Yangon Dr. Thaung Htun had been the head of the foreign section of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front. When all hell broke loose he fled along with other student leaders only to return about 25 years later after the country removed front leaders from the blacklist. He had formed a nonprofit in the US in 2011called the Institute for Peace and Social Justice in Burma (IPSJB) and then suddenly the doors opened unexpectedly, and he was home again. Among the members of board was a retiree of SEIU Local 1199 who had worked as a union member in an 1199 hospital for 28 years while living in upper Manhattan.
Now they were back and we were talking to them about the nascent labor movement in Myanmar at the same time we were navigating between them and three leaders of a Burmese Labor Solidarity organization that had some small relationship with them. As an exile barred by an illegitimate military government the Institute leaders had a base among those in exile but over the decades no matter how fierce the passion, they were voices on the outside speaking from platforms and positions with the United Nations or with others sharing the same hopes. Now in some ways both our delegation and the leaders of the IPSJB were both tiring to figure out how to understand the capacity and challenges of the nascent labor movement in Myanmar. The Institute offered capacity training to both strengthen local unions and to build relationships to forge a new base. Both of us were sitting around the room with three leaders of the Solidarity organization who had stayed to organize as workers on the ground trying to get our arms around something we didn’t quite understand.
The facts are courageous rather than heartening. Unions are emerging but only recently and are doing so under a 2011 labor code setting minimum wages and granting representational and bargaining rights to any organization with more than 10% support. Since so much of the country is still rural almost 300 locals are farmers’ unions who have used the labor code to organize 25,000 farmers. The other 340 or so locals are in a variety of industries, hospitals, schools, and other occupations with perhaps 200,000 members or certainly less than 2% density in the workforce our friends estimated. Their alliances and roles with political parties were tenuous. The Nobel Prize winning leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi,they told us was very clear about advocating for workers’ rights, but less aggressive about the role of unions above the local level. Clearly the Institute was interested in supporting a national labor federation with a more certain voice. The Solidarity leaders were more skeptical of organizations from the outside rather the ILO or returning exiles.
We found ourselves talking a lot about labor and the pros and cons of various labor federations and political alliances, but as we reflected after our conversation, we did not fully comprehend some of the dynamics in the room. We were always just a bit off, though perhaps we were learning more than we realized about the challenges faced by what our friends called labor activists with a base in the workplace and political activists trying to organize worker support for future political efforts.
It’s not true that you can never go home again, but it’s not as easy as packing a bag and buying a ticket.