National strike changing Indonesia's political terrain


In a press statement on October 3, the Indonesian Workers and Labourers Assembly (MPBI) said that 2 million workers mobilised for the national strike it called for that date, in industrial areas or outside government offices in 21 cities and towns.Press and blog reports separately estimate that hundreds of thousands of workers mobilised in Jakarta’s industrial estates, gathering at many different rally points. It is reported that tens of thousands of others gathered in Indonesia’s larger cities and thousands in smaller towns.

The strike was scheduled to go for a few more days, but the MPBI leaders called it off after one day, following another round of meetings with the minister for labour. The MPBI has given the government two weeks to come up with a satisfactory answer to its demands, or the strike will resume. The MPBI demands, supported by other unions, including the more overtly left, but much smaller, Workers Secretariat, are for an increase in wages, an end to “outsourcing” and the full implementation of health insurance legislation that would guarantee coverage to all workers, with employers paying the premiums.

The strike marks a clear turning point in the shaping of the political terrain for popular struggle in Indonesia. Labour, even if still only a minuscule portion of the workforce, is organised, has entered the political stage, and this entrance is based on the increased self-confidence and combativity of workers, especially in the industrial estates.

Increased combativity

These areas, where factories are jammed beside each other and tens of thousands of workers swarm to their workplaces every morning, have been the centre of labour militancy since the 1990s, when still under the Suharto dictatorship. In the 1990s, garment, footwear and textile workers played a leading role. Now workers in the large plants assembling cars, motorbikes and white goods are playing a leading role. As these sectors “boom”, the bargaining position of the unions, which have reorganised in the more liberal atmosphere since the fall of Suharto, is providing the material base for increased self-confidence. However, such a boost in confidence – and combativity – cannot be a simple mechanistic product of the new political economy of manufacturing.

An article by a People’s Liberation Party (PPR) activist on the Pembebasan (Liberation) website quotes a workers’ movement activist, Budi Wardoyo, also a PPR member, as giving three reasons for what they term “radikalisasi” – I think better described as “increased combativity”. These are: the inspiration of a long strike by workers at the Freeport mine in West Papua for better wages, which achieved positive outcomes; the success of the campaign by the Social Security Action Committee (KASJ), a coalition of NGOs and unions, in winning health insurance legislation in 2011 and the success of the protest movement in May 2012, which forced the government to delay an increase in petrol and kerosene prices. Union-led mobilisations were crucial to all these campaigns.

It is clear also that conscious propagandising for more militant and solidarising activities among the workers and careful tactical planning have also been crucial. This education and planning seem to have been initiated from within the Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers’ Unions (FSPMI).

An article by Danial Indrakusuma throws some light on these processes. Indrakusuma was a co-editor of the first left magazine of the late Suharto era, Progres, until it was banned in 1992 and one of the founders of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) at about the same time. He was one of those expelled from the PRD in 2007, when the then leadership around Dita Sari took the party rightward. Indrakusuma worked with others expelled from the PRD to found the PPR. However, he has been active outside the party for the last two years as a teacher of economics and politics for members of the FSPMI. Since 2011 (at least) he has publicly advocated a new workers’ party.


In his article, he explains the factors that he thinks have led to workers’ increased self-confidence. In some ways he echoes Budi Wardoyo’s three points. However, he also points to internal processes in the FPSMI and other unions. Among these were the workers’ involvement in research and seminars carried out in conjunction with research-oriented NGOs. This deepened workers’ understanding of the wages system and, more crucially, the extent of “outsourcing” and the gap between the current outsourcing situation and even existing legislation.

According to Indrakusuma, almost 80% of workers carrying out central work in the country’s major plants were “outsourced”, i.e. workers with basically a casual status. Outsourcing, it was revealed, was not a “supplementary” form of employment but the situation of the vast majority of factory workers. This, says Indrakasuma, has been the basis for the successful gerunduk tactic in which workers from one or more factories rally outside other factories calling on those inside also to stop work. The fact that almost all workers everywhere are casual and have an interest in opposing “outsourcing” provides the basis for practical solidarity. Solidarity actions between workers in different factories, and between unions, have forced some employers to transfer workers to a permanent basis; thousands of workers have achieved permanency. The law on outsourcing restricts it to supplementary and temporary work. The unions are opposing all kinds of outsourcing.

Indrakusuma’s article also depicts attempts to improve the quality of mobilisations. The steps have included: encouragement of workers to attend the pickets and protests of other unions and factories; involvement in issues not directly related to the employer but to government and parliament, such as the social insurance law; and stop-works that spread through a whole industrial enclave and close it down.

The most significant action was the January 2012 stop-work and rally by 200,000 workers in an industrial enclave in north Jakarta. There has also been, says Indrakusuma, a policy of encouraging rapat akbar (mass meetings, though the Indonesian term conjures up the great anti-colonial mass meetings before independence). These discuss strategy and tactics as well as being a means of showing support for demands on the government. The greatest success in this area was the May Day rally organised by the MPBI (at its forming) in the main Jakarta sports stadium, with at least 60,000 workers present.

Watching the You Tube footage of the October 3 mobilisations, one can only be incredibly inspired by these developments. The rapat akbar rallies, the mass stop-works, the mobilisations shutting down whole enclaves and the raising of the spectre of a political challenge to the government – the emergence of organised labour as a political actor – may very well be a turning point.

A new consciousness?

The political character of the new unions and the mass sentiment will also be crucial. Is there a developing challenge to trade-union consciousness, to create a new consciousness – one that will go beyond a struggle for incremental improvement in conditions to one that can conceive of the working masses exercising full state power and reorganising the country’s resources for the benefit of the majority? Indrakusuma addresses this question positively:

“The most important political consciousness that has grown alongside all these struggles is that these affairs of labour cannot be resolved outside of politics, outside of the struggle for power. It is that consciousness which pushes us to control the state. The other important political consciousness that has grown is that workers must be the vanguard in the struggle for the interest of the [whole] people, not just for the workers, especially as we need the votes of the people in elections as well as their political support (in the sense of mass support).”

There are many issues here relating to the nature of the state and whether it can be “controlled” or whether it has to be dismantled and rebuilt. No doubt, this issue will be elaborated further as time goes on, including by Indrakusuma, who has been part of the radical left since its emergence in the late 1980s. In the next paragraph, he also points to a weakness of the process so far: the fact that unity with the left-wing unions – those with an overt radical left political perspective – has not yet been achieved, something which he says was a key to the success of the labour movement in Brazil. Left-wing unions, organised in the Workers Secretariat, and where the PPR as well as at least two other left political groups have some presence, also participated in the October 3 strike, but mobilising separately, “meeting in the field”.

Immediate political situation

The fact that the Yudhoyono government resumed negotiations with MPBI leaders on the day of the strike indicates that it is sensitive to the threat that any ongoing worker protest represents, especially to immediate commercial interests. Employer groups were squealing from one end of the country to the other in the lead-up to and on the day of the strike. While editorials were often hostile to the strike, working journalists’ reports were generally sympathetic.

The government is hard pressed to justify a situation in which almost all bosses are employing “outsourced” workers illegally. This is harder when the ruling party and most of the state apparatus are constantly embroiled in corruption cases revealing huge sums of money. The minister for economic affairs, Hatta Rajasa, came out of the strike apparently supporting the wage increase being asked for by the unions (from about the current $200 per month to around $250).

The next test will be whether the government comes up with compromises – they will surely be compromises – that will still satisfy the union leaders. That will provide a sense of the depth of commitment of the union leaders to winning these demands, and to the rhetoric about struggling towards a workers’ government.

The emergence of this labour factor is likely to impact also in electoral politics. While there are occasional whispers of a new party emerging – a socialist workers party – there are no visible moves in that direction yet, and it would require a quite huge convulsion for such a party to be able to register and participate in the 2014 elections, because registration of parties has already closed.

The more immediate issue may be in relation to elections to be held soon for the governorship of West Java. All of the industrial estate areas on the outskirts of Jakarta are a part of West Java. One person who has said she wants to stand as a candidate is Rieke Diah Pitaloka. She is a member of parliament for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and has developed popularity among factory workers because of her consistent support for the social insurance legislation for which KASJ campaigned. Some say that she has her own base inside the FSPMI. There are recent news reports that she wants to stand with veteran anti-corruption, human rights campaigner and NGO figure Teten Masduki as her deputy.

It is not impossible that the PDIP may agree to this, especially given the success of the PDIP’s feint to populism in the Jakarta governorship elections, where their candidate, former Solo city mayor Joko Widodo, defeated the incumbent, who was supported by the ruling national coalition around President Yudhoyono. PDIP leader Megawati Sukarnoputri has been touring the country with Widodo and saying that she wants to have a more “ideological” opposition. (Having provided a platform for the militarist-led Gerindra party of General Prabowo, by running for the Jakarta governorship in alliance with Gerindra, some in the PDIP are now trying to distance themselves from him.) A Pitaloka-Mazduki campaign for governor might fit the bill for Megawati at this point and would likely attract support from workers in the area.

Meanwhile, it is very unlikely that the new combativeness of the working class won’t spread or that, as it spreads, won’t push forward the prospects of a serious political radicalisation as well as pressure for the building of a workers’ and people’s party. Apart from the hints of that immediate desire among workers involved in the current strikes, there are at least five other pre-party formations with that kind of stated goal.

[For the latest news and information on Indonesia visit the Asia Pacific Solidarity Network website at].


Direct Action – October 22, 2012

International News & Analysis