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Organising workers in Indonesia

Green Left Weekly - January 20, 1999

Wahyu, Jakarta – After consolidating itself theoretically and organisationally in the beginning of the 1990s, the People's Democratic Party (PRD) began organising with workers. The fruit of this was the birth of a number of mass organisations: Student Solidarity for Indonesian Democracy (SMID), the Indonesian Centre for Labour Struggle (PPBI), the National Peasants Union and an organisation representing the interests of the urban poor.

Among students, SMID has been able to play a dominant role. Their struggle has begun to break out of discussion circles and campus actions; joint actions have been organised between students and workers:

  • July 1995: an action by 7000 workers from PT Great River Industries, which was organised by the PPBI, was supported by SMID.
  • October 1995: an action by workers from C.V. Maska Perkasa was supported by students from the Indonesian Islamic Student Movement.
  • December 11, 1995: an action by 14,000 workers from PT Sritex was organised jointly by PPBI and SMID. PRD activists also supported the action.
  • March 1996: there was a joint action by 3500 workers from three factories in Sidoarjo, East Java, PPBI and SMID.
  • Early July, 1996: there was a joint action between 7000 workers from PT Indoshoes, Bogor and PT Kingstones, Tangerang, and PPBI and SMID Jabotabek.
  • July 8-10, 1996: 20,000 workers from 10 factories in Sidoarjo demonstrated jointly with the PPBI and SMID. During this action PPBI chairperson Dita Sari was arrested, and was later jailed for subversion.
These actions also began to raise issues outside of the framework of the factory, such as demands for freedom to organise trade unions, the withdrawal of the five repressive political laws, an end to the dual function of the armed forces and a referendum for the people of East Timor. All have been influential in smashing the isolation of the working class. The atmosphere of resistance led by the student and worker actions, together with other oppressed people in Indonesia, flowed on to the small bourgeois groups in parliament. The removal of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) chairperson, Megawati Sukarnoputri, in mid-1996 got a strong reaction from the growing democracy movement and forced the pro-Megawati PDI to resist. The PRD was at the forefront of this.

This movement continued to develop and drew in the urban poor masses against the Suharto dictatorship. This finally resulted in the July 27, 1996, crackdown and the arrest of PRD leaders.

Despite the crackdown, the urban poor and the workers continued their struggle. The urban poor in the cities carried out their struggle in the form of riots, while workers continued their economic actions in the factories.

These spontaneous actions by the people preserved the atmosphere of struggle against the authorities and forced the democratic groups to begin launching actions again.

In the midst of the repression against our party, the PRD was still able to mobilise, jointly with the National Committee of Democratic Struggle, around 600 workers at the national parliament to protest against new labour laws. We also organised a 1300-strong march from two factories in north Jakarta to the national parliament and a 19-day strike.

The economic crisis worsened in July 1997, causing the dismissal of millions of workers. The increasing price of goods resulted in even more worker actions. Workers did not show fear of being sacked and continued to demand their rights. Some of these actions were organised jointly with students.

The crisis had an important role for the revolutionary movement because: it occurred at the same time as the development of a movement against the New Order dictatorship; a radical force which had a significant influence at the national level was now working with workers, students, the urban poor and peasants; and the people's political consciousness of the need to overthrow and retake power increased, even though it had not coalesced into mass organisations or a political party.

During the growing economic crisis, the student movement repeatedly rose up until it succeeded in overthrowing Suharto. Afterwards, the movement declined for several months before re-emerging until the November 11-13 special session of the People's Consultative Assembly protests in Jakarta, in which 15 people, some of them students, were killed. The organisation of workers began again in March 1998, after being ignored for some time. It developed very quickly. For example, by June in the Jabotabek industrial region 12,000 workers were mobilised for a demonstration (the action was blocked by unexpectedly large numbers of troops).

On June 9, simultaneous actions were organised in 14 factories. They continued for two days. Prior to this, around 1000 workers held a demonstration at the Department of Labour, demanding the release of Dita Sari, the abolition of the dual function of the armed forces and the withdrawal of repressive labour laws.

Meanwhile, factory strikes continued. After scores of factory actions, the recruitment of workers to the PRD increased considerably. This was also the case in Medan, Semarang, Solo and Sulawesi, although it was smaller in comparison with the Jabotabek region.

After the overthrow of Suharto, political propaganda was more easily accepted in the workers' movement, and workers no longer believed government propaganda claiming that the workers were being used, had been infiltrated by communists and so on. As well, involving workers in actions which were not just about economic issues became easier, as revealed in the involvement of the Workers Reform Action Committee in support of general political demands.

Student-worker actions also began again in Jakarta (on December 13), in Menado (December 10) and in Bandung, West Java.

The workers were organised to continue their struggle in different forms, even though there were no factory-specific issues. This was done through distributing reading material, discussions and joint actions with non-worker organisations. Worker unity also developed between different factories, with demonstrations in solidarity with other workers who had been dismissed, although this has yet to result in mass strikes.

A consciousness and a desire exist among workers to become organised. This is revealed by the emergence of different kinds of independent trade unions at the factory level – a result of new regulations which allow workers to organise outside of the official government union or non-factory worker organisation.

The people's struggle will continue in the months to come. The students must quickly find genuine allies before they are coopted by the political elite from the liberal bourgeoisie. These liberals are already trying to stop the movement from becoming revolutionary.

Their goal is to get a "ticket" together for the elections, and sit in parliament while assessing if there is a chance for them to replace the New Order. Their political interests have become the same as those of the Habibie government.

[Wahyu is a leader of Indonesia's People's Democratic Party involved in organising workers.]