement. But the Quetta workers remained defiant and continued the struggle through publications, education and the mobilization of workers for several months.

Another important struggle was that of the daily wages workers who had taken control of the same PTCL building few months ago. As a result of this militant action the workers won regular contracts for 4000 workers.

The immediate cause of the nationwide strike was the humiliation and abuse of a PTCL worker by a top official in Islamabad. The worker later died as the result of a heart attack, as he could not stomach the humiliation. This event became a catalyst, and all the anger of the workers that had been brewing below the surface erupted in a strike throughout the country. All across the land workers took control of the phone exchanges and offices of the PTCL. In some centres, such as in Lahore, the managers were forced out of the offices by the striking workers.

One could see the dialectical leap in the conscience of the workers. The workers demanded the following:

  1. Full rights and permanent employment for contract workers.
  2. The reinstatement of quotas for workers in different management decisions.
  3. The fulfilment of 10-year-old pay scale and promotions agreements.
  4. Medical allowances and other benefits on an equal basis for workers and management.

The workers had a list with a total of 27 demands, the most contentious and important of which was “No to the Privatization of PTCL”.

It was in November 2004 that the federal government announced the privatization of the state owned PTCL, including Paknet and Ufone (ISP and Cellular subsidiaries of PTCL). That same year PTCL was declared the highest profit earning company in the country (Rs. 30 billion per annum, approximately US$ 500 million). There was a generalized feeling of resentment amongst the workers. They felt that it was their hard work that had made PTCL the most profitable company in Pakistan, yet it was they who would suffer the consequences of privatization. A striking worker in Lahore told The News, a national English newspaper, “One thing is for sure, we are willing to go to any length to oppose privatization... In all the institutions privatized so far there have been large scale purges, a privatized PTCL will be no exception.”

In the PTCL referendum that took place last year (see Pakistan Telecom Employees Union Suspended – We Shall Fight, We Shall Win), the PTCL workers elected, by a large margin, the Employees Union as their Collective Bargaining Agent (CBA). They union claimed the right to have a say in the privatization process. The government then got a stay order against the union’s status as CBA. The stated reason for this was that the National Industrial Relations Commission did not have a permanent chief when the referendum was held!

This only served to increase the anger of the workers. The communications minister Awais Leghari, son of Farooq Leghari (the former president of Pakistan and a PPP renegade), set up a yellow union and offered the workers bribes to split the union. It is ironic that a couple of “heroes” on the payroll of a sect in Britain were at the forefront in setting up of this yellow union. As it happened, Awais Leghari won a seat in parliament in a constituency in the remote wilderness of Southern Punjab. Comrade Rouf Khan Lund, a Marxist, ran against him on a revolutionary programme. It was only through massive fraud and coercion on the part of the state that Mr. Leghari won the seat. He and his family are vicious feudal lords who still maintain private prisons and torture chambers where landless peasants who do not earn enough to pay the enforced taxes are subjected to severe punishment and even torture.

The arrogance of the ruling class further infuriated the workers. Apart from the demands concerning their rights and jobs at PTCL, the workers were the victims of the other tools in the service of the ruling class. Price hikes, rapidly rising inflation, unemployment, deteriorating health and education facilities and the complete lack of the necessities of life increasingly made life more and more miserable for the workers. The workers knew that the bosses were planning to take “commissions” and kickbacks through the sale of the PTCL. One PTCL worker told The News, “The process of privatization is being carried out very secretively. When we ask about it during negotiations with authorities, we were told that a final evaluation is still to be carried out. This makes the whole process very suspicious; we know some people are trying to privatize the PTCL without proper stock taking only because it means huge kickbacks for them”.

There were several other factors stoking the fires of resentment in the minds of the workers. Even before the movement exploded the pressure from the workers upon the leaders was palpable. Quantity was beginning to transform into quality. This could be seen in the rapid surge of workers’ meetings on street corners, in demonstrations in front of parliament, and in strikes and other protest activities. The actions of the workers generated enough pressure to force the different unions at the PTCL to converge on a single platform.

After two months of intense activity the nine unions of the PTCL formed a United Union Workers’ Action Committee (UWAC). It was decided that no individual or union would be able to conduct any negotiations with the administration on an individual basis. The UWAC put forward a one single demand:

“Unconditional Rejection of the privatization of the PTCL”.

The first call of the UWAC was for a protest on May 25. The response of the workers to this call not only baffled the regime but also most of the union leaders! They were flabbergasted by the number of workers that arrived at the PTCL headquarters in Islamabad. The radicalization of the workers was astonishing to most observers.

The manner in which the nationwide strike began was a classical expression of the scientific methodology of the workers’ struggle. On May 26, the exchanges operating international calls and other services were suspended. The telephone exchanges and telecommunication installations were picketed by the workers. Offices of the managers and service counters were locked up. Only essential services were allowed to operate. The Action Committee then issued an ultimatum to the regime that if the decision to privatize the PTCL were not retracted, then the workers would shut down the fibre optic network and the whole communication network in the country, including international connections, would be severed. The regime was shaken. The government initially responded by sending in troops to besiege the exchanges and the PTCL installations, however the soldiers were told to wait for orders before carrying out any repression. The morale of the workers remained high. They were undeterred by the armed military personal in combat uniforms surrounding their premises.

On the first day of the strike the telecommunications minister said that all 27 demands put forward by the Action Committee would be accepted and that the regime was ready to regularize contracts for 8,000 daily wage workers. However, he also said, “We will never accept the demand to stop privatization, and it shall be carried through.”

The workers could not believe such arrogance and continued the strike. Above all they remained peaceful. Not one single act of violence was committed, nor was there any damage to PTCL installations or equipment reported. Muhammad Arshad, a lineman working at the Lahore central exchange said in an interview, “Damaging the company’s machinery is damaging our own livelihood. We can make both ends meet only if PTCL remains in working condition”.

Arshad was among thousands of PTCL workers from all over Pakistan who converged on Islamabad on May 26 to participate in the protest meeting. After the meeting he said, “ At the end of the meeting, we told every one, including the senior most officials, to leave the building. Since then our sit-in at the locked headquarters continues as it does elsewhere, but no employee anywhere has attempted to do anything to disrupt the company’s network”.

The mood of the workers was becoming more and more radical with every passing hour. A union activist, Raees Quershi, told The News, “if our demands are not met, no step will be too extreme for us to take ... Expect any thing to happen then, no damage [to the company] can be big enough to compensate for the livelihood that the privatization will bring for thousands of families”.

The regime was in utter confusion and a state of desperation. They were too afraid to go ahead with military repression, as this would provoke the wrath of the working class and cause the strike to spread to other sensitive and vital sectors of the economy. The regime would then face the total disruption of the telecommunications network, something that could paralyze the entire country.

On the other hand the regime was facing enormous pressure from foreign telecom firms who had recently invested substantial sums of money in Pakistan. Their operations were dependent on the functioning of the PTCL. In recent weeks two new companies had invested US$ 291 million each in Pakistan’s cellular phone network. However, when the government asked these multinationals to provide the expertise to run PTCL operations, they had none to offer.

The regime then requested that the Pakistan Army signal corps enter PTCL installations and facilities and operate the network. But the signal corps refused on the basis that they did not have the expertise to run the advanced Optic fibre network.

The regime also tried to bribe the workers into ending the strike. Apart from the 20 percent wage increase, the workers were also offered perks and allowances worth Rs. 4 billion (approximately US$ 67 million). The workers rejected this offer.

Rana Hasan, a member of the PTCL Action Committee told The News, “We have the technical expertise to cut Pakistan off from the rest of the world, and we can block all communication within the country”. He then explained the intentions of the Action Committee: “One thing is for sure. We are willing to go to any length to oppose privatization.”

However, not all the leaders of the Action Committee were so determined. One of the main leaders of the Committee told Comrade Kabir (who was among the main organizers of the occupation of the PTCL headquarters in Islamabad and the activities surrounding it), “We are between a rock and hard place, the government wants us to compromise on privatization but if we do, the wrath of the workers is such that they would never spare us”.

The active support of workers and unions in other industries is vital to the success of any strike. The main workers trade union federation in Pakistan, The Pakistan Workers’ Confederation (PWC), which is recognized by the Pakistani state, responded lukewarmly to the strike. The top leaders of the PWC were sceptical of the strike action of the PTCL workers, if not contemptuous towards it. Despite this attitude, a substantial number of trade union activists and leaders affiliated to the Pakistan Workers Confederation (PWC) and whole-heartedly offered their support to the striking PTCL workers. The Pakistan Trade Union Defense Campaign (PTUDC) played a major role in galvanizing this support from the wider layers of the Pakistani proletariat. The PTUDC produced three leaflets, one hand bill and a special issue of The Struggle to mobilize wider support for the struggle of the PTCL workers .The PTUDC organized huge demonstrations in Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Multan, Faisalabad, Rahimyar Khan, Sadiq abad, Jampur, Dera ghazi Khan, Hyderabad, Thatta, Dadu, Badin, Rawalpindi /Islamabad, Taxila/Wah and several other cities and towns across Pakistan in support of the PTCL strike.

After several meetings, interventions and discussions with various trade unions and leaders, a meeting was called by Comrade Manzoor Ahmad, the Marxist Member of Parliament and the president of the PTUDC, to be held in his parliamentary office in Islamabad on May 30, 2005. The main unions that were represented in the meeting were:

  1. PTCL United Unions Workers Action Committee.
  2. All Pakistan Federation of Trade Unions.
  3. Pakistan Federation of Unions of Journalist.
  4. Rawalpindi Islamabad Union of Journalists.
  5. All Pakistan Newspapers Employees Confederation.
  6. Attock Refinery Limited Union of Employees.
  7. Federation of Unions of Oil and Gas Sector.
  8. Employees Union of Capital Development Authority
  9. Drivers and Mini Transporters Union.
  10. Murree Brewery Employees Union.
  11. Sabro Electric Employees Union.
  12. Federation of Unions of Financial Institutions.
  13. Pakistan Postal Workers Union (one of the institutions like PIA, Railway and Banks, in which trade union activities are banned under the unlawful order of military regime)

A thorough discussion took place at this meeting in which the relevance and decisive importance of the support of all other unions for the PTCL strike was agreed upon. A strategy was also devised to mobilize this support. The PTUDC also mobilized several members of the parliament in the support of this strike. This issue was also raised in parliament. Several MPs eventually walked out of parliament in protest at the privatization of PTCL and in support of the strike.

As the PTCL workers continued the strike, the regime was quickly running out of options. As support was growing for the strike and as solidarity messages began coming in from across Pakistan, as well as from Europe and elsewhere, the regime decided to retreat. Whether intended to be a deception or as a tactical decision, at 1:00 am on June 4, just hours before the PTCL’s June 6 deadline, the regime struck a deal in which they agreed to delay the privatization of the PTCL . The workers were jubilant. Such a strike had not taken place for thirty years! And it ended in victory! Although the regime retreated in order to gain time, and to split the PTCL Action Committee so that it could later proceed with privatization, the impact of this strike on the working class will be enormous.

Over the last five years the Musharraf-Aziz regime has been carrying out vicious attacks on the working class. His regime has slavishly carried out the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank. The policies of privatization, downsizing, liberalization, restructuring have wreaked havoc upon the oppressed masses in Pakistan. When Musharraf came to power in 1999, 32% of the population was living below the absolute poverty line. Now more than 44% of Pakistan’s population live below this line, and 80% live on less than two dollars a day.

During this same period there have been several strikes in other industries, although sporadic. There has been armed resistance to the state from tribesmen in Wanna and other parts of the tribal belt. In Baluchistan the state has clashed with tribes and Baluch nationalists. In Sindh there is enormous instability, and opposition to the regime has erupted on issues such as water. In Punjab there have been many strikes and a significant revolt of peasants and tenants in Okara and other districts. However, one way or another the regime was able to handle these crises.

The importance of the PTCL strike is that it shows the decisive role of the proletariat in the economy and in society. It is its role in the economy and society that gives the proletariat the power to defeat the state and transform society.

Just a few days before the PTCL strike, two Politburo members of the largest Communist Party in the world, the CPI(M), said that Marx’s proletariat does not exist anymore. They explained that industry and the economic structure of society have changed, hence the class structure and character of society have also changed. Well this strike shows that rather than having been obliterated, the proletariat that Marx described has been strengthened. This strike shows that the proletariat has an even greater role to play in society today precisely because of the advancement of technology and industry.

The PTCL strike has sent shockwaves through society. It will have a deep impact on the psychological and socio-political thinking of the working class in other industries, and services. It will not be long before the working class faces similar or even worse threats to their livelihood. This experience will give them the confidence and the strength to take the path of resistance and militancy.

No matter what happens next, this particular episode has given a new confidence and courage to the proletariat in Pakistan. It will be a source of inspiration for workers far beyond the frontiers of Pakistan. Above all, it has proved that Marx’s proletariat is very much alive and kicking. It is still possible today that the proletariat, through its classical method of struggle, can liberate society of from the exploitation, drudgery, misery, poverty, disease and ignorance caused by capitalism. Violence, terrorism, crime and tyranny will be abolished with the victory of the working class and the socialist transformation of society.

The bourgeoisie, as always, played a pernicious role during this strike. The state and independent print and electronic media initially refused to cover the strike movement. When it did cover the strike, the media only gave the government’s side of things by talking about the “negative impact on the economy” and “the inconveniences the strike caused” for the general public. This further enraged the PTCL workers. When their demands to have their views published fell upon the deaf ears of the media, the workers began switching off the phones and other communication connections of the big media conglomerates. Only then was the media forced to give some coverage to the strike. This demonstrated the strength of the PTCL, and the working class even over the bourgeois media.