Since the reform era began in 1998, the union movement has been primarily driven by activists who were unemployed or had no affiliations to employers.
Workers’ union icons like the now-retired Muchtar Pakpahan and Djumhur Hidayat, the head of the government-sanctioned National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Migrant Workers, are just two examples of this.
But now, a group of educated and politically wired activists are leading the charge for workers’ rights.
So far, they have fared well.
At first glance, Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers Union (FSPMI) chairman Said Iqbal, 43, does not look the part, dressing more like a business executive than an activist.
But his clout cannot be overlooked: the FSPMI is the most influential workers’ union in Bekasi, with more than a third of the union’s 130,000 members working for manufacturing companies in the regency. The rest work in Tangerang, Banten and Jakarta.
Iqbal made his name after masterminding the notorious Jan. 27 rally in Bekasi, West Java, in which tens of thousands of workers cut off access to the Jakarta–Cikarang toll road and paralyzed economic activity in the industrial areas.
The Bekasi unrest erupted after the Indonesian Employers Association (Apindo) filed a lawsuit against the West Java administration, which had endorsed a rise in minimum wages exceeding 15 percent — more than four times the size of last year’s inflation rate of 3.79 percent. The unions agreed to end the protest on Jan. 28 following Apindo’s decision to comply with their demands
Due to his success in giving businesses and the government a hard time, Iqbal was last week promoted to chairman of the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions (KSPI), one of the country’s four union groupings that oversees hundreds of workers’ organizations.
As FSPMI’s leader since 2006, Iqbal claimed he was still registered as a manager of Japanese electronic giant Panasonic’s business in Bekasi, but rarely showed up at work due to his union activities.
“Since I was appointed FSPMI chairman, my employer has allowed me to work full time for the organization,” Iqbal said, adding that he still received a monthly salary from the company.
Iqbal, who has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Indonesia, works from a 350 square-meter house on Jl. Raya Pondok Gede, East Jakarta, which has become FSPMI headquarters in recent years.
He has regularly flown overseas for training and to attend trade union conferences, sometimes as a speaker.
In 2009, Iqbal ran as a candidate for the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in the legislative election in the Riau Islands province. But he failed to secure a seat at the House of Representatives.
The FSPMI’s involvement in the recent strikes might be linked to regional politics. Bekasi Regent Sa’duddin and West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan were endorsed by the PKS and they could struggle to win re-election next month and next year, respectively.
Iqbal strongly denied that the motivation for the recent strikes was political. “Whoever the government is, it’s the duty of all workers’ unions to ensure that every worker receives a proper wage rise,” he said.
Iqbal has been assisted by the 40-year-old chairman of FSPMI’s Bekasi branch, Obon Tabroni.
Obon, who is also the chairman of the Bekasi Workers’ Movement, has run a small car repair workshop with his wife after deciding to quit his job at Panasonic last year, after nearly 20 years with the company.
“I quit because of my choice to completely focus on managing the labor union, without having to worry about receiving pressure from the management,” Obon said.