May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Labour takes a citizenship approach

A woman tips a coin tin over another woman's open palm.


Despite the impressive activism of Pekalongan’s labour union, its political clout remains limited


When labour union activists in the Central Javanese town of Pekalongan organise meetings, they do not only talk about workers’ rights. During some of the neighbourhood meetings I attended, workers’ rights were not even mentioned. Instead, representatives of the Pekalongan branch of the SPN (Serikat Pekerja Nasional, or the National Workers Union) talked about health care and Indonesia’s new subsidised health care scheme, BPJS. Speakers emphasised that health care is a citizen’s right, and gave advice about how to gain access to health care services. 

Such meetings formed part of an innovative strategy by which SPN Pekalongan seeks to broaden its appeal. The union still does work on the more conventional goals, such as raising the minimum wage or improving job security, but it also adopted a program aimed at realising a much broader range of citizens’ rights. It began to campaign for the right to health care and education, more adequate public services and even rights to land. 

This ‘citizenship approach’ is a compelling innovation. It would seem like a good strategy for other labour unions to follow. In this article, however, I explore the ups and downs of this experiment, which yields some important lessons. 

Taking new initiatives

The SPN grew out of the SPSI (Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia, All-Indonesia Workers Union). This was a corporatist union formerly associated with Suharto’s New Order regime. After the fall of Suharto, trade unions began searching for ways to break away from authoritarian legacies. Suharto had destroyed the communist party, imposed strict labour controls and depoliticised the working class. These policies effectively tamed the militancy and undermined the independent base of the labour movement. Yet, even after 1998, labour unions showed limited creativity. Debates about a new labour law (No. 23 of 2003) consumed most of their energy. Most unions were occupied with traditional concerns about job insecurity and workplace interests.

Street vendors and union leaders protest the Pekalongan mayor's eviction of the trading area. (Hari Nugroho)

Then, in the early 2000s, the Pekalongan branch of SPN developed its citizenship approach. It wanted to appeal both to industrial workers as well as broader working-class communities. With this aim in mind, SPN Pekalongan decided to broaden its focus beyond labour rights to the provision of public services. This strategic innovation grew out of interactions between union members and other non-government organisations. A public interest NGO, Pattiro (Pusat Telaah dan Informasi Regional, or Centre for Regional Studies and Information), invited SPN Pekalongan to join a program that aimed to monitor the functioning of the district government. Two other labour NGOs, LIPS (Sedane Labour Information Institute) and Yawas (Wahyu Social Foundation), organised discussions that motivated SPN Pekalongan to re-evaluate its traditional strategies. This exchange of ideas convinced the union activists that an integration of the workplace struggle with a campaign for citizens’ rights was necessary. Damirin, a key former leader of SPN Pekalongan, decribed the considerations as follows: 

Even if we would succeed in raising the salaries of workers, it would not be enough. That is why we should move to broader public activism. It is about how state and local government should play their roles to fulfil people’s needs. So we encouraged our friends to speak out in public, even at the lowest level, like kelurahan (villages), or RT and RW (neighbourhood associations).

Our purpose is to discuss and influence public policy for the benefit of workers. Health care facilities, rice for the poor, government educational facilities – these are important for us. They will reduce our burdens.

Beyond the workplace walls

The meetings discussed topics beyond labour rights - in this meeting, NGO activists and union members discuss government budget monitoring in Pekalongan. (Hari Nugroho)

To implement this strategy, SPN Pekalongan began participating in a city forum for health care, a discussion forum initiated by the local government. They collaborated with Pattiro, neighbourhood organisations and local communities organised under the religious association Nahdlatul Ulama to produce a report on poverty in Pekalongan. The document provided extensive data, better than that published by Indonesia’s central statistics agency, BPS. It inspired the local government to increase funding for its social security program so that it covered a greater number of people.

As their activities expanded, the SPN established new sub-organisations to work on issues related to public services. One of these sub-organisations, for example, was the KBP3 (Komunitas Buruh Pekalongan Peduli Pelayanan Publik, or the Pekalongan Labour Community for Public Services). The KBP3 continually took on new tasks and worked to deliver bottom-up feedback on the quality of public services to the local government. They also assisted their members to get access to public services and developed an outreach program that helped women and fisher communities to get access to public services. 

For SPN Pekalongan, these sub-organisations were important in building new connections with other grassroots organisations and communities. Through these activities, it established new relationships with poor fisher families living on the north coast of Java, the street vendor community and peasant associations. Together with these communities, union activists took up various land conflicts. They supported local communities in a dispute over land with the railway company. They helped street vendors claim space for trade. They participated with peasants who struggled to prevent companies and the state from grabbing land.

In 2014, SPN Pekalongan activists took another big step when they decided to enter electoral politics. They encouraged four members to compete as legislative candidates. The union candidates contested the election for the regional parliament by relying solely on their own grassroots network. In contrast, during the previous elections in 2009, when the SPN won one seat, it had relied on the support of the Golkar Party. This time the union felt confident enough to launch an independent campaign. It mobilised not only its own members but also the above-mentioned communities whom they had helped through their public service advocacy. To the disappointment of the union activists, however, this political experiment failed. All their candidates lost, receiving a very limited number of votes. Even the regional parliament seat won in 2009 was lost. Most union members attributed this defeat to the vote-buying that their competitors engaged in, whereas the union’s candidates had refused to distribute money.

In the 2014 legislative election, the union put forward four candidates, but lost. Pictured: a union candidate's campaign card. (Hari Nugroho)

No political clout

Two favourable local circumstances helped Pekalongan’s labour movement to adopt its innovative strategies. Firstly, Pekalongan’s economy is dominated by small garment and textile factories, where wages are notoriously low. In 2007, Pekalongan’s minimum wage was among the lowest in Java. According to official figures, this minimum wage actually fell below the basic cost of living. Resentment from low wages generated support for the union. This in turn encouraged union leaders to find new ways to improve the bargaining position of workers. A second favourable circumstance was a process of generational change within SPN Pekalongan. As the older guard who had matured under the New Order retired, they made way for a new generation of activists who were savvier in engaging with the opportunities offered by reformasi-era Indonesia. Some had been involved in the campaign to oust Suharto. 

Yet the ‘citizenship approach’ by SPN Pekalongan has not been an unmitigated success. On one hand, the union had significant successes. They managed to secure an increase in the minimum wage so that it rose above the basic cost of living, beginning in 2013. They did also help improve people’s access to public services. Yet these successes did not lead to greater levels of strategic support. Not only did the union fail to make a dent in the 2014 elections, it suffered a considerable decline in membership. The union has lost more than half its members over the last ten years. Yes, its citizenship approach did increase its popularity among the local working class and marginalised communities but the very success of its struggles for labour rights and its broader political activism had also increased wariness and anti-union attitudes among employers and local power holders. Employer resistance against the union often manifested in the lay-offs of activists from the workplace. 

The citizenship approach offered a way of broadening the union’s appeal. Yet it turned out to be difficult to translate this into a strong support base. The union needed a more heterogeneous base that included various community groups without alienating its traditional base – the industrial workers. Building a strategic common ground from such a heterogeneous base and binding them together as a politically cohesive social force proved to be difficult. Support from the newly engaged communities was fickle and the union struggled to maintain even the support of its core base. The 2014 elections showed that grassroots activities do not easily translate into votes. In the context of a pragmatic and cynical political scene, voters can be swayed relatively easily by vote-buying and other inducements. The labour movement finds it difficult to deal with this onslaught of money politics.

These mixed results illustrate some of the main challenges that Indonesia’s labour movement faces. It needs to broaden its support base in order to strengthen its influence; however, the Pekalongan experience shows that it has not yet found a way to build a solid political base through its otherwise impressive activism. 

Hari Nugroho ( is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University, the Netherlands. 

Inside Indonesia 129: Jul-Sep 2017{jcomments on}

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