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The urgency of trade union unity

Liberation Newspaper - April 30, 2013

Paulus Suryanta Ginting May Day 2013 cannot be evaluated as just a one day mobilisation, a kind of ceremony or celebration. May Day 2013 must be seen in the context of a growing wave of mobilisations by the working class over the last two years or more. In the coming mobilisations this year, there will be many changes but much also that has not changed, although the conditions for such changes are already at hand.

What then has, and has not changed?

First, the size of the mobilisations is clearly growing each year. Factory mass gatherings that began in the Jakarta satellite city of Bekasi, in the streets by the (majority) of trade union members at the factory level, whether they be from trade unions such as the All Indonesia Workers Union Communication and Information Forum (FKI-SPSI), the Indonesian Metal Trade Workers Federation (FSPMI), the Indonesian Labour Forum of Struggle (FPBI), the Solidarity Alliance for Labour Struggle (GSPB) and others, have inspired trade unions in other cities, even cities in distant parts of the country. Factory mass gatherings have succeeded in restoring the working classes' trust in trade unions and labour organisations. Under the New Order regime of former President Suharto, the trade unions established by the government did little to advocate for the daily problem of workers. By working together in mass gatherings that have been undertaken day after day, sometimes until late at night, and not infrequently until early next morning, trade unions have introduced their banners and demonstrated their solidarity in the streets. Solidarity between factories, between flags, became an important lesion in unity an embryo of something real.

Prior to the backlash against the working class by employers using paid thugs, the membership size of individual trade unions was growing. The GSPB for example, was able to increase its spread to scores of factories in the Bekasi municipal and regency area. Even bigger gains were made by the United Trade Union Movement (PROGRESIP), the FPBI and of course the largest, the FSPMI, which was able to grow by more than 100 factory work units throughout Indonesia.

Factory mass mobilisations were not the only factor. Toll road blockades by workers in early 2012 along with the national strike on October 3 last year, succeeded in increasing the size of working class mobilisations throughout Indonesia to around 1 million people. A huge achievement. Although these actions did not always have the same aims, the understanding of the need for national simultaneous actions indicates that the working class has raised the level of its tactical struggle to a national perspective and method.

The biggest gains from this wave of labour resistance were enjoyed by the Indonesian Trade Union Council (MPBI), a confederations of trade unions comprising the All-Indonesian Workers Union Confederation (KSPSI), the Confederation of Indonesian Workers Unions (KSPI) and the Confederation of Indonesian Prosperous Labor Unions (KSBSI). But other trade union consolidations such as the Labour Joint Secretariat (Sekber Buruh), the Indonesian Trade Union Congress Alliance (KASBI), the National Trade Union Confederation (KSN), the Association of Independent Trade Unions-People's Struggle Front (GSBI-FPR) and the National Trade Union (SPN) also increased in size. This is why labour mobilisations nationally or those that have targeted strategic location such as the international airport or the State Palace have progressively grown in size.

Second, there has been an advance in programmatic terms. The existing trade unions are not just limiting themselves to sectoral demands. The MPBI for example, has been campaigning on issues of social security and democratic issues such as the repressive draft law on national security. This is an indication of how these three trade union confederations are active in public and political issues. KASBI, KSN and the Sekber Buruh have been taking up more progressive issues although this is more because of the influence left organisations within it such as the de-legitimisation of the regime, the system or taking a critical position on the 2014 elections. These programmatic advances however are not spread evenly among individual trade unions. There are many internal and historical factors, and access to information that influence this. Despite being uneven, in general the labour movement is still undergoing an advance in its program and methodology of struggle.

Nevertheless, these advances do not mean that the labour movement will of one line or have the same demands at May Day 2013. This May Day will see trade unions still mobilising around their own leadership, banners and slogans. There is yet to be unity in mobilisation.


Nevertheless, the embryo of labour unity does exist. In Bekasi for example, although there is yet to be a process of national consolidation between the labour movements that have united under the MPBI, the KASBI, the Sekber Buruh and the KSN are already consolidating through the Anti-Criminalisation and Thuggery Committee (KAKAP) and the Action Committee for a Living Wage (KAUL). In both cases, these are consolidations around a particular issue.

It is this kind of consolidation that must be broadened, even if the idea of a more strategic unity is yet to find form, but with an understanding of the need to continue seeking openings for more progressive consolidation. For example, the trade unions are already starting to consider consolidation through a Trade Union Movement National Congress. This is extremely important in order to convince the entire labour movement including the yellow (pro-employer trade unions) trade unions that they need one another. And if this is indeed possible, to open up discussion on how to move towards a more political level.

The FSPMI for example, which in becoming increasingly political in its outlook, is beginning to see the importance of the working class becoming involved in practical politics by taking part in the 2014 elections or by becoming legislative candidates in parties that are not opposed to their minimum program, with the aim of being able to secure the working classes' minimum program in parliament. An entryist tactic may or may not be correct. If could be correct if there are strong ideological grounds for placing trade union members in these bourgeois political parties. But it will also need strong organisational integrity and integrity on the part of these members. Not infrequently however trade union members who join such parties become lost in the ideology, politics and culture of these bourgeois parties. Or even fall in with the enemy's camp, becoming capitalist collaborators. That is why it is absolutely necessary for both trade unions and non-trade union workers to have a strong ideological and political capacity so that they can strengthen one another.

Regardless of whether this is correct, entryist tactics such as this, of joining the existing political parties will continue to emerge. Especially if there are no other alternatives. One such alternative is beginning to propose the establishment of a labour party or working class consolidation to initiate building a people's party. An in order to establish a labour party or a people's party that is initiated by and led by the labour movement, the FSPMI or the MPBI will need other radical trade unions such as KASBI, KSN and even the Sekber Buruh. It is precisely by involving these radical groups that the tactics, strategy, program, concepts and ideas will develop and become richer.

In addition to this, the structural and propaganda reach of each trade union can be concentrated and its political influence becomes progressively stronger. Through the tactic of building an alternative political vehicle this will facilitate initial work, ensure the victory of workers' demands in parliament and even change this country into something better. However the fundamental condition for uniting the labour and people's movements in the form of a labour or people's party is firmly holding on to the principles of democracy.

But fine, let us for the moment keep in reserve (for now) things that could be considered grandiose and move on to the sectoral problems currently facing workers. The use of paid thugs to intimidate workers and companies deferring minimum wage payments for example. Each group will face difficulties if they try to individually fight company paid thugs. Or fight intimidation by the police, and not infrequently the military, which are used at the sub-district level to intimidate workers. The experience of mass factory gatherings proves that that power of the masses acting in solidarity and arriving in turn will results in thugs and the company backing off and in the end meeting workers' demands.

Or minimum wage deferments, for example, each trade union needs the strength of other groups to break down the gates to the labour office, the factories, so that employers will pay the official minimum wage. And this, once again requires unity. If an issue based committee can be built then logically also there is a need to build labour movement unity in the sense of struggling for other programs.

Outsourcing for example. In order to fight flexible labour systems that have spread internationally it is not enough to just win at one factory, in one industrial area, or even in one province. In order to completely abolish outsourcing and contract labour systems it will require a huge force in order reform the labour law, which means reforming House of Representatives (DPR) policies, and fighting the World Bank, which does not want outsourcing systems to be abolished. Moreover it will mean fighting imperialism. In order to win these victories, it will take more than issue based or action committees. It will require labour unity that is broader, stronger and more political. But this kind of unity also require and honesty and openness about the capacity of each group. There are some organisations that are larger than others. Nevertheless, in the interests of wining common demands, fighting the same enemies, unity must be prioritised. Not the reverse.

However, the discussion on sectoral demands above still brings us to the reality that the current regime is unwell or unable to meet all of the minimum demands of the working class. This is because the capitalist system and the nature of the rotten regime means that providing decent wages and abolishing outsourcing will result in massive losses for capital and capitalism. Moreover outsourcing and contract labour is one of the key ways for capitalism to increase profits and extend the ranks of the reserve industrial army one of the tactics used by capitalism to overcome economic crisis. Like it or not, the labour movement must discuss unity. Because for the labour movement to win its minimum demands means fighting capitalism, and fighting capitalism in order to win prosperity for the ordinary people will be impossible without winning power. And this means talking about politics and about unity. It is impossible to fight such a huge enemy without struggling in unity. Was it not in unity that workers mobilised 127 years ago demanding an eight-hour day won in Western Europe and the United States?

In the end, the workers movement must choose a vision that is forward looking; even in order to win the most minimal demand. It is this forward looking vision that must be introduced through the most basic activities: building joint committees, integrating a joint line, freedom of propaganda for each group, finding ways and means to compromise, formulating a joint platform and not making a fuss over which group is bigger or smaller. Because without this, a forward looking vision to win democracy and prosperity for workers, it will only end in us fighting each other. Where the possibilities of victory is far smaller. Without this, it will be extremely difficult for the labour movement to establish a mass labour party or a people's party let alone consolidate with farmers, the student movement, the urban poor movement and other fragmented radical groups. And without its own party, it will be difficult for the working class and the ordinary people to begin, let alone win policies that side with them. And then, entrism and even switching camps will again, and again, be seen as the only possible alternative.

A strong, united and political embryo

Without labour unity that begins now it will be extremely difficult to overthrow capitalism. The overthrow of capitalism requires a massive consolidation of the working class and other people's forces. Not just to oversee and win the struggle to change policy, but to overthrow the regime and even overthrow the bourgeoisie, or to win the struggle to complete the revolution and be able to continue the revolution in the direction of socialism in the leadership of the program, strategy and its forces.

Once again, this vision will only manifest itself by beginning the simplest consolidation of the labour movement: issue based committees, case specific committees and joint actions, which will culminate in a larger process of consolidation. In this way, a strong embryo of the labour movement, born out of unity and a political perspective is a historical certainty.

So, it follows on from this, that policy reform, the replacement of the regime, (and even) the overthrow of class society is a historical necessity, the material conditions for which are increasingly clear.

Viva International Labour Day!

[ Paulus Suryanta Ginting is the spokesperson for the People's Liberation Party (Partai Pembebasan Rakyat, PPR). Translated by James Balowski. The original article can be view at <http://koranpembebasan.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/mendesak-persatuan-serikat-buruh/>.]

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