Raising class consciousness in Indonesia
Raising class consciousness in Indonesia)

Indonesian socialist Sherr Rinn writes of the need to bring radical politics into the labour movement, which is still hampered by the huge defeats of the Suharto era. The article was first published at Solidaritas.net Media Centre.


In 2012, the Indonesian labour movement experienced an unprecedented upsurge. During 2012, I estimate, around 2 million workers were involved in protests or strikes, There were factory occupations between May and October and two national strikes.

These mobilisations won important demands of the movement: a cancellation of a fuel price rise, the establishment of social insurance and the issuing of ministerial regulations that restricted outsourcing or labour hire. These outcomes further politicised many workers.

While the workers were not able to overcome the capitalist counteroffensive, these outcomes were very important for the Indonesian labour movement, which possessed a minimum of experience and knowledge. This was all new experience. The policy of eradication of historical memory of Suharto’s New Order regime over 32 years (1965-1998) left no memories of the experience of resistance among the masses.

Workers today have no idea that Indonesia once had a union, SOBSI, that had 3.3 million workers or 60 percent of all workers at that time and that it was political and left wing. Almost no knowledge of the experience of organisation has been passed on to the workers’ movement. There is a knowledge vacuum, not to mention an ideological one, among workers.

A vacuum

Even though it has been 17 years since the dictatorship ended, there are at least three causes of this vacuum.

First, there was no or only small involvement of an organised workers’ movement in the ending of the Suharto dictatorship. It was students and the “urban poor” who were the backbone of the mass street mobilisations demanding the fall of Suharto.

Second, there has been no significant change to the education curriculum within the unions from that used by the dictatorship’s yellow unions before 1998. New unions formed after 1998 seem to have used the space opened to them with the ratification of ILO conventions and the legalising of the freedom to organise in 2000. But they retained the old curricula and outlook.

Third, the struggle method of mass action was accepted only in 2010. Prior to that, this method was used only by the left unions organised in the Aliansi Buruh Menggugat. The yellow unions engaged in it only on ceremonial occasions such as May Day. These were festival days, not actions with demands.

After the Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers Union (FSPMI) started to use mass actions in 2010 to provide solidarity with factories on strike and in the struggle for government social insurance, there was steady progress, resulting in the actions that took place in 2012. There were actions in 2011 and 2012 that closed down whole industrial areas in Bekasi (outside of Jakarta) and Batam (an island near Singapore.)

In 2013 there was stagnation following a counteroffensive by employers, who used both police, and thugs recruited from the impoverished slums that often are located on the edges of industrial areas. The union leaderships, at all levels, had no experience of this situation and did not discover tactics to overcome the employer offensive. And there were others who had accepted bribes of one kind or another from the employers.

The 17 years since the end of the dictatorship had not transformed the nature of the unions, despite their acceptance of mass action as a form of struggle. Leaders retained the old patterns from the dictatorship unions: federal, based on patron-client relations and with avenues for internal criticism closed off.

The backwardness of the Indonesian working class is not a result of a shortage of material that could be used for raising consciousness. There is an abundance of material, especially on the internet. The spread of knowledge is held back by an organisational situation that makes members dependent on their officials. New knowledge that teaches internal democracy is seen as a threat to the official leaderships.

Officials of unions have the privilege of being able to represent workers in the courts. Workers can at any time suffer all kinds of violations of their rights, up to and including sackings. Rather than prepare workers to defend themselves through a range of actions, officials cultivate dependence by making sure the education around legal issues is exclusively for themselves.

This legal emphasis also miseducates workers into thinking that their welfare can be advanced only through the normative rights embodied in laws. As regards the spreading of revolutionary consciousness, the threats are even more serious. The spreading of Marxism-Leninism has been banned since 1966 by parliamentary decree. Culturally, communism is taboo.

Accelerating awareness

When political-economic education, introducing left concepts, began among FSPMI workers in 2010, there was rapid progress. Workers quickly accepted mass action as a method of struggle, including in providing solidarity with factory and industrial estate strikes. Within only two years, the FSPMI was able to paralyse totally seven industrial estate areas in the Bekasi area. The union grew quickly and led factory occupations in hundreds of factories between May and October 2012. It quickly started to convince other sectors of society of its capacity as a new force in any struggle for change.

But fear and financial bribes have led the FSPMI elite to make opportunist compromises. 2013 was a dark year for workers, many of whom were sacked or did not have their contracts extended. The climax of this opportunism came when the FSPMI elite supported the presidential candidacy of Prabowo Subianto in 2014. The leadership had reached political bankruptcy.

Then these educational activities were closed down. The movement experienced more setbacks. In mid-2013, education was re-established via the Solidaritas.Net Association. This was established in an area called Cikarang close to the workers’ area and used a medium that workers were using.

Observing how Facebook was used during the protests of 2010-2012, we also used cellular tools, as well as classes. There have also been efforts at unifying workers at the factory as well as municipal and national levels. Workers have taken to using smart phones, – Chinese brands can be purchased for $64-100, They have become proficient at communicating, whether via Facebook, Blackberry or Android operating systems.

The 2010-2012 experience means that there are more workers who are open to new information and ideas. This must be the starting point in filling in the knowledge and ideological vacuum created over the last 50 years. The desperate working conditions alone will not create a workers movement in Indonesia.

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