New Indonesian alliance fights fuel price rises

By Max Lane

Protest demonstrations in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities in recent weeks marked the appearance of a new progressive alliance, the National Liberation Front (FPN). The FPN was formed in May at the initiative of the Workers Challenge Alliance (ABM), a coalition of progressive union federations. The FPN was formed partly to fight another round of price increases for petrol and kerosene and partly as a result of simmering frustration among progressive unions at the state of the people’s movement.

The ABM was founded in July 2006 as an association of 33 unions from 16 provinces, an ABM and FPN coordinator, Anwar Maruf, also known as Sastro, explained to me. The unions involved had been working together to draft alternative labour legislation to a law planned by the government, which was meant to make it easier for employers to use casual labour and to outsource.

Eventually a national conference produced a broader four-point platform: repudiation of the foreign debt; nationalisation and anti-privatisation; strong and self-reliant national industrial development; and eradication of corruption through the confiscation of the assets of corrupt officials.

Spread of new unions

Trade unions are going through a new phase in Indonesia. Since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 and the passing of less repressive labour legislation, at the initiative of then president Yusuf Habibie in 1999, it has become easier to register a trade union, which is done first of all in the enterprise. Over the last 10 years, thousands of new enterprise unions have been established, either as entirely new entities or by breaking away from the old formerly state-controlled “yellow” unions. As these enterprise unions spread, they started forming federations, sometimes on a sectoral basis and sometimes on an ideological basis. These federations can also register with the labour ministry.

The first sector to radicalise, in the 1990s, were workers in the garment and footwear industries and other light manufacturing sectors. They formed the bulk of the membership of the first radical unions, such as the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggle (FNPB), associated with the radical People’s Democratic Party (PRD). They also constituted the bulk of the initial membership of the ABM, which included the FNPBI and another growing progressive union, Congress of Indonesian Trade Union Alliances (KASBI). Sastro was chairperson of KASBI from 2002 to 2008.

Sastro explained that as the ABM consolidated, it was able to draw in unions from other sectors, including oil and gas, the state-owned electricity generation company, transport and pulp and paper factories, whose new union has 70,000 members. Media workers, spearheaded by the Alliance of Independent Journalists, are trying to form a national media union federation, which is also likely to join ABM.

These formations are all at an early stage of development. Budi Wardoyo, also known as Yoyok, is part of ABM’s division handling the relations with other organisations, and is coordinator of the FPN’s propaganda materials team. He is also active building the FNPBI-Politics of the Poor, an effort of PRD members expelled from their party and the FNPBI after they disagreed with a proposal for an electoral fusion with a small centre-right party for the 2009 elections.

Yoyok commented that probably less than 20% of the total workforce is covered by trade unions, and that most of these are “yellow” unions, set up under the Suharto dictatorship. While the progressive unions are increasing their influence, there is still a long way to go. At May Day this year, the ABM in Jakarta was able to mobilise 15,000 workers.

Multiple campaigns

There has been increasing awareness among the progressive unions that a broader multi-sectoral alliance will be needed if they are to face up to deepening neoliberal policies. Alongside the more or less stable factory and state enterprise workforce, there are tens of millions of others who are either not organised at all, or organised through a variety of action and advocacy committees, NGOS and other formations. Outside the cities too, there are steadily if gradually growing farmers’ organisations.

The need for an alliance was repeatedly being raised by different groups in a range of forums. Yoyok said that more and more people in ABM realised that an alliance was needed with students, who had already started to protest the fuel price increases, as well as with women’s groups, the urban poor and farmers. There was increasing commitment for ABM, and the groups with which it was politically close and which had their own extended networks, to start to build a multi-sectoral alliance.

The idea was raised again at a meeting called by the ABM in early May to organise a mobilisation for May 21 against the fuel price rises. Groups present from around the Jakarta region agreed, and the FPN was formed. FPN Branches were soon formed in other cities: Labuan Batu, Medan and Lampung in Sumatra; Bandung, East Java, Semarang and Solo in Java; and Mataram, Bima, Ternate, Palu, Luwuk and Gorantolo in the eastern islands. Between the meeting and May 21, the FPN organised several protests outside the presidential palace. The largest was on May 21, when around 6000 people mobilised.


According to Sastro, the FPN has been able to form in 18 cities and another 10 towns, not yet using the FPN name. Sastro explained that they would be renewing their campaign against the fuel price rise and were preparing for this with calls for the formation for local posko (command posts) at factories and in neighbourhoods, which could quickly mobilise people.

“But the fundamental task is consolidation, which is not easy”, he explained. “We have often made plans for national consolidation that have then failed. We have to learn from the ABM’s experience, how to identify momentum and also how to manage tactical alliances to become programmatic ones. There is also the problem of avoiding the deliberate temptations put out by the elite and the scandal-mongering aimed at ruining the movement. We need to strengthen out collectivity to deal with this.”

The FPN goes into this difficult period of consolidation with around 50 member organisations. Among these are two openly socialist political groups, the Working People’s Association (PRP), with which KASBI is closely associated, and the Union for the Politics of the Poor (PPRM), initiated by the expelled left wing of the PRD. There is another socialist political stream organised through the very active Indonesian Students Sarekat and the Jakarta Trade Union Confederation (FPBJ).

Other groups involved in the FPN include trade unions, agrarian reform NGOs, human rights advocacy groups, grassroots campaign networks of various kinds, left networks (such as Left House) and a major environmental group, Wahli (Friends of the Earth, Indonesia). The consolidation of FPN will be a challenge, both in building collaboration between socialist groups with different histories and in coordinating more than 50 groups with different levels of ideological development, organisational capacity and national spread.

A further variable is the extreme political ferment in Indonesian society. Discontent has deepened over the last 10 years, giving rise to more and more campaign, protest and advocacy groups. Some come and go; others are able to consolidate. At least one other, more homogeneous but smaller alliance has consolidated, the People’s Struggle Front (FPR), which takes ideological inspiration from peasant struggles in the Philippines and migrant worker struggles in Hong Kong.

Another alliance, the People’s Challenge Front (FRM), organised a protest action on May 20 and some smaller actions since then, including on June 25. This an alliance of various elements connected into the political elite with the old PRD forces, who have adopted a strategy of postponing efforts to lead any fight with the domestic bourgeoisie.

However, the unaffiliated groups, often active primarily at the local level, far outnumber those affiliated to the FPN, let alone the other two. While nobody knows exactly how many of them there are, there must be thousands, all developing in an environment in which there is no sizeable left or progressive ideological current that they might gravitate towards.

The 50 groups in FPN, while including some of the most ideologically developed and most influential groups (such as the state enterprise unions), still represent only a small proportion of the groups campaigning against the myriad impacts of neoliberal economics and politics. As ideological clarification takes place, there may be new alliance configurations, new national liberation coalitions or indeed the transformation and even rapid expansion of the current FPN.