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A new tactical toolkit

The labour movement successfully adopted new tactics in their campaign for social security reform

Rachelle Cole

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The people have the right to free health care! A comic book published by KAJS

It’s International Labour Day 2011. A woman stands on the top of a truck parked outside the gates of the Presidential Palace and shouts into a megaphone: ‘LONG LIVE WORKERS!’ Thousands of enthusiastic protestors wave their union flags cheer her on. A mass of tangled barbed wire has been erected to prevent the protestors from entering the Palace gates. A police squad dressed in full riot gear stands guard nearby.

Since the democratic reforms which occurred after the fall of the end the New Order regime in 1998, scenes like this have become commonplace in Indonesia. You only need to spend one day in Jakarta to see a labour activist shouting into a megaphone at a rally. However, two things were different about this particular occasion. The person with the megaphone on May Day 2011 was not a labour activist – she was a member of the Lower House of Parliament (DPR). And the protest wasn’t about the minimum wage or working conditions – it was about a social security law that would affect all Indonesians.

This protest was part of the 2010-11 campaign for social security reform, driven by an alliance of 67 organisations called the Social Security Action Committee (KAJS). Working closely with politicians and targeting all Indonesians were two of the tactics that the trade unionists leading the campaign used most effectively. These tactics were the key to their success in this instance. They may also represent a shift in the way that the labour movement campaigns operate more broadly.

A campaign for all Indonesians

The genesis of the KAJS can be traced back to 9 March 2010, when a group of trade union leaders and labour activists met at the Treva Hotel in Jakarta to discuss social security reform. They were frustrated with the current state of social security for workers, which they believed to be ineffective and unfair. They were also fed up with the government’s lack of commitment to reform and by trade unionists’ inaction on this issue. The participants formed an alliance and launched a national campaign, which lasted for one and a half years. The primary focus of their campaign was the passing of the Social Security Providers Bill, which was required to give effect to reforms that had begun in the 2000s, but that had not resulted in any meaningful changes to the social security system.

One of the ways KAJS generated support was to sell their campaign to the general public. In the past, unions have tended to campaign narrowly for benefits for their members. But in this case they deliberately targeted the wider community. In the early stages of the campaign, KAJS leaders had pushed for reform of the law governing to JAMSOSTEK, the social security system for private-sector workers. But they soon changed tack.

When they began campaigning for a universal system they repositioned themselves as representing all Indonesians. They consistently referred to themselves as a ‘civil society alliance of unions, farmers, fisher people, and students’ that was campaigning for the rights of the ‘Indonesian people’. This inclusive approach broadened their appeal and attracted the support of other civil society organisations, the media and the general public, and ultimately underpinned the success of the campaign.

Not all trade unionists agreed with this strategy. Some union leaders criticised KAJS for its tactics, which they saw as betraying workers’ interests and moving away from the proper role for unions. A group of unions campaigning against KAJS rejected the Social Security Providers Bill because they believed it would disadvantage workers. This selfish approach didn’t win them any friends. As one leader actually acknowledged, his union’s narrow focus attracted nowhere near as much sympathy from the media as KAJS’ campaign for ‘all Indonesians’. KAJS leaders saw this counter campaign’s tactics as focusing on the ‘small picture’, as opposed to their own ‘big picture’ approach.

Political alliances

KAJS also forged partnerships with politicians, who were essential to the enactment of the Social Security Providers Bill. The most important of these was the alliance’s relationship with former soapie star, Rieke Dyah Pitaloka, from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). KAJS’ relationship with DPR members, and in particular with Rieke, was strategic for a number of reasons. Rieke participated in KAJS protests and other activities and also organised her own, which always attracted a large amount of media attention and lifted KAJS’ profile. She also facilitated KAJS’ lobbying activities by helping alliance members monitor parliamentary debates on the bill. She also informed them if the debates were moved from the DPR building to other locations, which often happens in the case of controversial bills in Indonesia.

But what was most important for the KAJS campaign was the lobbying conducted by the politicians themselves. Rieke was at the forefront of the efforts to further the progress of the Social Security Providers Bill in parliament. She argued for bill during hearings and expressed her disdain for the government for delaying its passage in the House and in the media. While she clearly had her own agenda, Rieke was also KAJS’ voice inside the DPR. She and other politicians used the popularity of the KAJS campaign to convince their colleagues of the bill’s merits, in the process, building their own profiles. In the final months of the campaign, only a few members of the government coalition were left blocking its passage.

Campaign success

The Social Security Providers Bill faced serious opposition from within the government, from employers and some elements of the labour movement. It’s very clear that without the campaign waged by KAJS, it would have at the very least been postponed until after the 2014 election. Instead, on 28 October 2011, Rieke and another DPR member emerged from the parliament building to announce to a large crowd of campaigners that the Social Security Providers Bill had finally become law.

In order to get this result, the KAJS union-led campaign adopted tactics that had not previously been used effectively by the labour movement. Their tactical toolkit – which also included more familiar tactics such as mass protest – was the key to getting the Social Security Providers Law passed. The success of the KAJS campaign shows how these new tactics and a broader vision can help the labour movement increase its bargaining power. It also demonstrates that parts of the labour movement are starting to take advantage of the democratic structures that were not available to it in the past. Indeed, the size and the effectiveness of the union-driven campaigns of the last three years has led activists and observers to argue that after ten years in the wilderness the labour movement is finally starting to assume a more powerful position in Indonesian society.

While the KAJS campaign formally ended after the Social Security Law was enacted, KAJS leaders have capitalised on the momentum generated by this successful outcome. They launched new coalitions and campaigns on social security and other issues in 2012. With their more robust tactical toolkit in place, chances are that their campaigns will succeed.

Rachelle Cole (rachellepetacole@gmail.com) recently completed Honours in Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.


Inside Indonesia 110: Oct-Dec 2012
Politics: National Politics Trade Unions
Human Rights: Labour Rights
Economy: Work

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