Where Have All The Protests Gone?

The Jakarta Post ran a three part report on labor issues in the current economy, with articles on the role of unions, the rampant disregard of legally obligated severance packages, and the effects of layoffs on Java’s industrial areas (the descriptions of which resemble the Obama quote in our previous post).

The article on unions tries to answer the question of why there have been “fewer street protests by the unions, at least since January,” when workers are going through such hard times.  The article suggests one factor is the government intervening on both sides of the capital-labor divide in order to maintain labor peace through the election season.  The article includes this stinging critique of labor union officials:

Indonesia is home to more than 1,000 unions, most of them run by activists rather than actual workers.  The activists usually exploit their union platforms for personal gain, including vying for top positions in political parties, state companies or government agencies.  The lack of action from the unions is also due to requests from law enforcement authorities to top union leaders to lie low during the upcoming general elections, over concerns of igniting conflicts and riots.

The article certainly implies some complex relationships in capital-labor-state accommodation.  The issue of varied interests among union officials is particularly interesting, and unclear if it is suggesting a lingering form of corporatist influence over unions or just a certain trend of opportunism?

In regards to unions staying quiet through the elections, could this be some measure of the legacy of the New Order’s “security approach” to labor relations?  Or is it more simply a sign that, with a steady flow of layoffs, labor is bargaining from a position of weakness and must necessarily lower demands?  And wouldn’t this appear to be a missed opportunity to force workers’ issues into the public discourse and into an election in which class has a limited role?

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