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Can a new academic union resurrect grassroots activism in Indonesia?

Indonesia at Melbourne - September 1, 2023

Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir and Rafiqa Qurrata A'yun – Seizing on the revolutionary fervour of Indonesian Independence Day, workers from public and private universities in Indonesia declared the establishment of the Campus Workers Union (SPK) on 17 August 2023. This new union seeks to represent workers in higher education institutions, advocating for fair work and improved standards of living.

SPK has emerged from mounting pressure on workers at academic institutions, such as low wages, uncertain industrial relations, unmanageable workloads, and other violations of worker rights, including academic freedom.

These problems are not unique to Indonesia – university workers in developed countries also face similar difficulties – including in Australia. However, these workers often have influential unions to help fight for their interests.

Can a new academic union actually reform university management in Indonesia? And what challenges will this new union need to overcome to defend the interests of campus workers?

The worst of both worlds

In Indonesia, the tradition of unionism has been weak since the Communist purges of 1965, when labour movements were closely associated with communism.

And despite the liberalisation of higher education institutions driving job insecurity through casualisation, university management has remained under state control since the New Order period.

As a result, Indonesian campuses have been integrated into a market economy, but continue to serve the interests of ruling predatory elites.

This legacy has created challenging conditions for higher education workers in Indonesia seeking to unionise, despite workers in Indonesia facing precarious welfare and employment conditions. At some universities, the basic salary of a lecturer at the level of assistant professor, for example, is below the Jakarta minimum wage. Casual and contract workers are the most vulnerable, as they have unclear job descriptions and compensation schemes.

The establishment of campus unions is by no means new. There have been unions set up in the past to respond to concerns about labour conditions, such as the Workers Association at the University of Indonesia (PPUI). However, they lack effective leadership and governance arrangements and are now mostly dormant.

However, with the political freedoms brought about by Reformasi, social and political constrains are no longer the main obstacle for the development of effective university workers unions.

The biggest challenge for unions is now something more akin to 'NGOisation' and internal weaknesses of organisational capacity. This is a common problem faced by many social movements in Indonesia, which rarely offer a coherent political challenge to the status quo, paving the way for the consolidation of anti-democratic interests.

A legacy of NGOisation

The control of leftist politics during the New Order allowed social movements to become dominated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Historically, the proliferation of NGOs was the product of post-Cold War development assistance to developing countries, derived from a view that NGOs were important for driving structural changes and democratisation. Certainly, NGOs have helped promote human rights and social justice, but they have struggled to generate meaningful change, for number of reasons.

First, their approach tends to be apolitical, focusing on driving incremental technocratic changes and disregarding the underlying power relations that define institutions. This influences the way they advocate for change, which is typically undertaken through policy intervention, lobbying and political infiltration.

More importantly, in advocating reforms, they have little interest in organising strong grassroots social bases. Instead, many rely on support from donor agencies. As such, leadership structures are influenced by donors and the political will to challenge the status quo is often lacking.

The extent that the SPK can distance itself from NGOisation will be one of the biggest challenges for this new union to advance the interests of campus workers. However, this should not detract from the great work undertaken through some NGOs.

The Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (KIKA), for instance, has been influential in promoting academic freedom. Through alliances with other civil society organisations, their activism has addressed various human rights issues, including cases of sexual abuses on campus and agrarian and environmental conflicts.

These cases have helped shape public opinion, but the ability of NGOs to change existing power relations remains limited. Indeed, these limitations are even acknowledged by KIKA, which is actively supporting the establishment of SPK.

Moving beyond the NGO

The establishment of SPK is undoubtedly an important step for creating better conditions for university workers in Indonesia. But if this new union is to overcome the traditional barriers of NGOisation, it will need to focus on building internal organisational capacity and leveraging grassroots support.

To do this, SPK needs to formulate a two-pronged strategy to address both the bureaucratisation of universities from heavy-handed government intervention, and rampant casualisation caused by neo-liberal higher education business models.

This will mean carefully defining the main goals of the organisation and translating them into practice, through long-term and short-term agendas.Merely 'creating secure jobs' for members, for example, is an abstract goal. Instead, SPK needs to articulate tangible goals within the context of a complex industrial relations framework involving many types of higher education institutions, from private to public universities, under both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Most importantly, in its advocacy, SPK needs to move on from conventional methods of academic activism that rely on press releases, unequal negotiations and sporadic lobbying.

As a union, the main weapon for demonstrating strength will be through industrial action, such as blockades and disruption. This will only be possible when the SPK has a strong social base. Without that, SPK will only replicate the failures of other unions or become just another NGO.

Source: https://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/80110-2