Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Daily Times Editorial Feb 11, 2016

Lessons of PIA strike After eight days of an initial total and later partial strike by the PIA employees protesting against the government’s plans to privatise the airline, a call to return to work was announced by the employees’ Joint Action Committee (JAC) chairman Sohail Baloch in a press conference on February 9. According to Baloch, a “kind friend” had so advised. Speculation centres on the identity of this “friend”, with some reports naming him as perhaps Hamza Sharif, who flew to Islamabad to hold talks with the employees. This surmise is strengthened by the announcement by Sohail Baloch that he and a delegation of JAC would be travelling to Lahore to meet Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, one of two PML-N leaders the JAC chief had named the other day as possible negotiators from the government side. Although Baloch mentioned that they had received assurances regarding the PIA privatisation issue, he did not divulge any details, fending off the question by saying this would be revealed only after they had met Shahbaz Sharif. He also went on to say PIA could be turned around by its workers within a year if given a chance. And he had the grace to apologise to PIA passengers for the inconvenience caused. Whatever the back channel that engaged with JAC and held out whatever assurances, reports say the government maintained its tough stance on the strike by insisting it must end before any negotiations. Of course if the talks fail, JAC says it reserves the right to resume its protest. Around 600 domestic and international flights of the national carrier were said to have been cancelled during the strike, incurring a loss of Rs three billion to the financially strapped airline. However, it must not be forgotten who is to blame for these losses and the loss of three employees’ lives during the protest in Karachi. Had the government not been so hasty in its handling of the issue, the loss of those precious lives and the cancelled flights would not have transpired. A PIA spokesman on the night of February 9 announced that full flight operations had been resumed but pointed out that the accumulated backlog could cause some readjustment of flight timings. The government, having precipitated the crisis by its hardline stance, resorted to various strike breaking tactics. In this purpose they were helped by fissures within the alliance of unions that is JAC. Those employees willing to ‘play ball’ were privileged over those holding out. The former included one union faction and the pilots’ association. At the same time, intimidation of employees, especially airhostesses, was resorted to, as well as continuing (despite the end of the strike) arrests and notices to employees. This is nothing less than rubbing the noses of the striking employees in the dirt and cannot be considered a wise course, given that the impending negotiations need a calmer climate. While the responsibility for the deaths of the three employees remains undetermined, it is perhaps time for the government to now desist from further actions against the strikers. The whole episode has echoed in parliament, with the Senate opposition girding up to give the government a tough time for its mishandling of the crisis. The upper house’s Standing Committee on Finance is looking into the exploitation of the strike by two private airlines accused of jacking up fares many times while PIA was grounded. The initial protest by the JAC was perfectly legitimate, peaceful and within the ambit of the law and constitution in a democracy. What transformed such a protest into a strike was the killing of three protestors and the ‘kidnapping’ of four leaders (they have since returned safe and sound). Protest can transform into the ultimate weapon of a strike (withdrawal of labour) if the authorities refuse to engage with the protest in a civilised manner. However, for a strike to succeed, it needs more than just the unions of a national organisation like PIA to come out. What was lacking was effective solidarity by other unions, particularly state owned enterprises threatened themselves with the same privatisation prescription. That lack and the mere lip service so far paid by the political opposition meant the PIA workers were left to wage a lonely struggle, dooming it from the start. What the government must not stoop to now is victimisation of the protestors or their leaders. It has muscled its way past the strike. It must now show magnanimity in victory in the interests of getting PIA fully back on its feet and then inform what it intends to do now in terms of its plans for PIA in the future.

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