The June 2001 Labour Protests and the Possibility for Socialist Ideas in Indonesia

Since the fall of Soeharto a lot has changed for the Indonesian labour movement. During the New Order era one "union" monopolised the organisation of workers, the yellow union FSPSI linked to the ruling clique's Golkar party. Instead of raising the consciousness of workers, the FSPSI was designed to depoliticise them.


We present our readers with two new articles on Indonesia (one following this introduction and the other one here). They were written before the impeachement of President Wahid at the end of July. Nevertheless these articles maintain their validity and political sharpness.

The first article deals with the convulsive development of the young workers' movement in the archipelago. Giving a panoramic view of the different, old and "new" trade unions the author goes on to explain how the ideas of socialism can be linked to the ongoing day to day struggles of the workers. Focusing on the labour protests which rocked the main industrial centres in June he details the demands brought forward and examines them from a Marxist point of view.

Those protests in June were probably the biggest outburst of industrial protest since the fall of Suharto. In that sense they marked a new turning point in the process of the building of a mass democratic workers' movement.

The article does not share the confusion and pessimism common to the majority of the left about the so-called "economistic " consciousness of the workers in Indonesia. Many left activists complain about the "limited" consciousness of the workers and about the fact that they are "indifferent" to politics. They claim that workers are "only" interested in their economic interests and in immediate reforms. This idea is particularly echoed among student activists and isolated (ex) workers and organisers.

Let's be clear on this question: there exists no fixed and static consciousness amongst the workers corresponding to some kind of "economism" or even to some inherent reformism. The need for broadening the struggle in the factories to the struggle against the capitalist system and its state arises from the day to day experience. In reality the need to change society rises precisely out of the workers' experience, because the bosses cannot accept the implementation of these "economic" demands. Even if they are forced to accept the workers' demands under pressure, they will not tolerate those concessions for very long. The bosses will undermine them by all kinds of means at their disposal. This experience in the struggle for the day to day demands is the basis for the development of a socialist consciousness. Reform and revolution, economic and political demands, are not separated from each other by an unbridgeable Chinese Wall.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 found its way to the masses thanks to the simple demands of "Bread, Land and Peace". The Indonesian socialist revolutionaries will find the ear, first of all of the workers activists and later the masses thanks to the same approach.

This approach is summarised in the method of the Transitional Programme outlined by Leon Trotsky, by which demands are formulated as bridges to revolution. It needs to be studied by the young worker activists in Indonesia.

The second article is an interview with Muhamed Ma'ruf of the Democratic Socialist Association. With great clarity he sets out the real meaning of the intense infighting in the Indonesian ruling oligarchy which was to lead to the coming to power of Megawati Sukarnoputri at the beginning of August.

More importantly he criticises the majority of the left, the Democratic People's Party in particular, for their policy of collaboration and coalition with the old President Wahid.

Despite the denials of the PRD leadership, their actions, articles and campaigns have built up the image of Wahid as a potential democratic reformer who deserves "critical" support from the left.

This policy is really shameful for a party that had once succeeded in attracting some of the finest and the most radical and committed young fighters against the Suharto dictatorship. Is has been a big mistake on the part of the PRD leaders to channel the energy and hopes of those young fighters into a systematic effort to mobilise support for Wahid and his followers. Instead the party should have been concentrating on building the independent workers' movement and the youth.

Wahid has always been a bourgeois, a capitalist politician. The liberal or democratic character of a bourgeois politician is not a matter of principle or a question of personal commitment. The only main principle which guides the actions of a bourgeois politician, and the faction of the oligarchy he or she leads, is power, privileges and wealth for him, his family, his friends, his political group and for his social class. Bourgeois politicians can move from democracy to dictatorship and back again in the same way that an Indonesian man or woman changes his or her sarong.

This was also the case with Wahid who started out as a "democratic" reformer and ended his short presidency as an autocrat in both manner and content. In a sense it can be said that in the last period there was even less freedom and "democratic space" under Wahid than under Habibie, Suharto's crony who took over the presidency after May 1998.

Wahid typically balanced between different factions and social forces. By flirting with the PRD , the NGO's and the democratic movement he was just covering his left flank. The pledges of reform and of mobilisation against the military and the return of the New Order elements prepared new betrayals of previous "promises".

Now the PRD is lashing out at Wahid, after having promoted him as a reformer. Yes, they admitted, he was a bit inconsistent, but he just needed to be pushed a bit to the left so that big democratic gains could be made.

The PRD now declares that Wahid betrayed the democratic movement. Yes, but he only betrayed the illusions of the PRD leadership and the NGO's in Indonesia. He did not betray his inherent bourgeois nature.

PRD activists should draw a more general conclusion from this experience which is a basic postulate of Marxism: the bourgeois are incapable of playing any democratic or progressive role; only the working class in alliance with the poor peasants are truly democratic. True democracy and the tasks of the democratic revolution can only be carried out by the workers taking power and overthrowing the capitalist state. Only a policy of complete class independence can give the left a future. This is the essence of Mar'uf's comments.

The new government of Megawati is a temporary coalition of elements of the New Order, the military and some of the most reactionary factions. It represents an attack on democratic rights. International capital seems more satisfied by this new regime in the sense that it will give them or promise them more stability to exploit the human and natural wealth of the archipelago.

But Megawati's honeymoon will be short lived. Very soon she will face the same problems Wahid has faced. All of these problems derive fundamentally from the deep crisis of Indonesian capitalism. The euphoria will rapidly be followed by moods of depression, by renewed infighting and by presidential balancing exercises between the bourgeois factions in parliament and the social classes as soon as this reality comes knocking on the door of the government.

President Megawati will be put on a new collision course with parliament and maybe also with the military. But more importantly, she will face the growing tide of social revolt and national aspirations. The multitude of the downtrodden of the cities and the countryside, the factories and the paddies, the streets and workers' quarters will become the new protagonists of Indonesian politics. They will push aside all these pathetic figures who have been at the forefront up until now. However, despite the protracted character of the Indonesian revolutionary process it does not give the left unlimited time to build a Marxist party with a real programme of class independence. It has to be done now. Because without a party there can be no successful socialist revolution in Indonesia or in any other part of the world.

by Jean Duval, August 22, 2001 

Since the fall of Soeharto a lot has changed for the Indonesian labour movement. During the New Order era one "union" monopolised the organisation of workers, the yellow union FSPSI linked to the ruling clique's Golkar party. Instead of raising the consciousness of workers, the FSPSI was designed to depoliticise them. Since 1999, at last workers have been able to legally establish their own unions. Also, under the pressure of a new militant labour movement, the Habibie government was forced to ratify the most important ILO Conventions such as the right to collective bargaining. That opened up more room for legal struggles and raised workers' confidence because they felt they had international backing for their rights.

Nevertheless, the conditions for workers organising are still highly unfavourable. Since the 1997 economic crisis, Indonesia has been entrapped in a protracted economic malaise with business constantly compelled to restructure in order to keep pace with global competition. Local companies are pushed by foreign investors to keep production costs in check, i.e. through low wages and bad working conditions. If laws and working conditions don't comply with the wishes of foreign capital, it is said, they will simply switch production to other countries with a "better investment climate" (an argument which is in total contradiction with the already very low production costs in Indonesia).

Massive unemployment

On top of this restructuring, the economic crisis adds to the chronic labour surplus, a massive reserve of unemployed workers. Because of that, every militant worker can easily be replaced by a new inexperienced and docile "wage slave". This tactic is frequently used by the bosses to dismiss shop stewards, and thereby break the backbone of the unions. Furthermore, when confronted with collective workers struggle, the employers hire armed gangs to bring back peace to the shop floor, if necessary by murdering some strikers as was the case at PT Kadera last March.

In the past such strike breaking was usually done by the state, with the army and the police. Since their intervention in labour affairs has had to be (slightly) diminished, again under the pressure of a militant working class and the pro-democracy movement, the bosses have found allies in new armed upholders of capitalist law: youth branches of certain political parties, militias of religious institutions, and a hungry lumpenproletariat (preman) ready to do anything to get some money.

All these conditions strike fear into the hearts of workers, thereby frustrating many organising efforts of labour activists. And to our own regret we can say that the coming world economic slump will aggravate the organising conditions of the Indonesian labour movement.

The objective conditions are gathering for the development of a strong labour movement

Should this dark reality lead us to pessimism? Not in the least! From a Marxist perspective the current potential for the development of a strong labour movement is the best since the heroic decades of anti-imperialist struggle following World War Two. Despite the continuing attacks of the capitalists and their state apparatus, the working class shows a willingness not only to defend every right they've gained, but even more so, to go onto the offensive for what they see is rightfully theirs.

In spite of the terror and fear, every arrested, injured or dead worker inflames tens and hundreds of his comrades with anger and the courage to fight. The New Order has indeed struck a terrible blow at the Indonesian workers and erased most of their political/ideological consciousness. But after decades of the most dark reaction, the labour movement is staging its rebirth. This fact irrefutably proves the old Marxist dictum that there is no force in history that can hold back the workers forever.

If we just look at the last few weeks, then it is absolutely clear that the objective conditions are ripe for big leaps in working class consciousness. Already at the beginning of May several unions staged strikes to protest against the new labour decree no. 78/2001. This new decree has to replace the Ministerial Decree 150/2000, issued by former Minister of Manpower, Bomar Pasaribu.

The main changes relate to clauses regarding severance conditions and payments for workers who are leaving the company. Ministerial Decree 150/2000 stipulated that compensation consisted of annual leave, the allowances for transport, health and housing facilities, and that severance and service payment, depending on the duration of employment, was payable to retiring, resigning or dismissed workers.

The new Ministerial Decree (No. 78/2001) includes a clause annulling the requirement that employers provide severance pay and service fees to workers who either resigned or were sacked for committing major violations - they are only eligible for regular compensation money. Knowing that workers are easily forced by the management to "resign", and knowing that workers also commit "major violations" because of a constant mental terror by the management, it is clear what Decree 78/2001 really means: it is a way of getting rid of troublesome workers at the least possible cost. This becomes particularly clear when we consider another clause in the revised decree, namely the provisions for sacking workers. Employers are allowed to sack workers when they are "unlawfully absent", a vague category which surely will be used to dismiss workers carrying out strike actions not in accordance with existing laws.

Of course the Indonesian Employers Association (Apindo) and foreign capitalists applauded the new decree. In their attempt to legitimise Decree 78/2001, the new Minister of Manpower, Al-Hilal Hamdi, as well as President Wahid, both explicitly referred to the will of foreign investors. Thus they proved to be the legislators of capital - bourgeois politicians with no concern for the working class. The unions correctly perceived the new decree as an assault on themselves and therefore held many demonstrations at the beginning of May, involving thousands workers. As a result, the Minister of Manpower, Al-Hilal Hamdi, on May 16 decided to delay for two weeks the implementation of the decree. After the two-week grace period, a new decree was issued, no. 111/2001. The only change registered in relation to Decree 78/2001 was in clause 35A, which stipulates that firms with labour contracts should apply the conditions stated in them rather than those outlined in the decree. Companies would thus be free to apply the terms of their contract agreement with workers in the matter. Labour activists immediately condemned the new regulation and pointed out that many companies do not have labour contracts at all.

Again major labour unrest erupted, now much bigger than before. Starting on June 11, protests virtually paralysed industrial centres like Bandung, Surabaya, Tangerang and Jakarta for several days, first because of the labour demonstrations, and a few days later because of protests against the 30% increase in fuel prices.

In Bandung and Surabaya it even reached the point where riots erupted in which government buildings and cars were destroyed. According to the unions involved in the demonstrations, the burning of cars was carried by provocateurs with no link to the workers' movement. Given Indonesian traditions, it may even be that the state apparatus and right wing forces hired some instigators to discredit labour, thereby giving an argument to crack down on them. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas, injuring many protesters. In Bandung the police arrested and beat up 6 activists of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), and occupied and ransacked their local office. The only charge made was that they were handing out leaflets calling on workers to go on strike to protest against the new Ministerial decision as well as the increases in fuel prices. Also in Bandung, the union SBSI was summoned to the police headquarters, where the police and the Pemuda Pancasila militia threatened them under the allegation that the SBSI had been the instigator of the riots. In Jakarta and Surabaya too, the police arrested several activists in relation to the labour and oil protests. But the result of the workers' protests was that Manpower again has revoked the new decree.

Who will reap the benefits of the objective conditions?

  Among the unions involved in the protests were SBSI, FNPBI, SBJ, SBMNI, GSBI, SPSI Reformasi, SMK, GSBM, Gaspermindo, and many others. Most importantly however, the "former" yellow union FSPSI mobilised the greatest number of workers. It is without doubt that the leadership of FSPSI was only driven by reactionary political considerations. Former Minister of Manpower, Bomar Pasaribu, who introduced the original Decree 150/2000, is a Golkar figure and is still listed as a leader of the FSPSI. Also, the chairman of the FSPSI, Jacob Nua Wea, is a politician of Vice-President Megawati's PDI-P, a party with mass support from the poor because of its Soekarnoist symbolism, but heavily infiltrated by the bureaucracy and Golkar elements such as Jacob Nua Wea.

Moreover, Golkar and PDI-P are pushing for the impeachment of President Wahid. By protesting against Decree 111/2001, the FSPSI-Golkar-PDI-P leadership is trying to make its position stronger in the power struggle with the President's party, the PKB, and his supporters in the mass Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama. It is certainly true that the FSPSI leadership is trying to discredit Gus Dur (Wahid's nickname) in the eyes of the workers and is trying to reap the political benefits of the workers' mobilisations.

Nevertheless, although the motives of the FSPSI leaders are indeed reactionary, we think there is no problem in discrediting a bourgeois politician such as Wahid in the eyes of the workers. Gus Dur doesn't deserve the credit of the workers! The main question here is who is going to reap the benefits from the workers' protests against their bourgeois government. In our opinion it is the Left who should capitalise on the labour protests.

Certain left activists and intellectuals condemn the actions because of the motives of the FSPSI leadership and the idea that the so-called "reformist" Wahid should be defended against his (more) right wing opponents in Golkar. But by doing this they ignore the massive potential that is created by the elite's infighting. According to Lenin, a revolution begins always at the top levels of society, with bourgeois politicians fighting with each other, thus weakening bourgeois rule and opening possibilities for the masses to put forward a political alternative.

The objective conditions are there in Indonesia. Only the lack of the subjective factor, i.e. a working class leadership with a clear Marxist program, is holding back the workers from capitalising on their own efforts. The result is that a massive opportunity has been lost. Although the new decree has again been revoked for another month, labour leaders have agreed to settle the issue in tripartite bargaining. This is only another method of the bourgeoisie to implement their program, but with the approval of the labour leaders who will try to convince the unions, if they indeed agree with the bourgeois arguments. To counter the influence of the bourgeois program on the labour leadership, unions and activists are forced to bring forward an alternative program. Such a program cannot be a mere rejection of the new decree. Mere rejecting will never enhance working class consciousness. What is needed, is a program that starts from the concrete reality to formulate alternative demands and that puts the working class on the road to an alternative society.

How to bring socialism to the workers

What program do we as Marxists propose? Our starting point is that every concession on the gains of yesterday, is a betrayal of the trade unionists who won these gains by their blood, sweat and tears. There exists no argument for the union leaders to accept a decree worse than 150/2000. Furthermore, we look at the real content of Decree 150/2000, and we can only conclude that it is a very bad labour law. For instance, Decree 150/2000 gives employers the right to suspend a worker for unspecified reasons before the case has been brought to Court. This tactic is frequently used to victimise militant shop stewards and isolate them from the workers who support them in the workplaces. Sincere unionists can draw just one conclusion from it: the need to abolish Decree 150/2000!

This poses the question of what labour law should the unions strive for. Part of the answer was provided in a media statement by SBSI chairman, Muchtar Pakpahan. In a moment of radicalism (and since he was freed from jail in 1998 thanks to the protests of the SBSI's rank and file, such moments of radicalism have been very rare for the man) Muchtar Pakpahan argued for the reinstatement of Law no. 12/1964 on Manpower, which bans companies from firing workers except for criminal acts. We urge Muchtar not only state this in words, but to actively campaign and mobilise for this law from the Old Order. Actually the SBSI and other unions have already given, for some time now, training about this law and other labour laws of the 1950s and 60s. Today, those laws are still part of Indonesian legislation, but under the New Order other laws were made which are more frequently used. Therefore unions concentrate on Decree 150/2000 which is better than the New Order laws, (although they are still very bad). Unionists argue that it is already difficult to enforce this decree, employers just ignore the law and fire at will. Because of that, the unionists think that it is better to try to first enforce Decree 150/2000. To enforce old laws like 12/1964 is impossible in their opinion.

As Marxists, we totally agree on the fact that in the given conditions it is impossible to enforce law 12/1964. But we add that under the given conditions it is equally impossible to enforce 150/2000. Too many unionists concentrate too much on law and normative rights. In a country under the wings of imperialism, like Indonesia, there is simply no room for "good labour laws". Even in the West labour regulations are getting worse. How can Indonesian workers hope for a fair and enforced legal system in a period of protracted crisis, when such a system wasn't even possible when the economy was booming in the 1980s and 90s?

Of course, it is very important for workers to know their legal rights, but not because these rights are the ultimate aim. To be clear, the existing laws provide rights that in themselves are really below what is actually needed by the workers. Laws are one thing, justice is something else. Unionists must keep in mind that the existing laws are bourgeois laws, laws made for a capitalist system. Some laws will be better than others, because they were made in different historical periods, periods like the 1950s and 60s when Indonesia had a strong communist union, the SOBSI, and a strong communist party, the PKI. Nevertheless, these laws, although better, are still bourgeois laws because they were made under a capitalist system, and Indonesian history has proved that the bourgeoisie and their "bonapartists" (the military) can cancel such labour legislation if needed.

Are Marxists then indifferent towards labour legislation? Certainly not, every gain in labour legislation is a gain for the class. But we don't approach labour law as an aim in itself. The fight for good laws is an instrument in the building of working class organisation with has the aim of building another society, democratic socialism. And in contemporary Indonesia, law can be a good angle to start from, if we keep on approaching law from the broader perspective of social change.

The concrete reality in Indonesia is that workers, in spite of their growing radicalism, are still highly indoctrinated by the anti-communist ideology of the New Order. As a result, the large majority will not tend to be open when talking about the grand theories of socialism, Marxism, or Trotskyism. But the fight for laws of the Old Order, the heyday of SOBSI and the PKI, can provide a bridge towards socialist ideas.

The question should be posed as to why in those days labour laws were better. This means making workers conscious about the history of their class. Every movement needs historical roots, to have an identity and also to learn from past mistakes. The Old Order labour laws, didn't come out of the blue. And the reason was not just that the workers' movement was at that time much stronger than now. The main point to hammer home is that the workers' movement was stronger because of their socialist ideology!

Thus, the workers' struggle cannot limit itself to the legal side of things. Such an approach does not have a future for the simple fact that under bourgeois rule those laws are never going to be enforced. But in their struggle for rights and laws, workers are confronted with the fact that the interests of their employers are totally opposed to their own interests. Out of this concrete reality workers will start looking for alternatives. That's the time when the question of socialism will be posed.

For now, left activists and unionists should take every opportunity to accelerate this process. The struggle around the decrees is far from finished. With a correct perspective on labour laws, activists can use this opening to introduce Indonesian history and therefore socialism to the workers. The movement is young, but the potential is high. Packed with ideological clarity and patience to explain, the potential can surely be realised.

by Bruce Boon
June 28 2001