Indonesia: First general strike in 50 years

Tomorrow, October 3, will witness an important event in the history of the labour movement in Indonesia. For the first time in 50 years, Indonesian workers will carry out a national general strike which will involve an estimated 2 million workers in 21 different cities. Three demands serve as the basis of this general strike: increases in the official minimum wage, an end to all outsourcing arrangements, and universal national health care for all.

This general strike is not something that falls from the sky. It is the culmination of the radicalization process in the workers movement for the past one year. Radical actions of hundreds of thousands of workers who have gone on strike and blockaded industrial areas and major highways; the leadership of the workers in the movement against the fuel price increase this March that forced the government to back down; the largest May Day rally with 160,000 workers on the streets, followed by the formation of the MPBI (Council of Indonesians Workers and Labourers) that united 5 million workers; all these form a continuing process that leads to this general strike.

Workers have also started to fight for demands that go beyond the confines of their factories, from workers in Gresik, an industrial area in East Java, who fought for free education for the people to all-Indonesia workers’ actions against a fuel price increase this year. Workers’ struggles have gone beyond “day-to-day demands in the factory” to “day-to-day demands of the wider masses”. This in turn will touch on the questions of politics and power. To win “day-to-day demands in the factory”, it is normally enough for workers to strike in the said factory to press the boss. However, to win “day-to-day demands of the wider masses” (free healthcare, free education, etc.), the struggle has to be brought to a wider political stage. It is here that the question of state power is posed, where economic struggle is linked to political struggle. It is also here that workers find their leadership role in the struggle for the general well-being of the masses.

The Indonesian working class has gone through a number of important phases in the past 50 years, ones which are filled with ebbs and flows, advances and retreats:

1. Period of Glory (late 50s to early 60s)

The labour movement is at its peak in the late 50s and early 60s, with SOBSI as the largest workers’ federation at that moment, claiming a membership of 3 million workers, even more than any federation or confederation today.

2. Defeat (1965)

In 1965 the labour movement suffered its biggest defeat, destroyed physically and ideologically in the hands of the New Order regime.

3. Rebirth (mid 1980s)

The shift in the Indonesian economy from oil-gas exports to manufacturing in the mid-1980s created a new layer of proletariat. This new proletariat, thrown into the factories in their thousands, was one of the forces that shook the Soeharto regime. The number of recorded strikes in the 1990s increased significantly, from 61 in 1990 to 300 in 1994.

4. Reformasi (1998)

The 1998 Reformasi Movement, even if it didn’t bring about a fundamental change, opened the democratic gateway for the workers. Independent trade unions mushroomed in the aftermath of 1998. Meanwhile, SPSI workers, awakened by the Reformasi, also started to shake this New Order trade union. (The SPSI, the state sponsored union and the arm of the regime in the workplaces, was until 1998 the only recognised workers’ organisation.) The stranglehold of the SPSI was weakened and splits took place. In this period, workers were re-learning their long-lost fighting traditions.

This general strike will be the next phase in the history of the Indonesian labour movement, a turning point whereby the working class becomes a real political force that is not only recognized and respected by the wider masses but also feared by the ruling class. Workers with their national strike, for the first time will enter the national political arena. In the eyes of the toiling masses, they will no longer just be “tens or hundreds of workers in factories demanding wage increases”, but they will be seen as the Indonesian working class who fought for the welfare of the whole people of Indonesia. In the period of Reformasi, this position was held by the students who became an extension of the voice of the people. Today workers will start claiming their historical role as the class that leads the struggle of the whole of the oppressed masses.

The complete victory of capital over labour during the Soeharto dictatorial regime made the Indonesian capitalist class somewhat arrogant. For the past 50 years since the destruction of the labour movement, they have never felt seriously threatened by the working class. They even believe themselves that there is no longer any such thing as the working class, that there are no longer classes in society, in other words a “bourgeois classless society” has been attained. This national general strike will wake the capitalists up from their sweet dream and make them learn to fear once more the might of the working class.

One thing that has to be noted by all revolutionaries is the fact that this general strike has been initiated by the MPBI, which can be generally described as a reformist or even yellow trade union. This emphasizes once again the fact that when the workers move they will use whatever organizations they have in their hands, regardless of how reformist or even corrupt their organization or the majority of their leaders are. The bulk of the workers are still in these reformist organizations. It is therefore the task of revolutionaries to orientate to these organizations. Attempts to isolate oneself in red trade unions will only separate the revolutionaries and their ideas from the wider layer of workers.

Statements of support from many red trade unions for this general strike, and even the involvement of some of them, are a correct step. This step has to be deepened and should not stop here. The task of the most advanced workers is to orientate toward workers whose consciousness is lagging behind, no matter where they are. We have to be able to work in any workers’ organizations, from the reddest ones to the reactionary ones if need be. There shouldn’t be obstacle in principle raised against working in reformist workers’ organizations.

This first general strike will not immediately bring about successes. Like a baby who is learning to stand for the first time, it will fall numerous times. But we know that at the end of the day the baby will stand, and then walk, run, and jump. Also when the baby stands up for the first time, the world will look very different to him/her. This general strike will shake the consciousness of a wide layer of workers. They will start seeing beyond their factory gates, that out there are millions of workers whose fate and interests are the same as theirs. They will start seeing themselves as a class for itself. They will start seeing themselves as the class that can – and must – lead the struggle of the whole oppressed people.

The Indonesian working class has begun to stand up and walk upright with confidence. Those who in the past denied the revolutionary potential of the workers are now faced with hard facts. They can no longer close their eyes to the might of the working class. And for those who will still continue to deny the role of the working class after this general strike, we will leave them to the dustbin of history as the workers move forward toward their historical task: the overthrown of capitalism and the building of socialism.