Jul 09, 2020 Last Updated 11:50 PM, Jul 2, 2020

From workers' rights to democracy


Michele Ford and Bob Muntz

Since 1998 organised labour has embraced a new era of frenetic organising, amid a climate of freedom unknown for a generation. Yet despite rapid growth in union numbers, their industrial and political strength is still limited. One of the main problems for the organised labour movement is its minimal influence on formal politics. Olle Törnquist suggests that alliances with middle class activists engaged with a wide range of other issues are necessary if the struggle for workers’ rights is to have any political impact. There may be reason for optimism about this strategy. Some of these middle class groups have already begun talking about forming a ‘common front’, including labour, to contest elections. Perhaps this would give labour more impact, although Fauzi Abdullah argues that it is too early for unions to engage in electoral politics.

It is ironic that the blossoming of independent unions in Indonesia has coincided with a global trend of declining union influence. In most countries labour has been faced with the erosion of workers’ rights, global ised industries, and new work structures that make organising and collective bargaining more difficult than ever before. In this globalised world effective strategies at the international level are vital for labour. Jeff Ballinger points out that some innovative strategies have been used in the footwear and apparel industries in Indonesia. But much more needs to be done at the international level.

Workplace union activity alone can no longer bring lasting success. Far-sighted and innovative strategies and coalition-building are needed at the national and international level to ensure Indonesian workers’ rights and achieve sustained economic and social gains. We should all be supporting Indonesian unions’ endeavours to consolidate their recent achievements.

Michele Ford (michele.ford@arts.usyd.edu.au) and Bob Muntz (rmuntz@vtown.com.au) are guest editors and members of the IRIP Board.


Inside Indonesia 86: Apr-Jun 2006

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