Sunday in Jakarta

Community Organizing International Labor Organizing Organizer Training

Jakarta   36 days of Exile

It’s late September so it’s time for the Organizers’ Forum World Tour ( Five or more years ago, we established the Organizers Forum to give serious and senior community and labor organizers an opportunity to engage critical issues and challenges outside of the normal channels and silos of our work. We do this through “dialogues” about specific topics that confront organizers, like technology, corporate campaign developments, and advances in political methodology, immigration impacts, new tactical impacts, and similar questions. We also began a couple of years ago to embark on dialogues outside of the United States because we believed that organizers in other parts of the world were confronting similar issues and — I know this is not the way most people think — just might have developed some plans, programs, and practice which could teach North American based organizers something about building powerful mass organizations in these 21st century.

With blind luck our first such international Organizers Forum dialogue exploring issues outside of the normal grid took us to Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2002 where with blind luck we found ourselves spending a week right before the first primary where the talk of Lula and revolutionary hopes in that country inspired every conversation and minute of our trip. 2003 found us in Delhi and Kolkata, India. 2004 took us to South Africa where in Johannesburg and Capetown (see earlier blogs!) we talked to organizers about the impacts of 10 years of change after the fall of apartheid. These are all big countries setting a place and a pattern for their parts of the world. Our organizers soldier through meetings for 12 hours a day trying to get their arms around an immersion in social change in another country and culture put together with minute detail by Barbara Bowen, my long time friend, and constant collaborator and full-time coordinator of the Organizers’ Forum.

So, admit it? I bet there are whole weeks that go by without Indonesia even coming to your mind as you steam through daily life? Waking up on Sunday morning at 4:30 AM as the call to prayers echoed in my room, the same thought occurred to me.

The country is huge though. With over 200,000,000 million people it is the fourth most populous country in the world after China, India, and the United States. The majority of the population lives on only one of the 70,000 islands that make the world’s largest archipelago stretching across 4 time zones in an area flown from end to end would be similar to taking the redeye from New York to London. This is also the world’s largest Muslim country with more than 85% of the population worshipping in that way, though it continues to be secular. The capital city of Jakarta is a teeming urban magnet of close to 10,000,000 people that doubles in size every workday as another 10,000,000 workers stream into town clogging the traffic arteries to create what are rumored to be legendary traffic jams throughout the city. On Monday we will find out if the rumor is true or false, but Sunday gives us a chance to get our bearings.

First impressions were different than expectations. The highways from the airport to the hotel were modern and cars were moving on them with some zip. Not Jo-berg perhaps, but a long step up from Delhi. A haze in the air but big, tall, and modern skyscrapers holding offices and residents were planted here and there throughout the city center.

My fellow travelers in the Organizers’ Forum delegation were incredulous that I might run in the humid air and ripe pollution of the city, but after a certain number of years, it becomes something one does, regardless of the reasons. Running at dawn to their surprise, and frankly mine, after slogging through the neighborhood near the hotel, I came out on the main boulevard to find that lanes on both sides had been closed and there were literally hundreds of walkers, bikers, and, yes, even some joggers coursing along on both sides of the street. I ran down to the Plaza of Indonesia (3 subway stops from the hotel street it seemed) and found hundreds of bikers getting ready to start a ride for some purpose along the route I had just traveled. One could have been in any large, modern city in the world. It was disorienting frankly.

And, it was not what we had traveled to find. We were here because we wanted to see how organizers had met the challenges and opportunities that came with the end of Suharto’s US-supported “New Order” military dictatorship in 1997. After forcible suppression of almost all but limited and state supported unions and other forms of civil society, we had heard that increasingly there were real awakenings of organizational growth and vibrancy. We had now been about the world enough to have lost the glow that followed Brazil, but the search for good organizing is one that doesn’t end easily.

Rudy Porter from the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and Hans Antlov, formerly of the Ford Foundation and now Governance Advisor for a US AID program on local governance support, had both been of immense help in putting this trip together. The two of them along with Indah Budiarti, the Public Services International rep for the country, met us on Sunday morning at 9:00 to give us the background we all needed to prepare for the meetings with organizers that lay before us this week.

The bottom line became clear quickly though: this was a work in progress. There had been huge openings for social movements, labor, civic forums, and others, but this was a job still being done with more ahead to do, than had been done thus far. The labor movement was split between the old guard, the new wave, and mixtures of both. The impact of almost total governmental centralization meant that the process of incorporating the new pushes to decentralize were new and different. The stories that Rudy and Hans told of people — and workers — trying to get a handle on local politics for the first time were fascinating, and moving. Rudy told of local worker “candidate forums” which ranged in attendance from 500 to 1200 people as unions got a grip on this “new” way in which they might have a voice finally. The notion of understanding local budgets and their impact on citizens and workers — all new stuff with lessons to be learned and much to be done. One could the feeling of a society and culture trying to rebuild and still taking early, and sometimes uncertain, steps.

The early snapshot for labor augured a long week ahead of us. Total workers numbered 102,000,000. 11% unemployment lopped off about 11,000,000 to the jobless ranks. Of the 91,000,000 working more than half were statistically in the informal sector — 48,000,000 workers — leaving 43,000,000 formal sector jobs. Unions had organized in various forms and fashions 7,000,000 of these jobs or 16% of the formal sector — although obviously way less than 10% of the total jobs much like low density of the US. The labor law and its recent changes had been re-written with multi-national and American Embassy help so that unfortunately it tacked many of the principles of the dysfunctional US labor law, except without the actual procedures. For example an employer could challenge whether a union had the majority and was qualified to bargain a contract, but there was no procedure for holding an election to sort this out. In two years under the law there had been no progress here. An employer could simply decide not to bargain or could pick one of its unions and bargain with the most docile. We will spend more time on this, but the warning signs are flashing for labor already.

Add to that the suspicion against centralization and Jakarta that is part of the residue of the dictatorship and one also has an unsustainable labor movement. Dues of about 10 cents per month are collected by some unions with very little sent on to the provincial or national labor centers.

The donor community was once again going to be huge no doubt it supporting and imprinting the labor and community organizing that we would see in the coming week.

We spent some time on a bus seeing the political landmarks in the city with some Djuni Thamrin the general secretary of an Indonesian NGO who had been active in the student movement that helped bring down Suharto in 1997. We passed under the overpass bridge near downtown where six students were killed by snipers while thousands of students and others rallied to bring down the government. We bused over to the Parliament and looked through the fence at the buildings in the distance. I took pictures of the barbed wire still everywhere in evidence. We saw the Chinatown area where government inspired riots had killed hundreds in fires in earlier disputes.

The memories were all current. The participants are well known and still active.

This was all still raw. Pages being written daily in chapters still imagined.

September 25, 2005