The Workers Movement and Politics in Indonesia

By Sri Wulandari

The fall of authoritarian Soeharto regime in 1998 marked a new step in the labour movement in Indonesia. Freedom of association was a main demand within a broader set of political reform demands. The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 87 concerning Freedom of Association and the Protection of Rights to Organize was initially implemented through the President and Manpower Minister’s decision in June 1998. This new decree then opened the door for workers to consolidate and unionize. The number of federations formed in the course of 2000-2008 has kept increasing along with challenges in organizing workers. The table below shows the increasing number of federations and unions formed in the period of 2000-8.


Table 1. Unions and Federations in Indonesia, 2000-2008
10,000 plant-level*
24 national-level
150 national-level

Sources: (2000-2005 data) Michele Ford, ‘United We Stand? Indonesia labour movement needs to consolidate the gain of 1998’, Inside Indonesia 86: April-June 2006; (2008 data) Darisman, Sedane Labour Resource Centre (a.k.a. LIPS).

* Information of number of unions not provided for these years.


The table above only shows the numbers registered in the Manpower Department. In reality, there are other federations and confederations which are not registered in the Manpower Department. Nevertheless it is also worth recording that during those years, several alliances had been set up to tackle common national-level issues such as massive layoffs. Those alliances had also experienced de-grouping and re-grouping. Some strategies in the workers movement have also been developed and improved to answer challenges.

Despite the democratic space emerging from the political reform, workers have not played any significant role in politics. There are three factors explaining the lack of workers’ involvement in politics. Those factors are: the poor quality of Indonesian democracy since the political reform was merely a re-grouping of political elites, industrial restructuring as part of international financial institutions’ prescription for addressing the economic crisis, and the readiness of workers to deal with formal politics. Labour market flexibility, on the ground level, has stimulated workers to improve their strategy in terms of rejuvenating working class power along with the changes of working relations, moving from a ‘factory-based’ strategy to a community-based strategy. In this context, workers are thus stimulated to improve their strategies emphasizing their bargaining power, especially their position versus the State.

Yet many strategies have been applied in positioning workers versus the State in Indonesia. In general, two main strategies have been developed. Those are: using a political party as a vehicle to push forward policies that could improve workers’ rights, and playing a role as a pressure group outside the existing political system. Each of these strategies has its weaknesses and gaps. Yet, the debate on what roles workers must take on in fighting against the State which is acting as supporter of neoliberal policies, is still in an ongoing process.

New era yet lower bargaining position

Political reform indeed has transformed the pattern of union movement in Indonesia. Yet, the reform was also followed by constraints and challenges in organizing work. Labour market flexibility has brought down the bargaining power of many plant-level unions. Nevertheless, labour market flexibility is not the sole factor explaining the weakening power of unions. Another factor is the readiness of workers to move forward under a so-called ‘more democratic’ situation. Political reform that had taken place in 1998, on the other hand, was merely a re-grouping of new order political elites marginalizing activists. Workers who had been depoliticized by the new order regime never had a chance to exercise their involvement in formal politics. On May Day 2008, the State for the first time showed its interest in the workers’ movement by holding a music concert to celebrate May Day. Yet, this interest had shown that the ruling regime wanted to take benefit from the rising workers’ movement as they considered workers merely as potential voters for the next election. In doing this, the regime worked together with some yellow unions which acted as potential allies. This emphasizes the peripheral position of workers within the political sphere. Nevertheless, worker unions also have their own justification in setting up their political strategies. Those strategies are:
First, using a political party as a vehicle to voice workers’ interests. In this strategy, workers are considered as a bulk of potential voters that can secure the political party’s position within the parliament. The process is often top-down, in that the leader of national-level federation or confederation signs a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) stating that the union will encourage its member to support the parliamentary candidate of the party. In return, the party is required to be transparent in terms of its programme, especially the programme concerning worker rights. Recently,
SPN, the National Worker Union, withdrew its support to the Welfare Justice Party. The reasons for the withdrawal were varied. One of them was that the union claimed the party was violating points stated in the MoU. The top-down strategy of using a political party as a political vehicle is a vulnerable strategy as it creates a sharp internal fragmentation within the union.
Second, experimenting by forming a labour party of one’s own. In 1999 election,
SBSI (the Indonesia Worker Welfare Union) formed a political party, the National Labour Party (PBN). The party did not pass the election threshold. In 2004 election, SBSI again set up a political party, the Social Democrat Labour Party (PBSD). It again did not pass the election threshold. For this coming election, SBSI set up another party, the Labour Party. It gained 111,629 votes (0.01% votes, 0 parliamentary seats) and 634,515 votes (0.56% votes, 0 parliamentary seats) respectively in the 1999 and 2004 general elections. This shows that the idea of labour party raised by SBSI has not been popular in Indonesia.
Third, consistently pledging extra-parliamentary struggle. This strategy has been taken up by progressive and left-leaning unions. Nevertheless, at the smallest scope such as district level, they also feel the importance of political lobby or testing the bargaining power of workers vis-a-vis the State authority. In testing their bargaining power, the activists equipped themselves with social investigation on the impact of policies stipulated by local authority. The data collected then was used to encourage tripartite dialogue among the unions’ representatives, State authority (usually represented by a local parliamentary member, or MP) and the employer. The intention of this dialogue was to unravel unlawful industrial practices within worksites. The process then usually stops at the hearing dialogue between local MPs and unions’ representatives. Progressive unions have come up with some strategies in improving their bargaining power even though in the beginning they confined the scope of their struggle to worker rights-based issues. The stipulation and revision of labour law No 13/2003 in 2006 triggered a re-grouping of progressive unions into a national level alliance which currently is projected to become an alternative national confederation. The progressive unions then started building inter-sector solidarity even though the process is still ongoing and not-yet fully integrated. The newest breakthrough was setting up a solidarity group that later escalated into a programmatic-based alliance with state-owned enterprise workers. Responding to the coming election this year, the progressive unions have stated their political standpoint, i.e. that they would boycott the election, as the new elected government would be just another pro-neoliberal government. 
   Indeed, the progressive unions have strength in terms of raising critical awareness of masses. On May Day 2008, thousands of workers from progressive unions surrounded the Presidential Palace as a ‘symbol’ of workers’ political power. Yet, whether progressive unions have real bargaining power that can stir the political situation toward workers’ interest is something that still needs to be examined.

Analyzing the strengths and the weaknesses of those strategies

The worker movement during the authoritarian new order regime had been preempted by a ‘security approach’. Despite the repressive situation, there were organizing efforts which mostly focused on setting up independent unions at the plant level. In terms of the 1998 political reform, indeed workers played a small role in stimulating the change. Yet, the reform, re-grouping of new order political elites and industrial restructuring as a package of neoliberal policies, have encouraged workers to broaden their scope of movement and issues.

 In terms of playing a role in formal politics, the two main approaches used by labour groups (i.e. from within and from without the electoral political arena) have shown different strengths and weaknesses, and there is still no consensus that one is more effective than the other. On the one hand, the approach of using a political party as a vehicle to penetrate and influence government policy-making, is vulnerable to creating internal fragmentation, as the process is often top-down with union leaders making political deals with a political party and the members being pressured to accept it. Nevertheless, this approach can exercise the capacities of workers to play a role within the scope of formal politics, although again the top-down process indicates lack of political education and democratic processes within the organization. On the other hand, the organizing strategy aimed at raising the critical awareness of people to put pressure against the State focuses on reconstituting and rejuvenating working class power, which means expanding organizing scope and disseminating values to counter the hegemony of the State. The informalization of the formal sector has stimulated progressive unions to come up with new initiatives of organizing strategies including organizing people outside factories, such as the unemployed and urban poor. Yet, progressive unions taking up this approach must have a long-term strategy to exercise their bargaining power against the State.


 To sum up, in challenging formal politics, the workers movement in Indonesia is still severely fragmented. The option of using the now available means of formal politics is often a premature strategy for unions as the process is top-down, and reflects the low development of Indonesian democracy as political elites from the old regime still manage to preserve their power concentration.
   Meanwhile, another approach, of rejuvenating working class power, must be well equipped with practical strategies to challenge the State authority from the smallest scale. Indeed, this approach requires factory workers or organizers with ‘factory’ backgrounds to place themselves within the part of society which has transformed into ‘a factory’ (without boundaries), contributing surplus value to capitalism. In terms of strategy, it is important to understand power relations at the local and national level, and understand how to challenge it and raise up the bargaining power of working people. The workers’ movement also must overcome the main barrier that is the fragmentation among themselves, which has halted them from broadening their scope of struggle. The the process of raising the critical consciousness of the people will contribute to shaping a ‘better’ democracy in


Michele Ford, ‘United We Stand? Indonesia labour movement needs to consolidate the gain of 1998’, Inside Indonesia 86: April-June 2006.

Olle Tornquist, ‘Why is Organised Labour Missing from Democratic Movement’, Inside Indonesia86, April-June 2006.

 ‘New order’ is the term coined by Soeharto as he came into power in 1966 to differentiate his regime from the old regime, later referred to as the old order regime.

 Fauzi Abdulah, Sedane Labour Resource Centre (‘LIPS’) 2008 semi-annual analysis report on Politics and Workers responding to the coming 2009 Elections.