On Friday March 8, production in the Pakistan Steel Mills came to a
standstill when a large number of workers took control of all the entrance
points and the plants early on Friday morning and did not allow anybody to
either enter or leave the premises.
The management, shocked and alarmed by this unexpected turn of events, immediately informed the civil administration and soon a police contingent arrived at the mills. But this show of force did not produce the desired effect. The workers maintained their control over the entry points and the police could not even enter the premises.
Though the workers termed the action purely a labour issue, the management insisted it was a politically-motivated act in which some political parties had joined hands to disturb the "industrial peace". In fact, they had a point. Pakistan is ruled by a military dictatorship, and such an open defiance of the forces of the state undoubtedly has political implications of the first order.
The strike took place on a background of severe repression by the management against the workers of Pakistan Steel. For more than two decades, the management of Pakistan Steel had been successful in dividing the unions and the workers on ethnic, nationalist and religious lines. The militant trade union leaders were systematically charge-sheeted and barred from entering the steel mills. But amongst the workers there was a colossal accumulation of anger. A mood of resistance had been developing for a long time. The volcano erupted on March 8 when the patience of the workers was finally exhausted.
There was an abrupt change in the mood of the workers and they moved into action without warning. They angrily demanded the immediate sacking of the company chairman Colonel Afzal - an army colonel involved in corruption, who together with his favoured cronies was ruining the company and putting the workers' jobs and safety at risk. They were also demanding that a high-level judicial probe be instituted into the worst industrial accident of the country that occurred at the mills in June 2001 that left nine workers dead and two crippled for life.
On the evening March 8 the workers organised themselves into several battalions to take over the steel mills. The workers organised the takeover with military precision. They held clandestine meetings in which the workers were given different numbers to be used instead of their names to prevent recognition, and a plan of action was finalized. Different sections of the workers would picket and take control of the ten entrances to the steel mills. By 8 p.m., all the gates were picketed and the workers on the night shift proceeded to occupy various workshops inside the mills.
The workers who started their work in the night shift of Thursday at 9 p.m. had to remain at their positions, as the morning shift workers were not allowed to enter by the protesters. The top management of the steel mills, including Afzal, was physically prevented from entering the premises. When the managing director and the general manager (both of them top-ranking military officers) finally entered the mill, the organiser of the strike let them in through the first gates but then asked their chauffeurs to park the cars on the side and invited them to walk to their offices. They were immediately locked up in their offices and then about 15,000 workers poured out of the main gates and onto the national highway, which they blocked for several hours.
The workers explained that the mills were not even carrying out the required plant maintenance owing to which accidents had occurred even after the June 2001 disaster. The money thus saved from the maintenance expenditure was being shown as profit.
They said they would only hold negotiations if and when the Sindh governor, Corps Commander, federal production minister, federal production secretary, intervened. The startled governor of Sindh was hurriedly woken up to be told the news. The authorities were clearly rattled by this unexpected turn of events. The administration hastily conceded most of the demands and the workers agreed to open the national highway and end the siege of the steel mills at 2.30 in the morning.
This was a decisive victory. The regime proved to be too weak to stand up to such an electrifying upsurge of these steel workers. The main role in organizing the workers from below was played by Faqir Hamayati, Aqbal Mehr, Akber Narajo and Naveed Aftab, leaders of the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign in Karachi. Such was the impact of the workers' uprising that, in addition to the PPP union, the unions affiliated to all other parties had to associate themselves with this upsurge. This is one of the most important victories of the Pakistani proletariat in recent times - alongside the victory of the Baluchistan public sector workers in Quetta, which was led by Hameed Khan, the organizer of the PTUDC in Quetta. These events will have an impact on the workers far beyond the premises of the Pakistan Steel Mills.