Organising workers

May 5, 1999

By Aaron Benedek

Capitalism is full of contradictions. A bus trip through Jakarta is a stark reminder of this fact. Amidst the sprawling slums of workers and urban poor, luxury motels and military-owned mansions act as obscene reminders of the extreme wealth that exists in Indonesia.

The economic crisis has exacerbated class contradictions, devastating the lives of Indonesian workers. The US$2 per day minimum wage has shrunk by about 75%, while inflation has skyrocketed. Millions have already lost their jobs.

The People's Democratic Party (PRD) is the only political party in Indonesia consistently opposing the exploitation of workers. The PRD has sought to organise workers into unions in order to defend and extend pay and conditions. It also strives to unite workers with other sections of society, in the movement for democracy.

The PRD sees the working class as key to winning full democracy in Indonesia (in alliance with other exploited sectors). The manifesto of the PRD states that the working class, its "continuing fight back" and its"strategic position in the capitalist system" make it a "stronghold for democracy now and in the future".

The PRD organised the nationally coordinated Indonesian Centre for Labour Struggles (PPBI) and pioneered student and worker alliances, with a series of mass student-worker protests between 1994 and 1996. This culminated in a 20,000-strong mobilisation of Surabaya workers led by Dita Sari.


The PRD and Indonesian workers live under extreme repression. The PPBI was banned in 1996. Dita Sari was arrested along with many other leaders of the PRD, forcing the workers' movement underground. Despite these conditions, the PRD continued its work amongst the working class, channelling its energies into initiating a range of ad hoc struggle committees in various cities. In Jakarta the PRD has initiated the Workers' Committee for Reform Action (KOBAR).

The fall of Suharto, while serving to increase workers' confidence, did little to stem the military repression. In July 1998, after the fall of Suharto, KOBAR and worker groups in other cities organised strikes and protests, which were met by severe military violence.

In Kapuk, a working-class suburb in Jakarta, Resistance activists met with workers. Factories were surrounded by huge fences and barbed wire.

Workers are not permitted to leave until their shift has finished, regularly being forced to work overtime. An army base is attached to each factory to ensure that workers are passive. If there is a strike, the army blockades the factory exit. Union meetings are intimidated, and workers seen to be politically active are threatened with the sack.

The isolation amongst workers is so extreme that when the PRD began organising a factory union in Kapuk, it found the union meetings were the first time workers had even talked to each other.

Despite some high profile industrial disputes, the spread of unemployment has reduced worker protest actions. The PRD stresses that this does not mean worker discontent and combativeness have declined. The PRD seeks to convince workers that there is a political solution to their current misery, that they can fight capitalism and win.

PRD tactics

The PRD recognises that students and other radical sectors can give confidence to workers when mobilised. The PRD therefore seeks to develop an alliance between students and workers.

The conditions that the PRD organises in are difficult. Often one or two members are sent to organise tens of thousands of workers, armed with only a few leaflets. They search out the most political workers and explain the need for them to help organise others. The workers photocopy a few leaflets amongst themselves, distribute them and, amazingly, manage to organise massive strikes on this basis.

In Kapuk the PRD had recently organised a three-day factory strike around 26 demands regarding pay and conditions. Many of these demands were met, increasing the confidence of workers. However, the key demands, such as a food and travel allowance, weren't.

The factory owner argued that the government doesn't require or even allow bosses to pay these things. Thus the PRD could more easily explain to the workers that their enemy isn't just this or that boss, but the military and the capitalist system.

The PRD carries out political education among workers. PRD members have turned their homes into centres of workers' political discussions and classes, also allowing workers to come into contact with radical students.

The PRD explains that strikes in individual workplaces are not enough. National workers' campaigns around specific economic demands, as well as participation by workers in the democracy movement, are vital for increasing worker combativeness.

The PRD sees the forming of a national workers' organisation, in addition to nationally coordinated mass actions, as crucial in the coming period. Such a national workers' organisation would make possible national campaigns for lowering basic food prices, a 200% wage increase, the freeing of Dita Sari and other political prisoners, and abolishing the military's role in politics and society.

[Aaron Benedek is a Resistance member and an education officer for the Sydney University Student Representative Council].

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